RATING |

Instead of debating the year's best picture, why don't we just think about the best individual scene?

There've been some doozies - Jeremy Renner pulling up a daisy-chain of bombs in "The Hurt Locker," the live-radio sequence in "Me and Orson Welles," Stephen Lang's unexpected epilogue with Marion Cotillard in "Public Enemies."

You can see another in "A Single Man," featuring Colin Firth as a college professor who learns he's lost his lover (Matthew Goode) to a car crash when one of the dead man's relatives calls with the news.

He's so stunned he momentarily forgets he's in the closet, and asks when he might attend services. The voice on the other end of the line politely, but firmly, tells him he's not invited. Family only.

This is California in the 1960s, before anyone dreamed of codifying domestic partnership, and the punishing reality of that fact hits hard in the scene. Firth is somehow able to register all of it - his grief, his regret, his powerlessness.

It's good stuff, and a big reason that Firth is a shoo-in for a best-actor nomination this year. And yet, like some other standout moments this year, it registers much more strongly than the picture as a whole.

"A Single Man" is the directorial debut of Tom Ford, who seems eager to announce his arrival with a lot of fancy edits and slick camera moves, techniques that often step on what the actors are trying to do.

In Firth's case, it's delivering a portrait of a man who's going quietly suicidal - meticulously planning his exit, laying out his clothes, tying up his affairs at the bank and the university.

And trying desperately to avoid another relationship. For a shy fellow, Firth's character has extremely good luck with handsome men - first Goode, then a Spanish prostitute, and, throughout, a persistent and vapid blond student.

Even women are insistent. He arranges a final dinner with an old friend (Julianne Moore) who believes he's capable of hetero marriage, despite years of evidence to the contrary.

Everyone he meets, perhaps even the fates themselves, seem to be trying to persuade the professor to choose life, even a life of grief, over death.

There is a cool irony to the conclusion, but Ford, a little too eager to be noticed, tips the moment with a profusion of foreshadowing.