Memorable Moment: It’s not the chainsaw fight, or the scene where Nicolas Cage chugs an entire liter of booze in his underpants. It’s not the bloody grand finale, or even the part when Cage whips out the greatest knock knock joke since “Catch Me if You Can.” No, the most memorable moment of Panos Cosmatos’ heavy metal freakout of a second feature comes when the evil cult leader and men’s rights activist Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) gives the title character (Andrea Riseborough) a long speech about the righteousness of his pleasure, and she just laughs and laughs and laughs in his face.
Memorable Moment: “Wildlife” was always going to be defined by its ending, a scene that served as a north star for the film ever since first-time director Paul Dano fell in love with Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, and imagined the perfect coda to add on to the original story. And yet, it’s the little grace notes sprinkled throughout that seem most indicative of Dano’s talent, as they reveal someone who’s as sensitive and perceptive behind the camera as he is in front of it. One beat in particular that stands out from this stirring drama of a 1960s Montana family losing faith in itself: A young boy named Joe (the great Ed Oxenbould) is waiting at a bus stop when he notices the first snowflakes of the season begin to fall. When the bus pulls away, Joe is gone; Dano finds him sprinting up the street, racing to get home now that his father (Jake Gyllenhaal) will be back from the wildfire he went off to stamp out. In just a few wordless images, Dano conveys an entire closed universe of unspoken longing, and the desire to fix something that was even more broken than it seemed on the surface.
8. “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Memorable Moment: Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to “Moonlight” is first and foremost a celebration of black love, which American cinema — much like American history — have too deeply entwined with black suffering. And yet, it’s not lost on this white, Jewish critic that both of the year’s best and most gracious depictions of Jewish-American identity (Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” providing the other) have come from black filmmakers, as a byproduct of black stories. So while the apartment-hunting scene from “If Beale Street Could Talk” — a scene that Jenkins largely invented for his adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel — may not be the best part of this movie, or the one that’s most vital to its ultimate value, I was moved by the empathy that a landlord named Levy (Dave Franco) shows to Fonny and Tish (Stephan James and Kiki Layne) as they look for a place to start their family. When the young couple questions why he’s so willing to rent them an apartment at a time when many people in his position would never consider the idea, Levy just says: “I’m my mother’s son.” In doing so, he says a lot more than that.
7. “Mission: Impossible — Fallout”
Memorable Moment: Tom Cruise jumps out of an airplane and acts his face off the whole way down.
Memorable Moment: Miles Davis, a purple sunset over the DMZ, and a “big hunger” that may never be satisfied all come together for one of the most bewitching dance sequences I’ve ever seen. Time stands still as Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) and Ben (Steven Yeun) watch the beautiful Jeon Jong-seo sway in the wind, the moment crystallizing a mystery that will hang in the air and harden for the rest of Lee Chang-dong’s elusive portrait of economic anxiety — the real kind — and male rage.
5. “The Tale”
Memorable Moment: Elizabeth Debicki stares directly into the camera, and — speaking from a deep bedrock of tortured memory and buried trauma — coldly says three words that put the horror of Jennifer Fox’s landmark cine-memoir into a devastating new perspective. It was the most chilling thing I saw on-screen all year (thank God), and further proof that Debicki has the potential to be the greatest actress of her generation.
Memorable Moment: Kore-eda Hirokazu has spent much of the 21st century making films about the various forces that do — or do not — hold a family together. “Like Father, Like Son” questions the binding power of blood, “Still Walking” investigates the performative inertia of loss, “After the Storm” examines what stability money can buy, and so on. With his Palme d’Or-winning masterpiece “Shoplifters,” Kore-eda hit upon a premise that allowed him to explore all of those things at once, though it might take you a little while to puzzle together how. Ostensibly a story about a struggling family trying to make ends meet in the margins of Tokyo, “Shoplifters” morphs into something far richer and more devastating than it first appears, but it never quite announces what it’s doing; on the contrary, Kore-eda lets every viewer figure things out at their own speed. Whenever the pieces click into place for you, consider that the most memorable moment in the film.
3. “Madeline’s Madeline”
Memorable Moment: Helena Howard is an unstoppable force of nature from the moment that she first appears in Josephine Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline,” but it isn’t until the film’s transcendent final stretch that we can fully understand what Decker saw in the (then) teenage actress — what hit the director like a bolt from the blue when she first saw Howard perform at the high school talent showcase, and immediately knew that they had to make a movie together. Madeline’s mother (a befuddled and brilliant Miranda July) has effectively been roped into the amorphous piece of art that her daughter’s experimental theatre troupe is building around her life, and one ill-fated day of “rehearsal” will be all that it takes to obliterate the relationship between them. The fluid situation leaves behind all sorts of wreckage as it breaks down and reassembles itself, but it finally leaves Madeline in a place where she might be able to make something new; something entirely her own.
2. “Paddington 2”
Memorable Moment: In a year full of great endings, “Paddington 2” had the best of them all. Paul King’s lovable sequel pays all sorts of lip service to nice(core) thoughts and feelings, but the film’s brief coda ties a ribbon on things so beautifully that it reveals the full value of all the seemingly frivolous business that came before it. Aunt Lucy always says that “if you’re kind and polite, the world will be right.” The last few moments of “Paddington 2” are enough to make you believe it.
1. “First Reformed”
Memorable Moment: Mary Mansana (Amanda Seyfried) and her late husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) used to play this game called “The Magical Mystery Tour.” They would share a joint, lie down on top of each other fully closed, and breathe in rhythm until the experience would take them somewhere together. Now a young widow questioning her faith in the future, Mary visits the Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), and agrees to continue the tradition with him. It’s an intimate and unavoidably erotic activity — the kind of thing that’s far more appropriate with a partner than a priest — but Reverend Toller needs the contact every bit as badly as the grieving parishioner who’s come to visit him, and the “tour” will take the holy man to a place from which he may never be able to return.