From the train wreck scene in Buster Keaton’s classic silent comedy ‘The General’ to Daniel Day-Lewis’ iconic “I Drink Your Milkshake,” here’s our pick of the most famous movie scenes in film history.
Sometimes a scene or a moment in a film gains life outside the narrative framework. They become a cultural milestone that’s often referenced, re-created, and parodied. In fact, a single scene can change the idea of cinema for good. From Lumière Brothers’ 50-second clip The Arrival Of A Train (1895) to George Méliès’ whimsical A Trip To The Moon (1902), early cinema’s potential was understood by its ability to make memorable imagery. Alice Guy-Blaché and Edwin S. Porter are some other early movie pioneers who left us with astonishing imagery. But when narrative cinema took root and cinema became a storytelling medium, the power of individual scene units were fully realized.
In over 100 years of cinema, filmmakers from D.W. Griffith to Bong Joon-ho have inspired, awed, and shocked us with many iconic individual moments. Of course, compiling it all in a list is not only a difficult task, but also would instigate fierce debates. Yet, here’s my humble attempt to pick the most iconic film moments in the history of cinema:
1. The Babylonian Temple
D.W. Griffith, the pioneer of silent-era cinema, was so inspired by the Italian spectacle Cabiria (1913) that he set out to make a similar epic movie. For Intolerance, he built an enormous set to portray the ancient Babylon city. The set was created after careful research. Some of these pillars were said to be as massive as ninety-feet high. Moreover, Griffith pioneered the dolly shot (by attaching a camera to a balloon) while capturing the marvel of ancient Babylon. The Babylonian Temple sequence is highly impressive even in the era of CGI.
2. The Heart-Warming Reunion
The Kid (1921)
Charlie Chaplin’s first feature-length comedy film also contains one of his most emotionally-charged scenes. This is where Tramp’s adopted son is taken away by the authorities. The Tramp runs after the kid and after a roof-top chase finds him. We get a heart-warming close-up shot of the kid Coogan and Chaplin’s face pressed together. The coming together of these tender-hearted societal outcasts will always stay fresh in a movie-lover’s mind.
3. Hanging from a Clock
Safety Last! (1923)
The image of bespectacled Harry Lloyd hanging from a giant skyscraper clock is the most iconic imagery in all of film history. Safety Last! was a thrilling comedy, and during this ‘clock hanging’ moment, the audiences’ hysteria reached a high point. What’s more interesting about this famous sequence was how Lloyd tricked us by cleverly playing up with our perspective. A great athlete, Lloyd built a clock on a platform near the edge of the top of a building. Besides, he used high-angle shots and certain camera tricks to conceal the platform.
4. The Odessa Steps
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
‘The Odessa Steps’ montage sequence by the pioneering Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein changed cinema forever. The sheer emotional power of a montage was perfectly realized in this scene of government soldiers firing upon a crowd of innocent citizens. Eisenstein intensifies the viewer’s horror through sudden cuts and jerky close-ups. He showed how shot compositions as well as clever intercutting between events can play up the emotional quotient of a scene. The supremely tense portion of the sequence was when the wheels of a baby carriage teetered on the edge of the steps.
5. Train Wreck
The General (1926)
Elaborate stunts involving automobiles – particularly locomotives – is a signature element of Keaton’s slapstick comedy. Keaton’s creative genius was at its peak when he made the locomotive comedy, The General. In this epic silent comedy, there are many dangerous yet amusing stunts involving locomotives. The crowning moment was when a 26-ton locomotive moves over a burning bridge and then plunges into the river below. Keaton did it for real without any trick shots. He even built a bridge for this purpose.
6. Maria’s Transformation
Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece ushered in the sci-fi genre. It envisioned a future that’s dominated by technology, but also where the working classes toil for the privileged class. The most iconic imagery of Metropolis is the female robot. At one key moment, the robot transforms into a human named Maria. Robot Maria plays on our fears of artificial intelligence. Yet she assimilates herself into human society and eventually brings down the authoritarian society.
7. Little Maria
James Whale’s pre-code horror film marks the first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking story. One of the most disturbing scenes in the film was when Frankenstein’s monster accidentally drowns a little girl named Maria. The sequence shows the emotionally stunted nature of the monster. The monster plays with Maria by throwing flowers into the lake and watches them float. It repeats the same action with Maria, and remains visibly upset when she doesn’t float. The iconic scene also played a significant role in Victor Erice’s art house masterpiece Spirit of the Beehive (1973).
8. Kong atop the Empire State Building
King Kong (1933)
Cooper & Schoedsack’s spectacle was a technical marvel for its time. The most memorable moment in the narrative was when the raging giant ape climbs the Empire State building and tears up fighter airplanes in the sky. Watching it now, nothing feels real about Kong. But it’s enthralling to watch this innovative sequence, where eventually our sympathies align with Kong. Peter Jackson’s remake of the film recreated the sequence. But there’s something magical about the old, mechanized Kong sitting atop the building.
9. The Final Speech
The Great Dictator (1940)
Charles Chaplin’s call for equality and democracy at the end of The Great Dictator is sadly more relevant than ever. The film was a great example of political satire which condemned and mocked the actions of Hitler and Mussolini. Chaplin’s plea to humanity resonates with us since the fascism is once again on the rise. My favorite lines from the soul-stirring speech are:
“Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness.”
10. The Daydream sequence
Brief Encounter (1945)
David Lean’s British classic tells the story of two married middle-aged individuals who fall madly in love with each other. They never consummate their affair. Yet they can’t escape from the all-consuming love. In one fantastical scene, the heroine Laura, after spending some time with the man, takes the train back home. In the coach, she loses herself to the reverie of romantic possibilities. But gradually the dream is replaced with reality. It’s a beautiful scene about human fallacies and yearning.
11. The Ending Reunion
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
No matter how many times you have seen Frank Capra’s classic family drama, the final scene of George Bailey understanding the gift of life will always bring tears to your eyes. James Stewart is the perfect symbol of American everyman. And in this ending, he’s reminded what matters in life and how love and compassion can transcend one’s life. There’s unbridled hope and joy in this reunion, which fills us with gratitude for all the great people in our lives.
12. “I’m Ready for My Close-Up”
Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Billy Wilder’s noir classic chronicles the spiraling down of a delusional, washed-up actress, Norma Desmond. Her descent into madness is fully pronounced in this iconic final scene. She is about to be taken into police custody for the murder of her lover. But Norma imagines it as a film set. And she announces, “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”, expressing her yearning for the glories of the past.
13. Title Song
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s musical comedy is considered as the greatest Hollywood musical. The eponymous song itself was unforgettable for Gene Kelly’s graceful performance. The image of him swinging from a lamppost in the rain became one of the most iconic in the history of cinema. Nevertheless, it was a challenging song-piece to make. From the logistics of creating rain to finding the perfect lighting set-up, the cinematic requirements of the shoot was plenty. Yet, the end result was a meticulously shot dance number.
14. “Isn’t Life Disappointing?”
Tokyo Story (1953)
Yasujiro Ozu is a master of quietude. His frames are often static and his characters rarely lose control of their emotions. Yet there’s a deep richness of feeling beneath his narrative surface. Ozu handles this tale of exhausted elderly parents visiting their grown-up children with great restraint. But he eventually delivers an emotional gut-punch with a simple line that speaks volume about the ephemerality of life.
15. Samurai Flag Scene
Seven Samurai (1954)
Kurosawa is a master at building momentum. The flag sequence is a testament to that. It comes immediately after the devastating death of the samurai, Heihachi. The quiet and noble samurai sews the flag to represent the samurai and the village in their upcoming fight against the bandits. After Heihachi’s unexpected death, in order to uphold the fighting spirit, Mifune’s Kikuchiyo dashes and plants the flag on a roof. The strong orchestral score and the determined faces of the samurais and villagers raise our spirits too.
16. The Train Scene
Pather Panchali (1955)
Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali features one of the most iconic depictions of trains in cinema. Ray viewed the train as a symbol of modernism that brings a sense of wonder to the impoverished siblings, Apu and Durga. Prior to the sequence, they only hear the sounds of the moving train. However, the sight of a train chugging away, while the two run through a field of tall grass, elicits such a strong emotional reaction. The sorrowful events that follow Apu after the sequence also make this moment more memorable.
17. Playing Chess with Death
The Seventh Seal (1957)
The memorable scene of a knight playing chess with the dead was inspired by a 15th century medieval painting. The Seventh Seal is an allegory for the eternal struggle between life and death. Set during the bubonic plague, Death is omnipresent in the landscape. It takes a human form and challenges the knight, Antonius Block, with a game of chess. The knight strives to find a meaning in life, whereas Death wants him to acknowledge the sheer emptiness of existence.
18. Shower Scene
The legend of the iconic shower scene is one of the most talked about topics among movie-lovers. The three-minute scene had 78 camera set-ups and 52 cuts. It managed to show a disturbing murder on-screen without revealing the killer’s face and without a single shot of knife penetrating the victim’s skin. The sound of the frenzied stabbing, the sound of shower running plus the piercing scream still has the power to unsettle us. There’s even a documentary on the extraordinary work and idea behind the scene.
19. The High-Speed Train Sequence
High and Low (1963)
Akira Kurosawa’s tense thriller offers a master class in staging and blocking techniques. In the first one hour of the narrative, we are confined to a large room, witnessing the changing dynamics between characters due to a kidnapping for ransom. Kurosawa unexpectedly takes us to a frantic bullet-train sequence. Full of rich visual intricacies and rapid cuts, this six-and-a-half minute sequence is a symphony of action and emotion.
20. The Cemetery Scene
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)
Sad Hill Cemetery is the setting of climactic action in Leone’s popular spaghetti Western. Clint Eastwood’s Good, Lee Van Cleef’s Bad, and Eli Wallach’s Ugly face-off against each other. But before that Tuco – the Ugly – searches the civil-war era cemetery for a hidden gold fortune. Accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s magnificent music, Leone’s camera covers the length and breadth of the cemetery as Tuco frantically runs in circles, looking for the gold. The greedy, ecstatic eyes of Tuco in this sequence still retain a fierce intensity.
21. The Demolition of Ali’s Hiding Place
Battle of Algiers (1966)
Gillo Pontecorvo’s quintessential political cinema captured the uprising of Algerian citizens to oust their French colonizers. The film itself was a landmark in political filmmaking, closely exploring the violence of the exploiter and the exploited. Throughout the narrative, the Algerians in the closed-off ghetto witness the state-sponsored terrorism of the French. But the profound impact of it is brilliantly visualized when the whole ghetto silently watches the demolition of a house where the revolutionary Ali La Pointe hides in the movie’s final sequences.
22. Maze of Office-Units
In Playtime, Jacques Tati meticulously explores the impact of modern architecture on human beings. Almost all of the precisely controlled sight gags in the movie convey the wonder as well as absurdity of this world of steel, glass, and concrete. Tati’s innovation reaches its apex when his Monsieur Hulot gets lost among a maze of office cubicles. The disorientation experienced by Hulot is both funny and intriguing.
23. Stargate Sequence
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece is an emblematic product of the space race era. Its technical achievement is still a marvel to look at. One of the most unsettling and painfully abstract sequences in the film was the ‘stargate sequence’. This happens when the lone, surviving astronaut ventures into the starry void that suddenly bursts into a kaleidoscope of colors. The story of how the visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull achieved the psychedelic special effects only makes the experience more amazing.
24. Chasing the Train
The French Connection (1971)
William Friedkin’s The French Connection boasts one of the most distressful car chases in movie history. Gene Hackman’s detective character in the movie chases a bad guy who is traveling on an elevated subway train. It was shot on the busy NYC streets with an incredible level of control and coordination. The pure adrenaline rush this sequence offers could never be recreated.
25. Horse Head Scene
The Godfather (1972)
Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epic has many memorable scenes. However, one of the most shocking moments in the movie was when Jack Woltz – a movie mogul – wakes up to find the head of his prize-winning horse, the blood of it drenching the silk sheets. It happens right after Jack turns down Don Corleone’s request. Apart from being shocking, the incident tells us the true meaning of Don’s words: “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” Another interesting tidbit about the scene is that they used a real horse head. The crew found a horse that was about to be slaughtered at a dog food plant and requested the head.
26. “You’re Talking to Me?”
Taxi Driver (1976)
Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver tells the tale of a mentally disturbed war veteran named Travis Bickle, who works as a night-time taxi driver. He plans for a violent action to purge the decadence in his city. In an arguably iconic scene in the film, the lonely Travis stands in front of a mirror and repeatedly utters the line, “You’re Talking to Me?” In fact, the line was an improvisation on the part of Robert De Niro. The script simply says: “Travis looks in the mirror”.
27. Training Montage
The brilliance of a boxing flick is determined by its training montage. The ‘Gonna Fly Now’ montage naturally makes you cheer for the underdog Rocky Balboa. The image of Rocky climbing the steps of Philadelphia Museum for Art and holding out his arm will forever remain iconic. The montage possesses a Hollywood type storytelling. But since everything preceding it perfectly establishes Rocky’s struggles, there’s an authenticity and strong emotional core to the sequence.
28. “I Am Your Father”
Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back (1980)
George Lucas’ Empire Strikes Back perhaps has the greatest and shocking twist in movie history. The Sith Lord and mass murderer Darth Vader is revealed to be the father of the protagonist Luke Skywalker. This revelation comes at the end of a tense lightsaber battle, where Luke is almost defeated. Up until this point, Darth Vader is the chief antagonist of the Star Wars Universe. But the twist made the audience look at the villainous character from a different dimension.
29. ‘Tears in Rain’ Monologue
Blade Runner (1982)
Rutger Hauer’s 50-second monologue in Ridley Scott’s iconic sci-fi film became one of the most moving soliloquies in cinema. Hauer plays a fugitive replicant – a bioengineered humanoid – who can feel emotions like any human. This adds to the sheer poetry of the scene as Hauer’s character delivers the monologue during his dying moments. Interestingly, ‘tears in rain’ line was Hauer’s addition to the speech.
30. The Opening Sequence
Blue Velvet (1986)
David Lynch’s neo-noir gazes at the rot festering beneath the shiny facade of American Dream. He brilliantly sets that up in the opening five-minute sequence. We see pleasant visuals of American suburbia. Soon, we see a man collapsing due to a stroke while watering his lawn. The camera goes deeper and deeper into the grass to look at the world of slimy bugs. It’s a trademark Lynchian sequence of exploring the horrors covered up by surface-level pleasantries.
31. Meeting Makhmalbaf
Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece tells the story of the real-life trial of Hossein Sabzian, who impersonated Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Neither a documentary nor a drama, Kiarostami ends Close-Up with the real Makhmalbaf meeting Sabzian. The mixture of joy and guilt Sabzian feels at that moment could be deeply felt by all movie-lovers. In fact, this experimental film immortalizes the voice of an ordinary man and a cinephile.
32. Clarice Meets Hannibal Lecter
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel features many enthralling sequences. But none is greater than the moment Clarice Starling meets Dr. Hannibal for the first time at the dungeon-like basement of a psychiatry hospital. In this gorgeously composed six-minute sequence, Clarice finds Hannibal at the center of the room, standing in an eerily calm manner. Jodie Foster’s nuanced performance and Hopkins’ masterful dialogue delivery laced with dark humor makes this an indelible moment in film history.
33. Girl in Red Coat
Schindler’s List (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List offers one of the most defining looks at Holocaust in cinema. In the drab landscape of terror and chaos, German industrialist Oskar Schindler spots a girl in a red coat. The image of the little girl awakens Schindler to the horrific reality around him. The scene marks the transformation of Schindler. But the red coat girl seen during the liquidation of Krakow ghetto also represents the collective memory of the Holocaust.
34. Dance Scene
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is set in the world of gangsters and crooks. But the filmmaker surprises us with a breezy, contrasting series of events as the hitman Vincent Vega takes out his mob boss’ wife, Mia. This leads to an impromptu dance sequence that’s deeply etched in the pop-culture consciousness. While the dance scene pays homage to older films (particularly to Godard’s Band of Outsiders), it also builds an emotional tension that’s eventually related to Vincent’s fate.
35. “What’s in the Box?”
The fear and anxiety that clouds Brad Pitt’s face when his detective character asks, “What’s in the box?” has left an everlasting impact on cinephiles. The ending of David Fincher’s serial-killer thriller features one of the most disturbing twists in cinema. Apart from Brad Pitt’s performance, Fincher’s unsettling direction and Howard Shore’s ominous score heightens the distress. In fact, Fincher and his writer had to fight with the studio to retain this ending.
36. Confrontation at the Diner
Though the acting giants, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino played crucial roles in The Godfather Part II, they didn’t share screen-space. Interestingly, in Heat Michael Mann brings these legends together in the most phenomenal manner possible. Mid-way in this tale of cops and robbers, the two men calmly sit down for a face-to-face chat at a diner. Everything from the way it was staged to how it was performed (without any rehearsals) speaks of its greatness.
37. “I’m Flying”
The 3-minute ‘I’m Flying’ scene has Jack and Rose stand on the bow of the Titanic, with the sunset in the background. It’s a moment that strengthens the bond between our central characters. The scene became more iconic than Di Caprio’s ‘I’m the King of the World’ sequence, earlier in the movie. Interestingly, Cameron built the set for the scene at a sea-side location to capture the authentic natural lighting of a sunset. It speaks of the great effort taken to realize a monumental moment in cinema.
38. D-Day Scene
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was one of the greatest World War II films. After a prologue, the narrative opens with a gut-wrenching 20-minute sequence portraying US soldiers landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day. As soon as the ramp of the military boat lowers, the soldiers face German machine-gun fire from every side. It squarely places the audiences in the middle of the graphic battle at the beach. The grim realism in the sequence inspired future war dramas like Dunkirk and 1917.
39. Bullet Time Scene
The Matrix (1999)
‘Bullet Time’ was the special effect in Wachowskis’ The Matrix. It was done on a green set using a series of cameras to make it seem that time has slowed down. In other words, it’s an unbelievable transformation of time and space. In this iconic scene, bullets slowly glide through the air past the protagonist Neo’s head. This comes at a pivotal moment in the narrative as the prophesized skills of Neo are seen in action.
40. Parting Ways
In the Mood for Love (2000)
In Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece, two people unexpectedly develop feelings for each other despite the social constraints. The film has a lot of memorable imagery including the ‘Corridor Glance’ sequence. But the most vibrant moment comes up when the central characters, Su and Chow, decide to part ways while waiting for the rain to pass. Wong dazzles us with nuanced emotions and his supreme style.
41. Childhood of Amelie Poulain
Amélie is the most imaginative loner among all the fictional loners. Though considered a light-hearted romance, the film is a profound study of repression and solitude. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet brilliantly sets this up while exploring the titular character’s sad and troubled childhood. Jeunet’s whimsical touch in this scene strengthens our sympathies for Amélie, and creates an unbreakable bond between the winsome heroine and the audience.
42. Gollum/Smeagol Monologue
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
Gollum is an amazing creation in the history of cinema. It was made possible by ‘performance capture’ technology (amplified by Andy Serkis’ phenomenal performance) and CGI. Gollum is known for its double identity. In this astounding scene, Gollum makes an internal debate on the course of action it should take. It perfectly exemplifies the conflict between Gollum’s good and bad intentions. Gollum’s monologue also clearly shows the viewers the anguish and influence of the Ring.
43. Steiner’s Attack
This brilliantly performed scene — which later became a viral meme material — showcases Hitler’s rage after hearing his SS Commander Steiner’s failure to mount a counter-attack on the Allied forces. Downfall is largely set inside the bunker during the last days of Hitler. And this famous movie scene closely looks at Hitler’s delusional plans and the beginning of his and the Third Reich’s inevitable downfall.
44. Car Ambush
Children of Men (2006)
Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian drama unfortunately seems very real. Though a box-office flop, the film’s technical brilliance amassed a cult following. The narrative features a lot of long, single-takes. But the best of all was the ambush scene, which captures the chaos from the inside of a car. This three-and-a-half minute sequence was shot over 12 days since the idea of doing it in a single-take failed day after day. Eventually, on the 12th day they got it right. And it’s a supreme example of placing an audience in the middle of the action.
45. Coin Toss Scene
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh is one of the most chilling psychopath antagonists in movie history. He gives death sentences to random people through the toss of a coin. No Country for Old Men is itself a film about the choices one makes that brings them closer to life and death. And in this 4-minute scene, the ruthless killer leaves it to fate whether to kill or not an elderly gas-station attendant. Such an unbearably tense sequence finely sums up the movie’s philosophy.
46. “I Drink Your Milkshake”
There Will Be Blood (2007)
There Will Be Blood is a crowning achievement in the careers of both director Paul Thomas Anderson and the actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Lewis’ Daniel Plainview is an unscrupulous industrialist who dislikes being opposed. In the final scene of the narrative, Plainview releases his repressed anger on his archenemy, Eli Sunday. He beats him to death with a bowling pin, but before that he expresses the might of his wealth and power through the words, “I drink your milkshake.”
47. Batman Interrogates the Joker
The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is a groundbreaking entry in the superhero genre. Heath Ledger, who played Joker, passed away at the age of 28 before the movie’s release. Batman interrogates Joker to know the location of his childhood friend Rachel and Gotham City mayor, Harvey Dent. Ledger’s Joker brilliantly goads Batman to show how the superhero is truly powerless in this situation. Joker also expresses his dark perspective about humanity. Ledger was absolutely great in this sequence as he never turns Joker into a ridiculous caricature.
48. The Heart-Breaking Opening Montage
Pixar’s Up opens with a shy young boy (Carl) unexpectedly meeting an exuberant girl (Ellie). In a bittersweet montage, we witness the blossoming of their relationship and the highs and lows in their married life. Eventually, we see elderly Carl living alone, after Ellie’s demise. What’s so heart-breaking about this montage is the way the complexities of life and love are deeply conveyed within a minimal time period. This moment is animation cinema at its most mature.
49. Sinan’s Meeting an Author
The Wild Pear Tree (2018)
Ceylan’s Wild Pear Tree tells the tale of Sinan, a disillusioned wannabe author who returns to his hometown. The narrative unfolds in vignettes as the proud and ambitious youths wander around. In one hilarious and provocative episode, Sinan comes across a widely read local author. The simple and good-natured conversation between the two turns argumentative and tense as Sinan passively aggressively insults the author. This 20 minute stand-out sequence sums up the nature of Sinan, who himself is the embodiment of 21st century youth.
50. “…..And I Am Iron Man”
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
After 21 movies and 11 years, the crucial phase of Marvel Cinematic Universe came to an end with Avengers: Endgame. All the superheroes band together to take down the super-villain Thanos. It all culminates with an iconic moment when Doctor Strange lets Tony Stark’s Iron Man know what needs to be done to annihilate Thanos. It’s a highly emotional moment as everyone’s favorite superhero not only kills the villain by snapping his fingers, but also dies in the process.
There we are! These are some of the most iconic and famous movie scenes of all time. A lot of the aforementioned scenes have become emblematic that we easily recognize from the screenshots. At times, we might not even remember the film, but a particular imagery from a scene would be imprinted upon our collective consciousness. Yet, from the haunting entry of the predatory Count Orlok in Nosferatu (1922) to the mesmerizing montage in Bong’s Parasite (2019), I haven’t included a lot of definitively great film moments. When it comes to such lists, everyone would have their perspective, and no two would remain the same. Nevertheless, let us know which iconic scenes should have found a place in this list.