The other night, I was flipping channels, as is my wont, and I stumbled upon one of my favorite movie moments of the past 15 years. Stop me if this sounds familiar. Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, and "Rampage" Jackson are in a tank — like, an artillery tank, not an oil tank — plummeting nose-down through the open sky while being shot at by drones.
Anyway, Liam Neeson starts barking orders because he's really good at that. "Rotate the turret 82 degrees! Fire!" And Bradley Cooper does what he's told because he isn't the star of the movie. Meanwhile, in some plasma-lit room, a tech flunky looking at the drone feed asks aloud, "Is he trying to shoot down that other drone?"
Jessica Biel responds, "No, he's trying to fly that tank."
Now, by almost any yardstick, 2010's The A-Team is not a good movie. It kept trying to wink at itself, which sanded off the grit from the action scenes and rendered its attempts at comedy too ironic to be actually funny. But that scene, in which Neeson's Hannibal Smith tries to fly a tank is three minutes of pure pulp glory, trapped in an otherwise unremarkable IP cash grab.
Last week I paid my yanquis dollars to see A Wrinkle in Time. (Full disclosure: I am friendly with the film's director, Ava DuVernay, because all black people in Hollywood know each other… and if we don't, we pretend we do to throw everyone else off.) While Wrinkle didn't hold together for me, narratively, it really packs some emotional heft — which I think is what it was aiming for. And at about 40 minutes in, there is a sequence of just breathtaking grandeur it astonished me. It's straight out of a Miyazaki flick: The three leads, Meg Murry (Storm Reid), her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and an oddly ornamental classmate Calvin (Levi Miller), find themselves on the back of a shimmering, ribbon-like flying creature.
It's a sequence of distilled joy, the kind of moment that an 8-year-old kid will carry around for the rest of his or her life. Because that's what movies, at the end of the day, truly are: moments that cleave to us.
For as much as I love and admire narrative rigor and ingenuity, for as much as I can appreciate finely modulated performances, those things can make for a good movie, maybe even a great movie. But they alone will never make for anyone's favorite movie.
No, it's the moments that anchor in our memories. Indiana Jones staring down a golden fertility idol. Ellen Ripley shouting "Get away from her, you bitch!" Willy Wonka's fall-roll-spring to his feet. Axel Foley in a Beverly Hills strip club. T.E. Lawrence blowing out a match. Cowboys farting around a fire. Vice Admiral Holdo light-speeding through a Star Destroyer.
(A brief aside: Star Wars: The Last Jedi was incredibly divisive in the wake of its release last year. Some thought it a betrayal of everything they thought they knew about Star Wars — how it was supposed to feel; what it was supposed to be. But Star Wars has always been defined by moments; so much so that — though we nerds have overanalyzed those movies to death — we tend to forget the shoddy parts holding the whole thing together. But the moments are the reasons we keep returning to Star Wars, and The Last Jedi definitely has its share of iconic ones.)
Maybe it's the result of my advancing age or podcasting alongside the perennially sunny Kevin Smith, but I've started coming to films and TV not looking for flaws — though, not necessarily overlooking them, either — but wanting to find something to embrace.
I'm looking for those moments when a filmmaker's reach might exceed their grasp, when they're going for glory rather than playing it safe. I'm looking for the moments when a movie is trying to be my favorite movie. Sometimes they get there and you get something as impossibly amazing as Max Max: Fury Road's doof bungied to the back of a decked-out semi truck, playing a guitar with flames shooting from its head.
And sometimes you get a dude trying to fly a tank. I've never forgotten it.