From Wakanda to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: 20 Critical Film Scenes from 2018

In celebration of this weekend's edition of the Oscars, Matt McMahon surveys 20 of his favorite movie scenes from 2018.
By    February 24, 2019

We’ve yet to win any Academy Awards, but our mantles are heavy with Street Pulitzers. Please support Passion of the Weiss by subscribing to our Patreon.

In the last few months, big players like Netflix and Warner Bros.’s DCEU gained the critical recognition and massive box office success they’ve been respectively aiming at for years. Meanwhile, filmmakers and actors of color continually dispelled the assumptions that their movies could not garner enough appeal to warrant big budget opportunities with commercial hits like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians.

Films from 2018 seemed especially interested in subjects like immigration allegories (Bumblebee, Venom, Paddington 2); plagiarism and authority (The Wife, Colette, Can You Ever Forgive Me?); scammers (Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Favourite and American Animals), and a willingness to die for one’s craft (The Rider, Free Solo, and the narrative *and* meta-narrative of Mission: Impossible – Fallout).

A few months ago, I wrote about one of my favorite movie scenes from the past year: a tense, well-choreographed standoff from Blindspotting. Now as the Oscars cap off The Year of Movies 2018, I want to highlight twenty other scenes that made a lasting impression on me, showcased the trends we saw at the movies this year, and anticipate where film is headed in the near future. — Matt McMahon

Game Night – A Fully-Charmed Performance

Game Night succeeds for the same reason that the parents’ section of Blockers doesn’t completely fall apart: the actor you most want to see succeed in their roles (Rachel McAdams and Ike Barinholtz, respectively) absolutely kill it. McAdams’ shining moment comes in the form of a lip-sync routine to Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” while dancing around pointing a loaded gun she doesn’t realize isn’t fake at a group of kidnappers she doesn’t realize aren’t paid actors in on the bit. She totally commits to it and it’s such a blast to watch;, it makes you wonder why she doesn’t get acting opportunities that showcase her comedic talents all the time.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor – One Silent Minute

The closing sequence of Morgan Neville’s mosaic about TV personality Fred Rogers asks very little of its audience for a portrait of one of America’s most gracious public figures. In what could have been a very “important now more than ever” telling of Rogers’ story, Neville mostly eschews contemporary comparison to focus on the central theme of Mr. Rogers’ life: empathy. In the final moments of the film, through archival footage of Rogers’ 2001 commencement speech at Middlebury College, he asks his audience for a minute of silence, to reflect on those who’ve cared and encouraged us to “be true to the best within you.” It’s a beautiful moment to experience within a theater, sharing that energy with loved ones and strangers alike, and provided such a strong, lasting feeling with which to leave a movie.

Support the Girls – Final Scene

On the exact opposite end of the spectrum, Support the Girls ends with about a minute of pure noise. Andrew Bujalski’s workplace comedy tracks the unglamorous responsibilities of an independent Hooters-style bar middle-manager, and ends up considering empathy just as much as Won’t You Be My Neighbor does. But where WYBMN opts for silence, Support the Girls realizes that sometimes the only way to process a day-in-the-life is through the catharsis of screaming at the top of your lungs on a competing titty bar’s rooftop. After watching Regina Hall’s Lisa navigate a shift in which everything that could go wrong does—with a fraying patience just barely kept intact—it’s a joy for the movie to pay it off with this visceral form of relief.

First Reformed – Pepto in Whiskey

As a whiskey drinker who deals with incredibly bad bouts of acid reflux, there wasn’t a single image I connected with more over the past year than the shot of acid reflux medicine being poured into a nightcap from First Reformed. Paul Schrader’s script is filled with tiny details that both reinforce and confound our perception of his protagonist the Reverend Ernst Toller. None, however, are as sharp or incisive—or even as judgmentally funny—as the shot of Pepto Bismol blooming in a glass of whiskey like the DS2 cover. The image synthesizes the cynicism and wry humor with which Schrader and his film view their protagonist, who enables his deadly behaviors with the most cosmetic attempts at reform. Doubly, it serves as a visual microcosm for the overarching thesis of the film. As the pink sludge of the antacid pollutes the whiskey, Schrader’s anxieties about trying to mend world problems like global warming with band-aids instead of stitches—targeting easier, short term solutions while ignoring the real, long-term threats that will ultimately kill us—comes into clear focus.

Leave No Trace – Bees

Leave No Trace is a largely muted film in terms of dialog. At the core of its story lies a PTSD-addled father and his teenage daughter who have difficulty communicating. This stems from a growing chasm between their social and psychological needs, and their intense protectiveness for each other as they attempt to live off of Portland’s woods without permanent residency. As a result of their surroundings, the film’s dominant language is one of nature. The pair bond over meals of foraged ingredients and a shared interest in wildlife, but there’s a fundamental divide in the lifestyles they require. Despite these verbal hurdles, daughter Tom is able to translate her need for domesticity to her father in a remarkably delicate scene showing him how a beehive operates. Scored by the gentle hum of the hive, the scene beautifully weaves a metaphor that not only works in the characters’ language but in the films’ as well, making it even more potent.

Black Panther – Opening Scene

From the opening scene of Black Panther, I was on board. Ryan Coogler immediately parlays the capital he earned from the critical and financial success of Fruitvale Station and Creed to spin an allegorical tale of black history and tradition— an opportunity so rarely afforded screentime, particularly in a blockbuster. The familiarity of the themes in the opening conflict between Wakandan King T’Chaka and his brother and American immigrant N’Jobu are instantly recognizable. There’s an implicit struggle felt between the first generation American immigrant and his family and homeland, the pressures to assimilate in a new world that wouldn’t understand those forces distancing him from tradition. There’s also the related representation of the effects a diaspora has on its displaced communities, a concept rather unfamiliar to big budget movies. These ideas stretch far beyond the pages of a comic, and it’s inspiring how thoughtfully they were introduced and fully realized in a movie whose concept of a homeland is created whole cloth from comic book mythos.

Avengers: Infinity War – Thor’s Fourth Quarter Comeback

Okay, Infinity War was definitely all over the place. Some people said its noncommittal ending gave it no stakes at all. Others claimed it was a masterpiece merely for having been successfully seen through in the first place. With its overstuffed cast and an understanding of the familial trauma inherent to many of its members, it ultimately lands somewhere in the middle. Plus, it provided this scene: one of the most well-paid-off moments in film in 2018. Go back 10 years ago to the humble begins of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when Tony Stark still took 5 minutes to get into his only Iron Man suit, Thor was a Shakespearean drama directed by Kenneth Branagh, and Merrill Lynch nearly gained ownership of them both and another half a dozen or so Marvel characters. Who would have anticipated THIS “I’m getting too old for this shit” character arc for Thor?  Yet after a TV season’s worth of MCU movies, he comes barreling through the air into the Wakandan battle field with a new hammer constructed from one of Groot’s limbs and his new best friend Rocket Raccoon at his side (what a wild fucking sentence that 10 years ago almost nobody would understand). It’s a triumph–albeit if you’ve acquiesced to Marvel’s business plan and invested 30-50 hours in their movies–and maybe the second most emotionally resonant moment in the entire movie. It also gets at the ways Marvel has reshaped our movie-going experience, weaving narratives over multiple independent films and expecting their audience to watch them all for their character arcs to take shape.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – Saying Goodbye to the Spider-Creatures

Speaking of superhero movies with emotionally resonant moments. Compared to any other, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a prestige drama with an astounding late-era Streep performance. A story that’s probably less recognizable to more people than any other superhero movie this side of Shazam!, Into the Spider-Verse had no business being as affecting as it was. But its strong understanding of the pathos of Spider-Man as an everyman character puts it a cut above its contemporaries.

It boldly attempts to conquer the origin story of Miles Morales, the first biracial Spider-Man to appear in the Marvel comics, and the knotty storyline of various alternate universe Spider-Men and manages to do both justice. It’s at once a very nerdy concept and universally appealing as a superhero story for people who haven’t been able to see themselves as superheroes in pop culture before. But for me, the best thing it has going for it is that the movie’s resolution–your typical defeat the baddy to save the city fair–demands that the alternate dimension Spider-Creatures it introduces can’t survive in the film’s universe and must be sent back to theirs, which leads to the best scene in the movie.

About halfway through, Into the Spider-Verse introduces five other Spider-”Men” from five other dimensions accidentally flung into Miles’ version of New York. By the time they’re leaving 30 minutes later, you find yourself having more of an emotional connection to these 6 animated spider-creatures than all of their live-action superhero counterparts (besides maybe Thor and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man). On paper, this band of misfits that includes a noir-tinted Spider-Man from the ‘30s and an anthropomorphic Spider-Ham would seem completely unrelatable. However, watching them bicker and fight together, knowing that despite having this one-of-a-kind affliction, Miles has other people (and animals, and robots) out there that share his same experiences really resonates. What’s more: as Miles sends the crew back, the psychedelic animation gives the feeling of voraciously flipping through the climatic issue of a comic book series. In stark contrast to Infinity War’s melodrama and bloat, sending all these superheroes back to their own universes serves as a salve of meta commentary on Hollywood’s current oversaturation of superhero movies.

Free Solo – Conquering El Capitan

What an insane, frustrating, charismatic figure extreme rock climber and subject of Free Solo Alex Honnold is! The documentary makes it clear that there was no way Honnold was ever going to not attempt to free solo (a term for solo rock climbing without any harnesses) Yosemite’s 3000ft cliffside El Capitan. I’m glad he worked it out with a documentary crew so others could experience the white-knuckled journey. While watching him plot out the climb, I couldn’t get over the looming sense of his mortality lingering on the outside of his conversations with his girlfriend and the film’s crew. Each of those people involved in the ascent has to fully come to terms with his death, but he can’t relate because he never has to; either he succeeds in his climb or makes a mistake and ceases to exist, never having to come to terms with his failure. It feels like the most high-stakes, Saw room concept for a video game speedrunner, where he must execute perfectly or he himself is executed. As a climber endangering his life he’s compelled to treat his mortality as such, but that he’s able to in the first place is seemingly what enables him to make the climb at all.

First Man – The First Small Steps for Man

If not for the very public achievement of being the first man to walk on the moon, by First Man’s account Neil Armstrong would seem fairly ordinary, if extremely internalized. I feel the same would go for the film’s director Damien Chazelle were he not a readily-known and Academy Award winning young director. Armstrong and Chazelle share a singularly narrow focus on career, with the superceding desire to be the greatest to ever do their thing. For Armstrong, that desire was getting to the moon; for Chazelle, it’s a desire to be the best filmmaker in the world. It takes knowing these ambitions to understand how important these men’s accomplishments are, not necessarily in the context of their fields (they’re easily apparent in that regard), but in the context of their own lives and what their successes mean to them personally.

So far, the moon landing sequence in First Man is Chazelle’s filmic equivalent of Armstrong’s moon landing. I can’t imagine the lengths he and his crew went through to reenact the event with such authenticity and technical acumen–I think I might rather continue to suspend disbelief that they really filmed on the moon–but all of their efforts show up on screen. When Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the moon and the horizon stretches into the same silent expanse that accompanies Armstrong as he navigates life on earth after the death of his daughter, the view is completely transporting. It’s a technical achievement for sure, but that Chazelle connects the moment to Armstrong’s journey of grieving his child reveals how the two interpret their career motivations.

The Rider – One Last Ride

I mentioned this scene in passing in my year-end round-up–or maybe I should say corral–of Western narratives in pop-culture, but it warrants a dedicated space here. Across Chloe Zhao’s docu-fictional drama The Rider, the high regard with which she films the typically violent sport of rodeo riding is illustrative of her own sensibilities. She understands the compassion at the center of the relationship between an ace rider and their horse. This is never on display more than when her main subject, Brandy Jandreau, playing a fictionalized version of himself, trains horses while in rehabilitation from riding injuries. The same symbiotic relationship that exists between Brandy and his horse, exists with Zhao and her camera. Throughout she gently coaxes the machine into a softer, warmer compositions than most other operators could.

Despite his doctor’s orders, Brandy, who faces deadly consequences from riding after a bad accident, takes one last ride on his horse before he has to give it up to financially support his family. Zhao presents the ride as meditation, shot with the sense that the entire world around him has disappeared and all the troubles of his life don’t exist until his feet return to the earth. You get the sense that this is what filmmaking is for Zhao, the surrounding industry her obstacles and the camera her way to escape.

Around the same time I saw The Rider, I saw a showing of Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the prospect of the two as a double feature. Both mine stories about dangerous subcultures and the fragile dynamics of their predominantly-male members–members who are continually willing to risk their lives to participate in the activity they love most. It’s the two filmmakers’ keen ability to expose their characters for the human connections they seek amidst their unfulfilling, death-defying interests that connects Zhao and Bigelow and sets their work apart from anyone else.

Annihilation – The Alien

While it has some odd performance choices and a sometimes clichéd script, Annihilation excels as a movie that doesn’t necessarily have answers for the questions it raises. Writer-Director Alex Garland asks his audience to accept the film’s own uncertainties and go along for the ride, a dynamic not enough filmmakers (or financiers of filmmakers) value. As a result. he may not be the most subtle director as far as his visual symbolism goes, often staging images with such intent that you can’t not get their underlying meaning. However, his composition is so striking and unique in design (like the recurring motif of refracting water representing his characters’ distorting personalities) and so clean in its execution (shifting organs exemplifying the invisible effects of trauma), that in pulling them off his flaws hardly matters. The last fifteen minutes of Annihilation are a perfect combination of these two traits: uncertainty and visualism. It’s purely abstract–an interpretive dance between a character and her alien doppelganger about self-destruction and exorcising inner demons set to a Moderat album interlude. Like the film’s alien zone The Shimmer itself, the scene has no distinct answer for its existence, but that it can and does exist is reason enough to acknowledge it.

A Star is Born – “Shallow”’s Debut

I’m far from the first to say it, but the first hour of Bradley Cooper’s retelling of Hollywood’s folktale A Star is Born is perfect filmmaking. Cooper treats the near-century old template as a love story that uses the two main characters’ musicianship as a stand-in for their romance. From the footage of rockstar Jackson Maine’s introductory concert to his muse Ally’s sultry performance of “La Vie En Rose,” Cooper frames them falling for each other through spectacle. As such the movie stacks all of this momentum on itself like the rising action in a symphony. By the time Ally’s rushing on Jackson’s private jet to meet him the day after they first meet, with the intro to his next concert scoring the action, this artistic momentum turns into sexual anticipation. So when they finally meet on stage and duet a song they’ve never played together before, it feels the same as when the guy and the girl who were meant to be together in the romantic drama finally kiss. The beauty of this creative expression between the two propels the performance and reinvigorates a sexual energy that’s otherwise gone quite stale in these types of movies. After all, this performance of “Shallow” is really how they first make love to each other, the stage where the highs and lows of their relationship manifest themselves throughout the rest of the movie.

If Beale Street Could Talk – Department Store Perfume Sampling

Much of If Beale Street Could Talk is about time lost, but there are a few interstitial scenes in Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s beloved novel that instead make use of time passing naturally. Comprised of poetic narration over quick-cut action, these scenes offer glimpses into their characters’ psyches in the same way a novel’s omniscient narrator would. There’s a beautiful sequence in which Kiki Layne’s Tish Rivers extolls the physical and emotional joys and inconveniences of pregnancy. There’s the flashbacks to her and her partner Fonny Hunt playing as children while she describes the progression of their relationship from childhood to present-day. The most striking of these montages, however, is one in which Tish explains the differences in her interactions with customers of different races and genders at her job as a perfume salesperson at a department store.

More interior monologue than narration, Tish’s esoteric voice-over retains the spirit of Jenkins’s source material, and Jenkins’ command over Baldwin’s diction elevates the film in the ranks of adaptation. The scene is about the minute differences in human interactions and what they truly mean, with a dazzling grasp of how to make such differences understood. In tandem with his direction, shot tenderly in close ups and slow-motion, lingering on the slightest but most important exchanges in body language, the scene conveys a tremendous amount in its abbreviated terms. It’s engaging where in lesser hands a scene like this could feel inert, especially considering the theoretical rules Jenkins’ is breaking by telling rather than showing. But the ideas in question here are feelings and perspective that could only be conveyed in the written or spoken word. It’s emblematic of Barry Jenkins’ unconventional script writing techniques and you don’t see filmmaking like it nearly anywhere else.

Widows – A Three Minute Car Ride Through Chicago

With Widows, director Steve McQueen set out to make his version of a blockbuster Heist Film. The chilly, Michael Mann-inspired script pits four widows and two Chicago politicians against each other over a bounty of money each has their own claim to. Of course, McQueen’s take on a genre film maintains the prestige of his other movies, shot with an intent towards realism above all else–and inspiring 10 separate great performances from A-list actors, to boot. The setup is messy, the moving pieces are confusing–not just to the viewer but to the players themselves–and the climatic heist is unpolished and, ultimately, not that climactic. The film underperformed partly because of these ambitious decisions, and partly because of a particularly off-the-mark marketing campaign. But McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn’s concern is with how this type of movie would transpire in the real world, where political gamesmanship, economic divide, and individual and institutional racism all coalesce to undermine and supercede any other plots at play.

There’s no scene where all that is better captured than an unbroken shot of an incumbent Alderman’s limo ride through the suburbs of Chicago. In the scene, McQueen chooses to watch the nepotistic Alderman’s convoy move from the depressed ward he represents to the wealthy one in which he lives, all from outside the car on its side view mirror. While listening in on the Alderman’s misogynistic and racist anxieties, McQueen’s able to trace how close these communities are to each other while highlighting their segregation, all while portraying how unfit this man is to hold the office he inherited. It’s an astoundingly economic bit of storytelling, displaying the director’s complete understanding of the story he wants to tell, the importance of the environment in which he’s telling it, and the details that helped him shape it.

Mission: Impossible — Fallout – The Smaller Moments

For all the death-defying stunts and larger than life action sequences in the latest and second-best (shoutout to Ghost Protocol) entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise, it’s the scant grounded moments thrown in that stayed with me most. Sure the Halo Jump is one of the most ambitious and entertaining pieces of action I’ve ever seen in a theater, but without Ethan Hunt stopping at a plate glass window to shrug at an office worker before he catapults a chair through it in a tense chase scene, the series would start to lose any connection to the real world. For instance, the final conflict gets interrupted for 10 minutes by Hunt’s ex-wife so he and the movie can reckon with the new life she’s had to adopt because of Hunt’s refusal to not accept a mission. My favorite of these scenes though occurs when a street cop gets caught in the crossfire of a shootout. The sobering way Hunt comforts her serves as a reminder of everything else that still exists inside this otherwise extremely over-the-top universe. It shows that despite flying a helicopter into another helicopter to save the world from nuclear extinction Hunt’s somehow still human. Small moments like these feel increasingly necessary to balance the franchise as it grows more outlandish with every installment.

Blaze – Memory Through Music

In 2013’s Before Midnight, Ethan Hawke’s Jesse has an idea for a new novel he wants to write. It centers on a middle-aged father helping his teenage daughter get ready for prom and takes place entirely within the runtime of one pop song. The father flashes back to different moments in his life when the same song also played: his first date with his wife, the time he and his daughter danced to it when she was just a child. Jesse’s interested in exploring the ways in which music evokes memories, and how your relationship with a song can evolve over time. Just five years later, Hawke realized this idea with his biopic of undersung Texas Outlaw musician, Blaze Foley.

The film tells Foley’s story across three different temporalities. Framed by the happenings of one of his last, infamous live shows, it darts between the story of his relationship with his partner Sybil Rosen as he embarks on his musical career and a radio interview with two of his tourmates after his death. This structure, coupled with the way his songs trigger these flashbacks in the film–the scenes edited together like memories Foley’s experiencing as he plays his songs–captures the way in which people emotionally respond to music, whether playing or listening. Each time Foley starts a new song throughout what would become his final show, I’d never seen that feeling as deftly expressed as it is in Blaze.

Madeline’s Madeline – Madeline Plays Regina

Madeline’s Madeline is an extremely impressionistic film that I read as a trans narrative. Its manic energy and disorienting cuts to first person approximate what it must feel like to live in a body you don’t necessarily feel comfort in as your own. There’s a dreamlike fluidity to its titular character. Who and what represents “Madeline” on screen at any point in time can change with her mood, i.e. in an instant. This alone would be a difficult role for a relatively young, first-time screenactor to inhabit. Yet the portrayal becomes even more complex for Helena Howard’s Madeline in an unnerving scene that takes place during a practice session with her stage troupe. In an acting exercise, Howard is required to inhabit Madeline’s frustratingly over-protective mother Regina as Madeline acts out an impromptu monologue as her mother. It’s a harrowing turn, as the troupe’s director manipulates Madeline’s interest in acting into a dangerous, experimental form of psychotherapy. But Howard shows her command over both characters by embodying how Madeline both pities and understands her mother’s own neuroses with stunning affect.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before – Dad ‘n’ Daughter Diner Dinner

Before his pivotal monologue while sharing a meal with his daughter, John Corbett’s Dan Covey spends most of the movie on the sidelines. Or in To All The Boys’ case, he’s relegated to his station behind the kitchen island slinging dadisms in a typical, if endearing single father role. It isn’t until this late scene discussing the difficulties he’s faced connecting with his daughter since his wife, her mother, passed that Corbett really shines. As father confides in his daughter the qualities of her mother he sees in her, it’s Corbett’s lived-in delivery, the kind of comfortability you’d wish for in a parent in that difficult moment, that makes it an incredibly moving scene. There were a lotta great single dad performances in movies in 2018, including Josh Hamilton in Eighth Grade and Nick Offerman in Hearts Beat Loud, but John Corbett’s as Dr. Dan Covey eclipsed the rest in terms of its emotional impact and familiarity.

The Favourite – Courting Scene in the Woods

Despite its late Restoration-era dressings and regal Hatfield House setting, Yorgos Lanthimos’s historical comedy The Favourite has the sense of humor of a Jackass film and the staging and drama of a season of Big Brother with an 18th century makeover. The eight act “upstairs downstair” affair depicts the political inner-workings of Queen Anne’s court as she struggles to keep power while degenerating due to a host of ailments brought on by diabetes. But as is Lanthimos’s wont, the director uses the period’s absurd displays of opulence and “proper” behaviors to skewer how social mores have at their core remained pretty much the same despite the modern veneers of technology. The best of these observations comes in the form of a scene of flirtation between two aspirational members of Anne’s court. Lanthimos pits the two interested subjects against each other in the woods outside of Anne’s estate, physically pursuing each other like children on a playground. The scene is a complete distillation of courtship and dating into its most animalistic interpretation. As Abigail Hill continually evades, feints, and then kicks her future husband Sam Masham in the nards, it takes the form of one of those bits where something stops being funny and then goes on for so long it starts being even funnier, all while assuming the pomp and circumstance of a costume drama.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!