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Top 10 “Best of…” Film Montages

By Noelle Buffam · September 30, 2010

A montage is an important technique in film, delivering information and time passage in a visual and economical way. It's true that montages can be overused and have gained the stigma of being cheesy, but if done right, a montage can be engaging, inspiring – even epic.

But with so many montages to choose from, I found it overwhelming to select an ultimate top ten list. So here's my angle: since most montages fall into traditional categories – "the media montage", "the training montage", "the sports montage", to name a few – each film on this list represents the top spot in its sub-category, ranked in accordance to how much screenwriting knowledge can be derived from the montage itself. So try not to be offended if your favorite "training montage" doesn't make the grade. There was only room for one, and it's hard to snub Rocky.

10. Team America: World Police (2004) – The Satirical Montage of 'The Montage'

Trey Parker and Matt Stone parody the cliché of the 80's training montage with a satirical training montage. Set to a song titled 'Montage', which includes lyrics like, "Show a lot of things happening at once, remind everyone of what's going on", this montage encapsulates the stigma of "the montage". It's easy to admired as it completely fits Team America, but it can also be taken as a lesson: execute a montage in accordance to the film's tone. If the film is a comedy, the montage sure as hell better be funny. No complaints with Team America, which pulls it off with stereotypical images of weight lifting and karate training, all set against a 80s-style rock song.

9. Pretty Woman (1990) – The Shopping Montage

It's perhaps the most dreaded montage of them all: the shopping montage. While most shopping montages often slip fast and furious into feeing like added fluff, Pretty Woman's montage illustrates a change in the protagonist's character arc. In the beginning, Vivian (Julia Roberts) is thrown into a new world – one filled with beautiful clothes and endless possibilities – yet we see her transform from a "fashion don't" prostitute into a real classy looking lady. Vivian even has a moment of retribution as she enters a high-end store that once kicked her out. She walks up to the snotty saleswoman and declares, "Big mistake!" Her transformation is finally complete as she struts into her hotel with a new outfit and shopping bags in tow – head held high, commanding the attention she now feels she deserves.
(the montage starts in earnest at about 2:23)

8. Karate Kid (1984) – The Sports Montage

In the sports montage, it's all about the anticipation. In this classic underdog tale, Daniel is competing at a local tournament against a plethora of favored Cobra-Kai students. At 3 minutes and 30 seconds, our hero methodically knocks out each member of Cobra-Kai: a roundhouse to the stomach, a jab to the shoulder, a punch to the chest. The anticipation is built as Daniel locks in on each opponent, sizing them up, and finding their weaknesses, until the ultimate payoff when he fights "mano a mano" against the most lethal Cobra-Kai, bad boy Johnny Lawrence, and despite having only one good leg, Daniel still wins it all.

7. Ghostbusters (1984) – The Media Montage

After successfully finishing their first job, the Ghostbusters are everywhere: newspapers, television, magazines, and radio. Just as important as the actual news reports, we also see how the boys deal with their new found fame – they soak it up. The montage successfully tells the audience about their growing popularity, all the while keeping up with the tone of the film: funny is what funny does. A radio voice-over reports the Ghostbusters "slugged it out with a poltergeist" at a nightclub and then "stayed to dance the night away". The Globe reports on the "Ghostbusters super diet". A news anchorman asks, "Have you seen Elvis, how is he?"

6. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) – The Drunk Montage

After successfully pulling off a heist, the four main characters partake in a night of boozing. It's easy to have a drinking scene that comes across unoriginal, with the main character fumbling around like Dudley Moore in Arthur. However, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels pulls it off with authenticity. A base beat pumps as the camera zooms in and out. The shot is then suddenly upside down. The scene goes in slow motion, then switches to double time. These techniques make it unique and realistic. But there's more to the montage than the stylistic camera work and editing; it's also comical. The gang is playing matador with a tablecloth, chugging hard alcohol while lying on a piano, lighting objects on fire. The last scene shows everyone passed out, and we know exactly how the gang will feel when they wake up slumped over the bar table. Excedrin anyone?

Clip Coming Soon

5. Dirty Dancing (1987) – The Dancing Montage

The chemistry between Baby and Johnny is tangible in Dirty Dancing, and no more so than when they hit the dance floor. While the dancing montage shows the two developing their skills, it also illustrates the development of their relationship. Without any dialogue, the story of their romance is obvious. With the touch of the hip and a moment of locked eyes, their fate is sealed. The Dirty Dancing montage shows that in montages, visual storytelling IS filmmaking. It's true! Action does speak louder than words.

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4. Scarface (1983) – The Rise to Power Montage

Here we see Tony Montana achieving the "American Dream", albeit obtaining it through killing and drug trafficking. The excess and violence seeps out of the film as it depicts endless money and power… even a pet tiger. But what sets this "rise to power" montage apart from its competition is how it incorporates foreshadowing. The end of the montage shows Tony's new bride snorting cocaine. She sits in front of her vanity dressed in a silk robe, a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, with a haunting look of desperation in her eyes. This final image leaves no doubt that the life of excess will only lead to destruction for the Montoyas.

3. Goodfellas (1990) – The Killing Montage

Not only does this killing montage incorporate a great example of effective voice-over, but it also shows the power of music in montages. Scorsese's killing montage is paired up with Eric Clapton's "Layla". The soft piano interlude accompanies the images of dead bodies in a way that seems almost, well… beautiful. It's hard to think a viewer can see beauty in a dead man tumbling out of a garbage truck, or a frozen corpse hanging from a meat hook. However, this montage pulls it off, achieving this sense of beauty through the seamless juxtaposition of action and music.

2. Rocky (1976) – The Training Montage

Okay, so you knew this one was coming, but honestly, how could we ignore Rocky? When Rocky hit the streets of Philadelphia, the whole world watched as he ran up the 72 steps of the Museum of Art. Set to Bill Conti's "Gonna Fly Now", this 2 minutes and 40 seconds is a testament to the power of the "training montage". In fact, this montage became so engrained in popular culture that the real steps were renamed the "Rocky Steps" and a bronze statue of Stallone is now found at the foot of the building. The Rocky montage shows that a montage – particularly a training montage – can be more than an outlet for providing information. It can also be inspirational. No doubt, there are many people who have images of Rocky attacking the speed bag and doing one-armed push-ups as they hit the gym. There are kids who ask for boxing gloves for Christmas, hoping to grow up into a tough fighting-machine. There are many who visit these steps, run to the top, and throw their hands up in victory just like Rocky. This montage created an everlasting, inspirational moment – and ultimately helped prop up one of the most beloved and iconic characters of all time.

1. UP (2009) – The Life Story Montage

It's a story of life and loss. The UP montage spans 49 scenes and has no dialogue, yet in only 4 minutes and 18 seconds, it tells the entire life story of Ellie and Carl. We meet them at their wedding, see their attempts at fixing up their first home, and watch with delight as they begin saving for their dream to visit Paradise Falls someday. But life – as it often does – finds a way to toss a wrench in the mix, and with house repairs and car troubles, Ellie and Carl's fund to visit Paradise Falls dwindles. Tragedy hits when Ellie has a miscarriage, but the couple overcomes their grief and moves on, still together, still in love. But as they grow older, Ellie becomes ill, and the montage concludes with the final blow of her death and Carl's bereavement. Though this is a montage about both Carl and Ellie, it's Carl's mindset and current life that is now understood by the audience. He has lost a child, his youth, his wife, and the dreams they had together. I, along with most other audience members, would want to tie balloons to my house and float away too. By the end of the montage the audience does not only have empathy for Carl, but they also understand why Carl needs Russel: the chubby, overenthusiastic Boy Scout will help bring hope and humor back into Carl's life. The UP montage – the ultimate film within a film – sets the entire groundwork for the whole movie, while connecting the audience to the film's protagonist by providing poignant moments of love and loss, which are part of every individual's life journey.