This list was difficult to compile. What makes a great dusk scene? What factors are there to consider, and how can we limit ourselves to only 10 movies?!
Ultimately, we decided to pick the scenes which came out of great films; culled not only for their symbolic significance, but also because they capture the lighting and mood representative of those incredible moments just before the sun sets. (Admittedly, we did give ourselves a little breathing room on the last one…)
Warning: The following contains major spoilers.
“The Dark Knight” – Joker crashes the party.
While it’s faced a considerable share of competition in recent years, “The Dark Knight” is still widely considered the greatest comic book movie of all time, and was arguably the first to be viewed as a great film in its own right–comic book origins aside.
There is no better reason for this than the performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker, who makes his first serious strike at the heart of Gotham City by orchestrating the killings of the city’s police commissioner, one of its judges, and by raiding Bruce Wayne’s fundraiser in an attempt to kidnap Harvey Dent.
It’s one of the best scenes in the film, and the atmosphere of the sequence is heightened by a gorgeous blue-steel backdrop of early evening in Gotham.
“There Will Be Blood” – “I’m an Oil Man, ladies and gentlemen.”
Honorable Mentions: Oil Rig explosion, “BASTARD FROM A BASKET!”
Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 masterpiece is one of the few films we could find with three distinct scenes of equal greatness which all take place during the twilight hour. While both the oil rig set piece and Daniel Plainview’s final scene with his surrogate son are vital movie moments, we decided to single out the incredible “Oil Man” speech, in which Plainview addresses the town of Little Boston with promises of wealth, education, and bread.
The scene might lack the stunning visuals of the oil rig explosion and the clear-cut villainy of “bastard from a basket,” but it still captures the manipulative and exploitative nature of Plainview’s character. It accomplishes this through contrasting his speech with the arrival of his workers and the building of the rig–all designed solely to achieve the economic and environmental rape of the town which Plainview claims he’s helping.
It is also an incredible example of why Daniel Day Lewis is considered the greatest actor of all time (he earned his second Oscar for this role).
“Top Gun” – Take my breath away…
Maverick hops on his motorcycle and speeds away from Charlie Blackwood after she scorns him publicly for his reckless style of flying, and she takes chase in her convertible to confess her love to him. They both speed with wild abandon through the sun-soaked streets of San Diego, and after a short spat they resolve their grievances and get down to black silhouettes on blue backdrops.
So ‘80s. So awesome.
“Casino” – The End of Nicki Santoro.
Admittedly, if there were any scenes from “Goodfellas” filmed at dusk (with the exception of young Henry selling cigarettes), they would likely steal this spot. Still, “Casino” is an exceptional film, and the gruesome killing of Nicki Santoro (played by the inimitable Joe Pesci) is one of the most compelling and stomach churning sequences in any Scorsese’s work.
As with many great films, particularly from the gangster genre (and even more-so from the Scorsese gangster genre), Santoro has so few redeemable qualities that we shouldn’t find his death as tragic as it ultimately feels.
“Kill Bill Vol. 2” – The Bride vs. Elle Driver.
The first of two Quentin Tarantino films to make this list, this epic showdown between two modern day samurai warriors in a run-down trailer in the middle of a California desert is a modern cinema classic and an awesome take on the “showdown at sunset” scenes made famous by 1960s spaghetti westerns.
Although it loses a couple of points for the cringe worthy “I killed your master!” line, the scene is still acted and choreographed unbelievably well, and the bride plucking Elle’s other eye out of her skull was a fitting conclusion to their feud.
Although I think we all could have done without the squishing…
“No Country for Old Men” – “What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?”
Another 2007 masterpiece, this offering from the Coen brothers is arguably the greatest film of its decade, and belongs in the discussion for the best of all time. Great writing, acting, and directing all contribute, but the film’s most memorable performance was undoubtedly delivered by Javier Bardem in the role of Anton Chigurh.
Early in the film, we’re given an earie glimpse into this merciless killer’s psyche when, essentially unprovoked, Chigurh leaves the fate of a man’s life up to a coin toss. The quality of the acting, precise editing and the escalating nature of its dialogue render this scene on all time classic.
“Speed” – Jack and Annie get off the bus.
It might lack the artistic gravitas of the other titles on this list (such as “Top Gun”), but this quintessential ‘90s action flick absolutely nails the climactic scene in which Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock are sent careening out across LAX’s runway from underneath a soon-to-explode bus chassis while riding atop one of its steel floor panels.
Say what you will about realism, plausibility, or even the merits of the popcorn action flick/summer blockbuster genre…the film is awesome, and this scene is absolutely epic. That swelling chorus as they get spit out the backside of the bus still gives us chills.
“The Godfather” – Tom Hagen informs Don Corleone of Sonny’s demise.
While this undisputed masterpiece also contains a touching early-evening scene in which Michael Corleone asks Apolonia’s father for permission to court his daughter, the scene in which Tom Hagen reluctantly tells the Don that Sonny has been murdered edges it out.
The Don’s reaction to this news perfectly encapsulates his greatness. A mere moment after he allows the words to sink in, he turns immediately to business. He even finds the strength to set aside his own grief in order to console Tom Hagen, Sonny’s best friend and surrogate brother. The acting here, from both Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall, is phenomenal.
“Death Proof” – Car Chase (Part 2).
Some moments in this sequence capture the brilliant orange/yellow/blue color spectrum we tend to associate with dusk better than others, but the final confrontation from Quentin Tarantino’s criminally underrated homage to ‘70s B-movies deserves a spot on the list.
This is one of the all-time great car chases ever set to film, and the literary-level symbolism of the two cars battling one another sends sparks of its own. The blending of feminism, sexual violence, and mechanophilia elevate the meaning of the chase beyond mere action to a true work of art.
“Gangs of New York” – Bill “The Butcher” Cutting confronts Walter “Monk” McGinn.
You might think that throwing a butcher’s knife into a person’s back under the guise of holding a civilized conversation with them could be construed as dishonorable, but this scene brilliantly demonstrates that Bill Cutting abides solely by his own set of principles. He ruthlessly murders Monk, yes, but he first removes his hat, and before returning it to his head he subtly gestures towards Monk’s corpse with a visible (albeit mocking) salute.
Earlier scenes reveal that Bill sees the removal of his hat as one of the highest gestures of respect he can show another man, and while Monk has been an annoyance to him for decades, the Butcher still views him as an honorable man worthy of respect.
Feature photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.