Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Top Ten Moments in Cameron Crowe Movies

We Bought A Zoo comes out this Friday. Words cannot express my excitement, for I am a Cameron Crowe nut. He’s probably my favorite writer/director. It’s been a good six years since his last movie and it’s so nice to finally get another one. I own all his films on DVD, and I could watch them over and over. He’s just the master of putting real human emotion on the screen. His characters were three dimensional before you ever needed to put on those 3D shades. And is there any other modern filmmaker who’s contributed to the lexicon as much as he has? Jerry Maguire alone introduced us to Show me the money, You had me at hello, and Who’s coming with me?—all of which I hear pretty regularly (especially on ESPN radio).

But the thing I love most about Cameron Crowe’s movies is that he almost always sneaks in a moment that only he could create, a moment that usually blends humor, pathos, and honesty into something that makes your heart leap into your throat and reminds you of the extent of a person’s capacity to feel. During these moments, everything on the screen works together in perfect harmony—acting, directing, writing, music, editing…even the frikkin lighting’s perfect.

He does these unforgettable moments better than anyone, so it’s only natural that a top 10 list be made. Here are my choices:

10. Kirsten Dunst proclaims her “like” of Orlando Bloom
from Elizabethtown (around the 1:14 mark)

I watched Elizabethtown in the theater and while it wasn’t my favorite, I didn’t detest it like everyone else seemed to. I recently re-watched it for the first time in 6 years and I am happy to report that it’s vastly underrated. At the very least, it’s about a billion times better than 99% of what passes for romantic comedies these days.

Even when I saw it back then, this moment stood out. Kirsten and Orlando had been hanging out a bit, getting to know each other and really digging each other’s company. At this point in the movie, it’s late at night and they’ve been wandering the hotel Orlando’s staying at, and they’re a little tipsy. They find themselves in an auditorium, and Kirsten spots a podium with a microphone, goes up to it, and grandly proclaims to Orlando, “I like you!” I just thought that was great. Typically in movies you see a big buildup to a character’s proclamation of love for another, and that’s the way it seems to work in real life, too. But the “I like you” phase which comes beforehand is usually understated and unspoken. Sure, it’s pretty obvious when people like each other (why else would they be hanging out?) but how great would it be to be able to shout it passionately to the other person? After all, we oftentimes feel just as excited on the inside when we like someone as we do when we love them. Cameron Crowe allowed Kirsten to give voice to that wonderful feeling of “like.”

9. The most awkward voicemail ever
from Vanilla Sky (0:58)

Another Cameron Crowe specialty is taking moments we’ve all been through or seen and doing the absolute definitive version of it. Whether it’s a breakup, a touchdown celebration, or a rock concert, he’ll film it so perfectly that it becomes the ne plus ultra of that particular situation.

In this scene, Tom Cruise—horribly disfigured and on the outs with Penelope Cruz, his former girlfriend—decides on a whim to call her when he sees something on TV that reminds him of her. We’ve all been there: the times we pick up the phone on impulse and call someone we probably shouldn’t, at least not without a solid plan of what we’re going to say. Of course, we invariably decide to eschew a plan in favor of extemporaneous rambling, figuring that it’ll maybe be charming or something. That’s what Tom Cruise does here, and the results are painfully familiar. There’s a lot of pauses, and nervous laughter, and ums, and whatevers. He doesn’t know what to say, so he says all the disjointed complimentary stuff about her that one cannot say to another person without sounding scattered, crazy, and obsessive. The best moment is when he hangs up and has that look on his face like Why did I do that? The really piteous thing is that you know he wouldn’t take the call back. It’s just like when we make those calls, we don’t want to erase them (usually), because a small, eternally hopeful part of us wants to believe there’s a chance that the other person will be moved by our display of self-abasement. The fact that it never works, even for Tom Cruise in this movie, doesn’t stop us from eternally trying.

8. John Cusack’s iconic moment
from Say Anything… (1:16)

This is of course required on this list, and it’s probably even a little blasphemous to put it as low as number 8. It’s definitely an image everyone knows, and with good reason. There’s really nothing I can add to what everyone already knows about this moment. It is teenage yearning. The resolute look on Johnny’s face…awesome. The song is perfect. Interestingly, Crowe had a different song in the script, a Billy Idol song, “To Be A Lover,” and the song they actually played while shooting the scene was Fishbone’s “Turn The Other Way.” Also, Cusack wanted to sit on the hood of the car. Imagine how lame it could’ve been, instead of the perfection it is.

7. Ambassador of kwan
from Jerry Maguire (2:11)

This moment gets lost in a movie full of great moments, especially considering it comes immediately after the moment that everyone remembers (see #2 below). But it gets to me every time I see it. After a whole movie of adopting a tough façade, Rod Tidwell is told he’s getting the contract he’s been fighting for, and he breaks down in front of TV cameras and starts proclaiming his love of everyone. The unrestrained joy he’s feeling is awesome. And when he finally thanks his agent, pointing at him, tears in his eyes, it’s just extremely affecting. You know how much they’d been through, and to see the his unreserved gratitude gives you a lump in your throat. Cuba Gooding, Jr. went on to give the quintessential Oscar acceptance speech, and this scene was like a dress rehearsal for it.

6. Dorothy Boyd’s face at this exact moment
from Jerry Maguire (1:19)

‘Nuff said.

5. Stillwater comes alive!
from Almost Famous (0:26)

There’s no better movie about a rock n’ roll band on tour. It was the perfect marriage of material and artist, like Michael Jordan in the dunk contest. Cameron Crowe spent his formative years writing for Rollling Stone, interviewing and going on tour with such rock luminaries as Neil Young, Zeppelin, and The Eagles. He channeled his experience into this pitch-perfect love letter, filling it with the sorts of little details that only he could write about with any authority.

The first time we see Stillwater perform, it’s from the viewpoint of William Miller (who is basically the young Cameron Crowe) while he stands to the side of the stage, getting a privileged view of the show. I remember seeing this in the theater and it was incredible. The sound system was top notch and I could feel those initial drumbeats resonate in my chest. I had never been to a rock show at that point and I remember thinking that this is what it must be like, and you could totally see why Miller (ie. Crowe) would want to eat/breathe/live rock music. The atmosphere, the excitement, the connection with audience and artist—it’s all captured right here.

4. Show me the You-know-what
from Jerry Maguire (0:28)

Another moment that must be on the list, but it’s not like I’m putting it on grudgingly. I think it’s awesome to this day. There’s a reason that it’s one of the most memorable scenes in any movie of the last 20 years—the manic escalation of this exchange is unparalleled fun. It builds so perfectly, and the way Rod plays Jerry like a piano is hilarious.

3. Take this pen
from Say Anything… (1:03)

The best breakup scene ever. The actors are so good in it: Cusack’s pain and anger (that was a brave choice they made, the way they didn’t attempt to smooth him out by denying his anger), Ione Skye feigning a coldness in order to do what she thought was necessary. The way her voice breaks is heartbreaking. And the way it takes place in the claustrophobic confines of Lloyd Dobler’s car gives it that especially direct quality. Squirm-inducing, and brilliant.

2. You complete me
from Jerry Maguire (2:07)

The best reconciliation scene ever. This is another moment everyone remembers, mainly because it’s been parodied so many times. It’s hard to imagine the words “you complete me” and “you had me at hello” being put into the mouths of characters without it being cheesy. But go back and watch it and you’ll see that Zellweger and Cruise totally nail it. You can tell they go really deep for this scene, allowing their characters’ emotions to overwhelm them. It doesn’t hurt that the writing’s superb. In the published screenplay, there’s a draft page of this scene and it has corrections and x-outs and arrows all over the place. I like how Crowe carefully worked on it until it was perfect. He knew that if one little instant was off, the whole thing would fall apart. I love everything about it, not least of all the slow push-in on Cruise’s face. The whole thing is just masterful.

1. What kind of beer?
from Almost Famous (1:22)

This is the absolute best moment. All the Cameron Crowe hallmarks are here. William Miller has just told Penny Lane, the girl he loves, that the guy she’s smitten with (Russell, lead singer of Stillwater) just sold her to another band for fifty dollars and a case of beer. (Once again, we get a male character saying something to girl that he probably shouldn’t have.) When we see Penny Lane’s reaction, this is where the magic truly happens. Oscar-nominated Kate Hudson takes us through a glorious rollercoaster ride of profoundly human emotions. First, there’s the shock. Then the realization. Then the desperate attempt to keep her emotions in check and dignity intact. A single tear flows down her cheek, which she wipes away while giving William a brave smile. Then, in an attempt to diffuse the situation, she goes, “What kind of beer?” And this is where the scene gets really great. Any other director in the world would’ve cut after that line, content to give the audience a little laugh and go on with the movie. But Crowe lingers on Penny Lane’s face long enough for a second tear to fall and the lingering hurt to return, and we know she has been forever changed. It is very, very moving to see a character that had been so carefree for the whole movie be shaken to the core like this. The scene is lit beautifully by John Toll, making Kate look even more heartbreakingly luminous in her sadness. It’s a great scene.

[I want to insert that if you haven’t seen the “bootleg cut” of Almost Famous (just released on Blu-Ray), I urge you to do so. It’s about 33% longer and 50% better than the theatrical cut. There’s more scenes of life on the road, which results in a better evocation of what a slog a long tour can be, but most importantly there’s more William-Penny-Russell stuff, and it really fleshes out that triangle way better and makes the whole movie more emotionally resonant as a result.]

So yeah, Cameron Crowe, you rock! If anybody sees We Bought A Zoo before me, feel free to leave some comments and tell everyone what they thought of it.



  1. I would offer: 1A (Say Anything) "I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen". It's somewhere in that moment of the movie that I found myself in Loyd. We're different but we're the same. Our desire(s) the same, and the reaction(s) from the other parties involved for the most part...synchronize. Loyd was as human on film as I was in the movie house. 1A is my offering (without the slick picture)

  2. I agree, Elden. It is a great moment, sort of the second part of my #3 moment. Perhaps even an integral part of it, permanently attached, necessary. I like the fact Cusack stumbles over the line a little. Like he (the character) knows what a grand statement it is...but it doesn't change the fact that it perfectly sums up the truth of how he feels.