The 20 Best Set-Pieces Of 2013

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Some films are less than the sum of their parts. Some disappointing films can have great moments. And many of the best films have one stand-out scene that leaves you cheering in your seats. Here are the ones that stuck in our memory this year…

P.S. We're not including out-and-out fight scenes here - we're saving those for our Best Fights Of 2013 piece (surprise, surprise).


The Attack On Asgard

The film: Thor: The Dark World

What happens? The Thor sequel momentarily threatens to become a war movie, as Malekith the Accursed (Christopher Eccleston) leads his ships on Odin’s capital and his cohort Kurse (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) stages a prison break to distract the guards and, as a bonus, get to the controls of Asgard’s defences to lower its shields.

What’s good about it? In the first film, Asgard seemed serene and untouchable, so to see dogfights in the air overhead and giant flack cannons responding from atop its towers is a definite turn-up for the books. The fact that the Dark Elves have some real firepower doesn’t hurt either, with Asgardian soldiers blasted to nothingness or sucked into strange vortices with disturbing regularity.


The film: Fast & Furious 6

What happens? Baddie Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) and his crew are after a military convoy carrying a computer chip. Goodie Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew decide to interfere with the heist. The problem: the bad guy has an honest-to-goodness tank at his disposal.

What’s good about it? With due respect to the ridiculously lengthy runway scene, the best action beats of the film all come here, with a tank chase down a Spanish highway that results in numerous civilian casualties (it looks like) and one of the mostly physically improbable stunts we’ve ever seen, where Vin Diesel leaps from one speeding car to catch a tumbling Michelle Rodriguez in a way that we’re pretty sure Scotty would have a problem with.


Man Of Steel

The film: Man Of Steel

What happens? A young Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), shortly after discovering his true identity, dons his super-suit and begins for the first time to push the limits of his powers. In particular, he decides to have a go at the whole defying gravity lark, starting with some John Carter-style super-leaps and tumbles but finally focusing, remembering his Kryptonian dad’s inspirational words and soaring into the air and off around the world.

What’s good about it? You can nit-pick many things about this film, but this scene is spot on, capturing Superman’s iconography and humanity’s perennial dreams of flight. His touring destinations also display that much-lauded intelligence; who wouldn’t want to visit the Serengeti, White Cliffs of Dover and Grand Canyon?


The film: Gravity

What happens? Astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and her colleague Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are working on the Hubble telescope when an urgent warning from NASA informs them of a debris field that threatens their position. Kowalski spins into action, but a stuck buckle and tinge of panic slow Stone’s responses as the debris hits and everything goes wrong.

What’s good about it? An unbroken shot of about twelve-and-a-half minutes that opens the film, this is the scene that grips viewers by the throat (the rest of the film doesn’t let go). Getting it right required the development of entirely new approaches to visual effects, and the sheer ambition of it becomes more impressive the closer you look. Full marks to Bullock too, who sells the utter terror of being lost in space in a way that makes us determined never to try it.


The Great Gatsby

The film: The Great Gatsby

What happens? A crucial part of Jay Gatsby’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) plan to somehow win back the girl of his dreams (Carey Mulligan) is to throw the greatest parties the world has ever seen until somehow, magically, one day, she gets drawn into one as if by the forces of gravity. It’s a long shot – but with parties this insanely glamorous and wildly extravagant, it’s one that pays off. At least, it draws in her cousin (Tobey Maguire) and gives him a link to the girl he’s after. Close enough!

What’s good about it? Not every set-piece needs to be a fight scene or some sort of crime. As imagined by Baz Luhrman, Gatsby’s parties combine the best of Jazz Age magnificence, CG-scale, 3D extravagance and thumping bass to create something that even a hipster would have to admit is pretty breathtaking. The best booze, the best beats and DiCaprio raising a toast – what’s not to love?


World War Z

The film: World War Z

What happens? The zombie apocalypse caught the Israelis less by surprise than the rest of the world, and their capital has been fortified by huge walls, with tunnels leading refugees in from outside. But when a new arrival sings to celebrate her survival and others join in, it drives the zombie hordes outside into a frenzy, and they swarm into huge towers to climb the walls. Soon poor Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) – and, y’know, the entire population of the city – is running for dear life as the city falls.

What’s good about it? It’s a complete inversion of the book, where the very strong implication is that Israel rides out WWZ intact thanks to early action. But taken as a cinema set-piece, it’s thrillingly tense, with the unbelievably sudden switch from impregnable fastness to zombie-infested battleground providing the Zach equivalent of shock and awe tactics.


The film: Now You See Me

What happens? In their spectacular first show in Vegas, the Four Horsemen take an unsuspecting volunteer and – apparently – transport him instantaneously halfway around the world to a locked bank vault in Paris, incidentally bringing back a fortune in bank notes that flutter down around their audience. And since none of them is called Montgomery Scott, that’s pretty damn impressive travel planning.

What’s good about it? While the film offers some sort of explanation for what just happened later, it’s still the sort of magic trick that leaves you genuinely wondering how they can possibly account for it through anything other than actual sorcery. Also, we’d rather like to go to a magic show where they shower the audience with money, so there’s a wish-fulfilment side.


Whie House Down

The film: White House Down

What happens? In the middle of a White House siege by ne’er-do-wells led by Jason Clarke, wannabe Secret Service agent Cale (Channing Tatum) tries to get President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) out of the building by a secret tunnel. But since it’s wired to blow, they try to use the Presidential limousine instead, and the bad guys follow. Cue a car chase in circles around the White House lawn.

What’s so good about it? This is that rare case where crowbarring a seemingly random element into a film with no place for it works magically well. The sheer ludicrousness of such a confined car chase, combined with some excellent ad-libbing from Tatum and Foxx (“Can you not hit me in the head with a rocket when I'm trying to drive?”), combines to give it an entertainment value that few more sensible chase scenes can match.


Olympus Has Fallen

The film: Olympus Has Fallen

What happens? In the skies, a huge cargo plane firing massive bullets at basically anything. On the ground, several garbage trucks full of weaponry and a number of terrorists disguised as tourists. Any way you look at it, a really bad day to be in Washington DC, as destruction rains from the sky and North Korea takes over the US government, which is just embarrassing.

What’s so good about it? If you think about this scene for even a second, you’ll realise that – barring miracles – the death toll shown here would probably be ten times that of 9/11. It’s shocking and jars the viewer out of the usual action movie sense that everything will be basically OK and that relatively few people will die – and the speed and strength of the attack manage to make the basically implausible scenario of the film’s plot seem, momentarily, almost believable.


The Lone Ranger

The film: The Lone Ranger

What happens? Two trains. Parallel – and sometimes criss-crossing – tracks. A Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer), his faithful sidekick Tonto (Johnny Depp), a hostage, a host of bad guys, a ladder, a horse and the William Tell Overture. As the trains race along, everyone changes train at least once as the trains themselves change hands and direction. It’s a timetabler’s worst nightmare, but a complicated and very funny finale to the film.

What’s so good about it? The sheer exuberance of this sequence is enough to make Buster Keaton stand up and cheer – and in fact large parts of it seem to be inspired by his film The General. While other parts of the film seem to be origin-story-by-numbers, this lengthy showstopper clearly had love and attention lavished upon it, and it’s enough to have you leave the film on a high, at least temporarily.


The film: Iron Man 3

What happens? Bad guy Eric Savin (James Badge Dale) infiltrates Air Force One by dint of donning Iron Patriot’s armour. There, he abducts the President and blows a hole in the side of the plane, leaving it to crash. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) turns up to find the crew and passengers tumbling through freefall, and saves as many as possible using a “barrel of monkeys” ploy where each links hands with the next so he can carry everyone.

What’s so good about it? It’s always fun to see a superhero solve problems with the application of brain rather than brawn, and this is one of those times. Sure, we’re pretty sure there’d be some dislocated shoulders and broken arms if you tried this in real life, but the film goes to some lengths to convince us that it might just work – and there’s a wonderful surprise beat at the end. Even so, we bet that next time the Secret Service will suggest that Iron Patriot lift his damn face plate before offering him a lift.


The film: Star Trek Into Darkness

What happens? Kirk (Chris Pine) and ‘John Harrison’ (Benedict Cumberbatch) have to get onto the USS Vengeance while it’s temporarily disabled (by a stowaway Mr Scott (Simon Pegg). But with the transporters down, the only way to get there is by space jumping through a debris field while hoping that Scotty manages to open the airlock opposite in time for your arrival. Oh, and Kirk’s visor cracks halfway and his targeting computer gets knocked out. If only he could use the Force!

What’s so good about it? Echoing the space jump of the first film but adding in several additional layers of difficulty and a co-jumper you can’t trust, this offers more heart-in-mouth moments per second than any other part of the film. The bravura cross-cutting between Scotty’s sprints up and down the largest hangar bay in space history and the speeding rush of Kirk and Harrison’s jump keep the tension ratcheted so high you could launch a tribble into orbit with it.


The film: The Place Beyond The Pines

What happens? Stuntman and part-time stick-up artist Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), desperate to contribute meaningfully to the life of his ex Romina (Eva Mendes) and his young son, embarks on the final, motorbike-borne heist of his local bank. Little does he know but he’s embarked on his One Last Job.

What’s good about it? When it comes to smoothly executed heists, Gosling’s stuntman is a lot more Dog Day Afternoon than Heat. Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong – especially when he crosses paths with cop nemesis Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). That’s right: Cooper and Gosling in the same scene. You want more? Well, Mike ‘Faith No More’ Patton’s scoring ups the tension to unbearable levels and there’s real pathos in the way this essentially well-meaning but misguided man steers straight into fate’s high beams.


The film: Flight

What happens? Shortly after seeing the plane through turbulence on takeoff, pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is sleeping off a night of boozing when he’s awoken by the beginnings of a dive. Unable to regain control of the aircraft’s pitch, he turns it upside down to arrest the dive, manages to spin it around again and achieves a controlled landing that, it turns out, is only the beginning of his problems.

What’s good about it? Hyper-realistic and all the more terrifying for it, this is unflinching in showing us what happens to the passengers and crew as the plane plummets towards the ground. Whitaker and his crew show heroism when all seems doomed, while the cinema audience are the ones burying their heads and kissing their ass goodbye. After this scene, you pretty much need the rest of the film just to recover use of your wobbly legs.


brightcove.createExperiences();The film: Captain Phillips

What happens? Container ship the Maersk Alabama is sailing around the Horn of Africa when a small pirate boat attempts to board it. The container ship’s crew is unarmed; the pirates have a few machine guns. Even as the ship uses its pumps like water cannons to drive them off or sink the ship, the pirates find a gap in the defences and use a spindly rope ladder to clamber aboard as the crew and Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) desperately plan their next move.

What’s good about it? What’s so successful about Paul Greengrass’ approach here is that there is desperation on both sides. The Somalis, led by Barkhad Abdi’s intense Muse, know that they need to come back with something valuable to feed their village and prove themselves as men. The ship’s crew know that dangerous armed men are boarding the ship and intend to put guns to their heads to get what they way. With the stakes sky-high for both parties, it’s impossible to see either backing down and it makes for nail-biting results.


Zero Dark Thirty

The film: Zero Dark Thirty

What happens? On the strength of Maya’s (Jessica Chastain) analysis, a raid is launched on the putative headquarters of Osama bin Laden by SEAL Team Six. While Maya anxiously waits, the SEALs land, infiltrate the compound and set about securing their man – despite a downed helicopter seriously threatening their mission.

What’s good about it? Kathryn Bigelow is one of the best action directors out there, and given the chance to portray a group of the most highly-trained soldiers in the world on their most famous mission, she knocks it out of the park. With glimpsed action in low-light conditions and a sense of the confusion and terror that would inevitably accompany this sort of raid, it manages to give you a sense of being there without demanding that you don body armour.


The Bling Ring

The film: The Bling Ring

What happens? Echoing the real facts on which the film is based, Sofia Coppola shows the burglary of Audrina Patridge’s Hollywood Hills home in long-shot from a CCTV camera. We see the greenish figures of the teenage gang creep inside and run riot, ransacking drawers and cupboards in search of designer goodies and spare cash.

What’s good about it? It’s essential, in a film like this, to make each robbery feel distinct and yet also part of a pattern of repetitive behaviour on the part of the gang. Shooting each one in a very different style goes a long way towards achieving that, and the use of long-distance cameras and grainy footage here makes it feel sinister and almost scary.



The film: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

What happens? Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her fellow competitors in the Games arena realise that the environment is patterned after a giant clock, with specific hazards in certain areas at certain times. They head to the island in the centre of the lagoon at the heart of the arena to plan their next move, whereupon the Games masters (led by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s fantastically-named Plutarch Heavensbee) spin the island at high speed to throw everyone off it.

What’s good about it? This whole sequence sees the action lifted up a notch from the first film, with the shock death of Wiress (Amanda Plummer) and the attack of the Career Tributes only the prelude to that crazy spinning turn. That crazy trap doesn’t make much sense as ordeals go, but after the all-too-grim opening sequences in District 12, a little heightened reality doesn’t hurt.


Monsters University

The film: Monsters University

What happens? The likeable losers of the Oozma Kappa fraternity, which Sulley (John Goodman) and Mike (Billy Crystal) join, enter the Scare Games. A magical combination of no training, monstrous egotism (Sulley) and over-academic hectoring (Mike) make for a disastrous obstacle course when the team tries to make it through the first challenge.

What’s good about it? The gimmick of the weird sticky urchins that provide the main obstacle to the running monsters is a fun one, and the tension in the team is very real and very funny. We also enjoy, just generally, the sight of fast people getting stuck to things. Imagine how much more interesting the Olympic 100m would be if they adopted these tactics!


The film: Les Miserables

What happens? A confrontation approaches as a gang of students and idealists prepare to fight the corrupt regime and the authorities plan to squash them like bugs. On a personal level, everything is at risk. Parole violator Javert (Hugh Jackman) is planning to flee the country with his adoptive daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) even as she falls for Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and everyone is caught up in the maelstrom. And also, caught up in a geographically disparate but musically harmonious singalong, apparently.

What’s good about it? In a sprawling story where most of the characters are separated by class, moral values or the years, this is the big moment where everyone gets to come together and let loose. Onstage it’s the big pre-interval showstopper, and in film it’s the moment where everything starts to unravel for Javert and Valjean. There may be better or catchier tunes – we’re partial to Red & Black and Do You Hear The People Sing? – but this is the most exciting one in the musical, and everyone’s live singing is on form here.