What makes a good movie moment? Is it a breathtaking performance? A mind-bending stunt? Gorgeous photographic composition? The perfect music cue? A shocking plot twist? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Movies were booming in 2018, thriving in the face of Too Much TV and a war for attention that shrinks our free time into itty-bitty component parts. But at the movies, we don’t worry about stealing time—we put our phones away and let that unique power wash over us—even if you’re watching them on Netflix. Focusing on one thing: novel! This list comprises a broad swath of movies, from studio comedies to micro-indies, comic book opuses to animated bear tales. None are equal, but they’re special in their own way. These do not appear in any particular order, merely as I remembered them. What better way to commemorate the year in movies than to celebrate what’s been lodged into the crevasses of our minds?
A Star Is Born in A Star Is Born
Simply put, the most electrifying moment of the year, and we knew it was coming. After an opening 30 minutes that elegantly introduces us to our two protagonists, Jackson Maine and Ally, they come together for a duet that was aggressively teased in the trailer of Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut. Sometimes expectations are meaningless because this scene rips. In fact, watching Lady Gaga’s character essentially freestyle-write “Shallow” in the parking lot just two scenes earlier is what gives this scene its ballast—we’re invested, connected, and ready to sing along. A Star Is Born is the net-positive version of schmaltz, and its wide-open hokiness is its point. This is when a star is born in A Star Is Born. Obvious has rarely been so effortless.
The Topher Grace Beatdown in Blindspotting
Carlos López Estrada’s knotty dramedy about a paroled ex-con trying to straighten out and get off probation was one of the year’s antic, idea-packed movies. It didn’t always work for me, but this scene effectively tells an origin, provides comic relief, raises the emotional stakes, and works as a stand-alone YouTube video. How convenient.
The Bathroom Brawl in Mission: Impossible — Fallout
In a movie that pushes the scale higher (out of a plane), faster (in a motorcycle chase around the Arc de Triomphe), and crazier (during a helicopter battle), the most terrifying stunt happens in the john. A glistening nightclub john, but a john nonetheless. It’s the most bracing, physically unnerving fight scene of the year. When Henry Cavill locks and loads his arms like a pair of sawed-off shotguns, it goes from Wow, this is intense to This is a self-aware commentary on Henry Cavill and then around to These jamokes needed Rebecca Ferguson to save them. Masterful action moviemaking.
The Accident in Hereditary
A horror masterpiece that has more in common with Ordinary People than Halloween. This stomach-turning scene, which knocks the movie off its axis, has a physically terrifying climax, but it’s rooted in familial pain, the way siblings take each other for granted, ignore one another, tolerate them until it’s absolutely necessary to pay attention. And then it’s too late.
The Bowling Alley Interrogation in Widows
Set against the calming, romantic strains of Van Morrison’s “Madame George,” director Steve McQueen stages this excruciating interrogation between Daniel Kaluuya’s Jatemme and Kevin J. O’Connor’s disabled bowling alley employee–underworld crime connector like a ballet. The camera whips through the alley, down the lane, circling the blade-wielding Kaluuya like a bullfighter. McQueen has a gift for contrasts—white on black, cacophony over peace, violence in a quiet place. Never are his gifts more deftly applied than in this chilling sequence.
Zack Reflects on Running Away in Minding the Gap
The year’s most overwhelming documentary, Minding the Gap, is small and intimate and individualized for more than half its running time, concerned with three boys left to their own devices in a world that doesn’t have much use for them. They skate, hang, and film their skating and hanging. Then, slowly, the director and co-lead Bing Liu starts peeling back the origins of their pain and anxiety. In Zack, he has a tragic figure—charismatic, damaged, and maybe even dangerous. But he’s also a friend. Zack is one of the most complex people we met at the movies this year, someone who scrambles our often simplistic binary notions of good and bad, moral and unfeeling. See this movie as soon as you can.
”What Are Those?” From Black Panther
Wondrous and culturally significant moments abound in Ryan Coogler’s brilliant and occasionally profound Marvel movie. But the thing that makes it truly special: It confirms that people in the MCU are aware of and willing to participate in the vagaries of internet culture. Love when superheroes in superrich isolationist nations talk about memes.
The Rally in BlacKkKlansman
Rallies bookend Spike Lee’s tragicomic commentary on ’70s blaxploitation and Lumet-esque crime thrillers. The last is a sly mockery of the KKK, a goof on the dumbest, ugliest people in America. But the first features the movie’s most rousing moment, as the civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, a.k.a. Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), grows more voluble, more impassioned, more inspiring to a group of young, radical Colorado college students. It’s hair-raising, extraordinary, a fitting companion to Lee’s career-best work in Malcolm X.
Ready Player One Turns Into The Shining
There is a credible case for this being the most blasphemous scene of 2018; I dug it. Steven Spielberg has always been a student and a synthesist. This loving homage to his hero Stanley Kubrick isn’t subtle and isn’t trying to be. Just because you can do something—like, say, rebuild the Overlook Hotel—doesn’t mean you should. But who’s going to tell Spielberg no?
The Disney Princesses Meeting in Ralph Breaks the Internet
Between Black Panther and Ralph, Disney went full-blown Reddit in 2018. Add a dollop of character meta-commentary and there’s something achingly knowing about the Mouse House this year. Do 5-year-olds love this or are they baffled by it? Either way, parents are terrified.
The First “Heist” in Shoplifters
A simple introduction to a complicated story about adopted families, fluid lifestyles, and making your own rules. It starts like a bank robbery and ends with a snack. This is the low-stakes and high-drama power of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s crushing drama.
The Shoot-out in Den of Thieves
I love this Heat for Dummies. It’s loud, incoherent, and magnificent. Gerard Butler and Pablo Schreiber on a collision course straight to Bullet Town. This final shoot-out wants so badly to be Michael Mann, but it’ll settle for Michael Bay.
Thanos Snaps His Fingers in Avengers: Infinity War
Sure, a giant purple alien wearing a fancy glove-bracelet shouldn’t be all that meaningful to a grown man. But if you, like me, have a teenage sister who’s completely obsessed with the MCU, you know how impactful this snap is to people around the world. Turned-to-dust Tom Holland, savage! What’s the point of caring about popular culture if you don’t try to care about popular culture?
The Bloody Dog in Game Night
No one does Jesus Christ, this can’t be happening better than Jason Bateman. All those years of sitcom reps have made him a ne’er-do-well icon. This scene from the wonderful Game Night is Bateman working the corners of the plate. From stressed out to exasperated to “Oh, fuck it,” he runs the gamut of Batemanian emotion.
Khrushchev Finds His Patsy in The Death of Stalin
This is a stand-in for every scene in which a Soviet-era Russian attaché is an asshole to a bureaucrat. They’re all mercilessly awful and cut with the precision of an X-Acto knife. But Steve Buscemi in particular is working with a sharp blade. Armando Iannucci’s histori-comedy sort of came and went earlier this year, but the Veep creator’s wit and way with brutalist dialogue is as clever as ever.
The End of First Reformed
I’m fascinated by the subculture of YouTube commentary videos that unravel the details of movies—Easter eggs, post-credits scenes, Honest Trailers, rearranging messily edited films, etc. The ne plus ultra of this genre is the “explainer,” an interpretive tact that assumes authority over a work of art. These clips are popular, highly searchable digital snacks for when you return from the multiplex. There’s something funny about trying to explain a film like First Reformed, a spiritual saga with mortal consequences and cosmic significance. But go hunting and you’ll find some smart guy working hard to break it all down. Who can blame him?
Miles Davis Takes Over Burning
In a film defined by mystery, few moments are as strange and engrossing as this one, in which Yoo Ah-in and Steven Yeun’s characters have just smoked a little pot while relaxing on the former’s porch, and their female friend—and the connecting point of a love triangle—played by Jeon Jong-seo begins to dance to Miles Davis’s lush “Generiqué,” from his Elevator to the Gallows soundtrack. It’s an inexplicable, metaphysical digression in a movie that refuses to answer your most basic questions. Lee Chang-dong isn’t interested in the answers. Mostly, I think, because they don’t exist.
The Humanoid Dance-Off in Annihilation
The dramatic, confounding conclusion to Alex Garland’s headfuck sci-fi adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel has a few comps. 2001: A Space Odyssey, in particular, has come up as a frequent reference point. But it’s Black Swan that ran through my mind as the humanoid alien lifeform that begins to mimic Natalie Portman’s character begins dancing with her, stride for graceful stride. This is the sequel to her Oscar-winning work as a ballerina coming apart at the feathers, a fitting counterpart. Both films feature a character on the brink, abandoned and without recourse. And at the end of their trial, we don’t fully know if they transformed into the thing they fear most, or not.
The End of Lean on Pete
This quiet, horse-drawn drama from the brilliant British filmmaker Andrew Haigh was slightly overshadowed by another story about a young man and his horse (we’ll get to that one soon). But it should be re-examined, especially the ambiguous and thrilling ending that’s set to Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s heartbreaking cover of “The World’s Greatest.” If you haven’t seen this, do so soon.
The Bathtub Birth in A Quiet Place
There’s one glorious burst of human voice in this movie, a scream that signals birth, death, and the unmanageable world that the family in this film has coped with for years. It’s a scream-queen moment for Emily Blunt and a horror-movie masterstroke for director John Krasinski.
The Women of Support the Girls Scream Into the Void
Another ending that shouldn’t be spoiled but should be celebrated. Sometimes you have to yell it out.
The Horsemen Are Revealed in Sorry to Bother You
The single biggest “What the fuck?” at the movies this year. If you know, you know.
Eighth Grade’s Pool Party From Hell
The horror-movie moment of the year. When Kayla sees the fantasia of youthful abandon before her, as EDM pulsates on the soundtrack and slow-motion pull-back reveals a society of confident peers, she is destroyed. Being 13 is horrible, we all know. But it’s rarely so perfectly captured in all its awfulness.
“It’s You I Like” From Won’t You Be My Neighbor
Morgan Neville’s simple but effective appreciation of the life of Fred Rogers has a few nifty structural tricks up its sleeve, but it’s this moment, from an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, that shattered just about every person I know who saw it. It isn’t a feat of 2018 filmmaking. It’s a callback, an excavation, a reminder: If you can, be decent.
The Kitchen Beatdown in Upgrade
Venom was the big-budget version of a man at war with his own physically uncontrollable impulses, but Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade was the Venom we deserved. Sly, funny, and influenced by ’80s sci-fi actioners like The Terminator and Total Recall, Upgrade is what happens when a director admires but doesn’t imitate his forefathers.
Fondling in the Dark From Blockers
May Ike Barinholtz live forever and ever.
Paddington Has a Problem With the Prison Food in Paddington 2
Let me start with this: I’m no Daddington, not here to tell you about the emotional experience I had showing my son the bear-movie sequel and how we cried together, marveling at his whimsy, his pink prison ensemble, his puckish, never-quit attitude. No. I don’t even have a son. I watched this movie alone, on a plane, like a psychopath. Guess what? Delightful! Never more so than when Paddington melts Brendan Gleeson’s heart in this scene. Viva la Paddington.
Brady Goes Riding Again in The Rider
Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is one of the year’s most visually striking films, as unconcerned with narrative momentum as it is with vanity. It’s the story of a bull rider who’s been thrown from an animal and badly injured. He recovers, but only in the physical sense. The Rider shows a version of America we don’t often care to look at, in a poor cow community in South Dakota, and depicts people we don’t always consider. Its grace and empathy does wonders for the things far from our mind. When real-life rodeo competitor Brady Jandreau gets back in the saddle, we can feel something even if we’ve never mounted a horse before.
X-Force Takes Flight in Deadpool 2
For whatever reason, I continue to be amused by Deadpool. He is the most self-reflexively overexposed, one-note character in a vast cinematic sea of dull, monochromatic figures. Still, I persist. This “Team, assemble” send-up isn’t Beethoven’s Fifth, but it does something we need from new comic book movies—it messes with our expectations … by killing everyone in X-Force halfway through the movie.
Jack-Jack vs. The Raccoon, Incredibles 2
Forget Thanos. This is the fight scene of the year.
Splitting the Pizza in Set It Up
Is it original? No. Is it classic? Close enough. Meet-cutes are essential in rom-coms, but awkward moments of romantic realization are legally binding. This one between Glen Powell and Zoey Deutch introduced us to a pair of young movie stars and reignited a dead genre. All hail Netflix’s one true power: revival.
The Agena Spin, First Man
You’d think a movie that crescendos with one of man’s greatest achievements—the moon landing—would find its way to this list. Alas, it was the heart-stopping flight that preceded it for Neil Armstrong, the one that affirmed his reputation as one of the great pilots of his generation, that is here. The subjective point of view employed by director Damien Chazelle is never more effective than in this literally head-spinning sequence in which Armstrong must regain control of a spiraling spacecraft. We can’t see beyond the craft’s walls—there’s no stars or moon, just a tin can floating in that vast nothingness.
Brian Tyree Henry Takes Over If Beale Street Could Talk for 12 Minutes
The love story between Tish and Fonny at the heart of Barry Jenkins’s third feature grinds to a glorious, devastating halt when Fonny meets an old friend, played by Actor of the Year Brian Tyree Henry, and they commiserate over a beer and a smoke. Sometimes narrative propulsion should be secondary to feeling. Jenkins knows that as well as any director working.
”Dog Hole!” From The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
My favorite moment from the Coen brothers’ sextet of short features, in the story that goes deepest emotionally. By this point in the film, we know there are no happy endings, that death isn’t just the theme of these stories, but the text. Still, I find myself muttering “Dog hole!” to myself during idle moments, like some damned fool, lost in a dream.
Stevie Fails a Stunt in Mid90s
I found a spirit of recognition in many moments from Jonah Hill’s directorial debut—the music, the awkward camaraderie, the complicated brotherhood, the failure to skate well. But perhaps never more so than that horrifying moment you fucking wipe out and embarrass yourself while trying to impress your friends. This was a bracing, beautifully composed dash of moviemaking.
A New Board in Skate Kitchen
The flip side: when your friends take care of you after things get fucked up. I don’t know why there was a rash of skateboarding-centric movies this year, but I never grew tired of the sound of wheels rolling, decks crashing, and ollies foiled. Skate Kitchen showed a female crew, but the stakes were the same—shortfalls and big come-ups.
The Mah-jongg Game From Crazy Rich Asians
Crazy Rich Asians opens with a poker game and closes with a mah-jongg match. They’re both teaching tools. As Rachel teaches her would-be mother-in-law a lesson about strategy and civility, we get a fast-moving crash course through a complex, historically rich game. Did you follow all the moves? No matter. The winner is immaterial; it’s the lesson that counts.
Michael Myers vs. Laurie Strode, 2018 Edition
What I liked about David Gordon Green’s sequel to John Carpenter’s classic was the pure homage. Images flashing—Michael Myers shot from behind, stalking prey; Laurie going off the roof like Michael in the original—that signaled a superfan. Halloween didn’t have to be perfect. It couldn’t be. It just had to have a memory.
The Cabin Shootout in Hold the Dark
If the Den of Thieves shootout is a Heat homage, this is like John Woo, John Wick, and Scarface rolled into one. Only more grisly. Watch at your own risk.
Carey Mulligan Turns in Wildlife
If you’ve ever had a conversation in which your parents tried to treat you like something other than their kid, in which they tried to be someone other than a parent, then you know what’s powerful about this small but discomfiting moment in Paul Dano’s adaptation of Richard Ford’s novel of the same name. In small phrases, she delivers a life’s worth of frustration and dissolution. “You have to like me the way I am.” “I’m 34. Does that seem like the wrong age?” “La di da…” Carey Mulligan is truly amazing in this movie.
The Breakup in Blaze
If I could advocate for a movie you’re not likely to see on top-10 lists, it’s this one, Ethan Hawke’s sincere, time-fractured retelling of the life of singer-songwriter Blaze Foley. At the center of the movie is a love story between Foley (played by first-time actor and utter natural Ben Dickey) and Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat, who’s remarkable). When their love comes apart, so does Blaze. But not Blaze.
Emma Stone Smashes Herself in the Face With a Book in The Favourite
There are literally dozens of memorable, quotable, oddball sequences in Yorgos Lanthimos’s ripshit weirdo costume drama. The wooly dance-off springs to mind. But no image from this year repeats in the back of my mind like Emma Stone, perhaps our most cherished young star, just walloping her nose with a heavy tome. Intellectual violence of the highest order.
Thunder Road’s Oner
I wrote about the miracle of Jim Cummings’s movie this fall, and how it made me rethink the way we’ll watch films in the future. But the opening scene of Thunder Road, an extended 12-minute single-shot set at a wake—which began as the award-winning short film that led to this feature—is a dazzling example of performance over everything. Cummings is one to watch.
The Race to the Ocean in Roma
The less said about this the better. Alfonso Cuarón’s film is constructed around a series of self-consciously but absorbingly dramatic visual set pieces. This one, more than any of the others, moved me to tears.
Running the Reel in The Other Side of the Wind
I love when directors pay homage to other directors, but I love when they make fun of other directors even more. Orson Welles, deep into his shit-heel phase in the ’70s, lampooned European auteurs like Michelangelo Antonioni and Éric Rohmer with the hilariously silly movie-in-a-movie in the finally excavated film. It’s the center of a cinematic Matryoshka doll, and it’s worth pulling apart all the recombinant layers.
Red’s Revenge in Mandy
Two words: chain-saw duel.
Everything Jeff Koons Does in The Price of Everything
Nathaniel Kahn’s sneakily satirical deep dive into the world of high-end art world consumerism is one of the most unsparing documentaries of the year. And never is it more so than when the art-pop maximalist Jeff Koons is on screen, espousing bad-faith arguments for the convenience of artistic commodity. See this movie and bring your skepticism.
The Score From Shirkers
This has been a banner year for film music composition—from Ludwig Göransson’s sweeping West African–inspired score for Black Panther to Daniel Hart’s jazzy, percussive work in The Old Man and the Gun to Nicholas Britell’s sumptuous, sensual wonders in If Beale Street Could Talk. But no music captivated me quite like Ishai Adar’s elusive, dreamlike score in Sandi Tan’s documentary. The film is about memory and loss, and the accompanying score is like a neural pathway into your mind’s eye, bleeping and bobbing straight to my amygdala.
The False Flag in Vice
This hasn’t been released yet, so no spoilers, but let’s just say that about halfway through, Adam McKay’s unorthodox biopic of Dick Cheney takes a “Choose Your Own Adventure”–style twist into an alternate American history. Is it too clever by half, or the most upsetting hypothetical of our lifetimes? You decide.
The Hot Tub Scene in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
All I’m saying is, I’ve been on a high school ski trip. They didn’t have hot tubs like this at the resort where we stayed.