Ebert, Elevation, and Emotion

Roger Ebert’s latest blog post talks about the impact that a great film has on a viewer; he describes the ensuing emotional impact as Elevation, which is apparently gaining notice in the psychology community as a newly defined emotion.

This got me thinking about some of the films that have moved me into a state of Elevation.  Many films have moved me in some way, but very few have given me those rare chills you get when witnessing a work of greatness.  Even fewer have moved me to tears.  Those that have done so have earned a special place in my heart, and remain favourites of mine for all time.  Here’s a sampling:


The Chills List:

Once – The second scene of the film, the one where Glen Hansard is playing and singing his own material.  It is one of the great long takes I have seen, capturing the raw fury and emotion of Hansard’s performance and transmitting it into a tidal wave of passion that soaks the audience in feeling.  This is the only film I’ve ever seen to make that impact in the first five minutes.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – Boromir’s death.  Beautifully acted and presented.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – You already know what it is.  The arrival of Gandalf and Eomer at Helms Deep is likely my favourite cinematic moment in the history of the medium.  This is a perfect scene, a perfect union of all of a film’s elements into one flowing, seamless, living work of beauty and glory.  It was one of the very few moments in a film that never, ever gets old.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – Chill moments include the charge of the Rohirrim at the Pelennor, Aragorn’s speech at the Black Gate, and yes, Sam’s “I’ll carry you!” moment on the slopes of Orodruin.

Moolaade – Near the end, when the women confront the village elders.  What a beautiful, powerful film.

Gladiator – The very last scene or two.  Definitely the crane out bit as Djimon Hounsou walks out of the Coliseum.

Casablanca – The singing of La Marseillase.  I think I cried last time I watched it, but it always gives chills.  One of the most beautiful, stirring moments in film history.

Glory – The best moment in a film full of many “best moments” – “Give ‘em hell, Fifty-Fourth!”

Batman Begins and The Dark Knight – Both films end on similar notes; Christopher Nolan’s intent seems to be send the audience out on a climax and forget the denouement.  Batman Begins ends perfectly, with Batman’s and Gordon’s wonderful exchange: Gordon: “I never got to say thank you.”  Batman: “And you’ll never have to.”  Fit that with the rising score and the film ends on bam.  The Dark Knight’s closing monologue is even better, and considering Batman’s decision at the end, involves far more bittersweet, and yet uplifting emotions than its predecessor’s conclusion.

On The Waterfront – Karl Malden’s mid-film speech in the belly of a cargo ship is as good as they come; Marlon Brando’s final effort to stand up to the brutal dockworkers union is unforgettable.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame – It’s my favourite Disney film, and a wonderful film.  Quasimodo’s rescue of Esmeralda, climaxing in the “Sanctuary!” bit, gets me every time.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days – The courtroom inquisition is one of the more electrifying scenes of this decade.  My spine tingles every time Sophie Scholl states to her persecutors “You will soon be standing where we stand now.”

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington – The filibuster stand-off.

Chariots of Fire – The whole film is big trip, but I always get heady at the end as Eric Liddell runs his race, all of his past echoing in his mind.  Oh, and the scene where Sam Mussabini realizes that Abrams has won the gold medal.  Extraordinary.


The Tears List:

Braveheart: This was the very first film to make me cry, I think.  William Wallace’s dying cry looks and sounds hopelessly corny on paper, but when you add the flowing direction of the scene, Gibson’s impassioned portrayal, and most importantly, James Horner’s magnificent music, you get an extraordinary combo.  I’m almost convinced that Horner’s strings discovered a secret frequency that triggers tears automatically.  Either way, I’m a sucker for this moment every single time.  And I couldn’t be happier.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – The ending.  The more I experience this film, and the older I get, I am more and more appreciative of one thing involving these films: Peter Jackson and company absolutely nailed the ending.  I don’t care about all of those complaints about how it went on forever.  It’s a huge story; why would you expect it to just wrap up quickly?  No, you complainers are completely wrong and should learn how to appreciate a well-executed conclusion.  Jackson and his fellow writers gave this scene room to breathe, to live, and they nailed the tone of the scene perfectly.  It may be the single most perfect moment in the trilogy in its faithfulness to the books.  The hobbits have been through so much, and now one is departing forever, and…gosh.  The scene works because we’ve spent the time with these characters; we love them and know them and don’t want to see an end.  And yet it is this ending that is full of hope and peace and assurance that all they have struggled through was not in vain.  The mixture of joy and hope and sorrow and love mixes into a deadly concoction that reduces me to a quivering bag of uplifted feeling.  This my favourite ending to a film ever.

The Passion of the Christ – Then again, this is also my favourite ending.  Mel Gibson deserves credit for closing this two hour ordeal with a simple, curious, beautifully shot one-take where Jesus rises from his deathly slumber, takes a moment to breathe, to feel the sunlight on his face, and then rises and strides calmly out the frame.  The Passion is not complete without the Resurrection, and ending the film here sends the audience out on a note of hope and joy unparalleled by any film I’ve seen, except perhaps for Return of the King.

Blade Runner – The “Tears in Rain” speech.  There is something about the arrangement of the words, so carefully recited by Rutger Hauer, that trigger a release in me.  It happened on second viewing, the first viewing that is unencumbered by the demands of following a plot, and has continued to hit me every time.

United 93 – I don’t think I need to explain this one.

Black Hawk Down – This film hits me more and more the older I get.  On my first viewing (at age 13) it was just a very good action flick.  On second viewing (age 15) it was a complex portrayal of a deadly event.  On third and fourth and every viewing after (age 17 onward) it has become a powerful tribute to those who serve in the military.  Eversmann’s closing moment with a dead Jamie Smith is beautifully understated in such a way as to open the floodgates of elevation and feeling.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – Yes, it’s another ending.  Andrew Dominik’s carefully handled conclusion of this beautiful opus breeds such sorrowful emotions.  It’s a beautifully executed piece of editing and especially scoring (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis), as it slowly but surely rises to its inevitable final frame.  It’s bittersweet and steeped in pathos, and drew tears to my eyes as I reflected upon it.

Spartacus – It’s been a few years, but I have a lingering memory of getting misty-eyed near the end of this epic.

Blood Diamond – Ed Zwick knows how to push my emotional buttons.  If he were a poor filmmaker, I would mind, but he isn’t, so I don’t.  Djimon Hounsou’s speech to his estranged son had me quietly tearing up in the theater, as does the last time we see Danny Archer, finally finding some peace and meaning in his life.

I’m going to leave the list at that for now.  What about you?  What are the films that have left their marks (the good kind) on your life and experiences?


2 Responses to “Ebert, Elevation, and Emotion”

  1. Totally agree with your assessment of the ending of Return of the King. That ending had me / has me in tears every time I watch it. It’s one of those soft, quiet, stasis endings that nevertheless packs a punch. Such a beautiful way to end an amazing trilogy.

  2. Have you seen the film Babe: Pig in the City? If not, it’s worth checking out.

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