In terms of pop culture, and the most buzzed about movie scenes of 2018 came from the hits. There’s Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga singing “Shallow” in A Star Is Born, the snap from Avengers: Infinity War, the Live Aid concert from Bohemian Rhapsody, any one of Mission Impossible: Fallout’s action set pieces, Kilmonger’s death in Black Panther, and, for the blockbuster loving film nerd, The Shining homage from Ready Player One.
These are big moments that had people talking, but 2018 was filled with scenes of tremendous, awe-inspiring, sometimes understated but brilliant moments that spoke to the human condition in ways that were relevant and sublime. Some of these moments were showstopping climaxes; others were blink-and-miss-it flashes of greatness, and a handful of them should be duly considered as the best scenes of the year.
Naturally, there were some runners-up. There were three scenes from North American cinema that didn’t make it on this list but so effectively tapped into contemporary anxieties that it’d be unfortunate to not mention them: Adam Driver’s monologue in BlacKkKlansman (“I never thought much about it. Now I’m thinking about it all the time”) is capital A acting, but it’s also as accurate a depiction of a political awakening as any put on film; from A Private War – “Why, God? Why?” Marie Colvin’s live report from Homs is essentially the climax, but the moment when a member of the Free Syrian Army erupts in agony as a child dies in his arms is painful and raw; and while it’s not the showiest moment in Widows, Robert Duvall yelling at onscreen son Colin Farrell about how he’s not going to change anything drives home in one line what most films fail to communicate in two hours.
Those scenes, and the ones above that dominated pop culture, earned a place in audiences minds. But here is an alternative list of scenes as well as a final assessment of 2018 cinema with the ten best scenes from 2018. Spoilers main and minor follow.
10. Paddington 2 – Paddington Meets Nuckles
Memorable scenes tend to be heavy or huge—they’re either clips you submit for Oscar consideration or action set pieces—so there’s something to be said for the joy and life-affirming moment when Paddington faces off with nasty prison chef (and inmate) Nuckles, played by Brendan Fraser.
The world of the film is punctuated by bright colors and brighter moments, and most “best of” lists have chosen to honor Phoenix Buchanan’s post-credits showstoppers, but the best scene actually comes in the midst of our protagonist’s wrongful imprisonment.
The scene is played for laughs. New to prison, Paddington goes to complain about the food, something no other inmate would dare to do. Paddington can’t help but make matters worse, bonking Nuckes on the head with a baguette and covering him in condiments.
Then he accidentally shoves a marmalade sandwich in Nuckles’ mouth, and we see the embattled con chef’s eyes shine for what must be the first time in ages. It’s a light moment that’s neither shocking nor unexpected, but it drives home what so many viewers loved about this movie. Like it’s title character, the film’s optimism and love for life are contagious.
9. Mandy – Cheddar Goblin
Another small moment in a much talked about film chockful of memorable (and longer) scenes, this is the chance to honor one of the strangest things about a truly strange movie. Mandy is a psychedelic head trip that features Nicolas Cage in proper berserker mode and has an actual cult leader playing a cult leader. Much was made of Cage’s bathroom breakdown wearing tightie whities. Even more was made of the chainsaw battle.
But the Cheddar Goblin is here for scene of the year because it’s funny, weird, and brilliant—a concise moment of madness in a film that refuses to be straightforward. It at once inspires more questions and sums up the film in just one scene. If every film dedicated a few seconds to a wacky disturbing commercial parody that seems at once innocuous and a decent reflection of capitalist culture, then cinema would be its own paradise.
8. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch – F**k Yeah!
There were many great fight scenes in 2018. The aforementioned Mission Impossible: Fallout made people marvel at action sequences again, and Upgrade’s way of keeping its protagonist in the middle of the frame during its fight scenes was a neat tweak on film grammar. But for those who managed to find it, Bandersnatch’s extreme pivot from therapy session to meta fight scene was the most surprising, exciting battle spot of the year.
While choosing an instalment of Black Mirror might seem like a cheat, Bandersnatch is a standalone feature length offering not released as part of a season, and Netflix marketed it as a feature. Its choose-your-own adventure format can lead Stefan to the office of his therapist played by Alice Lowe. After sharing his suspicions that he’s in a movie, she asks if he wouldn’t want more action.
This leads to a choice between “Yes” and “Fuck Yeah!” which leads to a fight. Additional options of even poorer taste have Stefan’s father dragging him out or Stefan finding out that he’s on a set, is really named Michael, and is still confused. Bandersnatch is gimmicky, but it’s also thrilling and clever, and it never lets the choose-your-adventure dilute its gallows humor.
7. First Reformed – Whiskey and Pepto
First Reformed has its share of heady ideas and strange moments. There’s the meditation scene where Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried literally transverse time and space, and a lot of people had a lot of things to say about that ending. But for our money, the most impressive scene is shorter, smaller, and infinitely more beautiful.
It’s not a scene that went unnoticed either. As a minister who is more or less dead inside, Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller winds down at the end of the day by mixing whiskey and Pepto Bismol. The camera zooms in as the pink fuzzes and fizzes with the alcohol. It’s a beautiful and hopelessly strange moment that at once conveys Toller’s inner decay and symbolizes the damage to the planet that Toller is only starting to care about.
6. You Were Never Really Here – CCTV
Almost immediately after its premier, this was the moment that had critics talking. Director Lynne Ramsay successfully deconstructs the action scene and all those myths you’ve heard about mysterious loners on vigilante quests, and surprise surprise, it’s less cinematic and far grislier than we’ve been led to believe.
The scene in question sees Joaquin Phoenix’s frighteningly taciturn character venture into an establishment of very ill repute to retrieve his charge. And while the filmmakers have ramped up the tension, we watch the action unfold at a distance and through muted colors, seen only on CCTV footage.
For a director like Ramsay who rarely passes up a chance to turn a scene into a hauntingly beautiful tableau, the restraint is both shocking and repressive. It’s also a great decision. Other scenes, especially the water burial, deliver the ethereal beauty we’ve come to expect from one of the best directors alive, but this is the scene that both sticks with you and melds the film’s style and substance together.