Five Great Short Films Inside Longer Ones

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They’re like Russian dolls, but cinematic.

There are plenty of perfect sequences in movies: masterfully edited moments that stand out from the rest of the larger work. The shower scene in Psycho. The inter-cutting between baptism and massacre towards the end of The Godfather. The spooky CGI-laden orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut. In these cases, the sequences were essential to the rest of the film. But every so often a filmmaker sneaks a piece of mini-perfection into their movie that’s so self-contained, such an unnecessary tangent, it can stand alone as its own perfect short. Here are five.

5. The Winkie’s Diner Scene in Mulholland Drive

Perhaps this scene made more sense in the grand scheme of Mulholland Drive’s initial production shoot, when it was supposed to be a TV pilot — maybe David Lynch’s plan was to have an entire series arc for the two characters in the diner. But as it stands, they come out of nowhere, have this conversation about dreams, and then go off into the ether. In the context of the final film, the only reason to include this five-minute self-contained short is to highlight the whole “dreams versus reality” theme going on. Oh, and to scare the living shit out of the viewers — this is one of the greatest horror moments in film history.

4. The Henley sequence in The Social Network

You’re an hour or so into standard quickly-paced, dialogue-heavy Aaron Sorkin fare when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, David Fincher starts blasting an industrialized version of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and unleashes this slickly-edited, dramatically-shot two-minute rowing race. It’s pure Nike commercial adrenaline, really for no reason at all. There’s good reason to believe that Fincher got sick of everyone praising Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s epic “Write the Future” ad and decided to remind folks he’s not too shabby in the sports short-form department either.

3. Intro to Magnolia

Paul Thomas Anderson begins his sprawling, interwoven tale of Los Angelenos with daddy issues through this exquisite retelling of three urban legends, all illustrating the “everything is connected” reality that will be on full display for the next 180 minutes. While the rest of the movie has its fair share of set pieces (the sing-a-long to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up,” for starters), it’s this five-minute chunk where Anderson gets to flex his Scorsese-like camera moves and editing tricks while getting the rest of our hopes up for a full-season order of a Strange Coincidences with Ricky Jay TV show.

2. The Goy’s Teeth Tale from A Serious Man

This scene is the perfect example of a shorter scene that can stand alone while still encompassing the broad themes addressed in the movie. In the middle of this Coen Brothers tour de force, Larry Gopnik goes into his Rabbi’s office to address mid-life questions of faith and is told this cryptic anecdote — also set to Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” — about another local man who also came searching for answers. The story turns out to be nothing more than a slick digression to nowhere, leaving Larry even more angry and befuddled than when he came in. The take-away message: no one knows nothing about anything, so stop asking.

1. Victor’s Trip in The Rules of Attraction

You can’t find a more over-the-top character introduction than this hyper-kinetic techno-infused four-minute-long account of debauchery, drug use, and general Ugly Americanism. In order to introduce us to Victor Ward, a relatively minor character in the film, director Roger Avary followed around an always-in-character Kip Pardue to fifteen European cities in fifteen days, amassing seventy hours of footage to work with. (Avary eventually cut a full-length feature out of this footage, Glitterati, that never saw the light of day for legal reasons; author Bret Easton Ellis described it as “basically ninety minutes of him in character seducing women throughout Europe.”) This is by far the most elegant and creative sequence in Avary's spotty filmography as a director.