Film criticism is a funny thing sometimes.
While some love a film that you hate (or vice versa), there can be pressure to acknowledge that certain films deserve to be held up as ‘best’ when you simply don’t connect with them. In the same way, a movie that you don’t enjoy can also have redeeming moments that shine through, allowing some aspect of the piece to connect with your heart.
With that in mind, while everyone pieces together their own Top 10 films of the year (or decade… or 2000s…), I feel like it’s worth taking the opportunity to call out the moments that mattered this year. Not just the ‘best pics’ but those brief instances when a film really impacted me. As a result, I offer to you my Top 10 moments of the year. Some are emotionally powerful. Some are random.
But all of them mattered to me.
Honourable Mentions: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (‘I try…’); Judy (‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’); Abominable (Violin for the Mountains)
10) Avengers: Endgame (TIE): Captain Ameri-Thor / Lady Avengers
After 23 movies and 10 years, the most impressive aspect of Avengers: Endgame was that it was able to stick the landing as a (Note: Not The) finale to the franchise’s multiple story arc. Say what you will about the Marvel Cinematic Universe—and there are many arguments against their dominance—but they have led the decade as a pop culture phenomenon. That having been said, Endgame walked the balance between ‘greatest hits’ from the last decade and moments of ‘payoff’ for long-time fans.
In one of the more unexpected (and beloved) visuals within the film is its overwhelming set pieces was this moment when, in the midst of the climatic battle against villainous Thanos, Captain America wielded Mjolnir to an awe-struck Thor, proving that he too was worthy of the weapons awesome power. While the visuals in this final fight for humanity were often overwhelming—they admittedly had to be—this was one of those brief moments that sticks out in my memory
With this in mind, another important moment in the climax of the saga came during the same battle when almost every major female character stood together in unison onscreen. In a culture that is trying to recognize the strength of women to fans of pop culture, this moment gets points for the sheer recognition of its female characters (even if there was very little actual action together). Despite its limited female led films, there are a large number of female heroes that have mattered in the MCU and this brief moment allowed for them to shine briefly as the series moves into its next chapter.
9) Us: The longest drive…
While it never fully achieves the unexpected greatness of Get Out, Jordan Peele’s Us was definitely strong in its own right. Featuring a memorable performance by Nyong’o, Us is yet another smart social commentary disguised as an entertaining horror pic. Without giving away any spoilers (you truly don’t want to know them if you haven’t seen the film), the final moments as the Wilson family are driving home feature an important moment. As Adelaide Wilson looks into the backseat at her son, their unspoken silence speaks volumes and leaves the viewer with the best type of questions.
8) The Irishman: Can you leave the door open…?
As one of Scorsese’s best films in years, The Irishman is an ambitious and bold character study of a man who sits next to the seat of power but never ascends to the throne. Frank Sheeran is a truck driver who quickly works his way up through the mob scene through the mid-20th Century. While the film is a stunning character piece, the largest question remains about Frank’s motivation. If he isn’t interested in claiming power for himself, what is he looking for? Stability? Protection for his family?
Perhaps the most telling answer to that may come at the film’s conclusion when an elderly Frank is meeting with a local pastor. While he seems to leave the details of his life in question, Frank clearly desires to still matter. Having been always seen as the ‘up and comer’, Frank has always had the ear of the most powerful men in the city. While he struggled to connect with his family, he had always been important to more important people. As an older gentleman though, he has lost all of this. Family relationships are gone. The local pastor visits infrequently. Even the police barely have a passing interest in his story now. In the film’s final moments, as the pastor is about to leave his room, Frank asks him to ‘leave the door open a little’ in order to let the light into the room. In the briefest of scenes, this moment demonstrates the life not-well-lived and how public recognition is fleeting at best.
7) Knives Out: The Donut of Truth
With a sparkling script and entertaining cast, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is some of the most fun I had in at theatre all year. One of the key reasons for that though stems from the performance of a British Secret Agent as a Southern Detective. As Benoit Blanc, Daniel Craig, is at his free-wheeling best, offering sage wisdom and random commentary at the same time. In one of his more entertaining speeches, Blanc frets over the mystery by comparing the truth to a donut, complete with a hole in the middle that needs to be filled. As he begins to spiral, that analogy becomes increasingly complicated and even he looks confused by his ramblings. For a man who’s known for playing the silent killer that is James Bond, moments like this are completely against type and show his comedic range. Just as importantly, however, this speech shows the complexity of truth in our culture as it constantly shifts and often has pieces missing as well.
6) Sound of Metal: Sitting in Silence
Telling the story of Ruben, a young rock and roll drummer who suddenly experiences hearing loss, Sound of Metal is one of the most engaging films that hasn’t received a wide release yet. (I saw the film in the Fall at the Toronto International Film Festival.) In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Ruben is confronted by a mentor who has challenged him to sit in silence in the morning. Frustrated that Ruben is unable to perform such a basic task, his mentor remarks, “Of all those times you were silent, were you ever really still? In stillness is when the Kingdom of God shows up… and those are the moments that matter.” By indicating the complex difference between mere quiet and spiritual rest, this is a description of the Divine that simply doesn’t get spoken in film (even faith-based ones). Ruben’s journey, without being explicit, is a spiritual exodus in the wilderness that also speaks to the hope and healing that occurs when God shows up in the lives of the broken.
5) Joker: Butterfly on the Stairwell
In its marketing campaign, Joker is a film that embraced controversy, almost to the point of encouraging it. Featured on the poster and trailer, the scene where the newly crowned (or freed?) Joker dances down the stairwell is also a mixed bag of emotion. On the one hand, it is definitely the character’s “butterfly moment”, where he throws off the shackles of his identity as Arthur Fleck and embraces his wild new persona. In one brief shining moment, the film’s darkness gives way to what appears to be light. The music is joyful and the energy of the moment is palpable.
The scene is also serves as reminder that this character is intrinsically evil. This isn’t a hero breaking free to do what is right. We know what’s coming as the Joker has truly been unleashed. As a result, there is an incredible irony to the moment which seems exciting and fun, yet also the beginning of a hurricane of violence and terror. (In fact, this irony is also encapsulated within the choice of song itself. Through his decision to use ‘The History of Rock and Roll Part II’, director Todd Phillips also chooses a song that, while fun and energetic, also comes from an artist who has been somewhat banned from popular culture due to his own criminal actions.) As such, this moment encapsulated the entire charm/harm of the film, by exposing our culture’s desire to see the Clown Prince of Crime do the damage he was meant to achieve. (The moment even became so iconic that it also became a tourist destination in real life, with people choosing to take pictures in the same position that Joker is featured on the poster.)
4) Rocketman: Hugging your inner child
When Rocketman was announced following the [controversial] success of Bohemian Rhapsody, I admit I met the trailer with an eye-roll. After all, here comes the long list of ‘musical biographical films’ (and, for the record, I wasn’t wrong). However, Rocketman succeeds in virtually every way that other entries have failed. By using Elton John’s music to tell the story rather than telling the story of his music, the film is engaging and honest about the superstar’s struggles. By framing the film through a therapy session, Rocketman not only speaks to the trials of stardom but the depth of hurt than can happen along the way. [Spoilers Begin] In the final moments, as an adult Elton John embraces himself as a child, the film demonstrates the power of accepting one’s self and celebrating who God has made you to be. [Spoilers End]
3) Toy Story 4: Farewell, boys…
The Toy Story saga has lived on far longer than I would have ever believed and, amazingly, really hasn’t had a bad entry into the franchise. (The quality has remained high enough that, with each new entry, I become increasingly worried that they’ll finally deliver a true stinker.) Toy Story 4 continues this trend and, while not as good as some of the other entries, still manages to surprise and delight. In particular, the film’s final send-off between Buzz and Woody achieved a new dimension to their characters in a way that I never saw coming.
[Caution: Spoilers] As Buzz begins to listen to his own inner voice, Woody has now embarked on his life of mission. No longer attempting to live a life of self-preservation but living in order to help other toys have the life he once had with Andy. [Spoilers end] It’s a powerful recognition of the power of mission and service others that speaks to a new direction and life purpose for Woody that has never been hinted at before in the franchise.
2) Marriage Story: Being Alive…
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is both a searing and endearing film that tells the story of new life after the death of a marriage. Based on Baumbach’s experience as he processed his own divorce, the film features raw and relentless performances from Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver (and a potential Oscar winning one from Laura Dern). As the two parents fight ferociously for their son and their freedom, this is a film that attempts not to take sides, openly admitting the strengths and flaws of both characters.
As the film draws to a conclusion, one of the film’s more powerful scenes features song performances by both leads as their character arcs come to conclusion. While Johannsen sings a song about breaking free from the shackles of her relationship, Driver’s tone is more subdued as he performs a song that speaks to ‘Being Alive’. Surprisingly, the film attempts to celebrate both parties, without demonizing either, and therein lies the power of Marriage Story. This is not a film that seeks to blame one person or focus on one particular item of pain but rather the humility, grace (and love) that’s required to step forward from the wreckage of divorce. As the film highlights the contrast between the two leads in song, it reminds the viewer that both people in a marriage have different stories that matter and that they both need to ‘feel alive’
1) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: “Let’s pause for a moment…”
Wisely, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a ‘biopic’ of iconic children’s performer Fred (Mr.) Rogers. Rather, it’s a narrative that highlights the impact that one life can have on another. When reporter Lloyd Vogel meets Rogers on the set of his show, he is quickly stunned at his humility and grace. As a friendship develops between the two men, their relationship forces Vogel to re-examine the anger that drives him within his own heart. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, Vogel and Rogers are seated in a diner eating together. As Vogel speaks of the pain of his past, Rogers pauses and slowly offers this statement: “May we pause for a moment and think of all the people that loved us along the way.”
In one instant, the film breathes. Rather than focus on Vogel’s pain, Rogers reminds him that there is (and has been) love throughout this entire life, even if he was taking it for granted. As Rogers, Hanks completely invests in this moment and the entire restaurant slows to a halt. This is a testament that our story is more than the sum of our hurts. In a world where rage and division are the order of the day, this moment above all others stands out in my mind as the most counter-cultural moment of the year. Though hatred breaks us down, love breaks the chains.