Tyler begins to recap his mammoth year in movies with a list of scenes and performances that stood out among the throng.
Watching a lot of movies is a mission of failure. The contemporary era’s focus on unending content has made it functionally impossible to be one who sees everything. This impossibility does not even glance at the diminishing prioritization of the critic in the contemporary landscape, or the identity of so many freelance and unpaid critics (hey, how are you?) wandering around the internet, peddling opinions based on only a sliver of the facts.
What is one who wants to have a clear-headed understanding of the cultural moment, and be able to speak to it from a place of strength or, at the very least, knowledge, to do?
Well, you do the best you can and leave the rest to subjectivity. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 175 movies later (I think I missed a few in there somewhere on the Google Sheet) it became clear to me that while I have a greater understanding of the moment-to-moment dialogue of those who still stubbornly cling to cinema as the one truly great visual medium (stop it, TV people), the idea that what we are all looking for is a person to tell you about the year and describe the things you need to see in order to fully capture its essence is deeply misguided.
I am unimaginably grateful for the opportunities, funds and personal relationships (shoutout wife!) that have allowed me this most obvious of revelations, but coming to it after so much work doesn’t make it any less true — people like what they like. Yet to that I would add a supplement, especially in the wake of an increasingly large cultural tidal wave I only am tenuously staying latched to…
People like what they like, and you don’t really have any say in the matter.
The diminishing relevance of the critic and the recommendation engine (man, that whole 100% Lady Bird fiasco really did a number on Rotten Tomatoes, huh?) makes for an increasingly confused landscape of TV, music and film. Yet into that confusion can sprint a weirder reality, one bereft of the critic and the recommender but even more reliant on the zeitgeisty opinions of those we trust.
Influencer Marketing is coming for your culture, people. Your friends will be monetized to proselytize for Rock the Dwayne Johnson’s newest franchise, or be used to prop up Megan Ellison’s new independent voice.
It is into that reality that I doubt I will tread very deeply. I think, having experienced these 175+ movies this year, I can safely say…
I like what I like.
This is Part 1 of a pair of articles about things I liked about this journey. This part focuses on scenes and performances that I thought were worthy of callout. Part 2 will be that great beast that is the My Top 50 Movies of the Year.
I hope you enjoy.
- Cold War
- Hale County This Morning, This Evening
- Night Is Short, Walk on Girl
- Free Solo
- Good Luck
- Lu Over the Wall
- 24 Frames
- Monrovia, IN
- Bisbee ’17
- A Bread Factory, Parts 1 & 2
- A Wild Pear Tree
Best Scenes of the Year
15. The Dance with the Creature — Annihilation
Alex Garland evolves (get it?) Jeff VanDerMeer’s first Area X novel into something wholly his own, focusing on the grief and frailty of those left behind by loss and how that grief metastasizes into a weed that can infect almost every part of life. Nowhere is this more apparent than Natalie Portman’s first encounter with the “creature” being birthed from the portal at the center of the mystery. Its mirrored movements yet alien structure recall the floating sense of otherness to those grieving, as if their actions are immediately recognizable, just not the person you were. It’s an elegant metaphor, one that Portman and Garland execute perfectly.
14. Trying to Drive a Tank Through a Car Wash — The Road Movie
In a movie that is little more than a collection of Vines about the Russian highway system, one of the shortest clips stands out. Little more explanation than the scene’s title is needed, as the scene unfolds exactly how you might expect. But amid the humor, a dastardly, Veep-worthy satire plays out, where Russian troops are so terrified of getting their military vehicle dirty that they want to run it through a car wash. One of the low-key funniest scenes of the year.
13. First Date — The Old Man and the Gun
Most of the movie is pure David Lowery schmaltz, but Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek’s first date at the diner that will come to define their relationship nearly makes up for all of it. Witnessing the two artists at work, lobbing subtle glances at each other in between barbs, is a joy unlike any other in moviemaking. That Spacek and Redford’s chemistry crackles so brightly makes the rest of the movie seem dull and lifeless. It’s a feat of brilliant, naturalist acting that too often gets overlooked and underdeveloped in today’s behind-the-camera auteur-driven independent scene.
12. Helicopter Chase — Mission Impossible: Fallout
Reports of Fallout’s excellence were overwrought, considering they came in a summer featuring a dearth of great action movies. Tom Cruise and his merry band are amiable and game for increasingly bizarre twists and turns, and as a furious Bond riff, the movie is successful. Most successful, in fact, when Cruise commits to acts of stunt work frankly insane by any human standards. The camera work is slightly frenetic, but the performances are commendable considering that part of the performance is the piloting of a goddamned helicopter. As a flex, it’s unlike anything else in cinema; thus, deserving.
11. “I never wanted to be your mother” — Hereditary
Often you wake from the nightmare with a start, the cliche gasp and shoot-up from the pillow. Other times it’s unclear whether the nightmare has ended, or if the brief line break between waking and sleeping was yet another feint. Hereditary, and in particular the scene in which all hell begins to finally shake loose, feels like that for a number of people: Alex Wolff’s Peter, unsure whether his mother is saying the devastating things to him that he’s hearing; Toni Collette’s Annie, trying to decipher the poison inside of her. The audience, also, plays in this space; reckoning with the reality that, while the movie has maintained a nigh-unbearable tension and dread, things are only going to get worse.
10. Getting the Apartment — If Beale Street Could Talk
It’s odd to mention this scene in all of Beale Street, a movie concerned with determined, still portraits of African-Americans crashing against the waves of society. The camera rotates and lilts with languid activity, the palette warps and bubbles with life. But why not? This is the moment — the moment that every family wants to remember about their ancestors. The moment Tish and Fonny are given a brief glimpse into their possible future is as gorgeous, sumptuous and rewarding as anything put on film this year, and stands as a testament to the myth of our ancestry, especially when faced with their reality.
9. Mahjong — Crazy Rich Asians
Other than the runaway superhero victory of Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians’ success stands as the yearly feather in Hollywood’s cap, especially so considering the ethnic diversity of both movies. And while Crazy Rich Asians is by no means perfect, and struggles with some of the pitfalls of adaptations and rom-coms, its defining scene is steeped in rich cultural texture and an intimate knowledge of its characters. As Rachel squares off with imposing potential mother-in-law Eleanor, we are allowed a glimpse of the tables turning, of history and culture clashing against one another in a battle for supremacy. The battle ends as all rom-coms need to, but that Crazy Rich Asians gives Yeoh such teeth is testament to its gutsiness in pulling off a great climactic stand-off.
8. At the Roadblock — Foxtrot
It’s difficult to tell the difference between the myth and the real when dealing with grief. Foxtrot treads defiantly into this ground, circumventing the traditional story of military grief for a triptych that presents each slightly different version of the truth as less a series of lies to comfort (although they are those) and more as mythos created by the human mind to tell a story. Thus, the entire second part, where we are given a glimpse into Jonathan’s life at his desolate military outpost (and given to believe that harm will befall him), takes on the air of a dream, as if director Samuel Maoz is asking us to question what kind of a story he would be telling us. It is a clever bit of commentary about grief, and deepens Foxtrot’s emotional impact.
7. Magic Hour — Burning
Lee Chang-Dong’s majestic tour de force scene in the middle of his Great Gatsby-esque noir is all pivot. While the audience can sense from the jump that bigger forces are at play than just the lasciviousness of two men for a woman, the film takes a breath from the dinner parties and stunted competition to witness a breathtaking dance by Jong-seo Jun’s Hae-mi and plant a creeping dread in the protagonists (and, by extension, the audiences) mind about the true nature of Steven Yeun’s mysterious Ben. That the scene is supposed to take place so close to the North-South Korean border (and that this was intentional by Lee, having adapted the work from the Japanese Haruki Murakami) only deepens the mystery, as if some indefatigable essence of national identity is tied into Hae-mi’s mystical gyrating between both stoned men.
6. In the Cemetery with Kiere — Minding the Gap
Bing Liu moves quickly in his debut documentary feature from a focus on the propulsive rush of his skating cinematography to the punishing, oppressive onset of each of the three men (Kiere Johnson, Zack Mulligan, and Bing) at its center and the damage wrought upon and by them. Perhaps the most devastating moment comes when the unflappable Kiere, the most talented skater of the group and seemingly the most at peace with his troubled youth, breaks his facade. As he searches frantically for his father’s grave, somehow forgotten, Kiere lets go that while his surface level unflappability is real (bolstered by his skateboard), there is damage lurking underneath from years of trauma, misplaced guilt, neglect and sorrow. That Bing, Kiere’s friend, shoots the scene with detached, blistering honesty is a feat onto itself. But it is Kiere’s melting defenses that make the moment so heartbreaking.
5. In the Department Store — Roma
Roma has a half dozen show-stopping sequences, but none carry as much generational, meta-textual, storytelling heft as the moment Cleo and Teresa shop for a baby bassinet, unknowingly entering themselves into the middle of the Corpus Christi Massacre. Cuaron’s rotating shot frames the struggle from initially personal, the feeling that an earthquake may alter Cleo’s birthing plans, to the tumultuous sea of society in motion, protestors being gunned down by CIA-backed mercenaries, to the impact of the two together, as Fermin and Cleo come into contact for the last time to make the sociopolitical tragically personal. All in the scope of less than two minutes, Cuaron makes an empathetic statement unlike many others in the year.
4. Father Toller meets Michael — First Reformed
Paul Schrader takes himself a bit off the leash as First Reformed transitions from simmering polemic to outright anti-superhero origin story. His psychedelic finale may stand as the most ostentatious scene of the film, but the best use of Schrader’s prodigious knowledge and intellect is in Ethan Hawke’s first confrontation with Philip Ettinger’s Michael. Ettinger so profoundly captures the unhinged, despairing defeat of Michael’s climate crusader that it’s nearly impossible to separate him from Schrader. Instead, the conversation could be seen as the most effective dressing down of a climate denier in cinema history. A shame, then, that the rest of the movie is concerned less with the effectiveness of the small scale scene, and more on the outrageous, morally righteous fury of its writer.
3. The Break-In — Custody
The trigger warning for Xavier Legrand’s domestic abuse drama doesn’t fully kick in until the final setpiece, when the subdued yet clearly villainous husband explodes and attempts to destroy his wife and young son in their new apartment. The scene is a masterstroke in editing, sound use and camerawork, maintaining an almost unbearable level of tension with hardly any character movement whatsoever. More than anything, the scene feels authentic, documentarian where the rest of the film is overdramatic and maudlin. Legrand captures the claustrophobic, inescapable, sure defeat of a woman and child, constantly asked to give benefit of the doubt to a man they know is pure, unfettered evil.
2. The Dream — A Long Day’s Journey Into Night
From a technical standpoint, Bi Gan’s insane flex to end his second film is nearly unrivaled. Even the masters of long takes (Cuaron) wouldn’t try such a feat of meticulous planning and masterful execution. Yet more than the precision required to achieve it, Bi’s showpiece is an excellent portrayal of the inescapable, hallucinogenic yet dirt-covered reality of dreams. Characters reappear as other entities, locations gestate and morph second to second, and elements of the protagonist’s terrestrial life flick in and out of the dream like talismans of something lost or forgotten. A stunning rendition of a dream, done with minimal digital effects and a languid camera, held for 55 minutes on the journeyman protagonist as he completes his celestial way home.
1. Birth of a Nation — BlackKklansman
The deified treatment of Spike Lee’s righteously indignant story of the black cop who infiltrated the Klan feels slightly rotten given the looseness with which Lee plays with the facts and his modern predisposition for All Lives Matter-ism. That said, the cross-cutting climax of the film, in which Harry Belafonte recounts a horrific memory of racist violence while Topher Grace (as David Duke) inducts new members into his flock with a poisonous speech flecked with yelps of “white power” is unsubtle, hand on the scale cinematic storytelling, but Lee makes it sizzle with his impeccable eye. The rest of the movie muddies the waters, but this excruciating sequence of parallel action is a painful reminder of how powerful and clearly enraged cinema can transform an audience.