This month Vulture will be publishing our critics’ year-end lists. Last week’s lists included albums, art, and video games. This week we’ve covered comedy — sketches, specials, and podcasts — plus a mix that includes music videos, memes, late-night clips, and graphic novels. Today we have movie action scenes and viral videos.
1. The Final Chase, Mad Max: Fury Road
If we hadn’t given ourselves the arbitrary rule that only one sequence per film could be included, this whole list could have just turned into a Fury Road love-in. And there are numerous contenders for best action sequence in George Miller’s masterpiece. Certainly, the four-way fistfight between Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and Max (Tom Hardy), with the latter still chained to Nux (Nicholas Hoult), is deliriously unhinged. And the chase/shoot-out with the Rock Riders (those guys on the motorbikes), in which our heroes quickly learn to work together, is an amazing combination of plotting, editing, music, and characterization. But, ultimately, the best action sequence in Fury Road — and all of 2015, and possibly the decade, so far — has got to be the incredible final chase, in which Furiosa, Max, Nux, and the Vuvalini, having decided to turn back and take their pursuers head-on, drive the War Rig straight in through Immortan Joe and the People Eater’s rolling armies. As the rampaging War Boys, the demonic Pole Cats, and a deadly assortment of other deranged, terrifying figures converge on our heroes, the film not only achieves new levels of breathtaking excitement, it begins to take on the quality of an exorcism.
2. Opera Face-Off, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation
While the latest M:I film’s cold-open action sequence was great, the film’s best part is probably the dazzlingly suspenseful, well-orchestrated, nearly wordless face-off at the Vienna Opera House, where Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt finds himself in the middle of a multi-sniper crossfire involving several baddies and Rebecca Ferguson’s badass double-agent Ilsa Faust. Between the seesawing scaffolding, the (always impeccable) stunts, the physical comedy, and some exceptional visual storytelling courtesy of director Christopher McQuarrie (who, might we add, also knows his way around dialogue), this is one of the great moments of the year. Also, Jesus, that dress.
3. The Final Bout, Creed
Though the single-take match in which Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Johnson gets his first real fight is also a worthy contender, the best boxing sequence in Ryan Coogler’s Creed is still the final fight against Pretty Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), in which our underdog hero has to push himself to the limit and last many, many rounds in the ring with the more experienced champion. The sequence is the ideal kind of action climax — one in which all the different story strands and emotional through-lines finally converge. We see Adonis go from brash, tough, conflicted upstart to a desperate man putting everything he’s got on the line. And we see Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), who, for so much of the film, has slowly been learning to embrace boxing again, finally go all in on his protégé’s fate. When the classic Rocky theme finally — finally — blasts on the soundtrack, the whole audience is ready to roar.
4. The Church Mêlée, Kingsman: The Secret Service
Matthew Vaughn’s irreverent, troubling, often-brilliant spy adventure is cheeky fun for most of its running time, but during the church fight, it becomes … well, something else. Colin Firth’s veteran agent Harry Hart (a.k.a. “Galahad”) finds himself in a room filled with raging, comically over-the-top, racist Jesus freaks. Many of these folks have been given a mind-control device by the film’s villain (Samuel L. Jackson), which, when it’s turned on, will transform them into murderous, unthinking lunatics. Here’s the catch: The device winds up turning the special-set-of-skills-equipped Galahad into a deranged savage as well. The ensuing slaughter — filmed in all its stabbing, shooting, bone-breaking, flag-pole-impaling glory — is horrifying, and horrifyingly well put-together. It’s all so ridiculously extreme that you don’t quite know what to feel: a comic action scene that becomes almost scarring. And, fair warning: This is also the part where a lot of viewers check out of the film. It’s jaw-dropping in more ways than one.
5. Día de Los Muertos, Spectre
The latest entry into the James Bond franchise has several notable action setpieces. In fact, some might argue that’s all it has. But the most impressive one must be the very first, possibly the best cold-open of the entire Bond series. It kicks off with a dazzling long take of a masked Bond and a woman making their way through a Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. Then, in decidedly un-Bondian fashion, 007 leaves the woman behind in a hotel room as he goes off to assassinate someone. At which point basically half a neighborhood collapses on him. That, of course, doesn’t deter him. One chase later, we’re in a helicopter spinning dizzily and doing somersaults above a throng of revelers. Between the impressive camerawork, the sheer level of destruction, and the nausea-inducing climax, this is a sequence so effective that, frankly, director Sam Mendes could have rolled the end credits right there, and a lot of us would have felt like we’d already gotten our money’s worth.
6. Space Rescue, The Martian
The Martian is also not an action movie, but its tangled-and-floating-in-space rescue involving Matt Damon’s desperate castaway Mark Watney and Jessica Chastain’s heroic, regretful Captain Lewis is a perfect example of an action scene that works because of all the hard, patient narrative work that’s been done up until this point. We’ve spent the whole movie waiting for this moment. Watney’s at the end of his rope after years on the Red Planet, and Lewis, because of the responsibility she feels for having left him behind in the first place, has something deeply personal at stake as well. Exciting, cathartic, and — when it’s all finally over — undeniably moving.
7. Escape From Etihad Towers, Furious 7
It’s interesting how a franchise whose initial appeal had to do with old-fashioned muscle-car high jinks has become, in its more recent iterations, the pinnacle of cartoonish, CGI outrageousness. Furious 7 was loaded with such moments, but for our money, the most glorious one was Paul Walker and Vin Diesel’s escape from an Abu Dhabi skyscraper by gunning a $3.4 million Middle Eastern supercar out through the windows, 50 stories high, then going straight into the adjoining skyscraper … and then doing it again. You know what’s even crazier? A physicist told us that such a thing is indeed kinda, sorta possible … if not actually plausible.
8. The Final Shoot-out, Blackhat
Michael Mann’s cyberthriller tanked with both critics and audiences when it opened back in January, but there are those of us who adore the film. And its big finale, a dreamy face-off between our ex-con hero (played by Chris Hemsworth) and the bad guys — a pudgy, haughty hacker and his murderous henchmen — is a good example why. Set during a colorful and crowded Balinese Nyepi Day Parade, the scene has plenty of shooting and chasing and stabbing (lots of stabbing) amid all the dancing and marching, but what makes it special is the aestheticized way Mann films everything. All through Blackhat, he’s been giving us a world of grids and patterns, visually echoing what’s happening in the world of ones and zeros. It all culminates with this standoff. The camera finds the good guy and the bad guys running counter to a sea of humanity, as it walks and dances in unison. And even though the scene starts off in almost abstract fashion, it ends viscerally, physically — as two nemeses who have been on opposite ends of the Earth for much of the film are finally locked in a brutal, bloody embrace.
9. Ant-Man Fights Falcon, Ant-Man
Though Avengers: Age of Ultron was the big Marvel behemoth of the summer, Peyton Reed’s more modest MCU entry Ant-Man demonstrated all the wit and inventiveness the more-hyped film seemed to lack. It can all be witnessed in the scene where Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man (who will himself one day become an Avenger) fights Falcon (Anthony Mackie), the only Avenger to appear in the film. Both are good guys, so there isn’t a lot at stake — it’s not like Ant-Man is going to kill the Falcon or anything. But the sheer, stupid fun of watching the more experienced superhero try to get his head around the other’s size-shifting is just ridiculously entertaining — a perfect example of comic-book shenanigans done right.
10. The Boat Chase, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Aside from the obligatory wisecracks, humor is often underused in modern action sequences, which is why Guy Ritchie’s (yes, Guy Ritchie’s) espionage romp The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was such a breath of fresh air this year. In what may be its best scene, dashing American agent Solo (Henry Cavill) and stoic Soviet agent Ilya (Armie Hammer) have to make a fast getaway on a speedboat after infiltrating a Roman shipping yard. But then Solo is accidentally thrown off the boat, swims ashore, gets in a truck, and takes a deep breath. Then he turns on the radio, sips some Chianti, and munches on a sandwich while Ilya, in the background, practically tears his butt off doing circles trying to escape the baddies. It’s a beautiful bit of visual humor, but it also gains elegant poignancy when, after Ilya’s boat sinks, Solo leaps back into the action by driving his truck right onto the villains’ boat and saving his drowning partner at the last minute.
Honorable Mention: The Final Shoot-out, Slow West
John Maclean’s Slow West isn’t an action movie. Rather, it’s a somber, sober, arty buddy Western/coming-of-age tale, about a young romantic Scots immigrant Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his unlikely partnership with rugged bounty hunter Silas (Michael Fassbender). Through flashbacks and narrative ellipses, the film builds toward a final confrontation as our heroes and an assortment of other pursuers all finally converge on the farmhouse where Jay’s long lost lady-love lives. By this point, however, the story has managed to be so oblique, we’re pretty much ready for anything. And the ensuing shoot-out — sudden, shocking, violent, tragic, and darkly, darkly hilarious — doesn’t disappoint.