A while back, struggling with the frustrating task of year-end list-making, I jotted down a top ten of the scenes I enjoyed the most from the year. Scenes, not films–for as the task soon made clear, the alternative ranking did not necessarily reflect the top ten features I had begun curating way too early for its own good. The list expanded, and eventually turned into a tradition of sorts: a means to patch together, remember and celebrate some of the year’s best moments in film. Minor spoilers abound, and there’s no guarantee as to whether the order will stay the same after subsequent viewings. But at the time of writing, these are the 18 moments from 2018 I will be treasuring in the months and years to come, and here’s to a 2019 blessed with new great films, and plenty more scenes to marvel at.
18. “Does it matter?” in The Other Side of the Wind
Tucked deep into the posthumous The Other Side of the Wind is a scene that encapsulate the maddening and confounding flair of Orson Welles’ farewell. After raving at the LA villa of director J.J. “Jake” Hannaford (John Huston), young filmmaker Brookes Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich) leads the party attendees to a drive-in theatre, where Hannaford’s comeback feature –a cat-and-mouse silent arthouse feature parodying Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point and starring Welles’ own partner, Oja Kodar–unspools. Except when the screening begins, a guest runs to the projectionist in horror: “Someone must have given you the wrong reel!” Indifferently, the man replies with a shrug. “Does it matter?” Watching The Other Side of the Wind is to get lost in Welles’ multi-layered, meta-textual edifice: embrace the disorienting feeling, and enjoy the ride.
17. “I hope this is a positive thing.” The campfire scene in Eighth Grade
Elsie Fisher’s Kayla has a box stashed with memories from childhood. It’s a time capsule whose top reads: to the coolest girl I know. Well into Bo Burnham’s charming coming of age Eighth Grade, Kayla asks her father Mark (Josh Hamilton) to help her burn it in the backyard. If last year’s poignant parent-child moment was Michael Stuhlbarg’s monologue as professor Perlman in Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, Burnham’s campfire scene may well go down as this year’s. Except in Eighth Grade, parents are no less vulnerable and unprepared than their kids. Kayla’s struggle to come to terms with an encroaching adulthood is just as tangible and endearing as her father’s anxieties before parenthood. There is a whole film in the moment she burns “just [her] hopes and dreams” and he stares at the fire, wringing out all his affection toward her with a searching, “I just hope this is a positive thing.”
16. “Biscuito?” The first bath of a stray dog in Isle of Dogs
Saying I thoroughly enjoyed Anderson’s latest is an understatement. While it may not measure up to The Grand Budapest Hotel, Isle of Dogs remains one of the quirkiest and most endearing offerings from an unmistakable canine-lover–for you need to be seriously in love with dogs to come up with a definition at once so accurate and charming as Liev Schreiber’s Spots gives of himself to young Atari (“I’ll be protecting your welfare and safety on an ongoing basis–in other words, I am your dog“), and to craft a scene as memorable as the first bath of a stray dog.
15. The school shooting in Vox Lux
I can’t help but think the critical output that’s scolded Brady Corbet’s second feature as an exercise in shock value ultimately plays in the director’s hands. Far more than a darker cousin to A Star is Born (the other stardom film from 2018 which Corbet’s was inevitably compared to, and which, on the whole, Vox Lux far surpasses) Corbet’s follow up to The Childhood of a Leader is a bilious portrait of a society high on short term thrills and numb to horror–with a cantankerous and eccentric Natalie Portman as its synecdoche. The school shooting the film opens with sets the tone for the film’s entrancing 110-minute ride, and confirms Corbet’s as one of the most interesting young U.S. auteurs working today. Not since Gus Van Sant’s Elephant had a scene of such unspeakable horror been filmed with such a disturbing, matter-of-fact vividness.
14. Susie’s bone-wrenching dance in Suspiria
Long before Suspiria made its way to Venice, a handful of lucky ones were able to catch a short clip at CinemaCon in April. The clip included the stunning – and literally bone-wrenching – dance sequence that sees Dakota Johnson’s routine telepathically reducing another ballerina to a ball of jumbled limbs. Rumor has it people left the hall traumatized. Understandably: the sequence is possibly the most gruesome from Guadagnino’s rendition of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic, and by far its most spell-binding.
13. “You have to tell the kids, Neil” in First Man
For a film zeroing in on man’s greatest outer space adventure, Damien Chazelle’s wondrous First Man feels surprisingly domestic, and as much as I enjoy Gosling’s lunar meanderings–the spacecrafts he hops on and maneuvers reduced to claustrophobic and howling metallic graves–it is the interactions between him and Claire Foy that take the film to another level. Watching her demand Gosling to confront the kids ahead of the Apollo 11 mission, and Gosling announcing he may in fact never return in press conference fashion, was one of the greatest memories from this year’s Venice Film Festival.
12. “Honey, I’m not going to be good at this” in Thunder Road
Jim Cummings’ everyday bloke and goofy cop Jim Arnaud has just lost his mother, and now watches as his estranged daughter Chrystal drifts farther away from him. Thunder Road is a savagely funny and moving portrait of a man struggling to reconnect with his child–a struggle that symbolically begins and ends with a hand-clap game, by far one of the most uplifting scenes of the year.
11. “Don’t run away from this moment” in A Bread Factory
Running through Patrick Wang’s terrific A Bread Factory–a two-part, four-hour look at a community arts center in a fictional upstate New York town grappling with the arrival of a couple of glamorous installation artists from China–is a timeless leitmotif: “care for what you create.” Nowhere does the lesson feel more acute than in the pep-talk veteran journalist Jan (Glynnis O’Connor) gives to her intern and budding reporter Max (Zachary Sayle) after he turns in a sloppy article. This is a film of vignettes and episodes, of chats and monologues, and this scene–graced with the warmth and cantor O’Connor puts into her words–is a gem to marvel at over and over.
10. Qiao’s hug in Ash is Purest White
Halfway through her meanderings around China, Zhao Tao’s ex-con heroine Qiao has just agreed to follow a perfect stranger and conspiracy theorist to look for jobs that may or may not be related to an alleged UFO invasion in China’s interior. Moments later, the man confesses to be a fraud; Qiao nods, says she understands. The embrace he envelops her in, so relieving and liberating, is a moment of pure magic.
9. “We’re far from the shallow now.” Cooper and Gaga’s first onstage duet in A Star is Born
Early into the fourth chapter of the timeless A Star is Born franchise, Bradley Cooper invites Lady Gaga to perform Shallow to a sold-out stadium. We’ve been there before (watching Cooper’s version is to conjure up the ghosts of Gaga’s predecessors, from Janet Gaynor and Judy Garland’s Esther Blodgett(s) to Barbra Streisand’s Esther Hoffman), so that this remake of a remake of a remake still buzzes with so much electricity is nothing short of extraordinary. Part of it owes to this pivotal juncture: watching Gaga brewing hesitation and excitement and finally wading past acolytes and sycophants to join Cooper and ascend to planetary fame was possibly the goosebumps-inducing moment of the Venice Film Festival. It is true that the film never reaches that emotional height again, but is that even surprising, given the benchmark the scene sets?
8. “I’m too tired to play, darling.” Frida’s make-up session in Summer 1993
Having lost both parents to an unspeakable tragedy, six-year-old Frida (astonishing newcomer Laia Artigas) moves to the Catalan countryside to live with her uncle, aunt, and little cousin. In a film stashed with scenes of devastating grief, the moment she plays the adult, puts make up on and instructs her younger cousin to call her “mum” only to ask her not to be bothered in a standard parent lingo (“I’m too tired to play, darling”) was the most heart-wrenching one of all.
7. Lane and Brady’s visit in The Rider
Is Chloé Zhao’s The Rider a work of fiction, a documentary, or both? Graced with Joshua James Richards’ stunning cinematography–here painting Turner-like sunsets and stormy skies that turn the South Dakotan prairies into a belittling immensity–and with the performances of an all non-professional cast, The Rider left me concurrently shattered and uplifted, but nothing brought me to tears quite like the moment real-life rodeo star Brady Jandreau pays a visit to his best friend and mentor, paralyzed former bull rider Lane Scott, to catch up over clips of his rodeo antics.
6. To the lighthouse in Annihilation
It’s been almost a year since I first saw Alex Garland’s Annihilation on a big screen, and sometimes I wish I could drift back in time to experience again what it was like to watch Natalie Portman’s descend into the lighthouse and confront the alien–Moderat’s entrancing “The Mark” swelling the cave into a hypnotic and otherworldly non-place. I tend to steer clear from the stream-at-home vs watch-it-at-the-cinema debate, but this film–and this scene in particular–demand an experience as all-encompassing as possible.
5. “Thank you.” The beach scene in Shoplifters
The last thing Kirin Kiki says in Kore-eda’s compassionate Shoplifters is the greater-than-life “thank you” she whispers as she looks at her extended family swimming in the sea. In a film dancing between aching moments of loneliness and others bursting with unbridled joy and affection, I chose this one because of its metafictional subtext. I caught up with this year’s Palme d’Or winner in early September; a few days later, Kiki passed away to cancer, aged 75. Her thank you is a pitch-perfect farewell.
4. I’ve never been to me” in You Were Never Really Here
Joaquin Phoenix’s PTSD-suffering gun for hire kills a man in his mother’s apartment, but lies down and holds the man’s hand as he dies, the two of them singing along to “I’ve never been to me,” a faint sizzle from the kitchen radio. I chose this scene because I seldom remember one at once so gory and compassionate, and also because it captures the near effortless ability with which Lynne Ramsay’s terrific You Were Never Really Here simultaneously shock into fear and awe.
3. Haemi’s dance in Burning
Nothing came quite close to perfection this year as the moment Jeon Jong-seo takes her shirt off and dances topless in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, her silhouette a twirling dark shadow against a cloudless sunset sky. It’s the proverbial scene worth the whole ticket, on par with another recent tragic dance–Audrey Horne’s in Twin Peaks: The Return–and also corroborates why Burning is the most successful a film has ever come to adapt a Haruki Murakami work of fiction. Nowhere does the lingering surrealism that makes Lee Chang-dong’s film–and Murakami’s writing–so haunting billow to life more explicitly than it does here. This is a scene for the ages.
2. The finale embrace in Roma
Coming out emotionally wrecked from its Venice premiere, my favorite scene from Alfonso Cuarón’s majestic Roma was the heartbreaking delivery scene featuring Yalitza Aparicio’s in-house maid Cleo. A few viewings later, I have switched to the near-death-experience ending at the beach. Not just because of the terrific tracking shot and its sheer cinematic brilliance, but because of that finale embrace Cleo gets enveloped in, a family tree of hands and bodies joint together in an otherworldly moment of hope.
1. The marriage in Cold War
Zula and Wiktor’s pan-European exodus ends in a derelict church. For the previous 80 minutes, Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War has trailed behind them as they careened through a few years and a few borders in two-blocks 1950s Europe, a journey at once deeply rooted in its historical and geographical specifics, and universal and timeless in its tragic scope. Watching Joanna Kulig’s Zula and Tomasz Kot’s Wiktor exchange their wedding vows in a deserted church, I was jolted back to the harrowing ending of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, Tony Leung whispering a secret into a cavity in an ancient Angkor Wat temple, and this final stanza from Henrik Nordbrandt’s Our Love is Like Byzanthium:
“When I turn towards you
in bed, I have a feeling
of stepping into a church
that was burned down long ago
and where only the darkness in the eyes of the icons
filled with the flames
which annihilated them.”
I always feel indebted toward any movie that leaves me emotionally wrecked; the debt I owe Pawlikowski, and this scene in particular, is immense.