Every January I signal boost my favorite movies of the last year, and of these movies I pick out my favorite moments. This is just as difficult as nailing down a list of strictly ten movies because, well, any one movie can have any number of moments that wow me. It’s an obvious sign of a movie’s impact on my overthinking brain and relentless beating heart, which is why this is the last stop before I unveil my top ten.
Now, what do I define as a great movie “moment”? Any part of a movie that resounds with my being, be it an actual laugh out loud moment, an uplifting cheer, or a well-earned cry. Trust me, there’s a difference between a fleeting thrill, and a thrill that reinforces the wonder of movies—that all of this is broadly fake, yet your emotions in response to the sensation on screen feels very real. This can range from one shot to a whole sequence that nonetheless immerses you.
These were the ten moments in film that, despite the general malaise of 2020, had me feeling stubbornly alive.
*Light spoilers to follow, so if you want to watch these movies blind, leave NOW.
- BAD BOYS FOR LIFE – The Reveal
Every once in a while, Will Smith reminds us he can ACT. After all, we’re more likely to quote him in Fresh Prince or Bad Boys than, say, The Pursuit of Happyness. Bad Boys for Life showcases the best parts of Smith’s star charisma in a pivotal midway reveal that in lesser hands could’ve crippled the entire movie. In the film, Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett are chasing a super-assassin wreaking havoc across Miami. The assassin turns out to be none other than Lowrey’s illegitimate child, and Smith sells the shit out of this scene the same way he did with Suicide Squad’s overblown finale.
The outrageousness of this twist is par for the course for the franchise, but with Smith and Martin Lawrence’s winning chemistry, it’s a sincere moment that validates the buddy-cop dynamic in all three films. We might’ve shown up for the car chases and explosions, but we stayed for these two cats who still don’t know the words to the theme song.
- FREAKY – The Kiss
A lesson in “context is everything.” Freaky is a body-swap slasher movie. Vince Vaughn plays the notorious Butcher, and Kathryn Newton’s character Millie is his next victim. The act causes them to switch bodies, and this killer switcheroo premise only gets funnier from there.
Millie, in the Butcher’s body, finds herself strangely closer than ever to her high school crush, Booker. They’re alone in a car, head over heels for one another, and, well… it’s a moment you think for sure isn’t gonna happen because that would be too cheap of a laugh, and then it happens. (When their lips pecked, I SCREAMED.) Again, context is everything. Freaky doubles as sleek redemption for Vaughn and the ill-conceived Psycho remake that still exists, while allowing him to do what he does best: ham it up in his cuddly bear and profanity-riddled way.
- BIRDS OF PREY – RIP Breakfast Sandwich
Pour one out for the saddest cinematic death of 2020. There’s lots to love about Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (the vibrant color palette, kickass stunt-work, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, etc.) but the thing I love most is that it allows Harley Quinn to be self-indulgent – best exemplified in a sequence that is, in and of itself, an exercise in self-indulgence. The fact that we get to see the stovetop making of this beauty is delicious enough, but that we’re getting it through Harley’s hyperverbal POV in the midst of a frantic foot chase is the sauce on top. This scene may be an extended bit but who gives a shit. It’s the most I’ve cared about a breakfast sandwich a live-action Harley Quinn and I’ll take it. To go, please 😃
- DA 5 BLOODS – Salt in the Vaseline
Y’all weren’t kidding about Delroy Lindo’s performance. My man is practically en route to collect the Oscar as we speak. Da 5 Bloods charts the story of five veterans who travel back to Vietnam to collect buried gold, each with five different agendas on what to do with said gold. Some want riches, others want reparations, while Lindo’s Paul is only looking out for himself. This fates Paul for a tragic end as the repercussions of war and the delusions of his selfish agenda play tug-of-war with his fractured psyche. He’ll go out guns blazing, but not before delivering a towering, unbroken monologue that perfectly distills the monument of what’s owed to the black community for constantly putting their lives on the line for this country, and will never be repaid.
- PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN – The Video
I’m still thinking about this movie. Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, is seeking revenge for her best friend Nina who was raped in college and went on to commit suicide. Cassie is constantly torn between burning up the patriarchy, or carving out a life beyond the trauma. Then she discovers that there’s footage of Nina’s rape. But we don’t watch the video, we watch in stark closeup as Cassie watches the video, experiencing in real-time how those complicit in her deepest wound are much closer than she ever thought possible. If the cardinal rule of horror is “what you don’t see is always scarier,” then Promising Young Woman reinforces it with a goddamn sledgehammer.
- SOUND OF METAL – The Party
For Ruben, losing his hearing is like death. He’s a drummer; listening is everything, like playing with his bandmate and life partner Lou is his whole existence. “Wait for me,” he begs, makes her promise when he goes into treatment. When they finally reunite, and Ruben’s implants struggle with the feedback of Lou’s voice as she’s singing to a captivated audience, we feel the brokenness of that promise and their lost connection. The immersion of this moment made possible through the film’s sound design is as surreal as it is heartbreaking. We’re right with Ruben and the distorted loneliness of no longer being able to hear, and we see with brutal clarity that Ruben and Lou aren’t the same anymore.
- SOUL – Sky-watching
There are so many wonderful moments in Soul – from its unique title sequence, to literally any scene with Terry, to Pixar’s trademark emotional climax – that I half-considered giving Soul another spot on this list. But if I had to pick one, it’s when Joe (still in a cat) and 22 (still in Joe’s body) are outside the jazz club, and 22 experiences the pure sensation of existing. Leave it to an animated movie to make me appreciate the everyday grooves of life that we often take for granted: the people all around us, the cars whizzing by, the wind on our face, the wonder of the trees and skies above. All of it is sheer magic, and that reminder is SO deeply felt at a time when we’re bid to stay inside. With so many movies under Pixar’s belt, it’s easy to think we’ve seen it all, but I’ve never pined for regular old living the way I did with Soul.
- TENET – Protagonist vs. the Inverted Man
There’s nothing like being seated for a Christopher Nolan movie. This has held true for me from Inception to Interstellar and yet again with Tenet. Even with the tease of “reverse entropy” in the trailers, I still didn’t know what Nolan had in store for us, which brings me to this jaw-dropping fight scene. The leadup to it is already spectacular, Nolan ramming a giant airplane into a hangar as a “DIVERSION.” He then unleashes this extravaganza of reverse hand-to-hand combat. (I had no idea John David Washington was THIS physically capable.) I haven’t been this exhilarated since the bullet time sequence in The Matrix. This inverted fight scene is a phenomenon of physical and visual effects working in such perfect harmony that one truly needs to see to believe. It’s thrilling, confounding, mind-bending, and above all, cinematic.
- THE INVISIBLE MAN – Pregnancy Scare
The Invisible Man employs so many simple yet brutally effective visual tricks that I’m still in awe. Its use of negative space surrounding Cecilia in any given scene is especially diabolical. Because her ex-boyfriend Adrian (😬) is supposedly dead, yet she finds herself exceedingly tormented in his grasp. The extent of Adrian’s control over Cecilia is orchestrated in one unnerving closeup. Earlier in the movie, Cecilia mentions taking birth control in secret. This served two purposes: never having to bear his child, and giving her the only sense of agency in the abusive relationship.
A urine test later reveals that Cecilia is in fact pregnant, and we’re right there with her in all of the horrifying implications—the crushing blow that her one act of freedom has been wielded to entrap her once more. One tight closeup and the film mines SO MUCH TERROR simply out of one character learning new information. This is writer-director Leigh Whannell’s most masterful effect, giving a whole new anxiety to the “pregnancy scare.”
- NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS – The Questionnaire
You’ve probably noticed that a lot of the moments I’ve been fawning over are closeups. My final and favorite use of the technique lies in the indie extraordinaire, Never Rarely Sometimes Always. We follow Autumn and her cousin as they travel to New York to terminate an unintended pregnancy. At the clinic, she’s submitted to an intake exam – a series of questions that catch in your throat each time: “Has your partner physically hurt you?” “Has anyone forced you into a sexual act?” Eventually, Autumn stops answering, and the lingering silence tells us everything we need to know.
This is the moment that stuck with me all year because it made me forget for a second that I was watching a movie. This scene is emblematic of what film can do as an empathy machine. Some of us will feel like we’re in the uncomfortable room with Autumn. The rest of us will recognize ourselves in Autumn. Movies, whether they’re playing in giant cathedrals or in our tiny living rooms, have the ability to transport us. Sometimes it’s not to a place we’d rather be, but towards a feeling we’ve never experienced before or don’t experience that often— however devastated that might leave us. This scene boasts the immersive, unspoken power of what an expert frame and a searing performance can do: make you feel.