The 50 Greatest Movie Moments of 2020

10. The Opening Murder in Possessor

I saw Possessor at Sundance last year, and I’ll never forget the overall vibe in that screening – particularly after the first scene. As is the case with most Sundance films, I knew very little about what I was getting into. I just knew the plot: Andrea Riseborough was playing an assassin who could upload her own consciousness into other people’s bodies and have those bodies carry out her hits. And so the film begins, with the audience thrust into a situation they don’t understand. A woman (Gabrielle Graham) is seen in some sort of great emotional duress. She eventually gets control of herself, almost too well, becoming almost robotic. And we follow the woman into a crowded room as she casually strides up to a man and brutally stabs him to death. The woman is, of course, “possessed” by Riseborough’s character, and carrying out one of her jobs. But even if you guessed that’s what was happening here, it doesn’t prepare you for the horror on display. There’s also a disturbing added layer: the possessed woman is Black, and when cops arrive on the scene they gun her down without blinking, even going so far as to put a bullet in her face when she’s down. It’s raw, gory, and unflinching, and immensely upsetting, and I could feel the jarring electricity coursing through the theater as it unfolded. Almost everyone was caught off guard, and there were murmurs and shocked gasps as the stabbing just kept going, producing torrents of realistic blood, leading to even ghastlier things. It’s a horrifying introduction and it immediately sets the stage for the brutality to come.  “Warning,” this opening scene is telling us. “Things are only going to get more unpleasant.” (Chris Evangelista)

9. The Freeport Heist(s) in Tenet

Let’s give some serious props to Tenet, whose fractured narrative structure allows us to treat two scenes separated by an hour of screen time as a single sequence for the purpose of this list. Nothing is more Tenet-y than that. Early in the film, the Protagonist (John David Washington) and Neil (Robert Pattinson) plan a heist at a heavily-guarded freeport, hoping to learn about the time-inverting conspiracy to destroy the world. Their slick operation (which includes crashing an empty airplane into an empty building) goes smoothly…until they encounter resistance in the form of inverted, masked men, who are moving backwards through time as they move forward. Late in the film, both of our heroes must travel backwards through time themselves, returning to the scene of the heist and becoming the masked men they encountered while moving forward in time. It’s an audacious action scene, one that only makes complete sense once it’s told twice, from different perspectives, and from different trajectories in time itself. It’s Tenet in a nutshell: ambitious, mind-bending, a little silly, and just plain satisfying to watch come together if you’ve given yourself over to Christopher Nolan’s stylish lunacy. (Jacob Hall)

8. Nyles Gets One More Sentence in Palm Springs

Palm Springs is the best time loop movie ever made, not just because it’s hilarious and sweet and unique, but because it’s wise. Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) have been trapped in a time loop at a boring hotel during a lousy wedding for a long time, spending their repeated days goofing off and hanging out and falling in love. But their relationship hits a rough patch. Sarah wants to escape the time loop and she’s found a way out, but Nyles is reluctant, preferring the safety of his predictable world to any kind of future. But as Sarah heads out to set off the bomb that will literally explode her back into a proper timeline, Nyles has a change of heart. Sarah gives him one sentence to convince her that he loves her. And he does, via a rambling, awkward, hilarious “sentence” that breaks every grammatical rule on its way to the single best dialogue exchange of 2020. “What if we get sick of each other?” Sarah asks. “We’re already sick of each other,” Nyles says. “It’s the best.” Has there ever been a scene that more accurately captures the feeling of a lived-in, comfortable, lasting love? Nah. And here it is, the beating heart of this quietly incredible comedy. (Jacob Hall)

7. Paul’s Monologue Straight to the Camera in Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods follows a group of former Vietnam War buddies who return to Vietnam in search of the remains of their dead commander – and some gold. They’re a group of men haunted by their past, and none seem more haunted than Paul, played by Delroy Lindo. Violent, volatile, and suffering from PTSD, Paul is a damaged man, prone to outbursts against his friends and his son. He dons a MAGA hat, much to the chagrin of those around him, and as Da 5 Bloods progresses, he grows more and more unhinged. It all builds towards a moment when Paul, separated from the others, staggers through the jungle – and begins talking. Paul’s fractured mindset makes us think he’s just rambling incoherently to himself at first, but that changes fast as Lindo looks directly into the camera as he continues a monologue. His eyes are fixed on us as he speaks, sweat soaking his face. He reveals he’s dying of cancer – “You made me malignant,” he practically spits. He blames Agent Orange – a tactical herbicide used during the war – for his terminal illness, and it’s impossible to not draw a connection between that and Paul’s embracing of the MAGA philosophy (if you want to call it that). Agent Orange is Lee’s mocking pet name for Donald Trump – it even comes up in the film – and to hear Paul blame “Agent Orange” for something that’s eating him up inside is apt. But he refuses to give in. He refuses to die. “I will choose when, and how, I die,” he tells us. It’s haunting, and Lindo’s performance burns up the screen as we’re forced to make eye contact with him the entire time. Lindo is an actor who has been delivering phenomenal work for years, but his performance in this film – and this scene in particular – is seismic. You can feel the ground shift beneath you as you watch.  (Chris Evangelista)

6. The Healing Scene in Wolfwalkers

Wolfwalkers is a miracle of an animated movie: a glorious showcase of Cartoon Saloon’s groundbreaking animated art, and a deeply emotional story that manages to awe and inspire. The harmony between those elements reaches a crescendo in the climactic healing scene toward the end of the film, in which the wild Wolfwalker child Mebh (Eva Whittaker) is finally reunited with her mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy), only for Moll to be fatally wounded after being shot in the chest in wolf form. Mebh, so fierce and outrageous until now, is reduced to a tearful lost child at the sight of her dying mother, for whom she had waited hopefully for months, and struggles to heal her with her wolf magic from the safety of their den while a fiery battle is being waged outside. As if the emotions couldn’t be high enough, the animators outdo themselves in matching the art with the intense frenzy of the scene, beams of light dancing around the screen and lighting up the mystical cave drawings as Mebh gathers the wolves to help heal her mother. The sheer agony of Mebh’s desperation, combined with the sheer artistry used to depict her magic (the wisps of light at one point lighting up a drawing of a child embraced by a mother in a beautiful piece of detailing) is nothing short of breathtaking. (Hoai-Tran Bui)

5. The Final Scene in Sound of Metal

For much of Sound of Metal, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a heavy metal musician and former addict who suddenly finds himself deaf, cannot bear silence. He rages against it, rebels against it, feels the need to compulsively fill it up with anything. We see from the beginning of Darius Marder’s stunning directorial debut that Ruben is a man of intense physicality, whether it be waking up early every morning to squeeze in a quick workout routine in his and his girlfriend Lou’s (Olivia Cookie) shabby RV while making breakfast, or attempting to do busywork while he’s living at the community for deaf recovering addicts. The community’s founder, Joe (Paul Raci), notices this restlessness in Ruben and attempts to help him learn to embrace the silence by allowing Ruben a room to sit every morning and get all of his anger out. But even as Ruben learns to be deaf and even becomes a beloved member of the deaf community, his restlessness never wanes but is focused elsewhere — he’s still trying to keep busy, still working toward something. And he never does sit quietly in that room. But after Ruben has his cochlear implant surgery and has reunited with Lou, he finds that his dream of regaining his hearing is only a discordant echo of what it used to be. He leaves Lou’s house to wander the streets of Paris, followed by the barrage of tinny street sounds all around him. It is not until that final scene when Ruben sits down on a bench and disconnects the implants, the loud world falling under a soft, pillowy quiet, does he learn to finally love the silence. (Hoai-Tran Bui)

4. Fern Glues Her Broken Plates Back Together in Nomadland

Fern (Frances McDormand) is a middle-aged woman who, after losing her husband and her job thanks to the economic crisis, lives her life out of her van, driving around the country from job to job. Among her most prized possessions are a collection of plates given to her by her father, which she keeps with her in the van during her travels. At one point during Nomadland, the plates are accidentally shattered – and for a moment, it seems like Fran could be, too. But she refuses to let this be an obstacle: in the very next scene, she’s quietly and methodically gluing those plates back together. It’s a small moment that serves as a wonderful metaphor for the resilience and grit exhibited in that nomadic community, and a grace note that makes Nomadland one of /Film’s collective favorite films of the year. (Ben Pearson)

3. The Restaurant Scene in The Invisible Man

This is the scene that takes The Invisible Man from a very good movie to a great one. Everything up to this point in Leigh Whannell’s brilliant #MeToo horror movie works like gangbusters, but it’s this scene in particular that solidifies the amazing work Whannell is doing. The set-up: Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) is being tormented by her boyfriend – a scientist who has found a way to turn himself invisible. Everyone else thinks the man is dead, and Cecilia’s instance that he’s not is alienating everyone around her. Even Cecilia’s own family turns against her – a move that’s exacerbated when the Invisible Man himself hacks Cecilia’s email and sends her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) a nasty letter. Later, after finding proof that she’s right, Cecilia begs her sister to meet her somewhere so she can tell her what’s really going on. Emily reluctantly agrees, and she and Cecilia meet up at a posh restaurant. Right away, Whannell is disarming us – the restaurant is crowded and well-lit, and it’s hard to imagine anything bad happening here. Whannell continues to disarm us by introducing a comic relief water, the type who can’t shut up about the specials. Our guard is lowered. We’re amused by the waiter, and by Emily’s droll dismissal of him. And we’re just waiting for the moment where Cecilia finally tells Emily what’s going on. But she never gets the chance. We see Emily react to something offscreen, a puzzled look on her face – and then Whannell cuts to another angle where we see a knife floating in mid-air. In one quick swoosh, the knife slices across Emily’s throat, killing her in the process. It’s shocking as hell and perfectly constructed – we’ve been so distracted by everything else going on in the scene that we’re completely unprepared. Just like Emily and Cecilia. (Chris Evangelista)

2. Ruben is Asked to Leave the House in Sound of Metal

Here it is. The most emotionally devastating movie moment of 2020. Sound of Metal follows Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a musician who loses his hearing and finds himself forced to reckon with a life utterly unlike the one he used to live. But the initial pain transforms into one of beauty. And even bliss. We watch as Ruben learns how to be deaf, attending classes for those with hearing disabilities, learning sign language, and living in a house overseen by the tough-but-kind Joe (Paul Raci), who insists that Ruben, like all other deaf people, is not broken. But Ruben still yearns for his old life and sneaks away, selling his RV to pay for cochlear implant surgery. When he reveals what he’s done, Joe is stunned. Hurt. He has spent so much time teaching Ruben that there is nothing wrong with him, that everyone in his house is a complete person, even without their hearing. Through tears, he asks Ruben to leave the house immediately. He bears no hatred for Ruben, nor for his choice to get the implant, but recognizes that his choice conflicts with everything he stands for. He loves him, but they cannot coexist after this. It’s a challenging scene – the film doesn’t judge Ruben for his choice, allowing other characters to express a variety of opinions over his actions – but it’s clear as day why it destroys Joe. And Raci and Ahmed, giving the two best performances of 2020, let all of that pain transfer under our skin. We feel Ruben’s shame and Joe’s disappointment so vividly that we might as well be sitting in that room. (Jacob Hall)

Soul

1. Joe After the Show – and a New Perspective in Soul

In Pixar’s Soul, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher who wants nothing more than to be professional jazz musician. When he finally gets the opportunity he’s been waiting for with a famed touring jazz group – after going through The Great Beyond and The Great Before to get there – he comes away not being nearly as satisfied as he thought he’d be. Joe realizes that he’s driven the young soul 22 in the wrong direction by making her think that the spark she needs to complete her personality should be something that gives her life purpose. This helps Joe to realize that just because he didn’t achieve his dreams doesn’t mean he can’t have a fulfilling life. Joe might love jazz with a fierce passion, but it might have also kept him from truly living. By the end of the movie, Joe doesn’t know what direction his life will take, but he knows that it will be one worth living. Once this nightmare of a pandemic is over, that’s exactly what we all should be striving for everyday. (Ethan Anderton)

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