There is a science to writing a great movie quote. Usually, it has to be short. It has to apply to a broad spectrum of the human experience. And, more than anything, it has to be memorable enough to stand out from the crowd. If you hadn’t noticed, actors talk a lot in most movies. For one line of dialogue to stick its neck above the rest, something extraordinary must have occurred.
This year did not offer the same sort of instantly quotable lines that last year did (“I drink your milkshake”; “Call it, Friendo”), but there was plenty to remember. Movie snob that I am, the chosen quotes mostly come from more high-brow offerings, but you and your friends know which Forgetting Sarah Marshall lines you like the best.
In addition to the aforementioned qualities, what I look for, almost above all else, is the ability of the writer to hint at the main theme of the film in a single line, to lay out the heart of the story with just a few words. As with everything else, it’s all a judgment call. And, these are my calls.
10. “I am Iron Man.” - Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in Iron Man
From the other great comic book movie this year, this moment, essentially the end of the film, summed up perfectly what made Iron Man the anti-Dark Knight. It’s all kitschy fun. It’s about a guy who wants to be a superhero, not because he has to but because he can. As dark and brooding as Christian Bale’s Batman is, that is how light and enjoyable Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is. And, the way Downey delivers this final line makes it the ultimate coup de grace.
9. “You’re the most beautiful thing in the world…you’re a man.” - April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) in Revolutionary Road
After spending the first third of the film insulting and questioning the manhood of her husband, April Wheeler declares him to be, not just a man but, beautiful in as much as he is a man. It is one of only two emotionally positive moments in the movie because he will spend the rest of their time together forcing her to question this assessment. Winslet takes the pose of a wife doing penitence for many sins against the husband, and the audience is enraptured by watching this woman give up a piece of her soul so that her husband might find some piece of his own.
8. “I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” - The Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight
As delivered by the now-deceased Heath Ledger, the line is all tragic irony, for we know that they will not “do this forever,” nor will they ever do it again. That the line is the perfect evocation of the conflict in the Batman character is of great import as well. As Batman struggles with the idea of having to play the hero forever, Ledger comes in as the Joker to tell him that he must and will be forever locked in a struggle with evil. Just, not with The Joker.
7. “I was thinkin’ about how nuthin’ lasts and what a shame that is.” - Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
For all of the shortcomings of this film, Brad Pitt has never been better. Benjamin Button ages backwards (if you didn’t know), and when he says nothing lasts to the Cate Blanchett character, who ages normally, it should be laughable. It is thanks to Pitt that this line works. And, since the line works, it helps to establish Button as a more active character, rather than the passive observer he seems to be. Unfortunately, the movie quickly loses this bent, but the line remains significant.
6. “I’m saying that when the president does it that means it isn’t illegal.” - Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) in Frost/Nixon
In terms of historical and factual accuracy, the line is ludicrous. However, in terms of Peter Morgan’s screenplay, it is everything. It was used in the trailer, which makes little sense as the whole movie builds to this revelation, but even though the audience knows it is coming, Langella puts everything into it and makes it a surprise. The revelation is not a surprise, as I said, but the way it is revealed is, which is because Ron Howard knows how to direct for maximum effect, and he milks this line for all it is worth.
5. “I didn’t even know where Bruges fucking was…it’s in Belgium.” - Ray (Colin Farrell) in In Bruges
In one way, In Bruges is a tragic comedy about gangsters and honor and all that, but in another way, it is about the worst vacation ever. This line is what distinguishes Ray from the beginning as different from his partner Ken. Ray is self-destructively insular. He is constantly in danger of imploding, and he can take no time to even look around him. The truth is that it doesn’t matter where Bruges is. It may as well be Hell because, from inside his own mind, he wouldn’t know the difference.
4. “My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you.” - Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) in Milk
It’s one of those repeated lines that gains new meaning and new significance with each time it is spoken. It’s a slogan. It is, by nature, simple, catchy, and affective. Thus, for the same reasons it works so well as a slogan for the slain gay-rights activist, it works as a great quote. Admittedly, it may be more Sean Penn’s performance than the line itself, but a great quote has to be said by somebody.
3. “Maybe, it’s written.” - Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) in Slumdog Millionaire
It took a lot of guts for Simon Beaufoy, the film’s scribe, to write a line as on the nose as this one and to let it be repeated as the story plays out. The story is about nothing if it is not about destiny. This line is used as a mantra throughout the picture, and in one way or another, every character is affected by its meaning. Jamal’s story, however, is the story the audience cares about, and it is his destiny that must be assured in watching.
2. “I’m just really worried about dying in the fire.” - Hazel (Samantha Morton) in Synecdoche, NY
It is my belief that behind this line lay the mystery of Synecdoche, NY. That is, of course, an overly-simplistic view of this abstract masterpiece of a film. The context of the quote is that Hazel is in the market for a new home, and her best prospect is a house that happens to be on fire, literally. She voices her concern but ultimately buys the home, still ablaze. Why? Because even though she will probably die, what would be the point of living if you couldn’t live as you saw fit? But, it is also representative of the ever-present inescapability of death. Like I said, though, I think it’s everything. But, that’s just a thought.
1. “I know I’m awake, but it feels like I’m in a dream.” - Ken (Brendan Gleeson) in In Bruges
Ken says this line twice. The first time, it is a B.S. story given to his boss about his partner’s feelings about Bruges. The second time, it is a devastatingly sad reflection on his own state of mind. The repetition occurs less than five minutes later, but everything in Ken’s world has changed. This is the strength of Martin McDonagh’s screenplay. The dramatic mood-shifts would not work if not for McDonagh’s writing. The dual use of this line, its heartbreaking double meaning, and the importance of the words to Ken are what writing is all about. And, any line that can define writing deserves to be recognized as the best quote of the year.