It is the opportunity to fully let go of yourself in the pursuit of embodying a totally new character that makes the profession of acting so joyous. Nothing truly defines ‘letting go’ in performance better than a classic movie meltdown, wherein an actor releases a mixture of pent-up emotion and rage as they fully commit to the fears, insecurities or flaws of their characters.
There are countless classic movie meltdowns throughout the history of cinema, making this list a particularly difficult one to put together. From the comedy classic Planes, Trains and Automobiles to the dark crime drama Sexy Beast to the peculiarly insidious family film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, several memorable meltdowns had to be omitted from this list with a heavy heart.
The scenes that made it onto the list come from some of the best modern filmmakers of all time, including Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, John Woo and Damien Chazelle, as well as a good handful of late 20th century classics. Take a look below to see whose wild shouting and helpless screams were lucky enough to make it onto our list of the ten best movie meltdowns of all time.
The 10 most compelling movie meltdowns:
10. Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, 2008)
Celebrated at the time as one of the best comedies of the first decade of the 21st century, time hasn’t been too kind to Ben Stiller’s blockbuster comedy Tropic Thunder. Despite this, there is one scene that remains a pop-culture classic, the moment when Tom Cruises’ loud-mouth movie executive Les Grossman gives the kidnappers of his lead star, Tugg Speedman, an earful down the phone.
“I’m gonna have to head down there and I will rain down an un-Godly fucking firestorm upon you!” Cruise’s character screams, with the actor channelling every inch of his bullish persona.
9. Face/Off (John Woo, 1997)
You can’t have a list of the best movie meltdowns and leave off any mention of Nicolas Cage. You just can’t do it. Whilst you could indeed choose any of the iconic actor’s films, from 1988s Vampire’s Kiss to 2006s The Wicker Man, we’ve opted for John Woo’s classic action movie Face/Off where Cage plays both a sadistic psychopath and an FBI agent in this bizarre face-swapping totem to 1990s insanity.
It’s hard to just pick one moment from the classic action movie, but the moment in prison when he prompts a riot has got to be up there with the very best of Cage’s career.
8. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
Sacrificing friends, family and close relationships for the sheer pursuit of narcissistic economic gain, the rise of Mark Zuckerberg, both in reality and in David Fincher’s film is one of the greatest or the most tragic illustrations of the American dream. One such friend he sacrifices is Andrew Garfield’s Eduardo Saverin, double-crossing him at the end of the film for his own financial gain.
This prompts Garfield’s character to march across the Facebook offices and give him a piece of his mind, smashing Zuckerberg’s laptop before he even opens his mouth. It’s a classic moment in an iconic movie.
7. 22 Jump Street (Chris Miller, Phil Lord, 2014)
Certain movies stick out in contemporary pop culture, grabbing the attention of film fans across the world without ever really letting go. 22 Jump Street from directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord was certainly one of these movies when it was released in 2014, with the electric performances from actors Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and Ice Cube helping to elevate the comedy above normal Hollywood fodder.
One of the film’s most memorable moments sees Jonah Hill’s undercover rookie cop go to dinner with the police chief, Ice Cube, only for it to materialise that he is dating the boss’ daughter. Cue one of the funniest scenes of the 21st century.
6. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)
Telling the story of two hitmen sent to Bruges after a botched job, and their mad boss who orders one of them to kill the other, Martin McDonagh’s modern crime caper is a true classic. Playing the boss, Ralph Fiennes gives one of the film’s best performances, with his insane rage coming to a head in one iconic sequence involving a phone call between his character and one of the hitmen, Ken (Brendan Gleeson).
Furious that Ken disobeys his command, once Fiennes’ character has hung up the phone he takes several moments of composed serenity before he smashes the black landline telephone against his desk.
5. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014)
Playing a motivated and enraged music teacher in Damien Chazelle’s wild music drama, J.K. Simmons delivers a truly terrifying performance, flipping off the handle on several occasions. Seeing promise in the protagonist Andrew (Miles Teller), a drummer who has recently joined the prestigious college band, Simmons’ Fletcher treats him with ‘tough love’ if you can even see positivity in his shocking actions.
Rightfully winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, Simmons’ performance is nothing short of petrifying, having total control over each and every scene he’s in, cranking the tension of the film with a furious vice.
4. Mommie Dearest (Frank Perry, 1981)
Every film, no matter its foibles, has quality craftsmanship, with this certainly being the case for Frank Perry’s biographical drama Mommie Dearest. In his adaptation of Christina Crawford’s novel of the same name, Perry tells the story of the screen queen and abusive mother Joan Crawford, played by the captivating Faye Dunaway in his movie, delivering a compelling performance.
Excellent throughout the film, there is one point in which Dunaway’s character screams at her adopted daughter for putting an expensive dress on a wire hanger, with the scene being a truly captivating moment.
3. There Will be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
There’s no doubt that Paul Thomas Anderson draws the very best out of Daniel Day-Lewis, with his 2007 film There Will be Blood proving this in abundance. Dedicating himself entirely to the role of Daniel Plainview, an oil prospector at the turn of the 20th century whose obsession turns to hatred and gradual madness, Day-Lewis helps to bring one of the best films of modern cinema to life.
This is proven beyond doubt in the film’s final scene where Day-Lewis’ Plainview finally releases all his rage toward Paul Dano’s Paul Sunday, screaming “I drink your milkshake,” in his wild, uncontrolled rant.
2. Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)
Ripped and edited countless times on YouTube, the rant of Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall is well-known for being long, authentic and deeply unsettling. Performed with masterful control by the late Ganz who shakes with anger when he hears news that his commander Felix Steiner wasn’t able to pull off his assault before shouting in fury at the unfortunate generals left in his underground war room.
Showing his unfiltered rampage of pure rage as well as his acceptance that “the war is over,” every emotion can be seen in the excellent performance of Bruno Ganz who portrays the evil Nazi leader with terrifying accuracy.
1. Possession (Andrzej Żuławski, 1981)
None of the aforementioned scenes carries the same authenticity as the iconic ‘Metro scene’ in Andrzej Żuławski’s horror classic Possession starring Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani, following a couple going through a monstrous breakup. Fully dedicating herself to her performance at one point Adjani’s Anna begins to lose her mind whilst walking through a grubby subway.
Flailing her body as if a possessed creature with no control of her actions, she twists and contorts on the floor covering herself in the milk she launches against the wall in a rage. Many more meltdowns may come, but it’s unlikely any will be better than Adjani’s.