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The best film scenes of 2019

Screenshot: Midsommar
Screenshot: Midsommar
Graphic: Allison Corr
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The meme-ification of movies continued unabated in 2019, when even some of the best films of the year—including our No. 1 favorite—got sliced and diced and broken down into shareable non sequiturs, like Al Pacino staring daggers while cutting into a slab of sirloin. Are we seeing the first omens of a dark future for the medium, when all films will come in GIF and JPEG form? Eh, probably not. Movies, by their very frame-by-frame nature, have always been divisible: As with, say, the United States, you can look at them as both a whole and as the individual parts that make up that whole—the shots, the performances, the effects, and so forth. It’s why, every year, The A.V. Club runs not just lists of the best and worst films but also a separate rundown of our very favorite standalone scenes, unranked save for the selection of a single, consensus top choice. Below, you’ll find our picks for the year’s greatest movies within movies, the fragments of beauty and horror and excitement plucked from the pictures that contained them and arranged in no particular order, except for a tendency to stick the most climactic and spoiler-heavy ones toward the bottom. Some of them could, of course, be chopped up even further, into some pretty good memes. But we’ll leave that micro-movie game to the real deconstructionists.

Scene of the year

“Heaven,” Her Smell

Never underestimate the power of a good power ballad. Last December, we called Lady Gaga belting “Shallow” the movie moment of 2018. One year later, it’s a quieter but no less stirring performance of a lighter-in-the-air radio smash (this one preexisting, not original) that’s soared to the top of our great-scenes retrospective. It arrives in the eye-of-the-storm portion of Alex Ross Perry’s volatile backstage drama Her Smell. Years after trashing her life and career in a tornado of self-destruction, Elisabeth Moss’ burnt-out rock star Becky Something emerges from the fugue state of addiction, broke and clean, her priorities now entirely shifted to parenthood. It’s plenty stunning just seeing Moss, who’s barreled through the previous three acts like a bull in a china shop, downshift to such a regretful register; her sobriety, in every sense of the word, hits like the unexpectedly melodic bridge of a hardcore anthem. But this penultimate passage reaches transcendence when Becky sits at the piano and—in a single take—plays for her daughter a tender rendition of the Bryan Adams ’80s-cheese hit “Heaven.” Finding emotional truth in a cornball FM staple is an irresistible hook deepened through context—here, a grunge goddess shedding any remaining vestiges of her countercultural cool to embrace the sentiments of a profoundly uncool song. What we’re seeing, in a sense, is the death of “Becky Something” and the birth of someone new from the ashes. Still, old showbiz habits die hard: “This one’s a cover,” she announces, before gently bearing her soul and shattering our hearts over the ivory. [A.A. Dowd]

“Supernature,” Climax

“A French film, and proud of it,” declares a cheeky title card at the beginning of Gaspar Noé’s drug-fueled, dance-crazed freak-out as the camera tilts down from a French tricolor to reveal Sofia Boutella taking one last drag from a cigarette to an infectious remix of Cerrone’s 1977 disco single “Supernature.” What follows are five minutes of pure dance, mesmerizingly captured in a single camera movement—a variety of young bodies voguing, waacking, and contorting on a slasher-blood-red dance floor, breaking off into solos and then coming back together as though compelled by some unseen utopian energy. It’s a hell of an opening number and a tremendous showcase for the cast (most of whom are professional dancers) and for Noé, whose dazzling technical gifts have often been overshadowed by a weakness for empty provocation and dorm-room philosophizing. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

The job offer, Bombshell

A single scene in Bombshell so effectively condenses the entire thrust of the movie, it essentially works as a self-contained short film. A real one-time rising star in the journalism world, Rudi Bakhtiar (played in the movie by Nazanin Boniadi) is only months into her new position at Fox News when she gets sexually propositioned by a superior, who implies that a major promotion would be contingent upon her sleeping with him. As the two talk at a restaurant, we not only see the nightmare scenario unfold in real time, but hear the internal monologue Bakhtiar conducts with herself—how to massage this man’s ego while not compromising her integrity or losing the promotion?—and suddenly the whole world of impossible situations and near-daily degradations for women forced to deal with a culture of abuse comes into stark clarity. (Depressing coda: This effectively ended Bakhtiar’s journalism career.) They’re three minutes as powerful as the entire film that surrounds them. [Alex McLevy]

Esther’s confession, Our Time

In Our Time, director Carlos Reygadas and his wife, editor Natalia López, play an analogous bohemian couple, Juan and Esther, whose open marriage begins to crumble with the entry of Esther’s new beau, a gringo named Phil. The film centers around the senseless, banal, repetitive cruelty of the male ego, so much so that when it’s finally Esther’s turn to speak, the effect is one of utter lucidity, even transcendence. Affixed to the bottom of an airplane, the camera glides over the countryside and descends into Mexico City in one long uninterrupted shot, while a disembodied Esther narrates a confessional letter. Her monologue, sincere and conflicted, is in stark contrast to the language employed by her poet husband, whose intellectual pretensions mask his insecurities. Esther’s letter is entrancing, a brief but glorious respite from the insularity and delusions of the film’s otherwise masculine purview. [Beatrice Loayza]

Lunar chase, Ad Astra

For the most part, Ad Astra is a pretty pensive science-fiction film, about a stoic astronaut hopping across our solar system while reflecting on a lifetime of hurt. But at each stop, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) also deals with the after-effects of a faltering space program that has left the galaxy littered with unpredictable dangers. That’s how Roy ends up zooming across the far side of the Moon, with—well, there’s no better way to put it—space pirates on his tail. These ravagers represent the unexpectedly malevolent byproduct of our well-meaning human endeavors. But director James Gray makes sure their attack is exciting to watch, too. The big chase scene is eerily beautiful, as the bad guys emerge from the desolation and silence of the lunar surface, like literal forces of darkness. [Noel Murray]

The Fuck Box, High Life

After a long day of trying to forcibly inseminate her fellow captives in the floating prison that houses them, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) likes to unwind by getting nude, straddling a shiny metal dildo-machine referred to as “The Fuck Box,” and grinding in futile pursuit of an orgasm as if her life depended on it. Once the viewer’s nervous giggles subside, they’ll realize just how many warring tones have been bound up in this tableaux. There’s despair and desperation, linked to Dibs’ inability to get that elusive release; a faint deadpan levity, as in the automated cleanup activated once she’s done with it; and an earnest, ripe eroticism all too rare in English-language cinema. Claire Denis’ vision of biological distortion in deepest space posits bodily processes as the foundation of our humanity—by her measure, to come is to live. [Charles Bramesco]

Feeley Meeley, Annabelle Comes Home

These days, horror movies tend to favor the easy, almost always effective jump scare, and you’ll find plenty of those in what we’re apparently now supposed to think of as the Conjuring Universe. But the latest installment about haunted doll Annabelle frequently prolongs the anticipatory dread, most memorably when three girls sit down to play Feeley Meeley, an actual Milton Bradley board game from the 1960s that has players stick their hands inside of a box and attempt to guess the identity of an object via touch alone. That would be unnerving in virtually any context—just the name “Feeley Meeley” seems creepy, somehow—and it almost doesn’t matter that there’s no horrific payoff involving, say, a bloody stump being withdrawn from the hole. Playing on our fear of what we can’t see is all that’s required. [Mike D’Angelo]

Release the hounds, John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum

After years of abuse at the hands of the John Wick universe’s roster of criminal lowlifes, the dogs at last have their day in the franchise’s third installment. When Keanu Reeves’ dapper assassin and his begrudging ally (Halle Berry) find themselves on the run from a typically faceless gang of knife-and-gun-toting thugs in Morocco, the duo turn to the ultimate secret weapon: a pair of highly trained German shepherds with a taste for parkour stunts and minion crotch. Nowhere does Parabellum’s gleeful mixture of technically brilliant action choreography and outright silliness land better than when you’re watching synchronized canine missiles take down doomed goons in tandem, leaping up buildings with practiced skill and unerringly guiding their fangs to the inner thigh of the next soon-to-be-screaming mook. It’s simultaneously hilarious and impressive as hell; best of all, the violence in this sequence is all dog-bites-man, rather than the other way around. [William Hughes]

Return to Fengjie, Ash Is Purest White

Image for article titled The best film scenes of 2019
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Charting two decades of cultural change through allusions to the movies Jia Zhangke made over that same period, Ash Is Purest White may be the most self-referential work of the Chinese director’s auspicious career. About midway through, it offers a fiendishly clever callback, one that creates waves of cognitive dissonance. Jia places his muse, Zhao Tao, on the deck of a ferry approaching the Fengjie of 2006—a shot that directly mirrors one from that same year’s Still Life. Except that Jia’s earlier movie was both shot and set in ’06; it used the framework of a fictional story to show how the rural area was in danger of being submerged by the rising tides caused by the Three Gorges Dam. So though Ash Is Purest White is supposed to be unfolding, in this scene, at the exact same place and time as Still Life, Fengjie looks very different—there’s a bustling city there now. In the anachronism, Jia locates one of his most potent metaphors: How better to communicate the idea of constant transition than to depict the past as the future it will become? [A.A. Dowd]

“Coyote,” Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese

Scorsese’s other 2019 movie may be all about Bob Dylan (in ways both real and fabricated), but its most glorious bit of archival footage finds Joni Mitchell teaching her newly written song “Coyote”—which she’d later perform in Scorsese’s The Last Waltz—to Dylan and The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. It’s an informal jam session, the kind of thing that ordinarily would never be seen by anyone who wasn’t in the room. “Okay, D minor now,” she tells them as she heads into the “No regrets, coyote” section, nodding in approval and adding, “Yeah, some dissonance,” when they get it right. Scorsese chooses to layer audio from a present-day interview over this unearthed moment of musical history (in order to note Mitchell’s frustration at not receiving her due as a songwriter), but that barely diminishes its offhanded, freewheeling power. [Mike D’Angelo]

Spahn Ranch, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to slow-burning set pieces, and they’ve become especially prominent in his later-period work. Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood doesn’t depend on suspense as much as Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained, but it generates similar historical-pulp frisson during an extended scene following Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) after he drives a hitch-hiking hippie (Margaret Qualley) home to Spahn Ranch, a former movie set he knows from his stuntman glory days. Booth’s attempt to drop in on the ranch’s elderly owner is met with simmering hostility, barely masked (at least at first) by hippie bonhomie, from the property’s new Manson-family inhabitants. Booth also gets to further blur the line between stuntman for hire and genuine cowboy, embroiled in his own tension-filled standoff. So much of Hollywood has a warm movie-star glow, and the creeping menace of the Spahn Ranch scene serves as an indelible crash course in the menace lurking for its characters on the outskirts of their Los Angeles privilege. [Jesse Hassenger]

“Criminal,” Hustlers

Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers is hip to the ways women struggle, connive, and sacrifice to gain control in traditionally masculine spaces. Few actors embody that battle more than Jennifer Lopez, survivor of the Bennifer era. Lopez stomps into Hustlers in six-inch platforms, iridescent body glitter, and a negligible G-string, and with all the swagger her decades of experience provide. While her Ramona spins and writhes along to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” Scafaria’s gaze is as self-aware as Apple’s song. “I’ve been a bad, bad girl” is what the men throwing cash at Ramona want to believe, and she indulges that fantasy. But Scafaria’s focus is on her strength, winking pride, and lusty embrace of all those bills. “Doesn’t money make you horny?” she knowingly whispers to future protégé Destiny (Constance Wu). The line’s a perfect accessory to a performance that transforms a booty quake into a subversive act. [Roxana Hadadi]

Clamshell umbrella attack, Shadow

Umbrellas have been used as weapons in movies before. Hell, there’s even a book entitled Death By Umbrella! The 100 Weirdest Horror Movie Weapons. But the umbrellas in Zhang Yimou’s Shadow are both more versatile and more deadly than one would ever imagine, even after hearing that they play a major tactical role in multiple battle sequences. It’s not just that each canopy consists of numerous sharp metal blades rather than fabric, allowing spokes to be flung at the enemy. It’s also that warriors can crouch within two such discs and go skittering down a village’s main street, using the bottom umbrella as a dry-land sled and the top umbrella as a shield. Dozens of these clamshell contraptions mounting an offensive creates a spectacle so bizarre that you have to blink and rub your eyes to confirm that you’re seeing it. [Mike D’Angelo]

Lovers’ reunion, Pain And Glory

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Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

There’s a sleepy quality to the first half of Pedro Almodóvar’s semi-autobiographical drama Pain And Glory. Charitably, it’s a reflection of the pain- and sometimes heroin-induced stupor of rudderless aging filmmaker Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), although it feels more like an opening act that lacks a center. But the film shifts on its axis with the arrival of Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), an old lover Salvador hasn’t seen since their difficult breakup decades earlier. The pair’s spontaneous late-night reunion is a delicate dance of uncertainty, flirtation, and anticipation. A bittersweet wistfulness replaces whatever animosity the two men felt in the past, and a palpable charge sits just underneath their increasing comfort with one another. Almodóvar slowly builds the gently cathartic conversation into something that feels equally like an edge-of-your-seat romantic thrill ride. The reconnection sends a much-needed jolt through Salvador’s life and through the entire film around him, too. [Caroline Siede]

Motorcycle chase, Gemini Man

Ang Lee’s Gemini Man is more than just a forward-looking technical showcase with a stale sci-fi script, thanks to the director’s typically accomplished action staging. Never is this clearer than during the initial face-off between rogue agent Henry Bogan (Will Smith) and the assassin—his younger clone—sent to kill him. A tense rooftop shoot-out segues into a propulsive motorcycle chase through the streets of Colombia, which culminates with the younger Smith wielding his bike against Henry with deadly precision. Unlike the baroque set pieces of the recent Mission: Impossible installments, Gemini Man doesn’t foreground the effort invested in making the scene. As in the bounding, balletic highs of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lee’s emphasis is always on clarity and grace, so the sequence is fluidly choreographed but still punchy and visceral; it’s the increasingly rare action scene that’s effortless without ever feeling weightless. [Lawrence Garcia]

“Being Alive,” Marriage Story

“Someone to need you too much / Someone to know you too well…” In putting together this list, we received a number of suggestions from our contributors for scenes from Marriage Story (including, of course, the climactic argument). But none capture the themes of Noah Baumbach’s drama of separation and theater more elegantly than the sequence near the end of the film in which the newly divorced stage director Charlie (Adam Driver) briefly lets out his inner teenage theater geek as he takes the mic at a piano bar for a deeply sincere impromptu rendition of “Being Alive,” an ode to the annoyances and comforts of couplehood from Stephen Sondheim’s classic 1970 musical Company. In a banner year for left-field Sondheim homages (including an entire Documentary Now! episode dedicated to parodying the making of Company, and impromptu beltings of Sondheim tunes by characters in Joker, Knives Out, and even elsewhere in Marriage Story), “Being Alive” stands apart as the most moving. It also perfectly conveys the central irony of the story: that Charlie and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) can find such deep feelings in other people’s words, but can’t communicate with each other. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

The Songwriter, Under The Silver Lake

What if all the music you ever loved wasn’t borne from creativity? What if it was just the work of an indifferent mercenary? For Sam (Andrew Garfield), a paranoid conspiracy theorist with a knack for finding clues in popular culture, this is a nightmare scenario. The Songwriter (Jeremy Bobb), an elderly man holed away in a Los Angeles castle, poses a true existential threat. Not only does he confirm that the messages exist (though they’re certainly not meant for Sam), he tauntingly dismantles the amateur gumshoe’s entire identity by revealing its hollow core. As he plays a medley of hits he supposedly wrote (“Jump,” “I Want It That Way,” “Earth Angel,” the Cheers theme song, etc.), he tears down the concept of artistry, exposing it as a commercial hoax. “There is no rebellion,” he sneers. “There is only me earning a paycheck.” Anyone who has ever cared about art, or, say, writes for a pop culture website, will feel the sting of those words. [Vikram Murthi]

Family reunion, Doctor Sleep

Mike Flanagan’s horror epic tasks itself with both adapting Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining and sequelizing Stanley Kubrick’s film, which means this follow-up for everyone often feels stuck in a crossfire of callbacks. But there are moments where the movie takes on the refracted, eerie quality of memory, especially the scene where an adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) returns to the Overlook Hotel and chats with a ghostly bartender, just like his dad, Jack, did. Only this time, the bartender is Jack—at least in appearance. They talk briefly about the past and the alcoholism that has plagued their family, and naturally, Jack offers Danny a drink of “medicine,” poignantly bridging supernatural hauntings with a more earthbound variety. A key to the scene’s effectiveness is Flanagan’s avoidance of the latest in digital technology when conjuring Torrance Sr.: He’s played by Henry Thomas made up to resemble Jack Nicholson in 1980, which makes the character seem both unreal and familiarly tactile. For a few minutes, Doctor Sleep’s liminal nature crystallizes into something sad and scary enough to live up to its lineage. [Jesse Hassenger]

Cracking the case, Knives Out 

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Photo: Lionsgate

Given that Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is an homage to classic Agatha Christie-style mysteries, the movie pretty much had to end with a surprising reveal. But rather than gathering all the suspects into an elegant drawing room before pointing a finger at the murderer, the drawling detective Benoit Blanc isolates the actual perpetrator, and then proceeds to deliver a dazzling explanation of the crime, connecting loose ends and minor clues that many audience members may have forgotten. Johnson throws in a couple of final crowd-pleasing twists to close out the scene. But the real thrill here is hearing Daniel Craig as Blanc—doing his most preposterous Southern accent—piece together Knives Out’s bigger picture, sparing no detail, right down to “the Nazi child mastuh-batin’ in the bathroom.” [Noel Murray]

Happy birthday, Parasite

The invisible suffering of the poor, and how it allows the rich to live their lives of carefree luxury, is a recurring theme in Bong Joon ho’s Parasite. So it’s appropriate that the film’s final confrontation between exploiter and exploited takes place at an elaborate impromptu birthday party, the type of event whose effortless charm is built on diligent behind-the-scenes toil. Beginning with son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) asking his tutoring student/underage girlfriend if he “belongs” at the party and culminating with father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) exploding with rage after his boss holds his nose at an impoverished person’s smell one too many times, the scene assuredly stacks the film’s many narrative and thematic threads on top of each other like a cinematic game of Jenga. It then knocks down the resulting structure with a well-timed flick of the director’s finger, typical of the wicked sense of mischief that makes Parasite such an enjoyable ride. [Katie Rife]

Avengers assemble, Avengers: Endgame

It was never a matter of if it would happen, but how. When Thanos snapped away half of the planet’s defenders in Avengers: Infinity War, there were more than enough outside elements (like a confirmed Spider-Man sequel, for one) to dull the initial sting of watching the wind carry away the ashen remains of T’challa, Peter Parker, and the rest of the dusted superheroes. But nothing could diminish the rush of hearing Falcon’s scratchy warning “On your left” through Steve Rogers’ earpiece or the manifestation of hope in the form of portal after portal welcoming the return of a new hero. Gathered before Earth’s biggest threat was the overwhelming culmination of a universe 11 years in the making, simply waiting for a signal. And Captain America’s hushed “Avengers, assemble” was just what they—and audiences—needed. The battle that followed was undoubtedly epic, but the triumphant, appropriately dramatic return of almost every hero was the real payoff fans deserved. [Shannon Miller]

The phone call to Jo, The Irishman

The phone call Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) makes to Jo Hoffa (Welker White) marks the point at which The Irishman splinters, bending strangely toward its end. It’s a symphony of hollow words, stuttered in one static shot of Sheeran sitting alone in a well-appointed bedroom paid for with Jimmy Hoffa’s money. That simplicity is a masterstroke, Scorsese placing focus exactly where it needs to be: De Niro’s face. The star doesn’t oversell the thing, either. He doesn’t have to. The false starts and stammers land fast and fierce, each a shot you don’t see coming. The sound editing aids De Niro here—you hear the wetness of his lips and tongue, increasing the call’s intimacy and thus the depths of the betrayal it contains. But really, all The Irishman’s best scene needs is the man sitting on the bed with the phone in his hand, lying and splitting in two. [Allison Shoemaker]

Vivaldi, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire

The affair between 18th-century French painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and her reluctant subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), is based on mutual regard as much as physical attraction, and their slow accumulation of intimacy culminates in Portrait Of A Lady On Fire’s aching final scene. A coda set many years after the two are forced apart by societal pressure, the scene calls back to their original dynamic by having Marianne secretly observe Héloïse at a gilded concert hall. Director Céline Sciamma’s camera gazes at the latter with the tender absorption of a lover, slowly zooming in on her face as she’s overcome with emotion listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—music Marianne once played for her during their too-brief lovers’ idyll. Evoking feelings of nostalgic warmth as well as bittersweet longing, it’s a sublime expression of the love between these two women, as well as a triumphant example of the female gaze. [Katie Rife]

Together at the end, Paddleton

“Bromance” is a word that should maybe be retired; it frames close male friendship as a joke, nervously tittering at the idea of love between men. We used the term, alas, in the headline of our review of Alex Lehmann’s melancholic buddy comedy Paddleton, which is very much about how guys sometimes couch the sincerity of what they feel for each other in competitive games and jokes and nonchalance. Though Michael (Mark Duplass) has received a terminal cancer diagnosis and decided to end his life on his own terms via medication, he spends most of the film avoiding any deep conversation with his best friend and neighbor, Andy (Ray Romano), who agrees to be there with him at the end. But after 80 minutes of awkwardly talking around their feelings, both men find themselves faced with the profound reality of what Michael’s about to experience. The ending, an overwhelmingly powerful duet between these two actors, pushes the characters to the limits of their vulnerability; what they’re able to say to each other, and exactly when, speaks volumes. [A.A. Dowd]

The queen and the bear, Midsommar

“Listen, you can’t speak, you can’t move. All right? Good.” The key to Midsommar’s horror is in the contrast between its sunny setting and disturbing content, as epitomized by the smiling face of the Hårga woman who speaks these words to Christian (Jack Reynor) in the opening moments of the film’s finale. The messy unraveling of Christian’s relationship with his girlfriend, Dani (Florence Pugh), is reflected with harrowing clarity as the scene toggles between their separate perspectives, the camera pushing away from Reynor and toward Pugh as she’s asked to choose whether he lives or dies. Surrounded by beaming villagers in the bucolic Swedish countryside, Pugh’s face registers a complex melody of emotions as the Hårga carry out her verdict, and director Ari Aster superimposes cleansing fire over her changing expression for a horrific and brutally honest final image. [Katie Rife]