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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The best film scenes of 2018

Photo: First Man (Universal)
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As usual, there was no shortage of worthy contenders for The A.V. Club’s list of the best movie scenes of the year. Even flawed films can contain flashes of brilliance, the parts that shine more brightly than the whole. And of course, plenty of the year’s best movies worked on a micro and macro level, though not all of them contained one strong passage that could be cited and isolated—which is to say, as we do every year, that not all great movies contain great scenes, just as not all great scenes come from great movies. If you stitched together every standout cinematic moment from 2018, the resulting supercut would be longer than two Avengers sequels put together. So we’ve narrowed it down to just 25 choices, with no more than a single scene per film (a restriction that resulted in even more agonizing, because how does one decide between Tom Cruise jumping out an airplane and Tom Cruise destroying a bathroom?). And there’s no particular order to the list, beyond the selection of a consensus favorite—the year’s purest blast of movie magic—and an attempt to stick the climaxes and big plot twists near the bottom. Because, yes, we’re off the deep end, and there are spoilers there.

Scene of the year

“Shallow,” A Star Is Born

However much it soaks in dive-bar naturalism, however far it strays into tragedy, Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born remains, at its most satisfying, a twinkly Hollywood fairy-tale about trading rags for riches. Never is that more stirringly clear than in the film’s centerpiece crescendo, when aspiring singer Ally (Lady Gaga) conquers her jitters to take the stage for the first time, bursting out of the chrysalis of her ordinary life and into the spotlight. You can poke holes in the scene, questioning whether Cooper’s Jackson Maine would really be able to memorize (while stinking drunk!) a song he heard once, then arrange a full-band rendition of it the next day. But such nitpicks recede like whispers in a crowded amphitheater, drowned out by not just the irresistible swell of “Shallow” but also the full spectrum of feeling Gaga applies to it, her stage fright and self-consciousness shading into resolve and rapture over the course of one earworm ballad. Perfectly syncing the audience’s shivery joy to the performer’s, it was the most indelible movie moment of the year: a dreams-come-true showstopper that reverberated through the rest of the Hollywood fable containing it and out into the real world, where “Shallow” now dominates our airwaves, too. [A.A. Dowd]

Just an ordinary day, The Commuter

For something unexpected to happen, a movie first needs to establish a baseline of normalcy—the protagonist’s routine, upon which the inciting incident screenwriting books discuss can intrude. Hence the cliché of the seemingly ordinary day, which looks utterly humdrum until suddenly it doesn’t. Keeping viewers from falling asleep while they wait for the plot to kick in always presents a challenge, and few films have risen to it as elaborately as The Commuter, which goes to the trouble of creating a lengthy montage devoted to Liam Neeson’s ex-cop getting out of bed at precisely 6 a.m., checking on his son’s homework over breakfast, getting into a marital spat just before exiting the car to catch his train, etc. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, editor Nicolas de Toth (son of noted director Andre de Toth), and costume designer Jill Taylor create enough visual variety and abrupt disjunctions over the course of umpteen banal mornings to make “nothing happens, over and over” surprisingly compelling. [Mike D’Angelo]

Surly Joe, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

Two elements make “Little Joe The Wrangler (Surly Joe),” the deliriously messed-up centerpiece of the titular opening chapter of The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, more than just a song and dance number for the San Saba Songbird. The first is a man, weeping over the place where his dead brother’s face used to be, as the people around him join the chorus. It’s a classic moment of cognitive dissonance from filmmakers who’ve spent decades asking their audiences to hold two contradictory tones or themes in their heads simultaneously. On the bar, a musical! On the floor, a wake. The other element is Tim Blake Nelson, who embodies that tension in a daft, deranged performance that you could call either “charmingly disturbing” or “upsettingly delightful,” depending on your mood. He warbles, he meanders, he’s surprisingly light on his feet, but he also never lets you forget that those pristine duds are white by sheer good fortune—he’s absolutely steeped in blood. [Allison Shoemaker]

Magical mystery tour, First Reformed

For a man who spends his every waking hour in strict and unwavering devotion to God, it takes a moment of extraordinary consequence to qualify as a “religious experience.” But the good reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke, god-level in both senses of the term) knows enough to recognize the divine when it’s laying right on top of him, nose-to-nose. The conspicuously named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) wants to feel close to her late husband, and asks Toller if he won’t join her in recreating the unusual gesture of intimacy they used to share. Their spontaneous levitation and hallucinatory flight across the planet’s face—first vernal and lush, then replaced by the cacophony of traffic and a mass grave of burning tires—strikes Toller with the force of the Almighty’s own voice. The clean, steady breath he and Mary share begins to choke as they hover above an unending vista of pollution-belching industry. Somebody has to do something, and he’s been chosen as the one. [Charles Bramesco]

“Total Eclipse Of The Heart,” The Strangers: Prey At Night

Ironic pop needle drops and neon-lit appropriations of late ’70s and early-to mid-’80s aesthetics are at this point so overplayed in horror that it almost makes one wish the genre would slip back into 2000s grime. But maybe the problem is that they’re not going hard enough, suggests Johannes Roberts’ The Strangers: Prey At Night—a sadistic and illogical pastiche of such abstract intentions that it almost qualifies as a stealth art movie. The combination of Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 hit “Total Eclipse Of The Heart,” canny sound design, a swimming pool, and a perfectly timed zoom turns one of the climactic points of the film into slasher-cheese opera—the transcendent guilty-pleasure sequence of the year. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Bathroom brawl, Mission: Impossible—Fallout

Six movies in, the Mission: Impossible series has produced so many stunning action sequences of such impressive variety that it’s getting difficult to stage new chases, break-ins, or cliffside helicopter duels. But these movies were relatively light on good old-fashioned fistfights until Fallout issued a bruising corrective. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and August Walker (Henry Cavill) tag in and out when their target (Liang Yang) refuses to be subdued in a restroom. Director Christopher McQuarrie cleanly assembles all of the bathroom-fight hallmarks—broken sinks, smashed mirrors, pulled-out pipes—but what really sells the scene is the actors. Cruise’s willingness to get knocked around serves him well as always, Yang makes a gracefully formidable opponent, and Cavill brings his own nutty grace notes, like his pause to doff his jacket and “reload” his punching arms even as a colleague is moments away from getting his throat slit. This is a series that, big as it’s gotten, still knows how to think on its feet. [Jesse Hassenger]

Sex in the car, The Other Side Of The Wind

The fetish-y themes of voyeurism, exhibitionism, and cuckoldry evident in The Immortal Story, The Lady From Shanghai, and F For Fake may have been a clue, but not enough to prepare anyone for the deliriously kinky meta-narrative of Orson Welles’ long-unfinished 1970s tragedy-slash-satire, which filters the psychological desperation and repression of a fictional Hollywood has-been named Jake Hannaford (John Huston) through its real creator’s horny genius. In Hannaford’s film-within-the-film (also called The Other Side Of The Wind), a nameless young man (Robert Random) follows a mystery woman (Oja Kodar, Welles’ partner and muse) across Los Angeles. The high point is their sex scene, which unfolds during a rainstorm in the front seat of a moving Ford Mustang: a mesmerizing experimental montage (actually shot over several years in different locations) of close-ups, raw colors, sweat, wet auto glass, thrusts, danger, and traffic that stands as one of the greatest formal achievements of the later part of Welles’ career and a milestone of getting one’s rocks off on film. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Dance at sundown, Burning

By the mid-point of Lee Chang-dong’s captivating thriller, we’ve been introduced to our three principal players: unemployed, perpetually slack-jawed Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo); his former flame, Haemi (Jong-seo Jun); and Ben (Steven Yeun), a wealthy, Gatsby-ish figure whom Haemi has recently taken up with. In an impromptu gathering at Jongsu’s family farm, the trio laze languidly about, sharing a joint as they watch the sunset. As if impelled by the sheer beauty before her, Haemi removes her shirt and begins to dance to Miles Davis’ jazz improvisations, emanating from Ben’s Porsche. The sequence is Burning’s tantalizing, troubling centerpiece. Watching Haemi’s woozy, stoned-out movements framed against the dusky light, one might recall Laura Palmer’s dance in “The Pink Room” from David Lynch’s booed-at-the-time Twin Peaks prequel, since both scenes whip up a similarly heady brew of anguish, seduction, and distinct foreboding. In these moments, Haemi’s dazed dance seems almost like an invitation: fire, walk with me. [Lawrence Garcia]

Security cam massacre, You Were Never Really Here

When we first meet Joaquin Phoenix’s shattered, bruising hitman Joe, he’s washing blood off a hammer, and we spend much of the first third of You Were Never Really Here wondering who he is, what he does, and how awful it might be. “I want you to hurt them,” a state senator tells Joe before sending him to rescue his daughter from a brothel. But when Joe finally enters the nondescript brownstone, there is no swoon of violent music or cathartic bloodshed. Instead, we view the massacre via a cycle of night-vision security cameras, cutting between shots of empty stairwells and hallways as Joe stalks, hammer in hand, through the building. Throughout, a lightly glitching rendition of Rosie And The Originals’ ’ “Angel Baby” plays, and the camera keeps cutting dispassionately away from moments of carnage to other, quieter corners. As cinematographer Tom Townend notes, the infrared cameras also “had the fun by-product of changing Joaquin’s black clothing to white, which audiences can read into what they will.” [Clayton Purdom]

Truth Or Dare, Eighth Grade

Every moment of Eighth Grade where Kayla (Elsie Fisher) interacts with another human being is awkward. But that awkwardness intensifies into paralyzing terror for one scene toward the end of the film, where an older boy named Riley (Daniel Zolghadri) manipulates Kayla into a sexually charged “game” of “Truth Or Dare” in the backseat of his car. Many filmmakers might have escalated the scene, where an incredibly uncomfortable Kayla second-guesses her every move with lowered eyes, nervous giggles, and whispered apologies, into sexual assault. But director Bo Burnham keeps Kayla trapped between her instinctive urge to flee and her desperate need for acceptance, for a breathless tension that so dominates the scene that when Kayla refuses a dare and ends the game, there is no triumph in the moment, just confusion and shame. It’s a subtle but powerful depiction of the societal conditioning to always put men’s pleasure and comfort first that leads girls like Kayla to apologize to their attackers—“You’re no fun,” Riley tells Kayla; “Sorry,” she replies—and blame themselves for their own victimization. [Katie Rife]

Killmonger’s vision, Black Panther

As Erik Killmonger, a.k.a. N’Jadaka, Michael B. Jordan gave the Marvel Cinematic Universe its most magnetic yet polarizing villain to date, and threatened to steal Black Panther right from under Chadwick Boseman’s noble visage. Credit is also due screenwriter Joe Robert Cole and director Ryan Coogler, who wring sympathy for this would-be conqueror even as they underscore his wrongheaded thinking. Erik’s vision following his defeat of T’Challa (Boseman) is essentially a three-act play in under three minutes, tracing his tragic origins from the scene of his father N’Jobu’s death to the formation of his warped philosophy—make Wakanda an imperialist power—and his zealous commitment to it. Sterling K. Brown, who plays N’Jobu, makes the most of his limited role; his performance here is absolutely wrenching, from the dismay at seeing what his own militant thinking has wrought to his reading of the line “They will say you are lost”—an absolute gut punch to anyone in the diaspora. [Danette Chavez]

Southside with me, Widows

In Widows, director Steve McQueen frequently communicates character and thematic information in interesting ways. The film’s best scene finds Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the scion of a corrupt political dynasty, and his campaign manager (Molly Kunz) driving from a campaign event celebrating “Women At Work” to the family mansion. In the car, Mulligan spews racist rhetoric while bemoaning his chosen profession, but McQueen has little interest in focusing on Farrell during this particular moment. Instead, he mounts the camera on the dashboard and captures the scale and scope of a Chicago landscape divided between haves and have-nots, relegating Mulligan to voice-over. McQueen neatly divides the viewer’s attention, directing the eye to the context of Mulligan’s rant while immersing the ear in a privileged voice. It’s an undeniably didactic moment, but McQueen’s message is powerful: Poverty and royalty exist side by side, too close for comfort. [Vikram Murthi]

Extracting the bullet, Game Night

Ordinary people inadvertently confronting danger fuels many a thriller, but it doesn’t take much to push that scenario into high comedy. Married couple Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) finally discover that they’re not actually playing an elaborate murder-mystery party game when Annie shoots Max in the arm with what she’d assumed was a fake gun. That’s trouble enough, but it’s compounded when neither one can suppress a streak of hyper-competitive testiness as Annie subsequently attempts to remove the bullet, using supplies purchased from the drugstore (standard thriller stuff) and instructions she finds on an alt-right website (not so much). Repeatedly derailed by everything from contagious heaves to a heated, detailed argument about smartphone settings, this bit of amateur surgery gives both actors an opportunity to find humor in an amalgam of the dramatic and the mundane, and concludes with one of the year’s most inspired line readings, courtesy of McAdams: “Ohhhhh, it came ouuuuuuut.” [Mike D’Angelo]

“Think about those who have helped you become who you are,” Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Director Morgan Neville’s smash hit Mister Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a ruthlessly efficient tearjerking machine, leveling audiences with its reminiscences of one uncommonly decent man. But Neville saves his knockout punch for the end, with a look back at Fred Rogers’ 2002 Dartmouth graduation speech, where he urged the crowd to take a minute to think about someone in their lives who believed in them. The director repeats the exercise with all the people he interviewed, so for a long, hushed stretch of the film, while the audience reflects on its own “helpers,” we see all these people who knew Fred, welling up with emotion as they recall the people they love the most. It’s an overpoweringly beautiful illustration of one of the many things this gentle children’s TV host gave the world: the gift of gratitude. [Noel Murray]

Mahjong game, Crazy Rich Asians

Most action movies culminate in a battle, be it sword fight, dogfight, or light saber standoff. The feud at the heart of the year’s most successful rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians, comes to a head at the mahjong table. Rachel has invited Eleanor, her boyfriend Nick’s mother, to the mahjong parlor after being rejected from their family. Nick has subsequently proposed. The game, like so many of Crazy Rich Asians’ scenes, offers a wonderful, fascinating window into Chinese culture, as the tiles fly and the women play fiercely. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a mahjong expert to surmise what is happening as Rachel grips the winning tile, then tosses it on the table, knowing that Eleanor will then win the game. It mirrors their situation perfectly: Rachel says she will not accept Nick’s proposal, giving Eleanor the win, but she in fact holds the real power. After seeing Rachel receive shabby treatment from this snobby family throughout the movie, it’s a shining, immensely satisfying moment. [Gwen Ihnat]

Crosscutting climax, BlackKklansman

Late in Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman, a master polemicist takes on one of cinema’s most notorious polemics. As activist Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) meets with a black student union and discusses the horrifying real-life case of Jesse Washington, a black kid who was lynched in 1916, Lee cross-cuts his story with a sequence of new Ku Klux Klan members celebrating their initiation and taking in a screening of D.W. Griffith’s Klan-lionizing film The Birth Of A Nation. Nation was released the year before Washington’s murder, and cross-cutting is, of course, a technique that Griffith and his films helped popularize, a technical milestone to sit alongside the movie’s legacy of vile racism. Lee’s sequence is both an angry evocation of cinema’s power and an attempt to turn that power around, using it to spotlight a chapter of American history that, contrary to whatever progress we seem to make, refuses to close. Fitting, then, that this sequence forms the emotional climax of the film, later echoed by a happy ending followed by a devastating coda. [Jesse Hassenger]

“Come play with us,” Ready Player One

Ernest Cline’s dystopian adventure Ready Player One gets sweaty in its quest to prove that it cares about the same things its readers care about—especially if they spent their adolescence haunting arcades, the science fiction shelves of their local Blockbuster, or graph-paper dungeons. There’s a similar perspiration on display in Cline and Zak Penn’s Ready Player One screenplay, but some key choices of adaptation and the guiding hand of director Steven Spielberg prevent the trek Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) takes through the virtual-reality paradise of the OASIS from getting too bogged down in games of recognition. In fact, its best sequence is grounded in the POV of a character who isn’t familiar with their surroundings: a mid-film romp through The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. The tension between knowing and not knowing comes to the fore as the hulking, fright-averse Aech (Lena Waithe) attempts to crack James Halliday’s latest riddle by guilelessly asking for assistance from a pair of innocent-looking twins and the guest taking a bath in room 237. The winks and the nods to a different cinematic master’s pop-lit translation are still there, but the sequence transcends them, transforming—through some impressive digital recreation—an iconic setting and some of The Shining’s most storied set pieces into the hallucinatory backdrop of the greatest survival-horror game never made. When Aech naively ambles in the direction of the Overlook’s elevators, it’s the moment when Spielberg finds something fresh in Ready Player One’s carton of Easter eggs. [Erik Adams]

The attack, The 15:17 To Paris

Clint Eastwood’s film about the thwarted terrorist attack on a train to Paris is a failed experiment in verisimilitude, derailed by its bold but misguided decision to cast three American dudes with no acting experience as themselves. But as clumsy as most of the movie is, letting these real heroes recreate the ordinary events of their lives, the climax packs a wallop. It’s here that the nonprofessional stars’ limited acting abilities are eclipsed by the undeniable power of seeing them credibly simulate their own incredible moment of instinctive bravery—a dramatization, staged with Eastwood’s usual command of space and violence, that achieves a moving hyper-realism through context. One might even argue that the awkwardness of any scene where these non-performers are trying to perform only throws into sharper relief the authenticity of the ending, when the three barely seem to be acting at all, possibly guided instead by memories (and muscle memory) of how the fateful day went down. [A.A. Dowd]

One small step, First Man

The Neil Armstrong biopic First Man is a bold exercise in limited perspective, putting viewers inside the spacesuit of a stoic, detail-oriented astronaut, who copes with any personal pain by focusing on what he needs to do next. Throughout, director Damien Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer keep the audience keenly aware of the improbability of NASA’s mission, showing us all the rickety technology, and pausing every now and then so that Ryan Gosling’s Armstrong can stare into the night at the distant glowing circle he’s trying to reach. That’s what makes the Apollo 11 landing itself so cathartic. In IMAX especially, the screen suddenly fills with a vast, awesome, silent emptiness, not at all like the noise and cramped capsules that have dominated the movie up to then. And there’s Armstrong too, finally living in a serene, present moment… which lasts just a few minutes, before he starts looking back up at the Earth. [Noel Murray]

The accident, Hereditary

Hereditary is a film of terrifying sounds. Not slams or shocks but breaths, as in the sound of young Charlie Graham (Milly Shapiro) desperately trying to drag air into her lungs as her brother, Peter (Alex Wolff), races through the night to save her from a carelessness-induced case of anaphylactic shock. There’s the sound of the car’s engine, tuned into the drones and drumbeats of Colin Stetson’s inescapable score, as a panicked Peter recklessly accelerates. And then the sickening, inevitable crunch as the car suddenly swerves to avoid something dead in the road, and Charlie’s head—extended out the window as she struggles to draw a breath—collides with a telephone pole, a sound too brutal to mark anything but an instant, family-shattering death. There’s a moment of shocked silence—mirroring the audience’s realization that, yes, director Ari Aster really just killed his spooky kid 20 minutes into his spooky kid movie—before tortured breathing begins again. This time, though, it’s Peter, as Aster’s camera locks onto his face, relentlessly watching him struggle to process the hellish enormity of what he’s done. [William Hughes]

The garage, Blindspotting

“You said make it pretty, right?” Collin (Daveed Diggs) says to Miles (Rafael Casal). “The bounce of it, they like the bounce of it.” Collin stops, thinks, cocks his head, bites his lip. His eyes stay locked onto the face of a trembling cop (Ethan Embry) who gunned a black man down in the street. And then he opens his mouth, and makes it pretty. What follows is one of the most astonishing pieces of writing for film this year, a moment so bold that to compare it to anything else only underlines its originality. Collin’s verses make for a perfect marriage of actor and performance, a chance for Diggs (also one of the film’s screenwriters) to use his strengths to tell this story in a way that few others could. It’s not Blindspotting’s first use of heightened language, but it’s the moment to which all others build, the poetic roar of a man whose only option is to try, somehow, to get the man in front of him to see both pictures. [Allison Shoemaker]

The ritual, Suspiria

So much of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria hinges on inverting the original: What was garish becomes muted, what was inferred becomes explicit, and what was titillating is now grotesque. Guadagnino frees himself from that first mandate, at least, in the film’s climactic occult ritual, staging a Bacchanalian death orgy partially shot behind red filters that tint it the color of fresh blood—or maybe cherry Kool-Aid. Even the parts of the scene that aren’t bathed in bright primary colors retain that same sense of hysterical blood frenzy, as Guadagnino fills the gloomy ritual chamber with Tanz Academy students, their limbs set askew into bizarre human sculptures, flanked by the school’s faculty in shapeless, Satanic red robes. Add on top of that three different Tilda Swintons, two of which are outfitted in layers of unsettling prosthetic makeup; fistfuls of viscera; a death goddess soaked in black bile; Dakota Johnson ripping through her own musculature to create a vaginal chest opening; and more exploding heads than your average Scanners sequel, and you’ve got the scene viewers are referring to when they shake their heads and call the new Suspiria “fucking crazy, man.” [Katie Rife]

The vanishing, Avengers: Infinity War

This isn’t how superhero movies are supposed to end. After a bitter battle—and sure, potentially some painful losses—the good guys carry the day. But in the final minutes of Infinity War, Thanos snaps his Infinity Gauntlet-clad fingers, and just like that, half of all existence is snuffed out, our heroes turning to ash and disappearing in front of our eyes, one after the other. Bucky Barnes, Sam Wilson, T’Challa, Wanda Maximoff, Groot: They’re all exterminated in the mad Titan’s plan. With minimal score and a focus on the horrified eyes of those left behind to bear witness to the tragedy, the Russo brothers wring maximum emotional pain from 10 years’ worth of audience affection for these characters. It reaches its apex with the brutally effective decision to draw out Peter Parker’s disintegration, the teen pleading not to go as he dissipates in Tony Stark’s arms. (At least we got some memes out of it.) Pity the theater-going parents of young kids watching their heroes die, faced with their tear-stricken disbelief. To quote Steve Rogers’ unnerved final words, “Oh, God.” [Alex McLevy]

Phoenix Buchanan becomes a star, Paddington 2

Paddington 2 was already a perfect movie before director Paul King decided to casually play its best scene over the end credits. Sentenced to 10 years in prison and advised to use his time there wisely, egotistical actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) winds up finding the ideal stage—and a captive audience—in the pastel pink prison Paddington had previously transformed during his wrongful imprisonment. (Yes, Paddington 2 is a kid’s movie about prison reform.) Grant throws himself into an elaborate musical production number of “Rain On The Roof” from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, complete with tap dancing prisoners, Busby Berkeley homages, and even a little wirework. It’s the perfect example of how King goes above and beyond with every visual detail of the Paddington world. It’s also an impeccable capper to a career-revitalizing, awards-worthy performance from a delightfully self-mocking Grant. [Caroline Siede]

Closing credits, Let The Sunshine In

It’s rare for a film’s closing credits scroll to actually enrich its thematic material. But that’s precisely what happens at the end of Claire Denis’ uncharacteristically talky French drama. After following the romantic travails of Parisian artist Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) for about 80 minutes, we watch her solicit the advice of a medium (Gérard Depardieu). Though he’s first glimpsed in the scene just prior, where he looks to be at the aching end of his own messy relationship, we see none of his lovelorn anguish here. In fact, his foretellings to Isabelle sound suspiciously like attempts to become her next suitor. That possibility, though, doesn’t even register to her, and it’s the scene’s perfectly calibrated mix of obvious/oblivious banter that makes it such a hilarious capper. That Denis then rolls the credits over the duo’s ongoing exchange—as if to resist an actual ending—only furthers the films pervading sense of optimistic openness: We believe in love, even when we shouldn’t. [Lawrence Garcia]