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The Best Movie Moments of 2018, So Far — IndieWire Critics Survey

The year is almost halfway over, so we asked our panel of film critics to reflect on the screen moments that have defined 2018 so far.



Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics a question pertaining to the contemporary movie landscape.

This week’s question: What is the best movie moment of 2018 so far?

The responses have been grouped alphabetically by movie, from “Annihilation” at the top to “You Were Never Really Here” at the bottom. Beware of spoilers.


Paramount Pictures

Hoai-Tran Bui (@htranbui), /Film

“Annihilation” was an anomaly of a sci-fi film. Released by a major studio (and promptly buried soon after), “Annihilation” dared to be a surreal, grotesque, and straight-up weird deep dive into the human psyche. And while not every moment clicked nor every idea became fully formed, there was one moment that was, to me, the defining moment of Alex Garland’s dreamy masterpiece.

Shell-shocked by the brutal deaths of Anya (Gina Rodriguez) and Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), Lena (Natalie Portman) and Josie (Tessa Thompson) sit in the sun-dappled field filled with mysterious human-like foliage. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) had just forged ahead on her own in a single-minded pursuit of the answers to the Shimmer that had enveloped the swamp. But the action comes to a tranquil standstill as Lena and Josie observe the strange flower-covered trees shaped like humans who had stopped mid-stride. Were they humans transformed into trees like some fairy tale nightmare? Or was it the Shimmer experimenting, forming wondrous creations that had never existed before? Maybe it doesn’t matter, Josie tells Lena.

Lena had learned earlier that Josie had struggled with suicidal tendencies, hiding her self-harming cuts with long sleeves. But now Josie sheds her jacket and displays the scars of dozens of cuts on her arms for all to see, unafraid and maybe even accepting of that part of herself. Then, another disturbing miracle happens: her scars start sprouting flowers. “Ventress wants to face it,” Josie says to Lena as she ambles into the field of trees. “You want to fight it. But I don’t think I want either of those things.” Lena chases after Josie, only for Josie to disappear — apparently transforming into one of those many strange trees. It’s an unsettling and beautiful moment that perfectly captures the meeting of self-destruction and self-acceptance. It doesn’t feel like Josie is walking to her death by giving up “the fight,” in fact, it feels like she’s the only one wise enough to accept her place in this strange circle of life.cleardot.gif

Luke Hicks (@lou_kicks), Freelance for Birth.Movies.Death, Chicago Reader, Indyweek

The ‘death,’ or transformation of Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) in Alex Garland’s “Annihilation.” It should come as no shock that the greatest cinematic moment of the year hinges on the inner philosophical workings of a subdued physicist played by the enigmatic Tessa Thompson, whose standout performance fortified our suspicions that she can masterfully develop any role thrown her way.

After the departure of Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Lena (Natalie Portman) finds Radek in a meditative position on her knees in the grass. During the brief, reflective conversation between the two, Radek stands and begins slowly walking away. We notice green sprouts emerging from the scars on her wrists. They scale up her arm through her veins like vines spreading their reign underneath her skin. Reflecting on the nature of the Shimmer, she softly asserts, “Ventress wants to face it. You want to fight it. But I don’t think I want either of those things…” She walks away and turns a vine-laden corner. Lena catches up only to find a colorful garden of human-shaped plants lightly blowing in the wind, Radek assuredly one of them.

Those last lines send chills down my spine when they echo in my mind. In a world plagued by binary-thinking and oversimplified division, the thought of silently slipping into another way of being–that does not imply death or empty conformity–evokes a contemplative sadness that somehow offers transcendent hope. Radek contently gives herself over to a genetic form of cooperation, communication, and collaboration that depicts a sense of  selfless compromise we rarely get glimpses of today. And it’s no mere consolation that this peerless, harmonious act is ushered in by a black woman. That detail alone carries a metaphor that radiates with real-world significance. It’s the 2018 moment I cannot forget.

Caroline Tsai (@carolinetsai3), The Harvard Crimson

Like many other critics, I was enthralled by the trippy, supernatural visuals in “Annihilation,” Alex Garland’s sci-fi psychological thriller—from otherworldly flora to terrifying monsters, everything inside the oleaginous border of the Shimmer (the genetically infected realm that Natalie Portman’s Lena must fight her way through) is rendered in aesthetically rich, viscerally unsettling detail.

In the film’s climax, Lena faces off against a faceless, humanoid creature, which absorbs her DNA and begins to mold itself in her image as they fight. Garland makes use of Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s wonderfully apt soundtrack, a dissonant, relentless synth that undercuts an already ruthless battle. As fight scenes go, this one is brutal, yet elegantly choreographed—mirroring (pun intended) the brutality and elegance at the center of “Annihilation.” Because even while the film’s visuals are stunning, there’s something amiss about the whole of the Shimmer’s ecology—the blossoms in polluting overgrowth, the spread of mutative rot. Survival of the fittest means that the weak must perish at the hands of the strong, and Garland makes us keenly aware of the old evolutionary mechanism at the center of Lena’s battle. (It’s also, thematically speaking, a deeply human showdown, given Lena’s own character arc).

If “Annihilation” is a film about the inherent violence of evolution, then the doppelganger fight scene is its glittery centerpiece—human nature staring down its own barbaric reflection.

Sarah Welch (@dodgyboffin), Freelance for ThinkChristian, Bright Wall / Dark Room

“Annihilation” is full of incredible movie moments, but the one I came back to the theater for was the face-off in the lighthouse between Lena and her alien double. The doppelgänger scared me even more than the bear: the bear is a force of nature (albeit with a skull for a face) while the doppelgänger is something that looks and behaves exactly like Lena, but is completely unknowable.The scene’s careful choreography and unsettling sound design tell us so much about Lena, how she thinks and solves problems.

They also present the doppelgänger as two things at once, a double within itself: an alien presence that could be trying to communicate by careful imitation and sounds that might be language, and at the same time Lena’s own fears and self-destructive tendencies, trying to crush her. It’s a brilliant end to a brilliant story about humans’ hard-wired tendency to self-immolate, and our struggle to overcome it.

Caroline Madden (@crolinss), Freelance for Fandor, Screen Queens

The bear scene in “Annihilation” left me thunderstruck. The terrifying sequence opens with a paranoid Anya threatening to cut open her partners’ stomachs to see if their insides are swimming around like her fingerprints. Gina Rodriguez’s visceral performance conveys the harrowing effect The Shimmer has on Anya; one can only imagine what that must feel like.

The ominous rumbling of Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score adds to the overwhelming escalation of dread. Cass’ frightened scream cuts through this tension, so far in the distance that you question whether or not you heard it. And then the source of the scream, a bear, languidly plods into the room—or is it a boar? What is it exactly? Garland keeps the creature in dim lighting so that we only get hints of its gruesome physical perversions. It took several viewings of the film and a glance at the Blu-ray special features to discover that Cass’ human skull is subsumed into the bear’s strange half-skull. The design of this creature is truly horrifying and I commend Garland for using practical effects; this adds a macabre realism that computer generated monsters are sorely lacking. And the hybrid of the mutant bear’s roar and Cass’ panicked scream will forever echo in my mind. What I love about this scene is how affective it is. You feel as if you are inside the room with these women—just as trapped, silent, and paralyzed in your seat as they are. Garland’s methodical approach to the petrifying prospect of being so close and powerless to something so deadly is utterly arresting.

Sarah Marrs (@Cinesnark), LaneyGossip.com

Four months later I cannot forget the skull bear in “Annihilation”. The skull bear attack is a scene straight out of a horror film, right down to a character running outside even as you want to yell at the screen, “No, don’t do that, why are you going outside?!” It’s just such a horrible sight, and the SOUND, I can’t stop hearing that awful mimicry of a person calling out for help. I’m not usually susceptible to movies giving me nightmares, but I had an actual nightmare about the “Annihilation” skull bear. It’s an incredibly effective piece of cinema, and the most fascinating and awful monster committed to screen in recent memory.

But what really stands out about the skull bear scene is how sad it is. The skull bear seems baffled to be there, as lost as the women it’s attacking. It has obviously got its genetic wires cross, with its bear-body and horse-like skull and that humanoid voice, and it just seems utterly confused by its own existence. At one point in the scene, its roar turns into a plaintive cry, and the dying scream echoed in its voice is less a memory of death and more an existential cry for help. But then it does what bears do when feeling threatened, and it starts attacking people. (Sorry, “The Revenant”, THIS is the worst bear attack on film.) I doubt we’ll see a more terrible sight this year than the “Annihilation” skull bear.

“Avengers: Infinity War”

Andrea Thompson (@areelofonesown), The Young Folks

The ending of “Avengers: Infinity War” left me devastated. Marvel spent 10 years building up to it, with all the various characters and worlds they’d carefully cultivated finally teaming up to confront the Big Bad who’d been sneering in all those post-credits scenes, who would also turn out to be one of the more compelling MCU villains. We knew that this time not everyone was going to make it, and there were various theories as to who would survive and who wouldn’t. But no one could have predicted the ending, which saw Thanos actually achieving his goal, and many of our most popular, profitable, beloved heroes crumbling into dust. Even if you know many of the deaths wouldn’t be permanent, watching Spider-Man fade away in Iron Man’s arms was still one of the most heartwrenching cinematic moments ever. It proved that one of the most profitable, successful franchises of all time could still take risks, defy fan expectations, and give us a movie anniversary to remember.

Emmanuel Noisette (@EmansReviews), TheMovieBlog.com

I’m going to have to give this moment to the scene in “Avengers: Infinity War” when Thanos stabbed Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). The build up to the fight was great. We saw Tony literally giving it his all, and probably giving the Mad Titan a run for his money. However, when Thanos broke off Iron Man’s blade, and stabbed Stark, all I remember was feeling my heart completely sink. The rug was completely pull out from under the entire audience thinking that Tony had finally met his fate. I remember the audience having a mixed reaction of dead silence or collective gasps. In that very moment, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) flashed before our eyes. You immediately recall “Iron Man” (2008) and “Marvel’s: The Avengers” (2012) and anything that Robert Downey Jr. brought magic to in the MCU. You didn’t even have to be biggest comic book movie fan to really feel that scene either.

Daniel Joyaux (@thirdmanmovies), Freelance for Vanity Fair, The Verge, The Independent

Embarrassing though it is, I shed a tear of pure, childish excitement near the end of “Avengers: Infinity War”, when Thor, Rocket, and Groot arrived in Wakanda and brought the hot thunder. The best way I can describe it is that it showed me something–a set of bygone childish emotions–that I just never ever thought movies would be able to capture.

I grew up on comics. I even owned a copy of “Infinity Gauntlet #1” (the series that “Infinity War” is loosely adapted from) when I was 11 years old. Being a diehard comic fan in the ’90s, when “Jurassic Park” and “Independence Day” were lighting up the box office, offered a certain kind of promise. We could see in those movies that the technology was just about there. We had a real belief that our favorite comic characters would eventually make it to the big screen, and that those movies could be something reasonably adjacent to good. That they’d be done “right.”

But there is a massive difference between doing a comic book character or property justice on screen, and doing a comic book universe justice on screen, and the latter is something none of us thought we would EVER see. Sure, we all believed we may get a great Spider-Man movie, and *possibly* even a great X-Men movie (when we really squinted and just let ourselves run away with it). But Marvel and DC comics had always been, to us converts, about so much more than just great Spider-Man or X-Men stories; they were about the capacity for a whole universe of stories, where any character could interact with any other, and virtually anything could happen.

I’ll never forget the first giant crossover comic I bought: Spider-Man #23 by Erik Larsen, from the summer of 1992, when I was 10. It was a team-up of Spidey, the Hulk, Ghost Rider, Nova, Deathlok, and the Fantastic Four, and it blew my goddamn mind. And that is the precise kind of dumb, pre-pubescent glee I never ever thought movies would be able to capture about comics.

But here we are, and “Avengers: Infinity War” did it. Sure, “Avengers” did the first job of assemblage, and it was good. And yeah, “Captain America: Civil War” acquitted itself well with the largest cast of characters ever put in a superhero movie at that point. But both of those movies gathered characters that were already comic book teammates; characters that naturally belonged in one another’s stories. “Infinity War” took the next leap. It gathered characters whose only actual connection was that they theoretically occupied the same universe. And it worked. Thor’s climactic arrival, with an angry raccoon and a baby tree in tow, was the moment the Marvel movies fully actualized their inner “LEGO Movie” and realized they can mix and match their toys however they damn well please.

Marvel Studios' BLACK PANTHER..Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o)..Ph: Matt Kennedy..©Marvel Studios 2018

“Black Panther”

Matt Kennedy

Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Freelance  for The Week, Shondaland, Harper’s Bazaar

Killmonger’s final line before his death in “Black Panther.” Though he may be seen as a ruthless warrior, Killmonger has the spirit of a freedom fighter who would above all else wants to be a liberated black man. So when T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) finally defeats him and imprisonment is imminent, it comes as no surprise that Killmonger chooses death over capture. His line “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage” is so unforgettable because it underscores that for Killmonger there is power in death. Further, there is power in choice. There is freedom in the ability to make a choice, even if that choice is death. So this line embodies all of what Killmonger represents, and in a way what the film itself is fighting for as well.

Monique Jones (@moniqueblognet), Freelance for SlashFilm, Mediaversity Reviews, Shadow and Act, Color Web Mag

For me, the best movie moment of 2018 so far is Killmonger’s presence in “Black Panther.” If it was allowed for this survey, I’d include the entirety of “Black Panther” as my favorite moment of 2018 so far, but if I have to narrow it down, I’d give it to Killmonger, since he’s a character that expounds on some truths that are often buried when discussing race relations or even cultural relations between Africans and African Americans. Killmonger isn’t necessarily a likable character or that we should think he’s right in his plan for world domination–I have nothing nice to say about how violent and abusive he is throughout the film–but his origin story touches on a specific pain that African-American audiences could identify with; the pain of being a second class citizen in a country that denies your humanity and right to live.

That pain manifests itself in different ways, and one of those manifestations is anger. Killmonger definitely taps into that existential anger and the desire for control that a lot of black people–and people of color in America in general–have when it comes to how the status quo is often against us. Killmonger helped T’Challa–someone who has never been a victim of subjugation–grow by showing him the opposing viewpoint, and I think Killmonger might have also helped others in the audience grow, particularly when he pointed out the colonialist structure still in play around the world. Yes, at the end of the day, Nakia was right that Wakanda needs to help its sisters and brothers around the world, but I’d argue that Killmonger, in his own way, helped drive that point home.

Robert Daniels (@812filmreviews), Freelance

I have a feeling Killmonger’s final line in “Black Panther” will be most others’ moment (if not, then surprise, surprise), but I can’t ignore it. I distinctly remember sitting in a crowded theater, hoping, pleading in my heart that Coogler would have full control of this scene. And as a CG sun alighted Killmonger’s face, I hoped the white portion of Marvel’s audience wouldn’t be given some conciliatory ending. I didn’t want Killmonger, this militant character, to give a final conservative whimper. I wanted brutal honestly, another salvo to an audience that rarely anticipates race in its escapist entertainment. Including his prowess in the art form, this is why Coogler was selected for “Black Panther.” He was going to deliver a new punctuation to the run-on sentence of black America inhabiting white America.

When Killmonger delivered his final searing line, my theater’s mostly black audience exploded. Every slave narrative, every midday black history lesson taught in school, and every portion of the shared trauma flooded back to me and to many others in that theater. Cathartic no more fully describes it than human rights violation describes slavery. “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.” That line was a line, a demarcation of feeling and legacy, either exultation or the silence of the ocean floor. There was no middle depth. Coogler crafted a perfect political and historical challenge, staying true to the character in the process, and he did so in a Marvel film. Amazing or favorite doesn’t begin to describe it.

Joanna Langfield (@Joannalangfield), The Movie Minute

I was tremendously moved by the depiction of Wakanda in “Black Panther”. Ryan Coogler’s salute to African heritage (and the amazing women who rule!) is not just vivid and gorgeous, but respectful and couldn’t have come along at a better time.

Christina Radish (@ChristinaRadish), Collider

Even though we’re only about half-way through 2018, there have already been a number of memorable movie moments. The best moment for me, so for this year, is the moment in “Black Panther” when Okoye (played by Danai Gurira) snatches her wig off of her head and tosses it at an attacker. It’s a moment that’s funny, bold and bad-ass, and says so much about the character.

As the general of the Dora Milaje and the head of Wakanda’s armed forces and intel, Okoye is a warrior and a survivor while still being a woman. One is never traded in for the other. It’s a moment that made me laugh and cheer because Okoye knows exactly who she is and doesn’t need to pretend to be someone or something else, in order to be successful in her mission. The whole sequence is very strong, but that one moment in a nearly 2 hour and 15 minute long movie will be one that will always stand out when I think about “Black Panther,” and that makes it my favorite movie moment of 2018 so far.

Aaron Neuwirth (@AaronsPS4), We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu

“Wakanda Forever,” a battle cry heard in both “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War” that means so much more than “let the third act CG battle begin.” In an age where “Why so serious?” and “May the force be with you,” have been twisted into a call for specific standards imposed by a group not used to attention spreading out of a particular demographic, we’re also in a time when one of the biggest films of the year is cause for a special kind of celebration. Hearing a fierce character stand up for her near-utopian African nation and have the audience roar with cheers back at the screen creates an extraordinary feeling when it comes to witnessing what good pop culture can supply when the right steps are taken.

“The Commuter”

Jesse Hassenger (@rockmarooned), The A.V. Club/Freelance

When thinking about the wonderful parenting montage toward the beginning of “Tully,” my mind turned to a far less accomplished film with a montage that sticks out even more: the opening sequence of Jaume Collet-Serra’s fourth Liam Neeson pulp exercise “The Commuter.” Collet-Serra’s movies often position Neeson as a regular guy with regular failings (just before repositioning him as a masterful ass-kicker), and he’s never done a more elegant or convincing job of this unenviable task than when he’s cutting together a compilation of morning-commute moments for Neeson’s character and his family. Each major beat of Neeson’s morning journey from waking up to boarding a commuter train gets multiple takes across multiple days, often conveying various conflicts, hardships, and bits of closeness with little more than a snippet of dialogue or a particular reaction shot. So many movies struggle with exposition, and this one makes the preamble to the movie’s (wonderfully) ludicrous premise not just entertaining, but, in its way, sort of profound, musing on the accumulation of individual moments that make up a routine. I’ve seen plenty of 2018 movies that are better than “The Commuter,” but I’m a sucker for grace notes in unassuming genre pictures.

Pedro Strazza (@pedrosazevedo), B9

The most memorable movie moment of 2018 to me so far is the beginning of “The Commuter”, Jaume Collet-Serra’s tremendous thriller on a train. The whole prologue of the film at first caused me some estrangement because of its editing choices – it was made entirely of sudden cuts and a bazillion of different scenes, after all – but when it became clear to me that the whole point of that beginning was of establishing the main character’s whole life to the audience by looking at his daily routine it truly struck me to point of pure fascination. As any film enthusiast, I’ve always been a firm believer of the power of cinema in making the most frivolous situations of life the most life changing situations (and every day I happily discover more and more productions that made this condition possible), but what is brilliant in Collet-Serra’s new work is that he was able to summarize in only a few minutes how our lives are bound to change even if we keep a strict schedual every single day of our lives.

What is most fascinating –beside the fact that he shot this whole sequence in only two days , is that this “little” overture of his has all the elements of a normal life under the cinematic eye, traveling from drama to comedy to present moments of true tragedy, crisis, happiness and joy in a short glimpse. It is a moment that is emotional to the core and inspirational on every level to its audience, and it only takes something like five minutes of screen time.

"Deadpool 2"

“Deadpool 2”

20th Century Fox/Screenshot

Edward Douglas (@EDouglasWW), The Weekend Warrior

This is a tough one, because as a film critic, I feel that I’m supposed to respond with some sort of nerdy cinematic coup from some obscure film only cinephiles will see, and actually, some of my favorite moments would definitely be spoilers for whatever movie they’re in. That being said, I’m gonna go with something I can write about with spoiling, and that’s the first time X-Force goes into action in “Deadpool 2.” Yes, I know that this response will probably guarantee I’m never admitted to the New York Film Critics Circle, but if you knew how much I detested X-Force and Deadpool in the comics, to see them take what could have been another ridiculous moment like something out of Avengers and put a comic twist on it was part of why I loved that movie. Also, Zazie Beetz as Domino is fantastic, and some of her moments during that sequence are absolutely brilliant. (I actually had a moment from “The Captain” as a back-up but that doesn’t come out until next month, and I definitely don’t want to spoil that.)

The Death of Stalin

“The Death of Stalin”

Photo by Nicola Dove, courtesy of IFC Films

Christian Blauvelt (@Ctblauvelt), BBC Culture

“What’s the use of wondering…” is an Oscar Hammerstein lyric I’ve been pondering a lot lately – because it applies to basically everything. We’re trained from a young age, especially those of us who are journalists, to find meaning all around us. There must be a deeper intent behind a presidential tweet, some hidden symbolism in that latest incomprehensible episode of “Westworld,” a hidden diss in that Katy Perry song. But by obsessing over exegesis, over putting everything in context, seeing allegories everywhere, we all too often see things not as they are but merely as we think we see them.

Some things just are – they don’t represent anything, symbolize anything or have any particular meaning at all. The best moment in a movie this year gets to the heart of this: in “The Death of Stalin,” when the expiring Soviet leader points up from his deathbed to a kitsch painting on the wall depicting someone feeding milk to a lamb out of a bottle. His unctuous coterie of advisors start speculating about what Marshall Stalin choosing to point at this image could mean: maybe Stalin’s saying he’s the lamb? Or is it that the lamb is Russia and the milk represents Socialism? In that moment, as we’re wiping away tears of laughter, writer-director Armando Iannucci is asking us what’s funnier: that what surrounds and drives the people who steer history may be meaningless? Or that the rest of us are compelled to look for import no matter what?

Elsie Fisher appears in I Think We're Alone Now</i> by Reed Morano, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Eighth Grade”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Ella Kemp (@efekemp), Freelance for Little White Lies, Vague Visages

The best moment of 2018 so far is Kayla’s epiphany of doom at the cool girl’s pool party in “Eighth Grade.” Somehow, in his feature debut, the self-deprecating male comedian Bo Burnham managed to tap into something that feels so excruciatingly accurate in the middle-school portrait of a teenage girl.

In the few seconds after Kayla has reluctantly arrived, in her big attempt to Put Herself Out There – as she’ll later tell her meagre YouTube audience – composer Anna Meredith’s synth-heavy, all guns blazing score begins to swell with incredible theatricality. The camera tortures Kayla, slowly zooming out to reveal a swarm of metal-mouthed monsters ahead, never losing sight of the sheer dread in her eyes. She’s standing tall but not confident in the slightest, shoulders hunched over her bright green Speedo swimsuit and tangled long hair. It’s a moment of brilliant accuracy and gross, comedic exaggeration at the same time – we all know that a pool party isn’t a big deal for any of us. But when you’re Kayla, when you’re 13, and if someone really forced you to really, really remember how you felt back then – I’ve never seen any movie moment do it much better. The pool party scene feels like lighting in a jar.

“First Reformed”

Chris Feil (@chrisvfeil), Freelance for The Film Experience, This Had Oscar Buzz Podcast

Cocktail, anyone? Even thinking about the shot in “First Reformed” when Ethan Hawke’s Rev, Toller pours Pepto Bismol into his glass of whiskey is enough to make me want to leap out of my skin. That fluorescent plume blossoming inside his booze is both disgusting and transfixing and viscerally wrong, a succinct image that embodies the film’s wide psychological canvas. It’s a representation of both our poisoned earth and the destruction of Toller’s mind, body, and soul – and the toughest image to shake in a film full of them.

Marianna Aloisio (@mlaloisio), Freelance for Fandor

I can’t get the image of Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) standing in front of his desolate church’s billboard, arranging the phrase “CAN GOD FORGIVE US?” in “First Reformed” out of my head. It may be dramatic, but the shot took my breath away. Since this becomes an overarching theme for the film, it marks a moment where Toller has fully begun to fight his cognitive dissonance – the church or the world? The line is first spoken by Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist, who poses the question, “can God forgive us for what we’ve done for this world?” as an extremely uncomfortable Toller sits across from him, not knowing he’s going to echo Michael in word and deed later. I don’t want to spoil how the phrase works itself into the larger umbrella of story, but I can say life and reality around Toller begins to unravel, all due to this single – albeit heavy – phrase.

The film itself uses quiet moments sparingly, and this is a big one. Toller’s church, First Reformed, is owned by a megachurch which is far greater in attendance and technology. The thoughts came to my mind, “how many people will see the words on the billboard? Does Toller think he’s really going to get himself across properly to the few tourists and ten or so church-goers he sees weekly?” I enjoyed how Paul Schrader (and cinematographer Alexander Dynan) made him seem so small to not only the looming church who owns him, but possibly to the grander scheme of government, justice, and the environment. We get it all in that one shot of Toller from behind, out in the cold, arranging the letters, alone. Honestly, it’s a fleeting moment, but the camera lingers for a quick few seconds on that billboard. It’s an absolutely necessary, thought-provoking moment that I mentally revisited through the rest of the film and even days after seeing it.


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