My 25 Favorite Montages & Cross-cutting Sequences

My 25 Favorite Montages 1What’s the opposite of a long take? The first four top 25 lists I put together for this blog were matching pairs: scariest scenes and funniest scenes, endings and beginnings. Last year I focused on scenes that go for two minutes or more without a cut. The opposite of that, naturally, would be something like a subliminal shock insert. Unfortunately, I can only think of a couple notorious examples of that — hardly list-making material. Next, I considered the cut itself, that bedrock tool of filmmaking language that, like the wind, is only visible by its effects. But that gave me problems too. I could write a whole essay about the famous match cut in Lawrence of Arabia, but few other individual transitions sprung to mind, and most that did were of the repetitive “shot/reverse shot” variety. They don’t call it the invisible art for nothing. The whole point is to direct our attention to the images, not the glue holding them together.

…Unless, of course, we consider sequences in films that are specifically built around editing. There are two main types, which sometimes overlap: the montage and the cross-cutting sequence. The word montage simply refers to the juxtaposition of images, but for my purposes it refers to sequences in which the editing makes leaps forward in time. Cross-cutting leaps through space — parallel actions in different places, or perhaps one character trying to reach another. Both kinds are distinct from the standard movie scene, which occurs basically in real time regardless of how it’s cut together. The thrill of seeing a motion picture image follow unexpectedly from another goes back to the first decade of the twentieth century, and it continues to be intuitively understood today. These sequences accomplish something that can’t be done in any other art form.

So I hit the ground running and came up with a list of 25. It still wasn’t quite as easy to make as my previous lists. Looking over my favorite movies, I couldn’t think of very many montages or cross-cutting sequences. (As has happened before, I’ll probably remember several as soon as I publish this.) The internet wasn’t much help either. For one thing, the word montage has a very specific vernacular meaning bolstered by years of parody. We can call it Rocky Syndrome. A related problem is that most of the lists of “montages” I found seem to presume that movies were invented in the 1980s. Of course, I’m one to talk. Fully sixty percent of the movies I list below are from the 80s or later. Also, in contrast to the long takes list, my choices here are almost exclusively drawn from mainstream and American cinema. The results are not that illuminating, in other words, but sometimes you have to go with the obvious choice. Finally, any sequences that appeared on those previous lists were disqualified from showing up again, and there were a few that would otherwise fit the bill.

25. Spider-Man 2 (2004) — “I’m Spider-Man no more”

  • Editor: Bob Murawski
  • Director: Sam Raimi
  • 1 minute 43 seconds, 13 shots (Average shot length: 7.92 seconds)

Possessing that rarest of qualities for modern mainstream blockbusters, a visual sense of humor, Spider-Man 2 has many standout sequences, but this is the one that fits my definition of a montage. To the tune of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” here is what it feels like for Peter Parker when he’s inexplicably lost his powers and can taste a normal life for a little while. It feels wrong, which is the source of much of the comedy.

24. An American in Paris (1951) — “What’s she like?”

  • Editor: Adrienne Fazan
  • Director: Vincente Minnelli
  • 2 minutes 40 seconds, 11 shots (ASL: 14.55 seconds)

The allure of this sequence doesn’t have much to do with editing, actually. It’s all about that eye-popping Technicolor decor and Leslie Caron’s flexibility (in more than one sense of the word).

23. School of Rock (2003) — Teaching montage

  • Editor: Sandra Adair
  • Director: Richard Linklater
  • 2 minutes 8 seconds, 18 shots (ASL: 7.11 seconds)

Here’s the first of a couple montages I’m listing that do in fact belong in the Rocky lineage: the satisfying portrayal of the process of training or improving in something, which “fast-forwards” through the hard parts or the boring parts. In this case, it’s Jack Black’s character finding improbable success teaching prep school kids about rock music.

22. Adaptation (2002) — “How did I get here?”

  • Editor: Eric Zumbrunnen
  • Director: Spike Jonze
  • 56 seconds, 24 shots (ASL: 2.33 seconds)

This is a hilarious minute of film that comes out of nowhere right at the beginning of the movie. Struggling with depression, the main character wonders about the meaning of his life and apparently needs to run through the entire history of the planet in his head before he can even begin to think about the question. It’s a quick, self-lacerating jab at pretension.

21. Man with a Movie Camera (1929) — The editor

  • Editor: Elizaveta Svilova
  • Director: Dziga Vertov
  • 2 minutes 18 seconds, 41 shots (ASL: 3.37 seconds)

I had to have at least one sequence from Soviet silent cinema on here. The segment I chose from this legendary piece of editing craftsmanship might not be the most impressive or the fastest, but it offers a peek behind the curtain, with Svilova herself appearing as a character. We see developed film stock, and then we see those images in motion, a movie literally taking shape before our eyes.

20. Ocean’s Eleven (2001) – “I don’t understand. What happened to all that money?”

  • Editor: Stephen Mirrione
  • Director: Steven Soderbergh
  • 1 minute 9 seconds, 13 shots (ASL: 5.31 seconds)

There are other great montages in Ocean’s Eleven, depicting the planning and execution of the central heist, but I’ll go with the last one, which puts a cap on everything with one last surprise (concerning a SWAT team and a videotape).

19. Annie Hall (1977) – “Seems Like Old Times”

  • Editor: Ralph Rosenblum
  • Director: Woody Allen
  • 42 seconds, 18 shots (ASL: 2.33 seconds)

It’s a familiar trope in love stories now, the recap of some of the special times the characters shared that comes just before the end. This one still holds up, laced as it is with contented melancholy and no sentimentalism as far as I can tell.

18. Ratatouille (2007) — Alfredo the puppet

  • Editor: Darren Holmes
  • Director: Brad Bird
  • 2 minutes 12 seconds, 55 shots (ASL: 2.4 seconds)

This one is another “process” montage, with an even stranger premise than School of Rock: a rat who wants to be a chef slowly learns how to control the movements of a human by tugging his hair. Training for sports is just too straightforward, I suppose. At any rate, this is another very funny twist on the concept.

17. The Social Network (2010) — Facemash

  • Editors: Angus Wall & Kirk Baxter
  • Director: David Fincher
  • 7 minutes 3 seconds, 191 shots (ASL: 2.21 seconds)

Montage and cross-cutting combine here, as events unfold over one long night at Harvard. Mark Zuckerberg does some fancy computer stuff while one of the school’s final clubs hosts a party, all of it thrumming to the same intoxicating nocturnal rhythm (courtesy of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) without ever masking its fundamental emptiness.

16. A Goofy Movie (1995) — “To the open road”

  • Editor: Gregory Perler
  • Director: Kevin Lima
  • 1 minute 33 seconds, 37 shots (ASL: 2.51 seconds)

Not to be confused with “On the Open Road,” one of several terrific songs in this nostalgic favorite, the montage I’m thinking of comes much later in the proceedings. Max and his dad finally become friends and enjoy some of the diverse experiences this country has to offer, from baseball and roller coasters to the world’s largest house of yarn and a New Orleans mime.

15. The Godfather Part II (1974) — “Hail Mary”

  • Editors: Peter Zinner, Barry Malkin & Richard Marks
  • Director: Francis Ford Coppola
  • 2 minutes 14 seconds, 16 shots (ASL: 8.38 seconds)

Superficially a redo of the ending of the first movie, in which Michael Corleone takes a decisive grip on power by killing off all his enemies at the same time, this is a subtler and even more disturbing take on the idea, given the fate of cinema’s great middle child, Fredo. The sequence also takes place on a smaller scale than the original, which is not something that can be said about a sequel all that often.

14. The Forbidden Room (2015) — “The Book of Climaxes”

  • Editor: John Gurdebeke
  • Directors: Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson
  • 2 minutes 12 seconds, 112 shots (ASL: 1.18 seconds)

In one sense, it’s just what that name, “The Book of Climaxes,” sounds like — one thrilling set piece after another, the culminations of dozens of stories all playing out simultaneously through dissolves and superimpositions. But if you know anything about Guy Maddin, you’ll know that it’s a million times weirder than that.

13. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) — Obi-Wan vs. Anakin & Yoda vs. Sidious

  • Editors: Roger Barton & Ben Burtt
  • Director: George Lucas
  • 8 minutes 38 seconds, 233 shots (ASL: 2.22 seconds)

I’m telling you, it’s great when they shut up! There’s plenty with which to be frustrated when it comes to the spotty emotional stakes, but the action is still fierce and fluid, with two lightsaber duels each devolving into desperate struggles against forbidding environments. We can thank and/or blame Lucas for how much every blockbuster now feels like a video game.

12. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) — Monuments

  • Editors: Gene Havlick & Al Clark
  • Director: Frank Capra
  • 3 minutes 25 seconds, 87 shots (ASL: 2.36 seconds)

I listed some godless communist product with #21, so to even things out here’s the most godful slice of apple pie you’ve ever seen. All joking aside, it’s a wonderful multi-layered montage of D.C. landmarks, all erupting together in a perfect representation of Jefferson Smith’s patriotic pride before settling down into a solemn, daunting trip to the Lincoln Memorial.

11. Moonrise Kingdom (2012) — New Penzance tour

  • Editor: Andrew Weisblum
  • Director: Wes Anderson
  • 48 seconds, 9 shots (ASL: 5.33 seconds)

It’s by far the simplest montage on this list, if not quite the shortest (see #19). Bob Balaban, striking a few poses as he addresses the camera in a series of symmetrical compositions, lists important facts about the (fictional) island of New Penzance.

My 25 Favorite Montages 210. Cinderella (1950) — The key & the slipper

  • Editor: Donald Halliday
  • Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske & Wilfred Jackson
  • 4 minutes 10 seconds, 82 shots (ASL: 3.05 seconds)

This is about as suspenseful as anything in the Disney canon, as two mice climb some stairs, trying to free Cinderella in order to thwart her stepmother’s plot. Lucifer the cat intervenes, and all the while there’s some comical business with the stepsisters and their dreadfully non-tiny feet.

9. A Page of Madness (1926) — The dance

  • Editor: Not credited
  • Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa
  • 5 minutes 23 seconds, 160 shots or so (ASL: ~2.02 seconds)

One would have to slow down the film considerably to get an accurate count of the shots in this opening sequence. I’m itching to try it, but it’s enough for now to note that it’s a wild beginning to an incredible film, cutting between a torrential rain outside and the delusions of a girl dancing until her feet bleed inside an asylum cell.

8. The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) — “Attention!”

  • Editors: Charlie Mullin & Peter Wiehl
  • Director: Penelope Spheeris
  • 1 minute 3 seconds, 23 shots (ASL: 2.74 seconds)

This is another straightforward concept executed tremendously well. The lead singers of the participating punk bands alternate reading a disclaimer to their audiences, ensuring that everyone consents to appearing in the film. It’s exactly the right kind of sneering playfulness to kick things off (Phranc of the band Catholic Discipline growling through the whole speech, Lee Ving of Fear affecting a German accent, etc.).

7. The Prince of Egypt (1998) — The Plagues

  • Editor: Nick Fletcher
  • Directors: Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner & Simon Wells
  • 2 minutes 46 seconds, 56 shots (ASL: 2.96 seconds)

Briskly covering eight of the ten plagues in one musical sequence accomplished two things: it helped keep this animated version of the Exodus story under 100 minutes, and it prevented that story from lingering on the terrible suffering those plagues entailed. But the sequence commands the right kind of terror and awe while keeping the focus on Moses and Pharaoh.

6. Citizen Kane (1941) — “News On The March”

  • Editor: Robert Wise
  • Director: Orson Welles
  • 9 minutes 15 seconds, 128 shots (ASL: 4.34 seconds)

Here’s another montage with fierce competition from its own film. The “breakfast table” sequence is more innovative, and the opera sequences are thrilling. Citizen Kane, maybe you’ve heard of it. I picked this one because it’s so much fun, cheekily previewing the whole plot and hinting at the main question: who was this famous guy, really?

5. Toy Story 2 (1999) — “When She Loved Me”

  • Editors: Edie Bleiman, David Ian Salter & Lee Unkrich
  • Directors: John Lasseter, Ash Brannon & Lee Unkrich
  • 2 minutes 28 seconds, 34 shots (ASL: 4.35 seconds)

This is the Randy Newman-penned, Sarah McLachlan-sung musical sequence that turned one of Pixar’s funniest movies into one of its most moving as well. Jessie’s story is told economically and beautifully, with evocative images of sunlight, dust and that tree with a tire swing. The tragedy of immortality in two and a half minutes.

4. Sherlock Jr. (1924) — Climbing onto the screen

  • Editor: Buster Keaton
  • Director: Buster Keaton
  • 2 minutes 11 seconds, 9 shots (ASL: 14.56 seconds)

A conundrum: is it still a montage if it’s technically one shot? This famous image of a screen within a screen does all kinds of fascinating theoretical work while still being immaculately funny. Daffy in Duck Amuck followed in Buster’s footsteps: the hapless hero tossed about by, of all things, conventional film grammar. No less than the Soviet theorists, Keaton got at something fundamental.

3. Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) — The Battle of Endor

  • Editors: Sean Barton, Marcia Lucas & Duwayne Dunham
  • Director: Richard Marquand
  • 36 minutes 26 seconds, 716 shots or so (ASL: ~3.05 seconds)

This time I really am cheating. The climax of Return of the Jedi is less a “sequence” than three short films spliced together, each its own tale of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Say what you will about the teddy bear warriors fighting a bunch of idiots in plastic armor, the tripartite structure is truly great, setting the bar for ambition for every blockbuster epic to follow.

My 25 Favorite Montages 32. The Godfather (1972) — The baptism scene

  • Editors: William Reynolds & Peter Zinner
  • Director: Francis Ford Coppola
  • 4 minutes 58 seconds, 67 shots (ASL: 4.45 seconds)

I can’t help going with the most basic film-bro pick here. It’s too good — one of the truest expressions of a solemn sort of irony. The scene unfolds in meticulous detail, alternating between the Catholic rites and the six assassins making their preparations. The violence is done, and we return to Michael’s face, giving nothing away.

1. The Tree of Life (2011) — “That’s where God lives!”

  • Editors: Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber & Mark Yoshikawa
  • Director: Terrence Malick
  • 3 minutes 30 seconds, 56 shots (ASL: 3.75 seconds)

The Tree of Life is a movie that consists almost entirely of montages, with very little in the way of traditional scenes. Picking one is incredibly difficult, though they distinguish themselves stylistically, thematically and musically. This central segment plays to the tune of Bedřich Smetana’s tone poem The Moldau and may be the one truly unassailable portion of Malick’s grandiose vision. You can call the creation sequence pretentious, the ending hackneyed, though I love both. But this sequence, which traces Jack’s life from early childhood to his Hunter McCracken form, is wall-to-wall loveliness and imagination, stirring and pure and always surprising.

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