Over the last 12 months, the world seemed to be changing faster than ever, and not for the better. At a time when every day felt like a week, and every week felt like a year, watching a movie felt like a dangerous proposition; you had no idea what the world was going to look like when you walked out of the theater two hours later. Even the most immersive films couldn’t always keep that anxiety at bay, these dark thoughts seeping into even darker rooms and transforming these sacred spaces into elaborate Rorschach tests that tricked us into seeing whatever was scaring us most at that particular moment, or whatever might be needed to give us hope. It was a heightened stretch unlike any in recent memory, but the best films ultimately did what the best films always do: They brought the world into focus, showed it from a fresh sonspective, and reminded us that we’re not alone.
Continuing a new tradition that seems well-suited for a time when everything feels slightly out of focus and it’s hard to get a grasp on the big picture, I’ve distilled each of my 25 favorite films of the year into a single memorable moment. Continuing a different, slightly older tradition, I’ve also edited those moments into a giant supercut that looks back at the year in cinema and counts down my personal highlights.
25. “All These Sleepless Nights”
Memorable Moment: A mesmeric, free-floating odyssey that wends its way through a hazy year in the molten lives of two Polish twentysomethings, this unclassifiable wonder obscures the divide between fiction and documentary until the distinction is ultimately irrelevant, using the raw material of real life to create a rich story of millennial drift. From start to finish, the film is high on the spirit of liberation. But freedom, we remember, can be its own ball and chain; there’s nothing more constricting than the potential for infinite possibility. That feeling is best captured by the sight of the film’s young hero balletically gyrating through traffic — he might be stuck in place while the world moves forward, but you can’t take your eyes off him.
24. “The Lure”
Memorable Moment: Imagine if Gaspar Noé and (the late) Andrzej Zulawski collaborated on a remake of “The Little Mermaid” and you’ll have a faint idea of what to expect from Agnieszka Smoczynska’s “The Lure,” a wonderfully demented musical that bridges the gap between Hans Christian Andersen and Nine Inch Nails. Set in communist-era Poland, the film tells the fairy tale story of two naked sea nymphs who wash up on dry land and are immediately recruited to sing and strip at a seedy local nightclub. Cue a handful of musical numbers mixed into a wild plot that stares into the murky waters of chauvinist objectification. In the film’s best scene, a Minnelli-like showstopper breaks out when the girls make their first trip to the mall, both of them falling madly in love with a world that will never let them have it all.
23. “Baby Driver”
Memorable Moment: Edgar Wright’s jukebox heist romance careened into the summer movie season like a perfectly timed blast of fresh air. It’s hard to overstate how refreshing it was to go to the multiplex and see something with so much gas in the tank, with so much personality and energy and rhythm. Making “Baby Driver” into an oversized hit is one of the few good things the American people did this year, and not just because it’s always worth celebrating when major studios actually profit from investing in talent. But for all of the film’s rhythmic energy — an entire shootout is cut to a beat! — the standout moments all have to do with the naïve love story between Baby and Debra. Nothing stuck with me more than the two of them sharing a pair of earbuds in a laundromat, the headphones held in place by nothing but movie magic. It’s not the deepest relationship in the world, but who cares? Love doesn’t have to add up, it just has to keep two people in sync.
Photo credit: Niko Tavernise
Memorable Moment: Darren Aronofsky’s latest film was almost as fun to watch as it was to argue about. Here’s how to stop worrying and love the bomb: Ignore everything that Aronofksy had to say about it. “mother!” is really one of those cases where it helps not to let the artist have the last word. Sure, it’s an allegory about our stewardship of the Earth, but why can’t it also be a profoundly resonant parable about wanting people to get the hell out of your house? It doesn’t really matter by the time the movie slips into its frenzied third act, Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem’s shared idyll exploding into a full-blown “Children of Men” situation. Watching Kristen Wiig shoot people in the head execution style was a riotous and necessary reminder that the movies can still surprise you.
21. “Lady Macbeth”
Memorable Moment: Just about everything that Florence Pugh does in William Oldroyd’s directorial debut is memorable in one way or another, the young actress elevating an oppressed 19th century housewife into a murderous force of nature. She turns that rustic country home into a tempest in a teapot, and takes no prisoners in the process. Eventually, she’s such a destructive whirlwind that every shot of her brims with violent potential. So it’s striking to see her sit still for a moment, her billowing blue dress contrasting against the orange sofa as Pugh stares directly into the camera. We realize, with irrevocable force, that there’s no reconciling the woman she’s supposed to be with the woman she’s made to be, and that trying to bridge that gap will result in tragedy on a Shakespearian scale.
20. “A Fantastic Woman”
Memorable Moment: The rare movie about a trans person that always feels of its time (and not at least a half-step behind), Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” stars the remarkable Daniela Vega as Marina Vidal, an aspiring singer who’s mercilessly harassed by her her boyfriend’s family in the days after his sudden death. Vega’s performance is a stunner, the rookie doing a remarkable job of negotiating a heartache that she’s told she isn’t entitled to feel, delicately sliding between love and blankness, and rage. Her honesty keeps the film grounded, permitting Lelio to crib a number of highly stylized elements from the likes of Fassbinder and Almodóvar. The film’s most indelible moment finds Marina going full Park Chan-wook, jumping on the roof of her attacker’s car as she fights for the rest of her life. Suddenly, all of Lelio’s flirtations with genre find their purpose, as Marina’s dramatic response exposes the true banality of the intolerance leveled against her.
Memorable Moment: A young Israeli soldier, bored out of his mind, starts dancing in the desert. It’s a ridiculous spectacle, one that highlights the ridiculousness of his entire situation. If only his family could see him now, or ever again.
18. “The Big Sick”
Photo by Nicole Rivelli
Memorable Moment: “We lost 19 of our best guys.” Kumail Nanjiani’s deadpan is sensational, but the moment is more than just the perfect delivery of a gloriously unexpected 9/11 joke, it’s also a spot-on evocation of that feeling when you’re trying — and failing — to dig out of a bottomless hole. At this point, we’re already invested in the wonderfully told true story of an immigrant’s struggle to reconcile the desires of his heart with the dogma of his heritage, but this one short exchange makes us painfully desperate to see Nanjiani and his comatose ex-girlfriend’s parents find common ground. In a movie where it’s often hard to tell if you’re laugh-crying or cry-laughing, this scene lets you know exactly where things stand.
Memorable Moment: A frigid little fairy tale slowly starts to feel like an adaptation of “Carrie” as directed by Ingmar Bergman, the latest offering from “Oslo, August 31st” writer-director Joachim Trier is a very different kind of coming out story. Following its eponymous heroine (Elli Harboe) as she leaves her hyper-religious home and falls in love with the first girl she meets at a dark Oslo university, Trier’s film slowly mutates universal growing pains into specific ingredients for existential horror. Thelma begs God to rid her of her attraction to another woman, only to find that she might be a god in her own right — a god who’s happy to reshape the world in her own image. No other movie this year was so happy to exalt its characters, and to refrain from judging them. In the film’s incredible centerpiece, Thelma and her crush pay a visit to the ballet, where her desire and her power threaten intertwine and threaten to bring the whole building down.
16. “Get Out”
Memorable Moment: It was true in January, and it’s true now: Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is the boldest and most important studio genre release of the year. Without blinking, this film stares down some of the most damning truths about prejudice and intersectionality. A broadly commercial horror story about a black guy trying to survive his first weekend with his white girlfriend’s family, “Get Out” makes no bones about calling out two-faced racism, taking particular exception to “the good ones” who are woke by day and asleep by night. The whole premise is bound together by “the sunken place,” a hypnotized condition suspended between those two states that doubles as a vivid metaphor for black minimization in white society. The scene in which his hero is first pulled down there is one for the ages, in no small part thanks to Daniel Kaluuya’s magnificent performance. Paralyzed in place, the actor does more with his eyes than most actors can do with their entire bodies, his streaking teardrops making it impossible for anyone to deny just how real the sunken place really is.
15. “The Beguiled”
Memorable Moment: Ruthlessly shorn from Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel of the same name, Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” is a lurid, sweltering, and sensationally fun potboiler that doesn’t find the director leaving her comfort zone so much as redecorating it with a fresh layer of soft-core scuzz. Shot in Louisiana’s Madewood Plantation House and almost entirely confined to the seminary’s withered interiors, Coppola’s Civil War story is told with surgical precision and savage grace. It’s also scuffed up with a dirty sense of humor, Coppola mining the inherent tawdriness of her premise to make a movie that forces people to recognize how funny she can be (and almost always is). That side of her comes out swinging in a scene where schoolmarm Nicole Kidman, blood already spritzed all over her nightgown, barks at one of her students: “Bring me the anatomy book!” She still has a lot left to learn. And that goes doubly true for her patient.
14. “Good Time”
Memorable Moment: “I think something very important is happening and it’s deeply connected to my purpose.” Brought to life by the best and most committed performance of Robert Pattinson’s increasingly dynamic career, Connie Nikas is one of the most unforgettable characters of the year. A toxic striver who embroils his handicapped brother in a bank heist that obviously goes wrong, Connie wants what’s best for the people in his life, but literally everything he does just makes things worse for them. In that one narcissistic line, we can immediately trace the distance between Connie’s limitless potential and his spiraling plight. Those words are enough to follow him all the way back down to earth.