In 20 years, what is the single movie moment we’ll remember most? Our team tackles the question.
What is the movie moment you’ll remember most from 2016? It certainly depends upon the number of movies you’ve seen this year. If you only went and saw a few movies this year and one of them was a very funny moment for Kevin James, that might be your moment. The experience is relative.
Lucky for us, we have a big team that’s spent a lot of their time this year doing nothing but scour the cinematic landscape. We feel, as a group, fairly confident in our ability to sum up the whole of 2016. These are the moments for which 2016 will be known. They created, altered, and drove the narratives around the year in film. For better or worse, these are the cinematic moments we’ll remember most from the past year.
Christopher Campbell: Between all the celebrity deaths and the bad summer blockbusters and the election of Donald Trump for president, 2016 has continuously been called out for being a crummy year. It will continue to be remembered in the future as the worst year ever, even if much of the reason is perpetuation of the idea rather than the reality (though Trump’s election, the escalated tragedy of Aleppo, the rise of hate crimes in the US and so much more will keep it deserving of the historical reputation). That’s why I have to believe something awful in an awful movie is what will last longest as an iconic moment from the year in film. And that moment is when Batman and Superman stop fighting in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice because they realize their moms are both named Martha.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is already a heavily flawed movie by the time it gets to the scene with the fortuitous confusion. But that instant when Batman asks in his gruff voice, “Why did you say that name!?” takes the superhero crossover down really deep, into laughable territory. The scene is already the subject of a multitude of parodies. And “Martha!” is the new “nuke the fridge” as far as terms that can be used negatively about a scene or line in fan discussions. Let it describe any time a movie climaxes with a really dumb coincidence or sudden realization by a character. Who knows what the writers of the movie would have done had the characters not long ago been written to have Marthas as moms? And how knows how much better the world would be if all people in conflict had such an easy superficial means of peace.
Tomris Laffly: Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures is a miracle of a film that we don’t get to see that often, if ever. Following three women of color who work as NASA scientists and human computers in the late 50s, this potent crowd pleaser ‐ where women are always the smartest talking heads in a room ‐ is almost wall-to-wall memorable scenes. But one particular scene near the film’s opening sets the tone powerfully, with humor, grace and ease: qualities that run through the entire movie.
We’re at a countryside road with the aforementioned scientists Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who are dealing with car troubles. It’s Dorothy driving all to work at NASA (which is as per usual, we later on find out), but they seem to be down on their luck this particular morning. Soon enough, they have even more reason to worry, when a white cop stops over and curtly interrogates them. When he learns the women are on their way to NASA, he snaps, “I didn’t know they employ…” But before he can finish his sentence in the obvious, racist way, Dorothy jumps in and says there are quite a number of women who work at NASA.
We then understand rather clearly that these women will always be reminded of their place in society, not just as women, but also and especially as women of color. And in order to get themselves out of the roadside situation safely (well, we know how white cop vs. black driver situations unfairly victimize the driver even in today’s world), they twist the narrative and figure out a way to make the white cop feel good about himself. They know this as women and as black women: to avoid trouble, to get what they need safely, the white male ego sadly has to be stroked (a quandary all three of the women repeatedly face throughout the film.) So if the cop doesn’t help them get to work, how would they be of service to NASA and send brave American men into the space before those damn Russians do? Feeling good about himself and his role, the cop agrees to set them free. Not only that, but also to escort them until they make it to work safely.
It’s a brilliant, crowd-pleasing scene. But its underlying point that Hidden Figures deals with head on throughout its running time is demoralizing, heartbreaking and still appallingly relevant today.
Max Covill: Far too often in film, characters are trying to return to a life they once knew. What happens when they can’t go home? Spoilers ahead. Manchester by the Sea sounds like a lovely place to be; north of Boston, on the coast, what more could you ask for? When Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is asked to adopt his nephew; he doesn’t refuse because he dislikes the kid. There is an unfathomable horror that emits from Manchester.
After a night of drinking booze and playing table tennis with his buddies, Lee Chandler makes the greatest oversight. A fire engulfs his house due to his negligence, taking the lives of his children. In the ashes lie the broken pieces of his marriage. Numb from his grief, he hopes to find solace, by being punished for his crime. When the cops inform him they won’t arrest him for an accident, hope is lost. Despair has taken over Lee and only death will free him. The moment he reaches for the gun is the apex of grief.
Many of 2016’s best films showcased characters dealing with grief. Leave it to director Kenneth Lonergan and Casey Affleck to explore that theme by focusing on someone who can never return home. It is not immediately apparent why Lee Chandler has chosen a life so far removed from his past, but once revealed, immense empathy is all that is left to feel for this man. Manchester by the Sea might seem like a lovely seaside town, but for him it is his antithesis. Going home will lead to his undoing.
Brad Gullickson: “Wouldst Thou Like To Live Deliciously?” Having suffered a disastrous game of peek-a-boo with her baby brother, the unnatural glare of rabbits, the “Baa-Baa” taunting of her shining twin siblings, the despair of her crow-pecked mother, and the pious rage of her father, there is simply only one answer that young Thomasin could offer the family pet, Black Phillip. Unholy bonds with goats and the witch of the wood offers certain respite from a family farm stricken with strife by a titanic father figure lost in pride and corruption.
The Witch is not a paranormal activity that jumps from the shadows, or clambers from its sudden burst of unintelligible score. It’s a film that finds its dread in the breathing of a natural beast. The longer writer/director Robert Eggers holds his camera on Black Phillip, the more sinister the creature becomes. When words finally utter from its lips, the climactic bargain is as chilling as it is a logical conclusion to this family’s charade. The taste of butter, a pretty dress, and the chance to float around the rim of the world? As the dark puritan steps behind Thomasin, wrapping his black glove around her hay colored hair, and guiding her hand to his book, you not only hold no blame against the girl, but 2016 starts feeling a lot like 17th Century New England, and you’re ready to sign up as well. Remove thy shift, America.
Andrew Karpan: A particularly trenchant word occurs, politically, at least right now, when I come to the ending of Elizabeth Wood’ debut feature, White Girl. Normalization. Somewhat overhyped and ultimately somewhat overlooked, Wood’s movie has already begun aging gracefully into a Conradian parable about gentrification in what many consider to be one of the most diverse cities in the country ‐ nay, world. Morgan Saylor’s performance as Wood’s Marlow is a complicated negotiation of agency: harassed by the sexual power dynamic at her summer internship, Leah plays trap queen to a Latino drug dealer named Blue who lives across the street from her new home in Ridgewood, Queens. It had been “our spot forever,” he tells her shortly after she introduces herself and makes a neighborly inquiry as to his ability to procure drugs. No matter: she urges his corner cocaine-dealing conglomerate to make the big sell in the since-gentrified terrain of Chinatown. In Wood’s movie, these are worlds whose very coexistence is fraught with unspoken tension and everyone, save our writing-and-liberal-arts-studying protagonist, seems to feel it creeping in the backs of their eyes. Sound familiar?
Wood’s final shot begins by fading in from plain field of whiteness, a register that begins our escape from Ridgewood. Sets of sounds warble in, we don’t recognize the voices but they feel weirdly familiar. Footsteps simmer in the background, we then spot desks and realize we’re in a classroom: “how’ve you been,” and “hey, brand new car” chirp in but stay hidden from view. Earlier, her boss asks her why she doesn’t just leave, if the complicated triangle between Blue, Blue’s supplier, and the price of legal defense in a justice system stacked against minorities and the poor becomes too much for our protagonist to handle. It’s a really fucked up system, her lawyer also tells us before raping her. But Wood is hardly interested in teaching us lessons. Her final shot transports us, for the first time, into what is definitively Leah’s world: the college classroom we all know, with the adjunct professor in the corner taking attendance or reviewing the lecture he is about to give on, say, Global Cultures and Identities. As if the whole movie had never happened, you would think ‐ but if this were elementary school, they’d start by talking about their summers.
William Dass: It’s the Green Room negotiation all the way for me. The Ain’t Rights have overpowered Big Justin, the Nazi with the Big Fucking Gun who had been guarding them. They’re still locked in the dressing room. Darcy (Patrick Stewart), leader of the gang, has just arrived to open negotiations with the band. Things are very tense, but Darcy opens by speaking very softly. It brings down the volume of the scene and it forces close attention. Pat (Anton Yelchin) reluctantly takes the role of spokesperson. The dialogue is real and earnest and terrifying. The Ain’t Rights are trying to bargain their way out of a losing situation. Darcy ultimately convinces Pat to turn over the gun. When Pat hands the gun out the door, he is ambushed by machete wielding Nazis. The viewer can see none of this. We can only see Pat’s facial expression from our side of the door. He finally pulls back a grotesquely injured arm. That visual got more than one audible “Oh Damn” in my theater.
It’s a brilliant visual effect made from a small amount of CGI and a great amount of actor and director teamwork. The moment by itself is an excellent execution, but gross out shots alone don’t make for life long memories. Jeremy Saulnier created compelling, realistic characters and made us care about them. He’s also got an eye for building and releasing tension. Anton Yelchin and Patrick Stewart gave stellar performances. What will I still remember in a dozen years? The amazing work Yelchin did in Green Room and how terrific the film was for the reasons exemplified by that scene.
Erica Bahrenburg: Out of the hours upon hours I spent watching movies this year, the one moment I feel will be remembered for years to come is the opening scene from Kubo and the Two Strings. There is no denying that Kubo is a 102 minute masterclass in animation and that opening scene sets the bar incredibly high. The way the images move almost make you forget that this is stop-motion animation and someone physically made each and every movement possible. The way that Kubo and the Two Strings manages to seamlessly blend together stop-motion animation with modern computer generated images best exemplified in the opening scene worthy of revisiting over and over again.
The scene opens with Kubo’s mother desperately making her way through a roaring ocean storm and a faceless voice tells us that “if [we] must blink, do it now” because what we are seeing on screen in front of us is incredible. A massive wave forms in front of her as she stands in her small boat. She raises her arm and brings it down to play her magical guitar which creates a force so powerful it slices right through the wave.
Even though her relief is palpable, the voice keeps telling us to, “pay careful attention to everything you see and hear, no matter how unusual it may seem. And please be warned, if you fidget, if you look away, if you forget any part of what I tell you, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.” As these words are spoken, another giant wave sneaks up behind her and comes crashing down on her so hard, it knocks her into the water where she bangs her head against a rock. When she washes up on the beach, we hear a baby crying. Her baby. She crawls over to him and cradles him in her arms and then the title card flashes across the screen. It certainly an audacious way to begin any film and, if it were any other movie, and perhaps a lesser movie would not have been able to live up to the bold setup. However, Kubo and the Two Strings keeps the momentum going. The incredible craftsmanship of the opening scene makes it essential animation and an iconic moment in film.
Fernando Andrés: “Without a nickel to my name, hopped a bus, here I came, could be brave or just insane… we’ll have to see.” The opening of LA LA LAND is a jolt of adrenaline for a new generation of artists ‐ a boisterous prologue that establishes both the bravado and melancholy of Damien Chazelle’s love letter to the fools who dream. The film opens with the beautiful anthem “Another Day of Sun”, the camera moving along a stretch of L.A. traffic before various different young artists step out of their cars to exert their passions and frustrations through song and dance. Lyrics that are almost painful in their truth lie underneath Justin Hurwitz’s soaring and upbeat score: one young woman sings about leaving behind her small-town boyfriend, and her hopes that one day he will see her on the big screen; another dreamer laments that despite his failures, his art might one day inspire someone else. It’s a power ballad for a new wave of young musicians, actors, filmmakers and other artists ready to give that dream all they’ve got. As we begin a dark and uncertain era in which both young people and artists will be more important than ever before, Chazelle may have also written the opening number for a brand new chapter of history.
Meg Shields: Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, a ruthless satire of modern love concludes with a mirror, a steak knife, and a tough call. David (Colin Farrell) must choose to either blind himself and re-establish superficial common ground with the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), or lie, with her being none the wiser. Visually the scene is, like the film itself, disturbing and beautiful: Farrell is backlit, his elbow at ninety degrees, the knife directed at this eye. Silently, he lowers the implement, thumbs its tip, stuffs paper towel into his mouth, pulls his lid down, finally repositioning the knife, as his hands visibly shake. We cut from Farrell to Weisz, who sits alone at the restaurant booth, Farrell’s “I won’t be long,” echoing uncomfortably.
David’s dilemma lucidly summarizes the question at the heart of the film: are relationships a social construct, or is selfless love possible? Rather than provide a moralizing answer the film cuts to black, leaving David’s decision, and the status of romantic love, up to us. That we are spared platitudes is both refreshing, and completely terrifying. The suspicion that romantic companionship (and rebellion thereof) is simply a compulsive human need for systems hits hard, and that the film asks its audience to decide for themselves with such a visceral example is both bold and memorable.
H. Perry Horton: Every once and a while a scene comes along that is so much of an enigma merely watching it will never explain it, it must be carried around, mulled over, lived with and processed over time if we are to begin to understand its complexities: scenes like the one in the prison cell in the middle of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, the end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or, as we saw this year, the runway scene in the middle of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon.
In each of these scenes there is a linchpin moment, a narrative tipping point at which whatever is happening becomes irrevocable, the die has been cast and the ramifications set in motion. In Lost Highway it’s when Fred inexplicably morphs into Pete. In 2001 it’s when Dave enters the vortex. And in The Neon Demon, it’s when Jesse ‐ naïve, nervous, hopeful and demure Jesse ‐ encounters her reflection in triplicate at the runway’s end. This reflection, however, doesn’t show the girl she is but the woman she could be ‐ confidant, sultry, adept ‐ if only she would sacrifice herself to the ravenous gods of art, beauty, and celebrity. This moment is the end of Jesse’s chrysalis, and she emerges from it a different version of herself, and it is this difference, this acquiescence, which ultimately dooms her. But in the moment, the weird, wonderful, enigmatic moment, she feels a power unlike any she’s ever known, one too tempting to resist, so she succumbs and even seals it with a kiss. The way Refn builds to this moment, not with words but with light and music and visual bewilderment makes it one worth returning to again and again.
Francesca Fau: Captain America: Civil War is a summer blockbuster about a bunch of superheroes beating each other and an allegory for American political ideology. Captain America’s policy of zero interference on superhero activity against Iron Man’s policy of vigilance and government intervention. However, the real standout is not Iron Man or Captain America, it is Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther.
Black Panther has a fulfilling narrative arc snuck into a movie drowning in subplots. First, T’Challa/Black Panther is drawn into the Avenger’s civil war when he loses his father in a terrorist attack. Boseman has a great scene with which to give his Black Panther a moral center, and he runs with it in spectacular fashion. We know the pride, sense of duty, and sadness that is T’Challa’s narrative engine following that scene. Then, T’Challa seeks revenge against the Winter Soldier. Spoiler alert, if you haven’t heard already, Black Panther is a certified badass. A highlight of his kick-assery is his scratching of Captain America’s shield. In the end, while Zemo, the mastermind of the civil war, sits contemplating suicide, it is Black Panther that finally brings him to the authorities. Black Panther realizes that revenge is not a path toward closure. It is only a resignation to a life of pain.
However, the moment that will stick into the collective conscious more than Black Panther’s plot driving arc follows a fight scene. As the government arrests Black Panther, Captain America, and the Winter Soldier, Black Panther removes his mask. Boseman’s few seconds of acting here is pure fire. He captures a look of anger, defiance, and hubris all the while staring down Captain America.
We, like Black Panther, had a tough year. We spent a lot of time wounded by divisive political rhetoric, alarmed by national tragedy, saddened by the deaths of icons, and disenchanted by images of hate and cruelty. His look at Captain America encapsulates a lot of people’s feelings about this year, “It’s over. It’s done. What more do you have for me now?”
Christine Makepeace: When Margot Robbie stood in the center of a prison yard digging through a case of clothes and costumes, she was defining a character. She pulled out a harlequin catsuit, gazed at it lovingly, then tossed it aside. Rifling through the pile ‐ choosing her skin ‐ Robbie finally slipped on her Daddy’s Lil Monster top and became the newest iteration of Harley Quinn.
Suicide Squad Harley speaks to a fan base ravenous for more of the character. In an instant, she was reinvented and made whole, her movie form inspiring clothing lines, toys, and countless cosplayers. Feelings about the film aside, there’s no denying the cultural impact Robbie’s take on the beloved character has had. She’s certainly set the bar for future versions, both live-action, and in the comics.
Ciara Wardlow: There’s a scene at the very beginning of Arrival where college professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) goes in to teach a class only to find most of the seats empty. She proceeds to teach anyway, but then phones start going off. One student checks her messages and asks Louise to turn on the television. They watch the news for a moment in wide-eyed silence as they realize that the world as they knew it has changed, and they have been thrown into the complete unknown.
I saw Arrival twice ‐ once before and once after the election ‐ and the meaning of that scene changed entirely between viewings. The first time, I made an intellectual rather than visceral connection to 9/11 because I, like a whole generation of young viewers, only have fuzzy memories of a pre-9/11 world or the event itself. The second time, I left the film with that scene stuck in my head, because suddenly I could connect to it on a visceral level. If Arrival had been released a year or two ago, many people would have found that scene relevant, but 2016 is the year in which it became relevant for everybody.
Jamie Righetti: One of the most anticipated blockbusters in 2016 was Captain America: Civil War, an epic solo film chock full of our favorite Avengers and some new, highly anticipated faces. The film didn’t disappoint, offering fans an Avengers film encased in one of Marvel Studio’s most successful solo franchises. As the heroes face the human casualties and destruction that come with saving the world, a line is drawn in the sand forcing the team to choose between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Oh and there’s also Bucky, Steve’s Hydra weapon bae who is back and causing some havoc thanks to some trigger words that change him back into The Winter Soldier, a weapon that has done some unspeakable things. Love is complicated.
But smack dab in the middle of Civil War we finally get a standoff between a split Avengers team and friends that is one of the standout moments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Just as fans constantly refer to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight as an example of the perfect comic book movie, the airport fight in Civil War should be lauded in years to come as the perfect comic book fight scene. This goes beyond the absolutely breathtaking hallway fight in the first season of Daredevil, the airport fight truly is a comic book panel come to life. It is a glorious, two page splash in living color, where all of our favorites have come to battle, bringing classic moves and quips with them.
Of course the scene is best known for the introduction of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, who is the absolute perfect mix of badass and wonder, stealing The Cap’s shield while still expressing his awe at the situation. But there’s also Ant-Man who turns into Giant-Man, Scarlet Witch subduing The Vision and Black Panther tossing Bucky like leaf, scratching The Cap’s vibranium shield with his claws and making us plead for 2018 to hurry up so we can get our solo T’Challa movie already. As Marvel films and series continue to raise the bar, it’s possible we might see an epic fight sequence that transcends the airport scene but this should go down as a magical and memorable moment when we saw our comic book dreams come true.
Sinéad McCausland: Most of Werner Herzog’s films are extremely physical, concerned with the challenges and contradictions humans face and create for themselves. In Lo and Behold, one of three films Herzog has released this year, the director instead explores the intangible existence of the Internet through the age-old novelistic structure of chapters (ten to be precise). With Herzog remaining behind the camera leaving spectators with only his voice to guide them, the director explores the birth place of the Internet, where an excitable Leonard Kleinrock takes viewers in room 3420 where the Internet ‘typed’ its first words. The director also looks at the idea of a one too powerful gust of a solar flare destroying human civilization as we know it, emphasizing humanity’s reliance on the Internet, before envisioning a world devoid of humans while asking ‘have the monks stopped meditating? They seem to be tweeting,’ with Elvis Presley’s Are You Lonesome Tonight? playing behind his narration. And in interviews with scientists such as Lawrence Krauss and Marcel Just, Herzog asks the most important ‐ and Herzogian ‐ question of the film: Could the Internet dream of itself?
This Philip K. Dick-esque question presents a scene not only in which Herzog tries to find poetry in the most logical, scientific worlds, but also how, for the director, everything relates back to human nature and its psyche. After asking the question Herzog keeps his camera focused on the faces of the scientists while, for the first time in the film, viewers are left in silence. What’s first thought about here is not the answer to the Freudian question, but rather how the humans in front of Herzog’s lens react to it; for Herzog humans are vastly more interesting than something as ‘controllable’ as the Internet, and this scene, the questioning of the Internet’s unconscious self, represents how just like Cave of Forgotten Dreams explores nature’s companionship with human memory Lo and Behold searches for the companionship between the Internet and humanity’s unconscious. You do not know if this is a dog writing this, but for Herzog this anonymity does not matter. What matters in Lo and Behold is the advancement of human thought and memory, and what role the Internet is going to play in our dreams, and we in its.
siân melton: Ghostbusters had a lot stacked against it from the get-go. It dared to reboot a beloved classic but even more insane, it dared to do so with… gasp, women. The hesitation and nervousness toward the fact that it was a reboot was expected, and rightfully so. But the absolute rage and vitriol toward the fact that it starred women? I don’t know if anyone thought it would get so nasty. It festered and ballooned until the film didn’t even stand a chance to exist simply as a film. It had to exist as a platform ‐ as proof, yet again, that women can be funny. That women can front a comedy/action film. That women can fight ghosts (literally and figuratively).
Guess what: they can. And that’s why Holtzmann’s fight scene is so damn perfect. As an action scene, it’s effortless, epic, and inspiring. In the two times I saw the film, my jaw dropped watching it play out. It was like every slow motion hero-shot dudes always get in their action films except it was Kate McKinnon. She was there to get shit done. She was cool and collected. She was wearing overalls. SHE LICKED HER GOD DAMNED GUN.
Holtzmann doesn’t give a shit about platforms or critics or trolls. She’s busy with her new toys and has work to do so step aside. “You just got Holtzmanned, baby!”
Jake Orthwein: Ezra Edelman’s sprawling, six-part documentary might best be summarized as the life and times of O.J. Simpson. And while O.J.: Made in America undoubtedly provides a glimpse into Simpson’s life, it’s the incisiveness with which the times are observed that sets the film apart. Edelman uses the football star’s rise and fall to chart the painful history of race relations in the latter part of the 20th Century. The film’s epic scope shows that this history, from the Watts Riots of the 1960s to the LA Riots of the 1990s, is cyclical. Pain builds upon pain, crackdown upon crackdown, backlash upon backlash. And it has not ended.
Nowhere in the film is this burning relevance to our contemporary moment made clearer than in an interview with a juror from the Simpson trial.
Interviewer: Do you think there are members of the jury that voted to acquit OJ because of Rodney King?
Interviewer: You do?
Interviewer: How many of you do you think felt that way?
Bess: Oh, probably 90 percent of them.
Interviewer: 90 percent. Did you feel that way?
Interviewer: That was payback.
Interviewer: Do you think that’s right?
(At that question, she holds up her hands.)
Depending on one’s background, Bess’s actions might seem deplorable or understandable, even justified. She herself doesn’t make a judgment on whether she was right or wrong. But the unflinching matter-of-factness with which she answers reveals a deeper truth: the damage is already done. The cycle has been set in motion. These divides will be with us for a long time to come.