The 50 Greatest Movie Moments of 2020

30. Selling Oily Cakes in First Cow

Kelly Reichardt’s tender frontier fable is an unlikely story about two guys who just want to start a baking business together. It’s an odd premise for a film that takes place on the wild western frontier, so it could not be better exemplified than in the strange scene of the two men, the softspoken baker Cookie (John Magarod) and the shrewd Chinese immigrant King Lu (Orion Lee), selling their wares for the first time in one swampy, grey corner of the settlement market. With only a bowl full of batter and a small pot of oil, Cookie does his best to replicate the gourmet bakery experience with his “oily cakes” — even drizzling a little honey on them — to the wonder of the grizzled men who quickly crowd around them for a taste of “home.” Seeing the hardened looks of the settlers soften into faces of joy as they bite into the cakes is almost as wonderful a treat as those oily cakes look to be. (Hoai-Tran Bui)

29. Billy’s Phone Call in The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night is about a small-time radio DJ and a switchboard operator who slowly realize that something’s happening in the skies above their New Mexico town. Part of that realization comes through a lengthy phone call from a local listener named Billy (Bruce Davis), who calls into the show and drops some truth bombs about his time in the military which helps fill in some of the gaps of the film’s central mystery. This phone call is one of the movie’s most mesmerizing moments, with the characters and the audience hanging on Billy’s every word as he slowly and deliberately describes his experience covering up something…otherworldly. Co-writer/director Andrew Patterson knows it’s effective, too: he’s so confident that he cuts to black a couple of times, letting Billy’s voice be the only thing we hear. Thanks to Davis’s dynamite performance and the excellent script, that’s more than enough to keep us hooked. (Ben Pearson)

28. Caroline’s Death in Host

There were a number of great horror movies released in 2020, but there was only one horror movie that actually defined the year: the shot-on-Zoom Host. Rob Savage’s brisk, terrifying, and surprisingly funny film is about what happens when you try to conduct a seance on a Zoom call and don’t respect the rules, inviting a demonic force into several homes at once thanks to modern teleconferencing. Things go very badly for everyone involved, but it’s Caroline’s death that lingers the most. We see early on that she playfully uses a gif of herself as the background of her screen, so when she vanishes, we’re left with only an echo. She’s there, but…not there. And then she abruptly enters the frame again, her face brutally slamming into her keyboard again and again before vanishing, once more, behind that innocent gif of her former, living self. Host utilizes a number of Zoom quirks, familiar to millions after a year in lockdown, to set up brilliant scares. This the best of them. (Jacob Hall)

Borat Responds to Borat 2 Rudy Giuliani Scene

27. Rudy Giuliani Puts His Hand Down His Pants in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

It was a forgone conclusion that plenty of shocking moments would come out of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, but no one was expecting it to go this far. After Borat’s teenage daughter Tutar (adult actress Maria Bakalova) has managed to quickly spark a career as a right-wing news pundit looking like any of the blonde anchors you see on Fox News everyday, she lands an interview with former New York City mayor and Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani. What starts as a normal interview in a hotel suite turns into a flirtatious affair, and in the aftermath of the interview, Giuliani appears to be preparing himself to engage in some kind of sexual congress with this young woman, reaching down into his pants after she makes him a drink and takes off his microphone. This is the person legally representing the President of the United States, and half the country is totally cool with these events. It’s repulsive and shameful, but it’s undoubtedly one of the biggest movie moments of the year. (Ethan Anderton)

26. The “Observe and Report” Moment in Mangrove

In the halls of London’s central criminal court, the “Mangrove Nine” find themselves on trial for inciting a riot and fighting against the police. The charges are bogus, but because the defendants are Black and live in a country in which racist cops have been able to operate with impunity, they’re fighting an extremely uphill battle to clear their names. Two of the nine, Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), opt to represent themselves, and through their own ingenuity, they’re able to challenge the lead racist cop’s narrative, twisting his own lying testimony against him in a moment revolving around the size of a vehicle window and how many people could look through it at one time. It’s a triumphant moment and one of the biggest steps toward victory. The war still isn’t over, but it’s nice to win a battle every once in a while. (Ben Pearson)

25. The Farm Fire in Minari

In Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, a Korean-American family moves to Arkansas, hoping for a better life. The family patriarch, Jacob (Steven Yeun) starts growing vegetables with the intent of selling them locally, but his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) struggles with their new situation. She doesn’t like living in a trailer, and she’s grown concerned that all Jacob cares about his the farm, not his family. Things come to a head with a tense series of events that leads Monica to decide she needs to take the kids and leave Jacob, because he seemingly will always choose his dreams of the farm over them. But through a mishap, the barn where much of the picked and packed produce has been stored catches fire, threatening to have the family’s livelihood go up in smoke. And the married couple run into the fire. The scene is perilous, with flames licking every corner of the frame and smoke making it nearly impossible to see what’s going on. And despite their arguments, and their near-separation, Jacob and Monica save each other, with Monica trying to help save the things she believes her husband holds dear, and Jacob abandoning the produce in order to save Monica. The pair have been through a trial by fire, and it’s only fitting that when the smoke has cleared, they’re together again, out searching for water to start over.  (Chris Evangelista)

24. The Hair Tie Toss in Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey does a lot of work to show its female empowerment bonafides — from its female-led cast, to its all-female musician needle drops, to director Cathy Yan’s bedazzled color scheme. But the moment that adds real-life texture and authenticity to Birds of Prey‘s fizzy portrait of the female experience is a blink-and-you’ll-miss it exchange during the film’s climactic fight scene against Roman Sionis’ (Ewan McGregor) goons: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) tosses a hair tie to Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), whose long tresses have gotten in her face. It’s a small and intimate gesture you don’t often see in a big, bombastic superhero movie, much less in the middle of a fight scene, and nod to irritating physics of long hair that many women deal with, which only a female director and writer could catch onto. (Hoai-Tran Bui)

Promising Young Woman - Carey Mulligan

23. Hearing Ryan’s Voice in Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman follows Carey Mulligan as Cassie, who works at a coffee shop by day but spends her evening striking fear into the hearts of “nice guys” who try to take advantage of incapacitated women out at the bar. She’s driven by the lingering trauma of one of her best friends being raped in college and eventually killing herself, but she starts to snap out of her string of vengeance when she meets a seemingly nice guy in Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate from her medical school days who asks her out. After going out one some dates and falling for Ryan, an incriminating tape of her late best friend’s sexual assault reveals Ryan was actually present during this heinous deed. Though not entirely unexpected, it’s a powerful gut punch that knocks the wind out of you just the same, and it’s the ultimate betrayal that fuels the surprising conclusion of the movie. (Ethan Anderton)

22. The Dinner in I’m Thinking of Ending Things

At this point, it’s probably a good idea to not sit down at a dinner table with a character played by Toni Collette. I’m Thinking of Ending Things doesn’t have Collette having the type of angry outburst at dinner as she did in Hereditary, but it doesn’t mean it’s an inviting moment, either. In the film, Jessie Buckley plays an unnamed narrator who travels to meet her boyfriend’s parents. The entire trip is strange and surreal, and the boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), seems jittery. Things get even weirder when they finally show up at the house, and Jake’s parents (Collette and David Thewlis) act…unhinged. Eventually, everyone sits down to dinner, and an attempt at conversation is made, starting off with talk of abstract paintings and then “quantum psychics” (actually quantum physics, of course). Thewlis’ character seems needlessly argumentative while Collette appears to be almost on the verge of tears (when she’s not uttering a strange, snorting laugh), and the entire scene knocks you completely off-kilter. As the night progresses, time seems to change within the walls of the house, as the parents get older, as if years have passed in the blink of an eye. (Chris Evangelista)

Nomadland - Frances McDormand

21. “I’ll See You Down the Road” in Nomadland

Nomadland follows Frances McDormand as a widower from a small town struck by economic downturn who takes to a life out on the road, traveling from place-to-place in a van that has become her home, taking seasonal jobs, and spending her time with fellow nomads around bonfires. During one of these community gatherings, they pay tribute to one of their own who has passed away. While sitting around a fire, they share fond memories and thoughts about their departed friend, but one of the real-life nomads cast in the film chooses not to say goodbye. Instead, he merely says, “I’ll see you down the road,” knowing that one day he’ll be reunited with his friend in the afterlife. It’s a simple sentiment, but it’s genuinely touching and heartbreaking, and it’s even more meaningful knowing it’s coming from this real nomad instead of just another actor. (Ethan Anderton)

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - Chadwick Boseman

20. Levee’s Backstory in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Chadwick Boseman delivers a career-best performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, making his untimely death last year all the more heartbreaking. While Boseman delivers an outstanding turn throughout the entire film as Ma Rainey’s trumpet player Levee, there’s one particular scene that is the best showcase of his work. After being chastised by his fellow bandmates for speaking to white people too eagerly and kindly in order to please them, Levee launches into his tragic childhood backstory, explaining that he was present when a gang of white men raped his mother while his father was out of town. Furthermore, after selling their 50-acre farm to some of the white men responsible for this despicable crime, his father was lynched after he returned to town and trying to exact his revenge on the rapists. If all that wasn’t enough, he’s left with a massive scar where the men sliced him during their assault on his mother. Boseman’s monologue is intense, agonizing, and commands attention, making for a truly Oscar-worthy moment. (Ethan Anderton)

19. The First Painting is Revealed in The Painter and the Thief

The Painter and the Thief is a documentary blessed with one incredible moment after another, the kind of scenes that make you believe a cosmic force must have intervened to make sure cameras were present. And while the film astonishes until the final frame, it lets you know what you’re in for within the first 20 minutes. Shortly after artist Barbora Kysilkova connects with troubled criminal Karl Bertil-Nordland, who literally stole two of her paintings off the wall of a gallery, she decides to make him her new muse. So Barbora paints him. And she invites him over to reveal the finished work. And it’s gorgeous, a stunning portrait of Karl from someone who has chosen to look past his exterior and into his soul. Karl breaks down, totally overcome by not just the beauty of the work, but by the mere fact that someone has taken an interest in him, this seemingly broken and unfixable man. It’s the beginning of a long, strange relationship for these two and a promise of what’s to come: this will be raw and this will hurt, but you dare not look away. (Jacob Hall)

18. Malcolm X Versus Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami

With its simple setting and lengthy stretches of dialogue, it’s clear that One Night in Miami began life as a stage play. But director Regina King does a great job translating that material to the screen, specifically in one sequence capturing a verbal sparring session between Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr). Malcolm rakes Sam over the coals for Sam not doing more to further the Black cause in his songs, raising interesting questions about the value of art that does not directly address oppressive societal struggles in times of need. But Sam fires right back, pointing out that much of the work he’s done to further the cause has been behind the scenes, helping other Black artists thrive through his record label. It’s a reminder that even in a culture in which people broadcast their lives online, we don’t always have the full picture. (Ben Pearson)

17. “Satisfied” in Hamilton

Every song in Hamilton is a banger, but there’s something very special about “Satisified” as performed by Renée Elise Goldsberry. Playing Angelica Schuyler, sister-in-law of Alexander Hamilton, Goldsberry belts out a song that requires her to speed through 5½-minutes of raw emotion as Angelica sings about missing her chance at true love with the founding father. Disney’s filmed version of Hamilton is wildly entertaining, but let’s be real: as a film, it’s lacking. Save for some close-ups, the movie is a filmed version of the stage play, and it doesn’t get very creative when it comes to capturing it all. In fact, the camera mostly just hangs back and lets the show unfold. And that’s fine. But when it comes to “Satisfied,” one of the most difficult numbers in the show, things change. Because not only are we watching this scene, we’re also watching the actors on stage recreate the actions of the previous number, “Helpless.” “Satisfied” goes back to show us events that happened during that previous song, which allows the filmmaking to get creative, complete with overhead shots, close-ups, and a constant sense of movement. But it’s Goldberry’s work that makes the entire scene a show-stopper. (Chris Evangelista)

16. Walking Through the Hearst Castle Grounds in Mank

Mank is a film obsessed with with the golden age of Hollywood, with its sins and virtues and heroes and villains. It’s utterly transportive, delivering us to another time and place via director David Fincher’s meticulous attention to detail. The best scene in the film – and the best example of Mank‘s ability to whisk us away to a place so different that it might as well be a fantasy world – comes when screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and movie star Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) slip away during one of William Randolph Hearst’s swanky parties, wandering the grounds of the publishing tycoon’s outrageous estate. As they walk the manicured landscapes and stroll past Hearst’s literal zoo of wild animals, the two buddies chat, letting their guards down now that they’re away from their venomous peers. The juxtaposition of the surreal Heart Castle grounds with the most human, sweet, and charming conversation in the entire film is stunning. “How did we even get here?” the characters wonder. And we wonder too. (Jacob Hall)

15. The Romantic Heart-to-Heart in Freaky

There’s a lot to love about Freaky, the body-swap horror-comedy that’s also the best slasher movie since Scream. But what I loved most about the film is how sweet and sincere it is. The film follows Millie (Kathryn Newton), a shy high school girl who is targeted by a serial killer, played by Vince Vaughn. As movie-fate would have it, the two end up swapping bodies – Newton’s character ends up inhabiting Vaughn’s body, while Vaughn’s character is now walking around with Millie. Through a series of events, Millie – now in Vince Vaughn form – ropes her friends into helping her get her body back. Also along to help is Booker (Uriah Shelton), the nice guy Millie has a crush on. Late in the film, Booker and Millie (again, in Vince Vaughn form) end up in the back seat of a car, confessing their feelings for each other. On the surface, this scene could be played for cheap laughs: seeing Vince Vaughn flirting with a high school guy. But even though there is humor in the scene, the script, by Michael Kennedy and Christopher Landon, plays the scene for genuine emotion. It’s cute, and charming, and, yes, sweet, and Vaughn and Shelton are both pitch-perfect in how they handle it. (Chris Evangelista)

elizabeth debicki tenet tall

14. Elizabeth Debicki is Tall in Tenet

Okay, this one sounds like a joke, and it kind of is. And yet, I mean it with the utmost sincerity! It can’t be denied: Elizabeth Debicki is tall. She’s 6’3″, in fact. But Hollywood has a long history of hiding, or cheating, certain actor’s heights. Tom Cruise might be the best example of this – Cruise is 5’7″, and yet you’d never know that if you watch his movies. Be it through camera trickery, shoe lifts, or other methods, Cruise is often made to look the same height as his costars. And that’s fine! I’m not judging people of a shorter stature here. But it genuinely feels like a big deal for a Hollywood movie to embrace a female lead who is not just tall, but also one who towers over her costars.  While I think Tenet suffers on a script level by turning Debicki’s character into a damsel-in-distress, Christopher Nolan and company deserve credit for letting her be tall, damn it! At one point, star John David Washington has to stand on his tip-toes just to give her a kiss on the cheek – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where the male lead has to do something like that to the female lead, especially not a big Hollywood blockbuster. Later, Debicki’s character is handcuffed in the backseat of a speeding car with no driver, and she has to reach one of her long legs up to the front set to hit the door locks button with her foot. The film is flat-out flaunting Debicki’s height. So whatever Tenet‘s flaws, let us all take comfort in the fact that it’s a movie that allows very tall person Elizabeth Debicki to be very tall. (Chris Evangelista)

13. The Fireside Encounter in His House

There’s something very wrong with Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial’s (Wunmi Mosaku) new tenement house. The South Sudan refugees find themselves plagued by ghosts of Nyagak, their daughter who they lost in the treacherous crossing of the English channel, as well as a mysterious man who escapes into the walls. But it’s not actually the house that is haunted, but them, as Rial realizes they’re stalked by an apeth or “night witch” — a being that stalks thieves until they repay their debt. Rial insists that the only way to escape this curse is to return home, but Bol, in a fit of stubborn pride, summons the apeth himself by candelight. But Bol gets more than he bargained for, getting transported to a vision of a tragic night and forced by skeletal arms to watch as the apeth brings a dripping Nyagak out of the water and offers Bol a life-or-death deal. It’s a striking image — a terrified Bol surrounded by corpses lying in the shallow body of water — and one that makes His House one of the most visually satisfying horror movies of last year. (Hoai-Tran Bui)

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

12. The Doctor Scene in Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Never Rarely Sometimes Always has one of the most harrowing, and emotionally stirring scenes of 2020. The story follows 17-year old Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan) who learns she’s pregnant and heads into New York City from Pennsylvania in order to get an abortion without her parents knowing. Before she has the procedure carried out, one of the doctors at the clinic has to carry out a questionnaire in order to provide the best possible care. These questions are meant to be responded to with four possible answers: never, rarely, sometimes, or always. Through this routine line of questions, we come to understand that Autumn has been through sexually, physically, and emotionally abusive relationships. There aren’t any flashbacks or specific details provided, but in a single take, the camera focuses on Flanigan’s face as she slowly begins to break down during her reflection on the answers to these questions. She quietly cries, tears streaming down her face, remembering what she’s endured and presumably what brought her to the abortion clinic to begin with. It’s a stark reminder of the kind of unacceptable treatment women receive from men, even at such a young age. (Ethan Anderton)

Eurovision Song Contest - Rachel McAdams

11. “The Elves Went Too Far!” in Eurovision Song Contest

Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams makes for an outstanding comedic and musical duo in Netflix’s comedy Eurovision Song Contest: A Song of Ice and Fire. As Icelandic singers Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdóttir, Ferrell and McAdams are vying to represent Iceland in Europe’s massive, real-life singing contest. Unfortunately, they’re not quite good enough. But they suddenly get the opportunity of a lifetime when the winning Icelandic candidate and the rest of the country’s most talented singers perish in a freak yacht explosion. That moment is funny in itself, but it’s Rachel McAdams who makes this moment one of the funniest events of the year when she laments that the elves that she prayed to for luck have gone too far with this incident. It has the same energy as McAdams’ moment in Game Night where she celebrates and immediately mourns the death of a henchman who just tried to kill her before getting sucked into a plane engine, and we’re still laughing about both of these gags. (Ethan Anderton)

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