Connect with us

Features

The 25 Best Singles of 2012

Our list is a collection of songs that either survived their airwaves onslaught or deserved more.

Published

on

The 25 Best Singles of 2012
Photo: Island Def Jam

What struck me when preparing to write this introduction wasn’t what made our list of the best singles of 2012, but what didn’t. Ubiquity is the surest way to kill a song, and surviving nonstop airplay, covers, and Internet memes is often the purest test of a truly great single. Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” landed at #12 on our list last year, before pop radio decided to (deservedly, but seemingly at random) pluck the New Zealander out of indie obscurity, but it likely still would have made our list again this year had it been eligible. And though the song didn’t make it, even Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” scored a couple of mentions (only the most hardened of music lovers didn’t let themselves succumb to this earworm for at least one day). On the other hand, Fun.’s “We Are Young” didn’t appear on anyone’s ballot, though it was nice to see Janelle Monáe on top of the charts where she belongs. And while there were a few K-pop songs shortlisted this year (including EXO-K’s “History” and Sistar’s “Alone”), the genre’s sole genuine crossover hit, PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” was decidedly not one of them.

What did make our list is a collection of songs that either survived their airwaves onslaught (by my count, Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been” was playing simultaneously on three different L.A. radio stations at one point this summer) or deserved more (if “Somebody That I Used to Know” could cross over, why can’t Dirty Projectors’ “Gun has No Trigger”?). Trend-spotting is always a dubious enterprise, but characters, both real and imagined, made for good song titles this year, some of which were generously sprinkled throughout our Top 75, including Andrew the drag queen, noted cancer patient Henrietta Lacks (Yeasayer’s “Henrietta”), and the titular other woman of Norah Jones’s “Miriam.” The ’80s are still being mined for gems (by Jessie Ware and Santigold, who both appear twice on our list), as are the early ’90s (Azealia Banks’s pointedly titled “1991”), which can only mean one thing: Expect the return of R&B girl groups singing about scrubs and bills, bills, bills once we go over the proverbial fiscal cliff.  Sal Cinquemani

Editor’s Note: Check out our list of the 25 Best Albums of 2012.

25. Liars, “No. 1 Against the Rush”

Liars’ best songs are about finding an idyll of relative calm within the hazy welter of peripheral noise. In “No. 1 Against the Rush,” it’s the undulating electronic pattern at the songs core, which transitions from a surging sine wave to a boxy circuitous loop, giving shape to the waves of synth and noise that surround it. Meanwhile, lead singer Angus Andrew offloads the usual cryptic lyrical gibberish, more focused on the shape of the words than their meaning, especially on the “again and again and again” verse endings. It’s another mesmerizing ode to obscurity from one of the most satisfyingly weird bands working today.  Jesse Cataldo


24. The Magnetic Fields, “Andrew in Drag”

Less fantastical and wistful than most Magnetic Fields tracks, “Andrew in Drag” is also one of Stephen Merritt’s most emotionally acute missives, with an emotional core that stands out amid all the barbs and entendres, focused on the titular character, an object of affection who doesn’t really exist, the result of a one-off gag drag performance by a heterosexual guy. Shaping an especially catchy rendering of his melancholy for the happiness existing just beyond his fingertips, the singer offers a blend of pained resignation and bottomless ennui with each mention of the titular name, resulting in a perfect expression of wryly inflected longing.  Cataldo


23. Santigold, “Big Mouth”

Dark, delusional, and dense with indictment, “Big Mouth” offers kiss-off lyrics to nameless haters. Its entrancing qualities are principally rhythmic and harmonic: Throughout Master of My Make-Believe, Santigold uses staccato twitches in her voice as a way to complete a beat, and this technique lies at the heart of “Big Mouth,” a track built otherwise on drum and bass, high-pitched faux-Gregorian chant, and the chugging stutter of a processed drumline. It’s a rave at a church, a neck-breaker that also feels like judgment day. The semi-scrutable lyrics project a knowing self-control that matches the steady thrust of the song. One imagines those downbeat references to Ke$ha and Gaga are intentional. But then one promptly forgets, and submits to the beat.  Ted Scheinman


22. Meek Mill featuring Drake, “Amen”

Following the release of “Amen,” Philadelphia reverend and self-proclaimed hip-hop fan Jomo K. Johnson made a show of publicly denouncing the track, revoking Meek Mill’s “hood pass” for the general disrespect conveyed therein. It’s hard to see what there is to get so worked about; even with the constant invocations of God’s house and Meek’s general malicious murmuring, “Amen” is about as harmless as modern rap tracks come, a good-natured backyard burble that’s pushes the off-color references to the background, more about the interplay between Meek’s off-the-cuff charm, a twinkling keyboard riff, and a wheezing organ line, possessing such a sturdy musical base that even Drake’s goofy verse feels right.  Cataldo


21. No Doubt, “Push and Shove”

No Doubt would have had to come back with a vengeance to justify its lead singer squandering a prosperous solo career in order to (admirably) regroup with her pals for their first studio album since before Osama bin Laden became a household name. Push and Shove’s first single, the catchy dancehall-pop hybrid “Settle Down,” is in many ways quintessential No Doubt, but the album’s title track had the potential to make a much more potent impact as a lead single, boldly pushing and shoving the quartet forward while maintaining their signature sound the way the first singles from their previous two albums did so successfully. Co-produced by Major Lazer, the reggae-fusion party anthem leaps from genre to genre and tempo to tempo with the kind of dexterity that can only be achieved by a band that’s remained as tight—and for as long—as No Doubt has.  Cinquemani


20. Usher, “Climax”

Both Diplo’s presence at the mixing board and the track’s similarities to the Weeknd’s drugged-out brand of R&B made “Climax” safe for tastemakers to like without sacrificing their street cred. Ultimately, though, it’s Usher’s masterful vocal turn that makes the single so effective. His lithe falsetto has never sounded better, but it’s the deliberate, measured patience of his performance that’s most impressive, particularly the way he slowly slides into notes and crescendos with each phrase in the song’s bridge. While so many of his contemporaries settle for singing that merely signifies emotions instead of actually evoking them, Usher’s delivery plays into the double entendre in the song’s title by methodically creating and then releasing tension.  Jonathan Keefe


19. Bat for Lashes, “Laura”

Natasha Khan knows how to inject just the right amount of showmanship into a song before things get too melodramatic, and the towering “Laura” stands as her best effort in straddling the line between her usual baroque-pop and the innate power of breathless histrionics. Building up like a grand stage production, “Laura” is most powerful when Khan reins in to humanize, rather than idolize, one of her familiar heroines: a wonderfully flawed, perhaps even delusional, starlet left withering without her spotlight. Fortunately, the proceedings never get too weepy, nor the swirling piano too syrupy, in our encounter with Khan’s delicate, tragic tale of faded celebrity.  Kevin Liedel


18. Kelly Hogan, “Plant White Roses”

“Plant White Roses” marks the second time in Kelly Hogan’s career, following a cover of “Papa Was a Rodeo” from the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, that she’s taken one of Stephin Merritt’s downbeat pop songs and roped it into the country genre, making it sound like it’s always belonged there. Hogan’s greatest gift as an interpretive singer is her ability to fully inhabit even the most multifaceted of narrators, and that skill aligns perfectly with Merritt’s dense songwriting. “Plant White Roses” is one of Merritt’s finest efforts, and Hogan sings the line “You’re all I need/But you need more than country songs” with a blend of cutting self-deprecation and genuine heartbreak.  Keefe


17. Jessie Ware, “110%”

Mood and minimalism reign on “110%,” where British newcomer Jessie Ware uses hushed come-hithers and laidback sensuality to display a mastery of soulful synth-pop. The track harkens back to the simplicity of late-’70s quiet storm, an evening jam bubbling up and down with little more than some diligent percussion, a cloud of barely there synths, and a pitch-shifted Big Pun sample. Ware herself is both angelic and teasing, imploring her hesitant lover to join in on that proverbial dance of seduction with sweet but direct sexual provocations. “I know you hear me, but can you reach me?” she calls. “Feel free to touch me, and we can play hard”  Liedel


16. Alicia Keys featuring Nicki Minaj, “Girl on Fire”

The Beatles knew that a song about self-empowerment requires a Jekyll and Hyde dynamic—hence those Lennon lines about beating his wife in “Getting Better” Alicia Keys and Nicki Minaj are a fitting pair for this formula, and “Girl on Fire” grooves on the interplay between Keys’s positive reinforcement and Minaj’s gimlet-eyed offerings. Minaj plays the stuntwoman here, opening the track with a morbid sequence of agile rhymes and interposing unexpectedly to offer wisdom halfway through. Those doom-struck opening lines distil a nightmare of Marilyn Monroe: “And she brought a gun with her/Pills and some rum with her” The message is that any “girl on fire” (read: super diva) should avoid the glamour of self-destruction, even if she’s aflame with inspiration and maybe has a little steam to burn off. It’s a salutary lesson, and Keys nails the chorus to the back of the stadium.  Scheinman


15. Rihanna, “Where Have You Been”

It’s telling that “Where Have You Been” omits the implied question mark in its title. Rihanna isn’t so much asking as she’s witnessing her own solitude. Like on “We Found Love,” Rihanna is almost incidental to the song, repeating the same verse and refrain while Calvin Harris’s long instrumental passages comprise the most ecstatic parts of the track. The synth-happy chorus, in which Rihanna repeats the titular rhetorical question over and over, builds to a dubstep rave-up that’s connected by the track’s single most rapturous element: a drum fill that lasts no more than a mere second.  Cinquemani


14. Jay-Z and Kanye West, “No Church in the Wild”

While Jay-Z attempts to reconcile theology with thug life and Frank Ocean ponders the philosophical pecking order (“What’s a mob to a king? What a king to a god? What’s a god to a non-believer?”), co-producer 88 Keys morphs monkey screeches into police sirens and slows the track’s guitar sample and James Brown vocal riff down to a drawl, creating a grim, almost underwater effect. Kanye West’s boasts about snorting lines off an unnamed girl feel out of place at first, but this is, after all, a track that questions the purpose of piety in a world dominated by pain, money, and indulgence.  Cinquemani


13. Cheyenne Marie Mize, “Wishing Well”

A structural marvel that manages to be playful without ever threatening to become cloying or twee, Cheyenne Marie Mize’s “Wishing Well” owes as much to vintage R&B in terms of its form as it does to the experimental contemporary pop that makes up most of the singer-songwriter’s work. The song’s arrangement consists of nothing more than some inventively layered loops of “found” percussion that rattle and clang behind Mize’s sweet, girlish delivery as she sings of feeling increasingly hard-up: First she asks for a penny to toss into a wishing well, but by the double-timed bridge, she begs, “I’d sell my very soul/Just to get some of your anytime lovin’”  Keefe


12. WZRD, “Teleport 2 Me, Jamie”

If his rock-skirting success in side project WZRD is any indication, beneath Kid Cudi’s MC exterior beats the heart of a tortured hipster whose lovelorn agony is commensurate with his rhymes. Then again, Cudi’s melancholy has always seemed readymade for genre crisscrossing. Case in point: “Teleport 2 Me, Jamie,” an epic slice of alternative hip-hop that manages to balance its fun, Theophilus London-style slickness with a very coarse and strikingly sincere angst. Slowly unfolding with a reverb-smeared guitar riff and then culminating with the despondent strains of Desire’s ethereal “Under Your Spell,” the track is both methodical and effusive, no doubt a watershed moment for the manifold talents of Cudi’s bleak stoner persona.  Liedel


11. The Very Best featuring Seye, “Kondaine”

Esau Mwamwaya drew heat from some quarters for going too dancehall this year—perhaps under the influence of that shifty Swede Johan Hugo. In fact, 2012’s MTMTMK flipped the script, its premise being that world music over Scandanavian beats moves asses just as efficiently as Western pop over African beats. “Kondaine” affirms this premise with an assist from Nigerian-born singer Seye Adelekan and an uncredited trill or two from Ezra Koenig. All sunshine and bounce, “Kondaine” finds Mwamwaya alternating between English and his native Chewa, while Seye jumps into the chorus to celebrate a lady whom he invites on a chivalrous walk. “You walkin’ on water/You walkin’ on air,” Mwamwaya sings, and the song makes good on this sense of buoyant possibility—without losing the dancehall thump that constitutes the formidable backbone of the album.  Scheinman


10. Lana Del Rey, “National Anthem”

The fifth single from Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die doubles, much like the album, as a critique and a glorification of materialism and artifice, name-dropping “upper echelon” status symbols like the Hamptons, $2 million sports cars, and Page Six to paint a portrait of a girl looking for love in all the well-fixed places. Del Rey boasts of “blurring the lines between real and the fake” in the lyrics, and though she’s taken on various guises during her short run in the spotlight (“gangster Nancy Sinatra,” Ione Skye from Say Anything…, and, in the video for “National Anthem,” a 21st-century Jackie O), what makes the song feel authentic is the singer’s simple, robotic performance. She doesn’t try to affect a deeper, more “serious” tone the way she has on other songs, content to sing in her more natural higher register. “National Anthem” suggests what it might sound like if trip-hop had conquered hip-hop and Britney Spears actually had something to say.  Cinquemani


9. Azealia Banks, “1991”

So maybe it’s all a bit too on-the-nose as an homage, but it’s not like Azealia Banks is one for subtlety. She’s dialed back the inventive potty-mouthing that made “212” such an attention-grabber, but there’s so much going on in “1991” that Banks could never be accused of slacking off. She spits a rapid-fire 16-bar rhyme that’s a triumph of female sexual agency and makes it sound as effortless as snacking on a little pain au chocolat, and then she nimbly interweaves those rhymes into an onomatopoeic secondary vocal track before unraveling it all so she can do a spot-on impression of Ce Ce Peniston.  Keefe


8. Alabama Shakes, “Hold On”

The Alabama Shakes earned a following beyond the NPR circuit thanks to the lead single from their debut album, Boys & Girls. Built on a patient drum figure and guitar double-stops on loan from Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Hold On” isn’t just one great, glorious extended exhortation—from the singer to herself, but also to us. It’s also a fundament-kicking performance from singer Brittany Howard, almost unsettling in the range it displays. Her voice is a many-colored thing, childish and old-womanly within the same song, the kind of instrument that can turn a simple roots band into an emotional engine. The end of the song is a roiling, stutter-step carnival, and “Hold On” communicates a resilience that suggests the Shakes will keep this thing rolling.  Scheinman


7. Twin Shadow, “Five Seconds”

It follows that the music video for “Five Seconds” paints a Mad Max-style dystopia: This is an unapologetically cinematic chunk of new wave, its motoring percussion and descending chime melodies ideal for scoring a glamorous, violent car chase as it squeals across the scorched earth. It’s also Twin Shadow’s best track to date, as he channels a myriad of influences—from Phil Collins and Tears for Fears to the Psychedelic Furs and Prince—while casting off all of the residual lethargy he languished in on his debut, Forget. In embracing a new sense of speed, motion, and energy, Twin Shadow rightfully assumes the mantle as one of the most dynamic and committed of the current ’80s revivalists.  Liedel


6. Jack White, “I’m Shakin’”

Though his authenticity fetish has been present from the outset of his career, far too many of Jack White’s recent outings as both a recording artist and as a producer have been suffocated by a pervasive self-seriousness, his humorlessness coming to a head when he stormed off stage just 45 minutes into a show at Radio City Music Hall back in September. “I’m Shakin’” stands as a welcome course correction, then, as it’s as tongue in cheek and as purely fun as anything White has recorded in years. The arrangement boasts one of his most loose-limbed traditional blues licks, while his vocal turn, which peaks with a deliberately absurd exclamation of “You got me noivous,” is just one long piss-take.  Keefe


5. Santigold, “Disparate Youth”

From the very first strains of the reggae-tinged pizzicato that marks its opening, the apocalyptic “Disparate Youth” establishes itself as Master of My Make-Believe’s most hummable track. Santigold is on cruise control here, barely raising an arched eyebrow or her resigned voice throughout. Instead, she lets the rhythmic tandem of the song’s snapping drum pads, skittering keyboard flourishes, and raygun-firing guitar do most of the heavy lifting, and the resulting mix of blasé dread and dancehall funk is nothing less than infectious. If you’re going to prevail over both the sins of your fathers and an inevitably grim future, you might as well do it with a mix of derision and style.  Liedel


4. Dirty Projectors, “Gun Has No Trigger”

One of the best songs ever written about powerlessness, the title track off Dirty Projectors’ latest album offers a vaguely poeticized take on the recent financial crisis on the one hand, and a generally outlined take on impotence on the other. Whatever the authorial intent, group mastermind David Longstreth shapes the track into yet another keening, oddly shaped ballad, using his cooing female backup singers as a sharp instrumental force, their voices swelling with power only to fall back down into calm. A detached but still viscerally satisfying track, “Gun Has No Trigger” acts as the centerpiece of a roundly magnificent album.  Cataldo


3. Frank Ocean, “Pyramids”

If Drake established latent rapper guilt as a viable force in 2011, Frank Ocean made it blossom in 2012, most particularly on this massive, mournful ode to the manifold emotions accompanying a strip-club visit, swinging between bigheaded braggadocio, shameful introspection, and free-floating guilt. Shifting freely from ambient soundscapes to jagged funk guitars buried in reverb, the song also contains the best application of the album’s Stevie Wonder-aping clavinet lines, all condensed into a dizzying 10 minutes. Possessing an EP’s worth of ideas on its own, “Pyramids,” synthesizes everything that made Channel Orange the album of the year.  Cataldo


2. Jessie Ware, “Running”

Frank Ocean made a name for himself in 2012 without a distinct angle or pre-fab image, but even he had help getting thrust into the spotlight, from the Odd Future connection to the Watch the Throne guest spots to the 11th-hour coming-out blog post the day before Channel Orange was released. Even more elusively anomalous is Jessie Ware, a pop star without a hook, an astonishingly low-key presence in a year of aggressive female showmanship, getting by on her clear sense of quiet grace. Songs like “Running,” speak entirely for themselves, working off the dazzling interplay between a slinky guitar riff and Ware’s immaculately smooth voice. The track communicates that same elusiveness in a sleek, elegantly produced package, further establishing Ware as the distant, indefinable figure who remains tantalizingly out of focus.  Cataldo


1. Drake featuring Rihanna, “Take Care”

Take Care was a huge breakthrough for Drake, showing his newly developed ability to fuse his throbbing emotional core with an acute pop sensibility, shedding the drippy self-pitying bathos of his early mixtapes. The album’s titular single is the apotheosis of that development, an oblique love song that pits his hesitant croon against Rihanna’s soothing, motherly imprecations, shaking things up with an extended fugue courtesy of a reconstituted Gil Scot Heron sample. A gorgeous, enigmatic evocation of love and doubt, “Take Care” finds Drake at the height of his triple-threat powers, exploring the sort of emotional territory that most rappers are afraid to even enter.  Cataldo


Advertisement
Comments

Features

The 20 Best Music Videos of 2018

The year’s best music videos reflect the way we live now: the technology we use, the power we wield, and the places we carve out for ourselves.

Published

on

By

The 20 Best Music Videos of 2018
Photo: YouTube

The year’s best music videos reflect the way we live now: the technology we use (“Vince Staples’s “Fun!”), the power we wield (the Carters’ “Apeshit”), and the places we carve out for ourselves (“Anderson .Paak’s “Til It’s Over”). They also acknowledge the state of the world, from systemic racism (Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”) to institutional corruption (Jack White’s “Corporation”). Notably, a clear majority of the videos on our list were created by or for artists of color, whose stories serve as an act of resistance against a racist regime. The year in music video wasn’t all gloom and doom, though, as both identity and resistance manifested in profoundly joyous ways in Chaka Khan’s “Like Sugar” and Kali Uchis’s “After the Storm.” And Bruno Mars and Migos embraced playful, nostalgic visions of the past—though it’s hard not to question whether even those ostensibly frivolous throwbacks are rooted in self-care and a need to romanticize a seemingly simpler time. Sal Cinquemani

20. Prince, “Mary Don’t You Weep”

There are no guns or mass shootings in the clip for Prince’s posthumously released “Mary Don’t You Weep,” but their absence isn’t conspicuous. Gun violence is, more than anything else, about the aftermath—the loss, the grief, the haunted lives left in the wake of a fleeting shot. Amid politicians’ perpetual handwringing over when the “right” time is to talk about solutions to this epidemic, Salomon Ligthelm’s exquisitely lensed video testifies to the notion that, at least for tens of thousands of Americans this year, it’s already too late. Cinquemani


19. Rosalía, “Malamente”

Barcelona-based collective Canada marries the traditional with the modern—as in an eye-popping freeze-frame of a bullfighter facing off with a motorcycle—in this spirited music video for Spanish singer-songwriter Rosalía’s flamenco-inspired hit “Malamente.” Alexa Camp


18. Ariana Grande, “God Is a Woman”

The music video for Ariana Grande’s sultry, subtly reggae-infused slow jam “God Is a Woman” finds the pop princess bathing in a milky swirl of vaginal water colors, fingering the eye of a hurricane, and deflecting misogynist epithets, a visual embodiment of her declaration that “I can be all the things you told me not to be/When you try to come for me, I keep on flourishing/And he sees the universe when I’m in company/It’s all in me.” Directed by Dave Meyers, the video mixes animation, digital eye candy, and references to classical artwork, as well as a few WTF moments, like a set piece in which a group of moles emerge from their holes and scream bloody murder. Pointed metaphors abound, from scenes of Grande walking a tightrope to literally breaking a glass ceiling. At one point, pop’s original feminist queen, Madonna, makes a cameo reciting the Old Testament by way of Pulp Fiction—with her own characteristic twist, of course, swapping “brothers” for “sisters.” Cinquemani


17. Bruno Mars featuring Cardi B, “Finesse (Remix)”

Bruno Mars directed the video for “Finesse” himself, and its note-perfect homage to the opening sequence of In Living Color shows him to be as adept a visual pastiche artist as he is a musical one. As with the song, however, it’s guest Cardi B who steals the show, dominating every second she’s on camera as the flyest of Fly Girls in tube socks, cutoffs, and larger-than-life hoop earrings. Zachary Hoskins


16. LCD Soundsystem, “Oh Baby”

Featuring masterful performances by Sissy Spacek and David Strathairn, LCD Soundsystem’s “Oh Baby” is a stirring saga of lovers venturing into the unknown. Directed by Rian Johnson, the video follows an aging couple who build a set of strange, inter-dimensional doorways. Enter one, and you can exit out of the other, but it’s never clear what reality exists between them. Simple, cinematic, and heart-wrenching, the clip is the perfect accompaniment for James Murphy’s ponderous, uplifting electro-pop. Paired together, Spacek and Strathairn convey love’s capacity to obliterate all barriers: loneliness, old age, even death. Pryor Stroud


15. Migos featuring Drake, “Walk It Talk It”

Migos’s “Walk It Talk It” takes place on a fictional television program called Culture Ride—a clear homage to the iconic show Soul Train. This isn’t the first music video to conceptually riff on the vintage variety show format; both OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and the Strokes’s “Last Nite” are set in Ed Sullivan Show-style sound stages. But the video is still a triumph of flashy, vintage style. Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff surround themselves with dancing spectators and major stars, notably Jamie Foxx and Drake, all of whom are transfixed by the music they’re hearing. And just as they are today, Migos is the center of attention. Stroud


14. Azealia Banks, “Anna Wintour”

Yes, those really are Azealia Banks’s nipples. At least according to the New York singer-rapper-lightning-rod’s perennially deleted Twitter account. But the music video for Banks’s single “Anna Wintour” is striking not just because of the artist’s ample bosom. Directed by Matt Sukkar, the clip was filmed in an empty warehouse using understated faux-natural lighting, an apt visual milieu for Banks’s declaration of independence: “As the valley fills with darkness, shadows chase and run around…I’ll be better off alone, I’ll walk at my own pace.” Shots of a scantily clad Banks strutting on a metal catwalk, posing in a full-length mirror, and striking a pose in front of a backlit gate pay homage to Janet Jackson’s “The Pleasure Principle,” an iconic video by another female artist who was once determined to assert control. Camp


13. Flasher, “Material”

The internet has rendered media consumption so isolating that it takes a work of profound ingenuity to remind us that art is inherently a shared experience—even if that experience is one of infuriating data buffering, inescapable clickbait, and micro-targeted advertising. Directed by Nick Roney, Flasher’s meta visual for “Material” proves that YouTube has become so engrained in the fabric of modern life that the simple action of clicking out of a pop-up advertisement is now part of our brains’ cache of muscle memory. Though the video isn’t actually interactive, you just might find yourself unconsciously reaching to take control of what’s happening on your screen. Cinquemani


12. Jennifer Lopez featuring Cardi B and DJ Khaled, “Dinero”

The music video for Jennifer Lopez’s “Dinero” is as over the top as the song itself, which finds J. Lo alternately singing over a tropical rhythm and rapping atop a trap beat—sometimes both—while fellow Bronx upstart Cardi B boasts of their borough-based bona fides. Directed by Joseph Kahn, the black-and-white clip brazenly takes the piss out of Lopez’s dubious Jenny from the Block persona—and she’s clearly in on the joke, bowling with a diamond-covered ball, barbecuing in lingerie and pearls while sipping a crystal-encrusted Slurpee, toasting marshmallows over a burning pile of cash, and walking a preening pet ostrich on a leash. The video also features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by a Casino-era Robert De Niro. Camp


11. Tierra Whack, “Whack World”

One of the most ambitious music video projects of the year, “Whack World” is a full-length accompaniment to Tierra Whack’s debut album of the same title. Like the album, it’s 15 minutes long, with the Philadelphia-based rapper and visual artist performing a wildly different vignette in each minute. Both album and video make for an impressive sampler of Whack’s versatility as a performer—which, in visual form, translates to her inhabiting a range of quirky and inventive characters, from a facially disfigured receptionist to a rapping corpse in a sequined coffin, a sentient house, and others that defy description. With a highlight reel like this, it’s hard to image there being anything Whack can’t do. Hoskins


10. Janelle Monáe, “Make Me Feel”

Every segment of the “emotion picture” released by Janelle Monáe to accompany her third album Dirty Computer is visually striking and thematically rich in its own way. But it’s the segment for lead single “Make Me Feel” that arguably stands best on its own. Directed by Monáe’s longtime collaborator Alan Ferguson, the video features the singer and 2018 It-girl Tessa Thompson at what may be the year’s coolest party captured on screen. Widely viewed as a coming-out moment for Monáe—her pansexuality is dramatized in her interactions with both Thompson and co-star Jayson Aaron—the clip is rife with references to two recently canonized icons of sexual fluidity, Prince and David Bowie. Monáe’s choreography with Thompson and Aaron echoes Prince’s with dancer Monique Mannen in the video for “Kiss,” while the dynamic of a bold, flamboyant alter ego performing for the singer’s more reserved self is borrowed from Bowie’s “Blue Jean.” As with her music, however, Monáe is capable of wearing these influences on her sleeve (and her silver bikini top) while still making them wholly her own. Hoskins


9. Chaka Khan, “Like Sugar”

The music video for R&B legend Chaka Khan’s first single in five years giddily foregrounds a multiplicity of black bodies via vibrant, kinetic montage. The joyous clip represents a celebration of identity and persistence in the face of adversity, a thread that shoots through many of the year’s best videos. Camp


8. Anderson .Paak, “Til It’s Over”

The music video has always sat at an awkward intersection of art and commerce, having originated as short film clips serving quite literally as “promos” for new singles. It’s thus only a little strange that Spike Jonze’s video for Anderson .Paak’s “Til It’s Over” isn’t a conventional one at all, but rather an extended commercial for Apple’s HomePod smart device. In the short vignette, FKA Twigs comes home from a long work day and asks Siri to play something she’d like. After a few seconds of .Paak’s voice coming out of her HomePod speakers, she discovers that her dancing can make the physical properties of her apartment stretch and shift. Both the simple, human joy of Twigs’s movements and the technical wizardry of the expanding room are so arresting that you’ll almost forget you’re being sold something. Hoskins


7. Travis Scott featuring Drake, “Sicko Mode”

The album cover for Travis Scott’s Astroworld painted a vivid picture of the eponymous theme park as a psychedelic, vaguely sinister landscape, dominated by a giant inflatable model of Scott’s head and decidedly not to be confused with the real-life (and long-defunct) Six Flags AstroWorld. But it’s the video for single “Sicko Mode,” directed by Dave Meyers, that really brings the place to life, turning the bleak landscape of Houston’s inner city into a post-apocalyptic playground of talking train graffiti and video vixens on bicycles while Scott rides past a prowling police cruiser on horseback. Much like the multi-part song, the clip isn’t cohesive, as the scenes during Drake’s guest verse almost seem to be cut in from an entirely different video. But the abundance of bizarre imagery, both menacing and absurd, ensures that it’s never boring. Hoskins


6. A$AP Rocky featuring Moby, “A$AP Forever”

The camera is the star of Dexter Navy’s video for “A$AP Forever”: whirling in dizzy circles above A$AP Rocky’s head and pulling in and out of a seemingly endless series of television monitors, street signs, smartphone screens, and other images within images. In the final sequence, the camera moves one last time into Rocky’s eyeball, revealing a reflected image of the rapper rotating in an anti-gravity chamber. Also, Moby is there. What it all means is anyone’s guess, but the trippy effect is a perfect complement to the strain of 21st-century psychedelia in Rocky’s music. Hoskins


5. Vince Staples, “Fun!”

Directed by Calmatic, the video for Vince Staples’s “Fun!” is both an astute condemnation of racial tourism and a (perhaps unintentional) auto-critique of hip-hop’s exportation of the black experience to middle America. Like Flasher’s “Material,” it’s also a bleak commentary on the ways technology—in this case, satellite mapping—has simultaneously united and divided the human race. Cinquemani


4. Jack White, “Corporation”

Jack White’s “Corporation” is just as oblique, ambitious, and political as the artist himself. Over the course of seven minutes, a series of surreal, seemingly disjointed events occur: a cowboy puts on lipstick, a rave starts in a diner, a little boy steals a car. By the end, you learn that all of the characters are simply different manifestations of White himself, revealing the alt-blues pioneer as someone we already knew him to be: a complex, multifaceted artist whose neuroses are intimately tied to his genius. Stroud


3. Kali Uchis featuring Tyler, the Creator and Bootsy Collins, “After the Storm”

Like the contemporary surrealist photos of its director, Nadia Lee Cohen, the video for “After the Storm” pairs a rich Technicolor palette with a playfully elastic approach to everyday banality: bringing P-Funk icon Bootsy Collins to (animated) life as a cereal box mascot and making rapper Tyler, the Creator grow from a garden like a literal “Flower Boy.” That these whimsical images appear alongside shots of singer Kali Uchis, dolled up in mid-century attire and staring blankly into the distance, suggest that they’re meant to dramatize the daydreams of a bored 1950s suburbanite. This makes the video’s final image, of Uchis and a fully sprouted Tyler acting out an idyllic nuclear family scene while their own disembodied Chia-pet heads look on from the window, as vaguely disquieting as it is humorous. Hoskins


2. The Carters, “Apeshit”

The Carters’s Everything Is Love may not have achieved the same cultural ubiquity as Beyoncé‘s Lemonade, or Jay-Z’s 4:44, but it spawned one of the year’s most poignant videos. In “Apeshit,” the power couple performs in a vacant Louvre, commandeering the world’s most famous museum without breaking a sweat. It’s a radical testament to their influence as artists, business people, and political players, as well as a bold statement about the overlooked primacy of blackness in the Western canon. Stroud


1. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”

Surprise-released to coincide with Donald Glover’s double duty as host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live in May, the provocative video for “This Is America” was already inspiring breathless think pieces by the following morning. Directed by Hiro Murai, Glover’s principal collaborator on FX’s Atlanta, “This Is America” shares with many of that show’s best episodes a knack for getting under viewers’ skins, presenting highly charged images with just enough ambiguity to encourage social media reactions of the “WTF did I just watch” variety. But if the last seven months of critical dissection and memetic recycling have inevitably dulled some of its shock value—and, by extension, its power as a political statement—the video remains an astounding artistic achievement. In a series of long shots cleverly disguised as one uninterrupted take, Glover pulls dances and faces from the intertwined traditions of pop culture and minstrelsy, seamlessly juxtaposed with eruptions of sudden, graphic gun violence. In both extremes, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him—which is, of course, the point. Like the never-ending train wreck that is American history itself, “This is America” offers entertainment and grotesquerie in equal measure. Hoskins


Continue Reading

Features

The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

These performances share a commitment to achieving emotional vitality by any means necessary.

Published

on

By

The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

This year offered a feast of cinematic acting that pivoted on surprise, in terms of unconventional casting that allowed performers to add new shades to their established personas, as well as in blistering work by newcomers. These performances share a commitment to achieving emotional vitality by any means necessary, shattering the banality of expectation to elaborate on universal feelings that are too easily submerged by us on our day-to-day toils. Which is to say that the finest film acting of 2018 was less indebted to the representational “realism” that often wins awards than to fashioning a bold kind of behavioral expressionism. Like many of their filmmaker collaborators, these actors are master stylists. Chuck Bowen
 

The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Sakura Ando, Shoplifters

As Nobuyo, the default “mother” of an informal family of hustlers on the margins of present-day Tokyo, Sakura Ando enriches Hirokazu Kore-eda’s gentle social drama with her bracing articulation of her character’s self-discovery. Nobuya’s melodramatic arc—a woman with dark secrets whose hard-won redemption is inevitably undone by higher forces—culminates in an agonizing one-shot unraveling, but what makes her fate so devastating is the sense of surprise and liberation that Ando brings to Nobuya’s acceptance of new responsibilities, passions, and her own self-worth. Christopher Gray


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Juliette Binoche, Let the Sunshine In

For all of her versatility, Juliette Binoche has never particularly been noted for her comic skills, but she displays a subtle wit as the middle-aged and single Isabelle in Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In, often dismissing petulant, needy men with scarcely more than a mocking glance or a passive-aggressive comment. Binoche truly shines, though, in scenes that play up Isabelle’s feelings of panic and loneliness over having to date again, such as when Isabelle reminisces about her ex-husband and, in the process, a whole panoply of emotions, including resentment and wistfulness, flit anxiously across the actress’s face. Most moving of all is the outright panic that Isabelle betrays when a wonderful date urges her to take things slowly, triggering an existential attack over her perceived lack of time to find another partner so late in life. Jake Cole


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Emily Browning, Golden Exits

Golden Exits sustains a lingering aura of futility that’s counterweighted by the film’s beauty and by the exhilaration of seeing Alex Ross Perry realize his vast ambitions, as he’s made a modern film about relationships and social constrictions that clears the bar set by the work of John Cassavetes and Woody Allen. Perry also ultimately empathizes with Naomi, who’s paradoxically diminished by her status as the narrative’s center of attention. Regarded by her American acquaintances as a barometer of their own personal failures, Naomi is never truly noticed. She’s the gorgeous woman as specter, played by Emily Browning with an ambiguity that carries a heartbreaking suggestion: that Naomi’s unknowable because no one wishes to know her. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Nicolas Cage, Mandy

Mandy‘s smorgasbord of indulgences is held together by Nicolas Cage, who gives one of the best performances of his career. Director Panos Cosmatos understands Cage as well as any director ever has, fashioning a series of moments that allow the actor to rhythmically blow off his top, exorcising Red’s rage and longing as well as, presumably, his own. In the film’s best scene, Red storms into the bathroom of his cabin and lets out a primal roar, while chugging a bottle of liquor that was stashed under the sink. Cage gives this scene a disquieting sense of relief, investing huge emotional notes with a lingering undercurrent that cuts to the heart of the film itself. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Toni Collette, Hereditary

Flashes of insanity and malaise factor into Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary, yet Annie cannot be defined by such traits often linked to the trope of a hysterical woman. Instead, Collette’s glares of frustration suggest a world of complicated emotions that extend well beyond pain. Terror and intense focus become indecipherable in Collette’s eyes as Annie, a diorama artist, is torn from her profession by conspiring forces, making the film’s outcome feel even more like a cross between a cruel joke and a rebuke of society’s stacking the deck through maternal guilt and shame against Annie’s aspiring career. Clayton Dillard


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

As Queen Anne and her rival sycophants, Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, respectively, establish a delicious series of manipulative, barbarous, and poignant emotional cross-currents throughout The Favourite. Stone and Weisz verbally parry and thrust at lightning speed, one-upping one another in an escalating series of duels that inspire the actresses to give among the finest performances of their careers, while Colman expertly operates at a slower, daringly draggy and exposed speed, painting a portrait of a woman imprisoned by entitlement. Collectively, this superb acting also achieves the near miraculous feat of rendering a Yorgos Lanthimos film authentically human. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Matt Dillon, The House That Jack Built

It’s no secret that Jack (Matt Dillon), the viciously misogynistic serial killer at the heart of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, is at least partially a stand-in for the director himself, and the genius of Dillon’s interpretation of the character is that he never seems to be sucking up to the man who created it. He plays Jack as ruthless, self-pitying, and disturbingly empty—Hannibal Lecter without the wit or charm. No mere pawn of the Danish provocateur’s autocritical schema, Dillon both deepens and challenges von Trier’s intended self-portraiture with the uncanny blankness of his performance, creating in the process an absolutely chilling embodiment of evil. Keith Watson


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Adam Driver, BlackKklansman

Though BlackKklansman was marketed as the story of an African-American police officer impersonating a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, it also concerns a Jewish cop’s efforts to do the same by offering a white face to accompany a vocal charade. As said cop, Flip Zimmerman, Adam Driver deliriously plumbs head-first into a disturbing irony, acknowledging the catharses that can be had by indulging in disgusting epithets secretly at one’s own expense. Or, simply: Flip insults himself, and those close to him, and Driver elucidates the character’s disgust as well as the weird spiritual purging that can occur by indulging one’s basest instincts. One of America’s best and most sensitive actors offers perhaps his finest portrait yet of a soul twisted in contradictory knots. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade

It’s a testament to the authenticity of Elsie Fisher’s performance in Eighth Grade that you’d never have guessed she’d been in front of a camera before, much less that she’s been acting consistently for years. As Kayla, the awkward, unpopular tween protagonist of Bo Burnham’s film, Fisher infuses every stammered “umm” and stumbling “like” with a palpable sense of self-loathing and social anxiety. For anyone who ever felt like Kayla in middle school, Fisher’s painfully real performance is liable to induce PTSD. Watson


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace

Finally shedding his tick-laden parlor games, Ben Foster comes to life as an actor, connecting with Will and giving him a fearful thickness of being that’s only occasionally leavened by Tom, whom Thomasin McKenzie invests with the trembling, negotiating intelligence of an unformed prodigy. Will and Tom and Foster and McKenzie’s energies are beautifully in and out of sync, simultaneously. Foster confidently cedes the film to McKenzie, which parallels Will’s gradual relinquishing of authority to Tom. Both characters know that it’s unfair to expect Tom to inherit Will’s alienation, as she has the right to give this potentially doomed society a chance, to fight for it as well as herself. In Leave No Trace‘s heartbreaking climax, a relationship dies so that an individual, and maybe even a society, may be reborn. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Hugh Grant, Paddington 2

Hugh Grant may well be more cartoonish than the animated bear protagonist of Paddington 2. As the film’s villain, a has-been thespian with the world’s most convoluted scheme to finance a one-man show, Grant can scarcely utter a syllable without throwing his head back and exclaiming it to the rafters, and the actor’s body language—a series of shocked gasps, wild-eyed stares, and manic grins—is similarly absurd. As Phoenix dons a series of ever-more elaborate disguises throughout the film, Grant’s acting somehow gets even broader, resulting in a work of giddy panto and one of the finest comic performances in recent memory. Cole


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Regina Hall, Support the Girls

It’s not often that we see decency and level-headedness radiated on screen as convincingly as it is by Regina Hall in Support the Girls, much less a film centered around such a performance. As Lisa, a put-upon restaurant manager enduring a particularly hectic day on the job, Hall suppresses the comic histrionics that she’s become known for in mainstream comedy movies in order to inhabit the delicate naturalism that writer-director Andrew Bujalski consistently cultivates in his casts. Slipping into this mode with grace, the actress conveys the sheer exhaustion and frustration of nine-to-five existence with just the subtlest of disruptions to an exterior of buttoned-up professionalism. Carson Lund


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Ethan Hawke, First Reformed

As the great blackness of night swoops in, we reach for assurances of “the everlasting arms,” as sung about in First Reformed‘s concluding hymnal. Ethan Hawke’s staggering performance is one of Ecclesiastian sympathy, with watchful longing and hungry silences in between reminders of Toller’s own impotence to change the world. The man’s face suggests a tragic predicament that the only ark to save us from an impending flood is in our illusions. Niles Schwartz


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Bill Heck and Zoe Kazan, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Nearly every actor in the Coen brothers’ newest anti-western is remarkable, but Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck are particularly heartbreaking, partly because the audience has been so expertly rendered vulnerable to the vignette in which they appear. By the time that we get to “The Gal Who Got Rattled” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, we’ve seen so much brutality and cynicism that we’re hardened for more of the same only to encounter tenderness. As potential lovers who never get to be, Kazan and Heck dramatize the unmooring vulnerability of feeling attraction just when you suspect that you’ve aged out of it, informing the Coens’ florid, beautiful dialogue with trembling pathos. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk

For this critic, the lovers at the center of Barry Jenkins’s newest parable of racism are too gorgeous, primped, fawning, symbolic, metaphorical, and seemingly straight out of a coffee-table book. As a man recently out of prison after serving a stretch he didn’t deserve, Brian Tyree Henry does for If Beale Street Could Talk what he did for Widows and continues to do for Atlanta: informing potentially self-conscious conceits with a jolting burst of common-sense machismo. If Beale Street Could Talk‘s most haunting scene is a monologue that’s hypnotically uttered by Tyree, allowing this film, for a few minutes, to actually capture the brutal poetry of the James Baldwin novel that inspired it. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline

The center of a film about commitment and disassociation, Helena Howard’s Madeline evidently relishes the opportunity to change identities in the blink of an eye. Director Josephine Decker contrasts the aspiring actress’s easy mastery of improv exercises with Madeline’s harried life outside of rehearsal, where she’s regularly manipulated by her mother and an overeager director as she struggles to control her mental illness. Decker’s film is willfully alienating in its commitment to Madeline’s tortured interiority, but Howard steers it with an undeniable power and confidence, making Madeline’s rootless chaos feel entirely legible. Gray


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Bhreagh MacNeil, Werewolf

Werewolf belongs to the extraordinary Bhreagh MacNeil. The film derives quite a bit of its power from allowing Vanessa to unceremoniously wrest the spotlight away from Blaise (Andrew Gillis), a lost and bitter man whose quest for recovery is probably hopeless. MacNeil doesn’t project Vanessa’s determination in a manner that’s familiar to rehabilitation fables, but rather physically embodies it, and McKenzie doesn’t mar her with any screenwriterly speeches. We see Vanessa’s strength in the steel of her eyes, in her willingness to ask family for help, and in her ability to get a thankless job at an old-fashioned burger and soft-serve ice cream joint, in which she grinds imitation Oreo cookies into pieces with a machine that resembles a sausage grinder. The fierceness with which Vanessa grinds these cookies—or attempts to master an ice cream machine that resembles a liquid methadone dispenser—is haunting. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Rachel McAdams, Disobedience

Esti (Rachel McAdams), at first glance, is another type: an obsequious adherent to orthodoxy. When she passionately kisses Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), you understood the gesture as compensatory, to convey that I’m just not that into her anymore. But then McAdams caps the moment by quickly playing with Nivola’s beard, and the actress subtly communicates the sense of the genuine love that exits between this husband and wife—an impression that’s confirmed when Esti later repeats the gesture with Ronit (Rachel Weisz). Only theirs is a different kind of love, and we finally get a sense of what that is when, during a tryst in a hotel room, Ronit casually sends a stream of her spit into Esti’s mouth. This moment feels organically, almost miraculously stumbled upon—arrived at by two great actors wanting to convey the singular nature of their characters’ communion. Ed Gonzalez


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The pairing of Melissa McCarthy, a Hollywood A-lister, with Richard E. Grant, a sublime arthouse presence, is one of the most invigorating surprises of this year’s cinema. McCarthy avoids the pitfall of comic actors appearing in unusually dramatic material. Rather than restricting her emotional catalogue to a few grim gestures of purposefulness, McCarthy expands her repertoire, elaborating on the sadness that’s inherent in even her blockbuster roles—a sadness that also fuels her comic virtuosity. And Grant is complicit with McCarthy’s tonal dexterity in every way. Together they offer an irresistible portrait of a bittersweet paradox of companionable alienation. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Ben Mendelsohn, The Land of Steady Habits

The Land of Steady Habits benefits enormously from the casting of Ben Mendelsohn as an unexceptionally tormented upper-middle-class guy. Here, the actor submerges the aggression that’s often closer to the surface of his sleazy villain roles, giving Anders a mysterious internal tension that’s compelling and often funny. When writer-director Nicole Holofcener follows Anders around as he drifts in and out of the lives of Helene (Edie Falco) and his grown son, Preston (Thomas Mann), and their various friends, the film has a free-associational piquancy. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Jason Mitchell, Tyrel

Sebastián Silva tasks Jason Mitchell with carrying the weight of Tyrel on the actor’s face; he’s asked to project toughness in reaction shots to aggressions both micro and macro from Tyler’s white bros, then later vulnerability as he steals away for moments of quietude to escape the ambiguous pain of social discomfort. While the scenario and performance is comparable to that of Daniel Kaluuya’s in Get Out, Mitchell’s Tyler isn’t given a catharsis of violent retribution. Mitchell’s expressions and gestures convey the betrayal of a daily life that never lets Tyler feel at ease, let alone at home. Dillard


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Michelle Pfeiffer, Where Is Kyra?

Michelle Pfeiffer’s ferociously vulnerable and intelligent performance elucidates the pain, resentment, and fear that springs from escalating disappointment. Pfeiffer informs Kyra with a fragile mixture of empathy and rage, which is particularly on display when Kyra cares for her mother, Ruth, who’s played by Suzanne Shepard with a wily and commanding dignity. Kyra is understood by Pfeiffer to be taking qualified pleasure in her own effacement, as it implies an escape from a world that has rejected her. Early in the film, we see Kyra preparing a bath for Ruth, and a mirror fashions a prism in which mother and daughter are cordoned off from one another yet simultaneously visible, evoking the punishing intimacy, and the comfort, of caring for a dependent. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Meinhard Neumann, Western

Casting is everything, the saying goes, but that’s especially true when filmmakers elect to use nonprofessionals, in which case ineffable factors such as “presence” and “authenticity” become paramount. Meinhard Neumann, the grizzled, mustachioed brooder at the center of Western who director Valeska Grisebach came across on a whim at a horse market, has these qualities in spades, in addition to a seemingly preternatural capacity for playing to Grisebach’s roving handheld camera and finding his light. His taciturn, repressed Meinhard doesn’t have a wide expressive range, but when the character does undergo a few emotional breakthroughs in the latter half of the film, Neumann seems to be genuinely accessing reserves of pain and regret deep within himself. Lund


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Jesse Plemons, Game Night

John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein assembled one of the strongest comedic ensembles in recent memory for Game Night, but a single performer still managed to steal the show: Jesse Plemons as the weirdo Gary, a sad-sack cop with a broken heart whose self-pitying glumness could ruin anyone’s vibe. Pitched perfectly at the intersection of creepiness and pathos, Plemons earns big laughs without really seeming to try. The hilarity arises instead from his expertly discomfiting embodiment of one of those off-putting personality types we’ve all unfortunately encountered: the guy you feel bad for but desperately want to get away from as fast as humanly possible. Watson


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Steven Yeun, Burning

Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is driven by a central mystery of purpose. To what genre does this film belong? Is it a horror film, a romantic triangle, a class critique, or a beguiling fusion of all of the above? Much of this mystery is embodied by Steven Yeun’s performance as a rich smoothie who’s far more appealing than the floundering hero, which strikes up a crisis in the audience’s empathy that resonates with our romantic preferences in real life. Turns out there’s a reason that confident people get all the lovers, because they are, well, confident. Yet Yeun laces his sexiness with the subtlest tint of passive aggression, so subtle that one wonders if it’s even there, investing Burning with a fleeting malignancy that’s worthy of Claude Chabrol. Bowen


Continue Reading

Features

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Music, dance, action, rage, touch, rhyme, and blunt-force trauma—these are the moments that give films, and life, their staying power.

Published

on

By

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018
Photo: Well Go USA

Watching a great scene for the first time is like confronting the reality of one’s mortality. As the scene unfolds, it can feel exhilarating in the moment, though it can only be fully understood in hindsight. Think of our selections of the best scenes of 2018, then, as flashes of memory connected to a larger whole. It’s not that the whole dies without the memories, but that the whole might, upon reflection, be primarily composed of such recollected flashes. Music, dance, action, rage, touch, rhyme, and blunt-force trauma—these are the moments that give films, and life, their staying power. Clayton Dillard
 

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Amazing Grace, Reverend Cleveland Weeps

There are a number of points throughout Sydney Pollack’s Amazing Grace where Aretha Franklin’s voice hits such astounding heights that members of Los Angeles’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church congregation and choir can’t help but rise to their feet and shout “Amen” or dance like no one is watching them. But no single moment is more profoundly moving than when Reverend James Cleveland, the concert’s musical director and Aretha’s childhood friend, walks away from his piano, sits down on a pew, and quietly weeps into his handkerchief. In this moment, the church transforms into a sanctuary to revel in the power of Aretha’s singular, iconic voice. Derek Smith


Annihilation, Suicide Is Painless

The characters who enter the alien-terraforming Shimmer in Alex Garland’s Annihilation are all people who’ve lost the will to live, yet their survival instincts compel them to self-defense against the horrors thrown at them by the film’s creepy elements. The Shimmer responds in kind, folding the terrors of characters about to meet their deaths into the flora and fauna that form out of corpses and sport gnarled looks of frozen anguish. After watching a colleague “live on” in the mutant screams of the bear that killed her, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson)—tacitly suffering from depression and knowing the odds of her survival—decides to leave a calmer imprint of herself on this alien region. Her blissful walk into oblivion is the film’s sole moment of quietude, and perhaps the most gorgeous display of justifiable suicide ever depicted on film. Jake Cole


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

BlacKkKlansman, “Too Late to Turn Back Now”

After watching Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) speak about his vision for an equal society where African-Americans are accepted for who they are, undercover cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and his impromptu date, activist Patrice (Laura Harrier), visit a nearby club. What follows is Spike Lee at his most observational and celebratory: an extended sequence of black Americans joyously dancing and singing along to the song “Too Late to Turn Back Now,” free of the prejudice they encounter in their daily lives. Echoing the kind of liberated society Ture outlined in his speech, the utopic vision of this scene becomes reason enough for Ture and his followers to want to fight the power. Wes Greene


Bodied, Behn Grymm vs. Adam

After months of training, Adam (Calum Worthy) finally faces off against his friend and mentor, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), in a rap battle that quickly turns from two buddies trading barbs to something far more insidious and calamitous. For the African-American Grymm, rapping is a means to end, a way to put food on the table for his wife and daughter. But for Adam, a white boy and intellectual born with a silver spoon in mouth, there’s no greater purpose to spitting fire, only the unfettered joys of unabated verbal destruction. In his stomach-churning assault of Grymm, Adam sheds all semblance of kinship and morality, all but shattering a friendship simply in pursuit of a big win and pushing the phrase “don’t hate the player, hate the game” far past its breaking point. Smith


Burning, Jazz Dance at Sunset

Stoned, topless, and standing beneath the South Korean flag as it flaps in the wind, Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo) begins to emulate the Kenyan “great hunger” dance she described earlier in the film. Set to Miles Davis’s “Générique,” the sequence occurs only halfway into Burning, but it feels climactic in its power, especially for Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), who seems finally entranced with Haemi to the point of no return. The scene’s thematic complexity underlies the immediacy of Lee Chang-dong’s use of a long take to capture the dance, making the film’s larger mysteries, and Jong-su’s subsequent paranoia, all the more chilling. Dillard


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

First Man, Agena Spin

Damien Chazelle’s claustrophobic direction of spaceflight in First Man brutally undercuts idealized images of the Space Race with the abject terror of hurtling through the void in a rattling tin can launched into the skies using calculations performed on computers with less processing power than an Atari 2600. The film’s tensest scene is a depiction of the failed Gemini 8 mission, in which a routine spaceflight goes catastrophically wrong and sends the spacecraft into an unstoppable barrel roll. As Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) attempts to both stabilize the craft and get it back on its correct flightpath, we see him not only contending with high G-forces and dizzying spins, but also performing trigonometric calculations in long hand on graph paper. With the film’s camera firmly entrenched inside the capsule, Chazelle mines Armstrong’s claustrophobia—and rouses our—through the flashes of shaking plates of sheet metal and elaborate operating switchboards. The material reality of early space missions comes into sharp focus, clarifying the deadening trauma that weighs on Armstrong throughout the entirety of First Man. Cole


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

First Reformed, Magical Mystery Tour

In an act of compassion, and passion, Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller indulges Amanda Seyfried’s pregnant widow in a meditative ritual she had regularly performed with her now-deceased husband. After she lays on top of Toller, synchronizing her breathing with his, the two begin to levitate and hover over gorgeous images of outer space, snowy mountains, and lush green forests. But this extraordinary and uncanny transcendence is fleeting, as the sublime imagery abruptly gives way to visions of real-world problems, such as mass deforestation and pollution, pulling Toller violently out of this reprieve from his obsession with the world’s misery. What place do love and faith have in a world that’s crumbling around us? Smith


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

The Green Fog, Chuck Norris As Meme

About midway through The Green Fog, just as one is beginning to acclimate to its conceptual high-wire act—a reconstitution of Vertigo by way of clips from wide-ranging movies and TV shows set in San Francisco—directors Guy Maddin and Evan and Galen Johnson decide to entertain a ludicrous high-concept-within-a-high-concept: an entire lengthy sequence composed only of reaction shots of Chuck Norris. Staring, staring, and staring some more in a ridiculous sustained imitation of Scottie Ferguson’s paranoid daze, Norris’s blank mug becomes the best underappreciated meme of the year. Carson Lund


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Hale County This Morning, This Evening, Epic Jump Shot Drill

RaMell Ross’s evocative hymn to Hale County, Alabama and the indomitable spirit of its residents dedicates a portion of its attention to Daniel, a small-time college hoops player with big aspirations, but the actual sport of basketball only surfaces in fits and starts, interwoven as it is with the larger mosaic of Daniel’s life. The fragments that do emerge, however, show a sprightly athlete in firm command of his game, nowhere more evident than when he drains 10 of 11 long-range jumpers from around the arc in one breathless take, muttering affirmatively after each swish. Ross’s camera bobs along behind him, emphasizing the sheer force and persistence of Daniel’s motion over the shots themselves, in effect translating the feat into something more divine than worldly. Lund


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Happy as Lazzaro, The Music’s Followed Us

A band of former sharecroppers relocated to an anonymous metropolis are lulled into a church by the sound of an organ and are promptly shooed out. This everyday affront is avenged by the lightest and most surreal of miracles as the music travels into the city, seemingly rebirthed from the sound of a passing train. Its ineffable quality leads the previously guileless Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) to an olive tree planted in artificial grass and a catharsis that’s at once unclassifiable and long overdue. Christopher Gray


Hereditary, Heads Will Roll

For its first hour, Ari Aster’s Hereditary is something akin to a relentless panic attack, rife with displays mental illness, disturbing familial follies, cryptic portents of doom that would curl Poe’s toes. The highlight of the film is a scene that’s tremendous for its artistic dexterity and shock value. In the throes of an allergic reaction, the young and socially awkward Charlie (Milly Shapiro) writhes in the back seat of the family car, her throat tightening while her brother, Peter (Alex Wolff), wildly drives them down a forlorn stretch of deserted asphalt. The brilliance of the scene isn’t just the visceral depiction of an unfathomable violent incident, but the patience with which Aster dwells on the consequence: The camera remains on Peter’s face, bathed in the red glow of the car’s tail lights, as he sits static, stoic, his eyes glazed over, while his sister’s body is slumped over behind him. After several agonizingly long, laconic moments, he starts the car, drives home, and goes to bed. Greg Cwik


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

If Beale Street Could Talk, Daniel’s Monologue

If Beale Street Could Talk is at its most potent in the scenes where human frailty and the specter of injustice come more elliptically to the surface, as in a long dialogue scene between Fonny (Stephan James) and Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), an old school chum. At first it’s all soothingly friendly chitchat between the two men. Then things slip into dolefully dark territory as Daniel recalls his time in prison: “The white man’s got to be the devil. He sure ain’t a man. Some of the things I saw, baby, I’ll be dreaming about until the day I die.” What hits hardest about Daniel’s recollections is his overall sense of exhaustion. If constant subjugation doesn’t kill you, it’s suggested, then your soul is forever crippled, which is in many ways a worse fate. How can anyone walk through life with their spirit so completely paralyzed? Keith Uhlich


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Let the Sunshine In, “At Last”

Etta James’s “At Last” is like “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or “Over the Rainbow”—a piece of music so deeply imbedded in popular culture that its use risks parody. Leave it, then, to Claire Denis, a modern master of needle drops, to find just the right implementation. In Let the Sunshine In, the song becomes an exemplification of the romantic nirvana pined after by middle-aged Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a feeling crystallized in a sensuous slow dance with a bar patron that finds Denis’s camera pirouetting sinuously with her lead character. After a series of botched relationships, Isabelle’s ecstasy is cathartic and moving in the moment but ultimately illusory and hollow, a spell cast through the concise power of Denis’s montage and broken just as quickly by a hard, sobering cut back to reality. Lund


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Mandy, Bathroom Meltdown

Mandy is a smorgasbord of indulgences held together by Nicolas Cage, who gives one of the best performances of his career. Director Panos Cosmatos understands Cage as well as any director ever has, fashioning a series of moments that allow the actor to rhythmically blow off his top, exorcising Red’s rage and longing as well as, presumably, his own. In the film’s best scene, Red storms into the bathroom of his cabin and lets out a primal roar, while chugging a bottle of liquor that was stashed under the sink. Cage gives this scene a disquieting sense of relief, investing huge emotional notes with a lingering undercurrent that cuts to the heart of the film itself. Chuck Bowen


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

A Star Is Born, “Shallow”

“Shallow” makes less sense as a song than Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) performs as a celebrity, but it’s perfectly structured for Ally’s (Lady Gaga) birth as an idol. Cooper makes goosebumpy magic of Ally and Jackson mooning in the backdrop of one another’s closeups, and their performance features two of the great half-seconds in the year’s cinema: first Ally covering her face in a rush of fear, embarrassment, and exhilaration, then catching up to the song’s chorus a half-beat late with unstoppable force. Gray


The Strangers: Prey at Night, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”

The ne plus ultra of The Strangers: Prey at Night‘s irony-tinged mayhem is a lengthy set piece at a secluded mobile home park’s pool. It’s there that Luke (Lewis Pullman) brutally dispatches Dollface (Emma Bellomy), then tussles with the Man in the Mask (Damian Maffei), all set rather perversely to the camp-operatic mood swings of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” The song almost subliminally primes the characters to perform a dance of death, a point that the camera devilishly underscores by jumping in and out of the water alongside Luke and the Man in the Mask, in the process muffling the sound of Bonnie Tyler’s protestations. Ed Gonzalez


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Suspiria, Break Dance

As Susie (Dakota Johnson) dances, Olga (Elena Fokina) breaks—literally. The gist of the scene is that simple, yet Luca Guadagnino and editor Walter Fasano create an unforgiving series of images that approximates what it feels like for Olga to have her body being taken away from her. First Olga’s arms, then her torso and legs, and finally her face. By the end of Susie’s ascension within the dance company via her dexterous moves, Olga is but a urine-stained pretzel, helplessly writhing on the floor. All About Eve, eat your heart out. Dillard


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Widows, A Drive Through Town

The numerous long takes sprinkled throughout Steve McQueen’s oeuvre tend to exude a shallow, posturing quality. This shot from the filmmaker’s Widows, however, is rich in meaning. With the film’s camera mounted to the hood of a car, Colin Farrell’s Chicago councilman candidate is seen leaving an event in a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood and riding to his posh townhouse on the other side of town. In one long take, McQueen cannily and succinctly catches glimpses of how the neighborhood has succumbed to the forces of gentrification. Greene


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Wild Boys, Island Arrival

Upon landing on a mysterious island with their magisterial captor, the five wild boys of Bertrand Mandico’s film wander through the tropical jungle and discover a landscape rife with bizarre sexual pleasures. As the boys traverse through groping grass, quench their thirst with the juices of ejaculating trees, and satiate their hunger with hairy, testicular-shaped fruits, it’s as if the island is responding to their surging desires. Such an uninhibited and unhinged celebration of pure, impulsive sexuality, in a film driven by silent-film aesthetics no less, is capable of making even Guy Maddin blush. Smith


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Zama, The Ambush

Lucrecia Martel’s cinema dwells in languor and repressed energy, a wavelength for which she’s invented her own filmmaking grammar. In Zama, a tale of simmering tensions in Paraguay during Spanish colonial rule, that grammar gets audaciously applied to action scenes that briefly and violently materialize the friction felt between Spanish forces and oppressed natives elsewhere in the narrative. The first of these eruptions, a shockingly rapid and coordinated ambush in a boggy marshland at high noon, offers a stunning case study of Martel’s distinctive style in the context of frenetic action: The camera remains stagnant and the sound design sparse, but everything’s unnervingly sped-up and fragmentary, a technique that approximates the phenomenological jolt of danger. Lund


Continue Reading
Advertisement

Donate

Slant is reaching more readers than ever, but as online advertising continues to evolve, independently operated publications like ours have struggled to adapt. We're committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a Slant patron:

Patreon

You can also make a donation via PayPal.

Newsletter

Giveaways

Advertisement

Trending