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The movie moments that tell the whole story

Be it a look, a line, a kiss, a joke or a gesture, a swift and seemingly incidental detail can often secure a movie's place in our affections. Ben Walsh picks 30 of the finest

Three Kings (David O Russell, 1999)

The moment Nora Dunn's hardened, foul-mouthed news reporter, Adriana Cruz, witnesses a flock of birds dying in the war-made oil spills of Iraq. She suddenly cries and just as suddenly stops. It beautifully reveals Adriana's well-disguised humanity, beneath her veneer of bluster.

Klute (Alan J Pakula, 1971)

The split-second moment when Jane Fonda's call girl, Bree, nonchalantly takes a peek at her watch in the middle of sexual intercourse with a punter, summing up her contempt for the whole business.

Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)

Bill Murray's glum industrialist Herman Blume standing on a diving board in his tattered boxer shorts, gloomily surveying his wretched teenaged children in the swimming pool below and then plunging, forlornly, into the water.

Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)

Yes, again. Wes Anderson's delightfully droll second film is full of exquisite fleeting moments, but the look on Jason Schwartzman's face when the school bully informs him, "I always wanted to be in one of your plays", is priceless. "I know you did," he replies.

Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000)

The criminally underrated Ian "Lovejoy" McShane is superb as the menacing villain Teddy Bass. His best moment involves his crook swaggering down the street after casing a bank job, an enigmatic half-smile playing on his villainous lips.

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

After a torrid night out with his boss's wife, Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), John Travolta's henchman Vincent Vega escorts her back to her home, listens to her poor tomato joke and, when she turns to go inside, blows her a kiss – a kiss of regret, admiration and affection. Beautiful.

Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

Everett Sloane's elderly Bernstein's regretful face after describing seeing the love of his life, a girl he only saw for "one second".

Fargo (Coen Brothers, 1996)

The horrified look on a heavily pregnant Frances McDormand's face when a slimy old school friend informs her she's "Such a super lady... and I'm, I'm so lonely."

The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

Jack Lemmon's confused face reflected back in Shirley MacLaine's cracked hand mirror, the instant he twigs that she's having an affair with his sleazy boss, played by Fred MacMurray.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962)

The heart-breaking, gorgeous moment when Robert Duvall's loner, Boo Radley, emerges from the shadows after Scout says, "Hey, Boo."

Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)

The blank, nonplussed expression that Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle gives when his fellow taxi drivers are shooting the breeze, demonstrating his complete alienation from – and confusion with – the human race.

Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

The manic tumble that George C Scott's General Buck Turgidson takes across the War Room, with the world on the brink of nuclear war.

The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)

While John Wayne's driven Ethan and Jeffrey Hunter's Martin once again bicker, like an old couple, their actual "prey" Debbie (Natalie Wood), the girl who they've been searching for all this time, is running in the sand dunes behind them.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)

The look of relief on the dying captain's face when Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach's avaricious treasure seekers, Blondie and Tuco, finally do something "good": blow up the bridge that's caused so much death and carnage to the captain's men.

Raising Arizona (Coen Brothers, 1987)

William Forsythe's convict in the Coen Brothers' 1987 masterpiece holds up a gas station and asks for balloons, saying, "These blow up into funny shapes and all?" The attendant's splendid, bone-dry response is, "Well, no... unless round is funny."

The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985)

Yes, it's as cheesy as camembert, but the moment when Judd Nelson's badly dressed rebel John Bender places Claire's (Molly Ringwald) diamond ear-ring into his own ear-lobe – thus cementing his crush on her – is very hard to resist.

The Station Agent (Thomas McCarthy, 2003)

There are plenty of charming touches in Thomas McCarthy's gentle comedy about loneliness and misfits in small-town America, but a scene near the end, in which Peter Dinklage's Fin and Patricia Clarkson's Olivia share a small joke at the expense of Bobby Cannavale's amiable Joe, is a particularly lovely one.

Sleeper (Woody Allen, 1973)

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are on the run from the authorities in this joyous farce, set 200 years in the future. They hole up in a cave and find a Volkswagen Beetle; fortuitously, there's a key inside. Allen leans in, turns the key and the car starts instantly. "Wow, they really built these things, didn't they?"

Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)

The moment Susan Sarandon's jaded (and on-the-run) Louise spots the ravaged face of an old woman. She immediately tosses away her lipstick.

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

Down the murky alleyways of postwar Vienna, a black cat twines itself around the feet of a man lurking in the shadows. A light comes on and reveals the face of Orson Welles's shady, supposedly dead Harry Lime. Magnificent.

Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)

The warning smile Martin Sheen's sociopath Kit gives Warren Oates after he's been told he needs to stay away from Oates's daughter Holly (Sissy Spacek). Kit follows it up with a cocky and sinister, "Takes all kinds, sir", before shuffling off to his beat-up pick-up truck.

It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)

The extreme close-up on James Stewart's face as a pleading banker implores him that "they'll vote with Potter" if he leaves the town – it's the instant that he's consigned to living in Bedford Falls for the rest of his days; his dreams of exploring Europe and going to school over. He's trapped.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)

The moment when the young ranger discovers the only "survivor" on the Rock. At first, he doesn't bend down to touch her; rather, he nudges her gently with his foot. Does he make this gesture out of fear? Hope? Squeamishness? Or is it just good ranger practice? Who knows? But he's the one your heart goes out to in Peter Weir's haunting masterpiece.

Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1987)

Of course, there are a plethora of exquisite scenes in Bruce Robinson's British comedy gem, but a particularly lovely example arrives when Richard Griffiths's Uncle Monty collapses, satisfied, into his expensive and comfy sofa, exclaiming "Ungrateful little swine" to his cat.

Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra, 1944)

Cary Grant's Mortimer discovering his sweet aunts are in actual fact serial murderers when he opens the window-seat box twice – and a delicious double-take from Grant (an exceptional physical comedian) before he realises there's a dead body in there.

Play It Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, 1972)

Attempting to impress his blind date with his music tastes, Woody Allen's hapless Allan Felix gestures and then throws an Oscar Peterson album flying through the air.

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)

The moment in which we see Jeremy Renner's maverick bomb-disposal expert on home leave, after spending a harrowing time dealing with improvised explosive devices in Iraq, and his look of sheer tedium and disorientation while pushing a shopping trolley around a soulless supermarket.

This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)

The metal band's chirpy chauffeur Tommy (Bruno Kirby) eulogises about Frank Sinatra, while Nigel Tufnel casually leans forward and presses a button to raise the limo partition. Kirby's disgusted expression is marvellous.

The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, 1973)

The wonderfully surreal moment when the American Indian goes by on roller-skates: "Look at the size of this guy on roller-skates," exclaims Jack Nicholson's Buddusky.

Witness (Peter Weir, 1985)

When Kelly McGillis's Amish single mother, Rachel Lapp, is standing in John Book's sister's spare room, in a nightie, and the sister enquires, "John says you're Amish?" And McGillis brightly replies, "Yes," as though they're at a dinner party.