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The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2019

A memorable scene lingers within our subconscious like a half-remembered dream.

The 20 Best Scenes of 2019

Whether cleverly articulating a thesis or offering a straight shot of pure aesthetic bliss, a memorable scene lingers within our subconscious like a half-remembered dream, reminding us of a film’s greatness—or, in some cases, lack thereof. Be it through a unique blend of empathy and playful self-reflexivity (Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), by evoking a palpable sense of wonder and awe (James Gray’s Ad Astra and the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems), or cutting to our very cores with startling emotional rawness (Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still and Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?), our favorite scenes of 2019 are snapshots of the best cinema offered us this year, in its innumerable forms. Derek Smith


Ad Astra, Lunar Rover Battle

James Gray’s existential space odyssey Ad Astra imagines a future where the only constant, beyond the might of a globalized capitalized order, is the expression on Brad Pitt’s visage. Throughout, set pieces spring up unexpectedly, testing the resolve of Pitt’s Roy McBride and dazzling us with Gray’s flair for textural detail. When Roy’s three lunar rovers come under attack on the moon, light barely gleaming on the surface of things, it’s as if every visual and aural element of the frame is biochemically working to key us into the torpor of the man’s mind. The sequence is an unbelievable mix of languor and coolness. Ed Gonzalez


A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, One Minute of Silence

In one of many self-reflexive nods to the structure and aesthetics of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Tom Hanks’s Fred Rogers asks Matthew Rhys’s cynical reporter, Lloyd Vogel, for one minute of silence where they think about the people that have “loved us into being.” It’s a tactic Rogers used on his show, yet in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, director Marielle Heller gives it a life of its own as the hustle and bustle of the Chinese restaurant calms and the camera swings around until it lands on Hanks quietly, compassionately eyeing the audience straight down the lens. Heller, like Rogers, understands that in a world of constant cacophony, extended silence can be a radical act. Smith


Climax, Kiddy Smile vs. Thomas Bangalter

Throughout Climax, the camera feels as if it’s slowly experiencing the effects of a drug. Early on, Gaspar Noé happily cedes the stage to his characters, shooting them from above as they take turns plying their signature moves before capping the spectacle with a montage of the names of the dancers, as well as the musicians on the soundtrack. The moment constitutes a spectacular calm before an even more spectacular storm, and the ultimate gag—no, masterstroke—of Noé’s career may be this perfect communion between his art and that of these bodies: a thrilling expression of the fear that to stop moving is to undo the social fabric of the world. Gonzalez


An Elephant Sitting Still

An Elephant Sitting Still, The Suicide

The film’s elaborate, gracefully interlocking narrative is well paced, sustaining itself durably over the course of a daunting runtime. Though the action remains almost unrelentingly bleak, Hu Bo’s protagonists become richer as their lives become enmeshed. They find themselves in moments of decision for different reasons: a murder, a viral video leak, an eviction, and, most hauntingly, a suicide. Hu’s camera movements are surely inspired by Béla Tarr—a champion of An Elephant Sitting Still who helped to ensure it exists in its current cut after Hu committed suicide shortly after wrapping the film—but Hu’s rhythms are itchier, more curious, and less magisterial. Christopher Gray


End of the Century

End of the Century, “Space Age Love Song”

Director Lucio Castro depicts an entire tryst in the span of a pop song: While a Flock of Seagulls’s “Space Age Love Song” spins on a turntable, Ocho (Juan Barberini) and Javi (Ramon Pujol) flirt, dance, kiss, and have sex before Javi leaves the scene. Shot in one take, the compressed depiction of the encounter is wholly in line with End of the Century’s playful approach to the passage of time. Greene


High Life, Entering the Fuck Box

Sci-fi and eroticism are infrequent bedfellows, but when Juliette Binoche’s Dibs enters the Box, a small room aboard a spacecraft designed for masturbation, in Claire Denis’s High Life, the two merge in a most chilling manner as the carnality of orgasmic release is juxtaposed with the vast emptiness of space. Framed against an all-black background, Binoche, burdened by infertility, writhes ecstatically, her pleasure a fleeting yet furious renunciation of the death that otherwise envelops her. Smith


The Irishman, “It’s What It Is”

“It’s what it is.” A blunt, concise phrase that epitomizes the inevitability of fate catching up with the men of The Irishman. When Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) repeatedly utters these four simple words, with flat affect, to his friend, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), it’s a definitive resignation to the cruel and indifferent machinations of the mafia, which, out of necessity, turns friends into foes with an implacability that only the most stubborn and obtuse of men bother to resist. Smith


I Lost My Body

I Lost My Body, The Impossible Customer

All Naoufel (Hakim Faris) wants is to drop off the Neapolitan pizza and move on to his next delivery. But Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois) is bent on waging revenge on the pizza delivery guy for being 40 minutes late, and by making it impossible for him to enter her building. Were she a certain type of American she may ask for Naoufel’s manager’s contact info. But Jérémy Clapin’s animated film I Lost My Body serves French passive-aggressiveness in its most delectable state—that is, as an intricate game of seduction that may or may not lead to poetry and even love, here entirely played out over an Intercom conversation. The setup is absurdist, hilarious, and utterly mesmerizing. The dialogue is a long back and forth over how people should apologize when they’re late, though definitely not before first saying hello, whether one should push the entrance door before, during, or after one hears the buzzing sound, and the beautiful transience of rainfall. The situation ends with the realization that the pizza hasn’t survived the trajectory from the oven to Grabrielle’s place, so the entire conversation is futile. By then, the customer service impasse, and Gabrielle’s disembodied insolence, has cast a spell on Naoufel’s lonely heart. Diego Semerene


The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Skating Through Golden City

As a character criticizes gentrification through voiceover, Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) and Jimmie Fails (playing a fictionalized version of himself) skate from their downtrodden, predominantly black neighborhood in San Francisco to the city’s ritzy downtown area, where they’re greeted by suspicious stares from white people. This powerful sequence from The Last Black Man in San Francisco bluntly, succinctly, powerfully articulates the effects of gentrification on both place and self—how people can come to feel unwanted in the very city their ancestors helped build from the ground up. Greene


Marriage Story

Marriage Story, The Knife Thing

After Charlie (Adam Driver) accidently slices his arm with a knife while showing off a trick he can do, the situation takes a turn for the bloody, and the hilarious. Downplaying the severity of his wound, Charlie awkwardly tries to shoo the family-court evaluator played by Martha Kelly out of his apartment, all while the woman tries not to get blood on her. The sequence is a perfect distillation of Marriage Story’s balance of drama and comedy for the way it has us at once laugh and wince at this sadsack of a man trying to prove this worth. Greene



Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Sharon Tate Watches Herself

For all the griping about Margot Robbie’s lack of speaking lines in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, it’s ironic that the film’s most remarkably endearing scene is effective primarily because of the actress’s very silence. As Robbie, playing Sharon Tate, sits in gleeful anticipation of the audience’s reaction while watching the actual Sharon Tate on the big screen, Tarantino effectively blurs the line between fact and fiction, earnestness and artifice, as he briefly yet affectingly plays tribute both to the fallen star and the woman playing her. Smith


Pain and Glory

Pain and Glory, Drug-Fueled Q&A

After neglecting to show up for a repertory screening of his breakout film, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) conducts a hilariously candid Q&A session from the comfort of his home—while also unashamedly snorting heroin. The sequence is a wild shot of screwball provocation, both a reminder of Pedro Almodóvar’s default mode during the early part of his career and a wildly entertaining distillation of Pain and Glory’s concern with the tension between the public and the private. Greene


Parasite, Making Ram-don

Midway through Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the pains of class resentment take the form of physical violence as two poor families ruthlessly clamor for the affection and recognition of the wealthy Park clan. When the Parks announce their unexpected return from a now-canceled camping trip and ask their maid (Chang Hyae-jin) to prepare a bowl of ram-don for their young son, Bong Joon-ho mounts a precisely choreographed, feverishly paced, and luridly metaphorical slapstick sequence that reveals the savagery and servility at play within the oppressed classes and the depravity and desperation that lurks just beneath the seemingly perfect aura of domestic order. Smith


Peterloo

Peterloo, The Massacre

Mike Leigh’s depiction of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre boasts the sort of ferocious large-scale action and vigorous camerawork and editing never before seen in his work. Up to this point, Peterloo paints a prismatic portrait of a sometimes good, sometimes eccentric, and always yearning lower class trodden under the foot of the government. By the time the climactic set piece kicks into motion, any act of harm done to all those who’ve earned our compassion throughout the film’s running time carries a staggering emotional weight. Greene


Richard Jewell

Richard Jewell, Centennial Olympic Park Bombing

Clint Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. In Richard Jewell, the Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. As stacked and calculating as the film is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness. Chuck Bowen



Sauvage

Sauvage, A Patient’s Hug

Writer-director Camille Vidal-Naque’s Sauvage is ultimately a tale about how those who spiral so far out of control become blind, if not immune, to the severity of their symptoms. This is dramatized to astonishing effect in the film’s most memorable scene, where Leo (Félix Maritaud), our battered, drug-addicted protagonist, visits a doctor (Marie Seux). The woman proposes that the young hustler try something to get him off the drugs he’s been using, and he genuinely questions why he should ever want to stop using crack. Leo is unable to imagine a life that isn’t fueled by self-destruction. The doctor eventually asks him to undress so she can examine him. As she touches and, mostly, listens to his body, something happens to Leo, which gives way to the most unexpected of embraces. It’s a rare instance for any film to be able to prick an audience with such rawness, and in such disarming fashion. Just as when we presume that the only direction Leo will follow is downward toward the abyss, or some inanimate state, he surprises us because he surprises himself. Semerene


Shadow

Shadow, Attack of the Razor Umbrellas

With a rain-drenched battle scene of epic proportions, Zhang Yimou imaginatively stretches the aesthetic possibilities of the monochromatic gray color scheme at play in his latest, Shadow. As dozens of men and women, each sandwiched between a pair of razor umbrellas, slide down a long, cobblestone street, spinning wildly and with arrows flying in every direction, Zhang highlights the beauty and order amid the overwhelming chaos of battle, without ever diminishing its utter brutality. Smith


Spider-Man: Far from Home, Magical Myserio Tour

In Spider-Man: Far from Home, Mysterio’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) mirages result in some of the strongest action scenes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including a spellbinding sequence in which Mysterio plunges Peter Parker (Tom Holland) into an ever-shifting illusion where Spider-Man is knocked around a space with indefinite parameters while being taunted by the false images of his allies. As Peter punches stone columns he believes to be Mysterio, dropped in and out of abysses, and even dog-piled by duplicates of himself, the scene marks perhaps the first moment in the entire MCU to fully, almost expressionistically, embrace the limitless possibilities of malleable comic-book action. Jake Cole


Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems, The History of the World

At one point in Uncut Gems, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) tells Kevin Garnett that looking into the film’s coveted black opal is like seeing the history of the world—one of the few truths that he speaks in the Safdie brothers’ latest. In an elaborate sequence that begins in Africa, the camera passes through the glittering crystals of the possibly cursed opal to turn into what looks like the cosmos, before finally transforming into video of Howard’s colonoscopy. The scene is at once a brilliant transition and an effective visual metaphor of how a thing of beauty like the opal eventually brings out the ugly side of Howard’s character. Greene


What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

What You Gonna Do When the World Is on Fire?, Sisters

When the middle-aged Judy Hill—credited as “The Woman”—leaves the bar she owns and is desperately trying to keep afloat, she runs into a transgender sex worker. An incredibly cathartic bonding is performed as the two women exchange stories of sexual abuse. No one, mothers or anyone else, were there to believe them, let alone protect them. By this point in Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World Is on Fire?, we’ve seen how white supremacy scripts black lives to repeat similar histories of loss and trauma, so we aren’t surprised that these strangers would be sisters of a sort. But this is the first time in the film when the visceral effects of this endless transmission of violence erupts on screen. Before ending the encounter with an embrace, Judy offers her sister some empathy (“I feel you”) and the realest piece of advice on film in 2019: “If it’s crack you need, smoke! Smoke one on me. […] If it’s a little bit of power, snort! On me. Dope? Shoot that motherfucker! Whatever it takes…to make you feel good […]” Semerene

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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