2018 was a year of tumult, of wild emotional swings from tragedy to triumph. The movies released this year seemed exceptionally well-tuned to the current moment — as IndieWire’s Chief Film Critic Eric Kohn noted in his picks for the best films of 2018, this year’s films were the first largely to be greenlit or developed following the geopolitical upheavals of 2016.
To that end, a lot of the moments that stand out from movies of the past 12 months could be called twists — but “twist” feels too sleight to convey the horror of the ending of the Gal Who Got Rattled segment of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” or the sadness of the birth scene in “Roma.” It’s more a feeling of anything bad that we fear might happen might really happen, that when we think life is going to zig it just might zag in the worst way possible. You might plunge headfirst off an airplane into a thunderstorm, worried you might get hit by lightning, and then, yep, right on schedule, your skydiving partner gets struck by lightning.
So it’s amazing just how many joyous, absolutely triumphant moments there were in the movies of 2018 too. Dread may be our baseline emotional state now, but when things go well — such as for rising singer Ally in “A Star Is Born” when she first takes the mic at a stadium concert or when convict Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) finally gets to live out his Sondheim fantasies for his captive audience in prison — it’s ecstatic.
For the IndieWire film team, these are the scenes that stand out the most from the movies of 2018.
The Gal Who Got Rattled, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
All six chapters in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” begin like an actual book, complete with a hand-drawn color-plate illustration and a bit of text suggesting what awaits. None is more enigmatic than that of “The Gal Who Got Rattled”: “Mr. Arthur had no idea what he would say to Billy Knapp.” By the end of the segment, which is easily the most melancholic and moving in the Coen Brothers’ anthology Western, neither do we. Zoe Kazan plays the gal in question, a well-to-do young woman named Alice on a wagon train to Oregon at the behest of an older brother whose death early on in the journey leaves her alone.
Out of this loss comes the potential for something more meaningful, as Alice forms a bond with one Billy Knapp (a brilliant Bill Heck) that eventually leads to a marriage proposal. It also leads to her and the wagon train’s leader, Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines), advanced upon by a Native American war party while out looking for her dog; their low chances of survival in mind, Mr. Arthur instructs Alice to shoot herself should he be killed in order to spare herself from the torturous end that otherwise awaits. What follows is the most tragic end imaginable in such a scenario, the kind that few others besides the Coens could — or would — think to portray so wistfully. —MN
Ally Sings “Shallow” at Jackson’s Concert
Everything about Ally’s (Lady Gaga) big coming out in Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” should have been spoiled long before the fledgling superstar set foot on Jackson Maine’s massive stage. “Shallow,” the song the duo croon at each other, understandably starry-eyed, had already been at the center of a trailer and an earlier scene in the film, as Ally and Jackson workshopped the showstopper in the middle of a parking lot after midnight. We already know the lyrics, know the meaning, get the emotion it stirs between the pair, and yet, the moment a trembling Ally strides out in front of her first big crowd, opens her mouth, and lets out the first “tell me something, boy,” it’s all over. Chills, tingling spines, it literally hits every note. The scene — and its song — tell us the full story of what’s to come in Cooper’s masterful first film. It’s Jackson who pushes Ally to show her full potential, even if it’s scary, but once she’s out there, her confidence builds second by second, until she literally grabs the mic with both hands, pours out that “ah ah aa ahhh ah hh AHHHHH!!” that was always poised to be become the aural staple of the film, and lets rip. She’s a star, and everyone knows it — especially the audience.—KE
The Dance, “Annihilation”
“Annihilation,” the science-fiction head trip from writer-director Alex Garland, is a meditation on self-destruction. The theme physically manifests in the climax, where Natalie Portman’s Lena must confront a humanoid version of herself and outsmart it despite it mirroring her every move. The two figures engage in a self-destructive ballet set to Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s pulsating electronic score. The result is one of the strangest, most beautiful, and most bewildering sequences of the decade, not just the year. In this bravura sequence, Garland uses visceral emotion to trump narrative logic as he visually represents Lena’s internal struggle through movement. Watching Lena rely on herself to overcome her own self-destructive urges brings “Annihilation” to its thematic apex, and it’s unforgettable to behold. —ZS
The Birth Scene, “Roma”
In Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” Oaxaca schoolteacher Yalitza Aparicio merged emotionally with Cleo, the young domestic modeled after the Cuarón family nanny. The filmmaker shot in continuity and never told the new actress what was going to happen in each scene. Having lived with Cleo’s pregnancy and the extended, painful drive to the hospital after her water broke, Aparicio was prepared for the birth scene, staged with real obstetricians who understood Cleo’s condition. After she’s wheeled into the operating room, she’s expecting to give birth to a baby. (SPOILER ALERT). Her reactions are real as she delivers the infant and watches anxiously in the foreground in a long, sustained take as the doctors pump the baby in the background, trying to bring it back to life. Cleo realizes with horror that her baby has died. She is devastated. And watching the scene, so are we. This is the scene that could win Aparicio a Best Actress nomination. —AT
The Dance, “Burning”
Sometimes you watch a scene unfold in a movie and marvel at its perfection. In Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning,” much like “Jules and Jim,” two young men (Yoo Ah-in and Steven Yeun) are vying for the love of a woman (Jeon Jong-seo). They’re in the country, sitting in the back yard listening to Miles Davis and passing a joint at sunset when the woman suddenly takes off her shirt and starts to dance, facing fields and sun and deepening sky. In a long take, we are all watching her. There is no reaction shot of the men. We all marvel at her achingly sad beauty. —AT
“The Rain on the Roof,” “Paddington 2”
In the role of fading theatre legend Phoenix Buchanan — a foppish chameleon who’s starved for attention, or at least the riches that sometimes come with it — Hugh Grant not only delivers one of the very best performances of the year, but the notoriously misanthropic actor also seems to be having the time of his life. He relishes every ridiculous moment, radiating the self-obsessed desperation of a faded star who’s desperate to return to the limelight. Of course, all Phoenix ever really needed was a captive audience, and the mid-credits scene in which he finally gets one makes for the year’s greatest showstopper, as Grant leads a klink full of prisoners through an all-singing, all-dancing, rendition of “Rain on the Roof” from Sondheim’s “Follies.” It’s magical, triumphant, and proof that — in the world of “Paddington 2” — even the most selfish of people can redeem themselves by spreading the love. —DE