The “set-piece of the year” award is sort of a catch-all for big, ambitious, and expensive looking scenes that don’t quite fit in with any of the other categories. Past winners have included the Waterloo Station scene from the Bourne Ultimatum, The Battle of Santa Clara from Che, and the theater fire from Ingourious Basterds. In short, it’s a great big “other” category, that I can use to honor scenes that I loved and wouldn’t otherwise be able to categorize.
- 200 vs. 13- 13 Assassins: We’ve seen what happens when seven samurais take on fourty bandits in a Kurosawa film, but what happens when thirteen assassins take on two hundred trained guards in a Takashi Miike film? Utter chaos and badassery, that’s what happens. We get something like thirty minutes of carnage with dozens upon dozens of men getting sliced with swords, shot by arrows, exploded by gunpowder, and run over by flaming bulls. The sheer scale of the scene and its dependence on choreography rather than visual effects dwarf the accomplishments of many Hollywood films.
- Dubai Mountaineering- Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol: Much the way you expect to see Indiana Jones go through a room filled with unpleasant creatures, you expect to see Ethan Hunt dangle from a rope at some point during every Mission: Impossible movie. Brad Bird takes things a step further by taking the rope away for much of the already iconic Dubai climbing scene where Tom Cruise uses magical (yet not overly reliable) suction gloves to climb the outside of a glass hotel. Not for the acrophobic, but certainly good stuff.
- The Golden Gate Bridge Battle- Rise of the Planet of the Apes: What would you do if you were a cop tasked with standing your ground at one end of the Golden Gate Bridge as a swarm of intelligent apes began to charge you for all directions? Probably run. Anyway, this scene paints that scenario with great effects and creativity. At times I feel like I should make a separate category for “best climactic action scene.” That’s a category that this would surely be a big contender for.
- Train Crash- Super 8: There’s a story (almost a legend at this point) that a young Steven Spielberg once tied fireworks to his toy trains and crashed them so that he’s have an effects shot for his amateur home movie. Well, J.J. Abrams has a better effects budget to work with in his Spielberg tribute, and the result is the single biggest and most intense bit of pyrotechnics this year. In fifteen plus years of destroying major landmarks Roland Emmerich has never matched the intensity that Abrams is able to elicit in this relatively small scale disaster.
- Dawn of Time- The Tree of Life: In one of the most audacious flashbacks of all time, Terrence Malick contextualizes the events of his film by showing us that it is all the result of billions of years of cosmic formation, evolution, and history. After consulting scientists and employing the visual effects artist Douglas Trumbull (who did similar work in the science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey), Malick creates a thrilling and truly gorgeous montage that I won’t soon forget.