Every year, the /Film team gathers to do what all websites must: make a big list about the previous year in cinema. And while 2020 offered its fair share of numbing, painful roadblocks, the movies were as good as ever, even as we watched them at home instead of at a movie theater. So compiling a list of the 50 Greatest Movie Moments of 2020 was hard not because there weren’t any great moments, but because there were so many.
Here are our favorite moments – shots, scenes, lines of dialogue, gags, asides, action scenes, you name it – from the movies of 2020.
Note: This list began with 191 nominated moments, which was cut down over the course of a lengthy discussion/debate. That conversation was recorded and published as a two-part podcast, which you can listen to here and here. So if you wonder why a certain moment isn’t on this list…well, you’ll find your answer by listening to those podcasts! Once we had the final 50 scenes, the staff voted on the order, resulting in the final list.
This list contains major spoilers for many movies. If you haven’t seen a movie, this is your warning to skim past its entry.
50. A Drafty Proposal in Emma.
Few have nailed Jane Austen’s satirical wit as well as Autumn de Wilde in her feature directorial debut Emma., and it’s no better exemplified than in one of the final scenes of the film, when Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) have finally put to rest all misgivings and miscommunications. They sit in knowing silence with each other in the living room of Emma’s house, exchanging glances over books, until Emma’s father (a scene-stealing Bill Nighy) notices something is off: there’s a draft in the house! Mr. Woodhouse’s long battle with his drafty house is one of the best recurring gags in the film, and it culminates in this wryly funny scene, in which Mr. Woodhouse (perhaps knowingly) orders his frantic servants to place screens all around them, affording Emma and Mr. Knightley privacy and allowing Mr. Woodhouse just a few minutes of protection from that blasted wind. That is, until just after Mr. Knightley makes his tender proposal to Emma, when Mr. Woodhouse asks them if they still feel a draft. It’s this kind of funny undercutting of the intense, emotional scenes that make Emma. such a delight. (Hoai-Tran Bui)
49. A Surprising Death in Critical Thinking
Though there are plenty of movies about teens trying to escape the dangers of their crime-filled, inner-city neighborhoods, none of them pull the rug out from under you in the way that Critical Thinking does. The film gives you the expected set-up about a troubled kid who suddenly takes an interest in the school chess club after being sent there for detention. After swiping a chess board and pieces from class, this seems like the start of a new passion. But this kid bumps into the wrong person on the street, ends up in a tense confrontation, and is shot point blank in the head. It’s a grim start to the story of a chess team who unexpectedly rises in the state rankings, and one that reminds you things can take a fatal turn for these kids at any minute. (Ethan Anderton)
48. Shirley and Rose Stand on the Cliff in Shirley
What better way to illustrate a story of women on the verge than to show our two unhinged heroines, the tortured author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her ingenue/victim Rose (Odessa Young), literally standing on the edge of a cliff? The author had been building up a parasocial relationship with the housewife-to-be throughout Shirley, leeching off Rose while at the same time opening up the younger woman’s eyes to a sort of twisted female liberation. Shirley herself had been dancing dangerously on the edge of sanity for the entirety of her novel-writing process, but now it’s Rose’s turn — having been abandoned by Shirley and discovering her husband’s infidelity — to stare down the edge of the cliff. Ironically, it would be Shirley who would talk her back from the edge, after the two of them look down the steep incline together, pausing for a just a moment to consider the sweet release it would offer. (Hoai-Tran Bui)
47. Nicolas Cage Screams About the Alpacas in Color Out of Space
Color Out of Space isn’t subtle. Director Richard Stanley’s (loose) adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s terrifying short story – about an unexplainable alien entity poisoning a small farm and the family that lives there – is often entertaining, frequently creepy, and always (always!) ready to fly off the rails. Case in point: Nicolas Cage’s lead performance as the family patriarch, who is convinced that his alpaca farm is going to be his ticket to success (“They’re the animal of the future,” he insists). And because Stanley clearly had no desire to ever tell Cage to tone it down, the world’s weirdest movie star goes full ham, ranting and raving about alpacas in increasingly deranged moments that feel ready to be ripped to YouTube and shared all over the internet by the actor’s acolytes. It all climaxes with the alpacas themselves being corrupted into mutant monstrosities that Cage must kill with a shotgun, but that scene pales in comparison to Cage’s gonzo performance up to that point. (Jacob Hall)
46. Lost in the Crawlspace in Relic
In Natalie Erika James’ Relic, the dementia being suffered by an ailing grandmother becomes a literal malevolent force, threatening to consume her daughter and granddaughter. While the film functions just fine as supernatural tale of terror, a haunted house movie with a unique twist, it’s the final act that directly connects the wounded emotions of the characters with the horror set pieces. The characters find themselves trapped in a crawlspace that never ends, an impossible labyrinth that simply cannot exist inside this house. And they’re not alone. Something is hunting them. It’s a terrifying sequence, one of the most frightening moments of 2020. But it’s chilling on a deeper level too: this is what it’s like to lose your memories and your sense of self, to be continuously afraid as your entire world breaks around you and the familiar becomes alien. It’s horror in service of empathy – an internal terror becomes external. (Jacob Hall)
45. Allison Dances in The Nest
44. The “Silly Games” Scene in Lovers Rock
Watching Steve McQueen’s sensual Small Axe entry is like grooving to an hour-long jam session, a transporting experience that ebbs and flows with the reggae music that acts as the swooning soundtrack to the film. But the standout moment of the film is oddly one where the music stops for one ecstatic moment, in a house-wide singalong of Janet Kay’s 1979 single “Silly Games.” It’s as if time stops for a moment here, the entire house suspended in the euphoric joy of this shared experience, the radiant beaming expressions of the singers and dancers showing as they sway to their own off-key singing. It’s a singular moment in cinema in 2020, and honestly, of the past few years. (Hoai-Tran Bui)
43. The Rooftop Escape in Run
Run is a film with many familiar pieces, but each of those pieces is utilized in razor-sharp fashion. About halfway through Aneesh Chaganty’s wily thriller, Chloe (Kiera Allen) finds herself locked in her upstairs bedroom by her deranged mother. The only way out is to climb through the window and traverse the rooftop to another window…which is easier said than done, since Chloe uses a wheelchair. In a film filled with smart characters making intelligent choices in the face of dangerous, hostile situations, this is the clear highlight. We watch as Chloe thinks through her predicament and conjures a painful solution that tests her body and mind in equal measure. It’s made all the more wild to witness because Allen uses a wheelchair in real life and truly sells the physicality of her escape. (Jacob Hall)
42. Flying a Kite in The Personal History of David Copperfield
There are so many scenes in Armando Ianucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield that capture its particular candy-colored brand of whimsy, but the kite-flying scene is the first I remember that put a wide, beaming smile on my face. David Copperfield (Dev Patel) has met a kind of kindred spirit in Hugh Laurie’s eccentric Mr. Dick, a former lawyer who believes that the thoughts of King Charles’ decapitated head are flooding his mind. Just like David, Mr. Dick is so overwhelmed with words that he writes them all down on scraps of paper, but his mind remains muddled. David comes up with the genius idea: they’ll attach the paper to a kite and fly it outside, letting the wind take the words out of Mr. Dick’s head. The pair of them barrel through Betsey Trotwood’s living room, kite in hand, throwing it into the sky in a smooth joyful motion. It’s a wonderfully whimsical moment that can only exist in Dickens and Ianucci’s heightened reality, because wouldn’t it be so nice if we could all so easily cast our worries out to the wind? (Hoai-Tran Bui)
41. The First Kiss in Sylvie’s Love
40. Al Capone Murders People With a Golden Tommy Gun While Chomping on a Carrot and Wearing an Adult Diaper in Capone
39. The Giant Monster Finally Appears in Underwater
Underwater is a nifty deep-sea monster movie that more people need to watch. Sure, it’s not very original, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. The film deals with a group of people trapped at a research and drilling facility at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The facility is collapsing, so our characters have to escape, but that’s easier said than done because there are sea monsters lurking everywhere. The monsters are human-sized and mostly glimpsed in quick, fleeting jump-scare moments. But it’s all building towards a big reveal, and I mean big: the smaller monsters are being spawned by a gigantic, Cthulhu-like creature. The reveal of the monster is wonderfully staged – you get a true sense of how massive and scary it would be to suddenly spot this thing in the dark depths. (Chris Evangelista)
38. Rose Loses Her Virginity in Extra Ordinary
Extra Ordinary is a film destined for cult status, especially when more people learn about its outrageous climax. This low-key Irish rom-com follows the middle-aged Rose, whose ability to speak to ghosts has has made her a self-doubting pariah. However, her neighbor Martin comes to her when his teenage daughter is abducted to be used in a Satanic ritual that requires a virgin sacrifice, leading to an unlikely romance as they play supernatural detectives. In the end, the newly summoned giant portal to Hell rejects Martin’s daughter – she’s no virgin! But the demon that emerges from the fiery pit sees a virgin in the room: Rose. As the forces of hell pull Rose across the floor toward an unholy demise, Martin scrambles to climb on top of his newfound love and ensure that she is, uh, no longer a virgin before she is sent to eternal damnation. Consummations of cinematic love do not get wilder or more memorable than this. (Jacob Hall)
37. The Ending of Hunter Hunter
36. Robert’s Speech…and Then Steven’s Speech in Boys State
Boys State is a documentary that follows a mock student government navigating the challenges of organizing political parties, creating consensus for legislation, and campaigning for various positions in state and city government. In our current political climate, it comes as no surprise that despite being split into Federalists and Nationalists, the politics come down to Demoratic and Republican ideals, and it’s clear which party each of the two key teen governor candidates identify with. In the governor race, Steven Garza (right) is campaigning for the Nationalists and Robert MacDougal (left) is one of the Federalists in the running. During the campaign process, Robert gives such a hollow, manipulative, and purely political speech while Steven speaks from the heart with integrity without any mudslinging, and it’s clear which of these young men has the potential to be a true leader and which is just an opportunistic politician. It’s supremely frustrating and rather encouraging all at once. (Ethan Anderton)
35. Nikola Tesla Sings Karaoke in Tesla
Telsa is not your standard biopic, and when I’m trying to sell people on this fact, I always bring up one thing: a scene where Nikola Tesla sings karaoke. Needless to say, the real Tesla didn’t go out and perform karaoke, but in Michael Almereyda’s unique portrait of the inventor, Ethan Hawke’s Tesla does just that. He performs a rendition of the Tears for Fears song “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” in one of several wonderfully strange and anachronistic moments. It’s so strange and wonderful that you can’t help but smile – and it almost didn’t happen. “That was a last-minute addition. And a reckless one, because we didn’t have the rights to the song,” Almereyda said. “And we had to fight and beg for it. We were toward the end of the shoot, and we both (Ethan and I) realized there may be a way to be a little more daring and a little bit more fun. And then I mentioned that sometimes shy or sensitive people reveal themselves when they are doing a karaoke song. So, I came up with the song idea and Ethan embraced it. It wasn’t just that the lyrics had some resonance, but it was also an upbeat song, and the movie would kind of crystalize at this point.” (Chris Evangelista)
34. The Final Concert in Bill and Ted Face the Music
In one of the most purely uplifting endings in cinema this year, we see William “Bill” S. Preston Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) teaming up with their daughters Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Thea (Samara Weaving) and the rest of the world (even Death himself!) to play a concert that saves the universe. After creating infinite copies of themselves, Bill and Ted get instruments into everyone’s hands around the world, and they all perform the catchy song, produced by their daughters, to bring everyone together. It’s such an earnest, inspiring, infinitely cheesy conclusion for such a silly comedy, but that’s what makes it most excellent. (Ethan Anderton)
33. The Town Fights Back in Bacurau
32. The Ending of Another Round
31. Diana Takes Flight in Wonder Woman 1984
Flight was the gift that Diana (Gal Gadot) most equated with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), her long-lost love miraculously returned to her in Wonder Woman 1984, and one that she most envied of him, she confesses during their flight to Cairo. “I’ll never understand it,” Diana confesses. “It’s so easy, really,” Steve replies, thoughtfully. “It’s wind and air and knowing how to ride it, how to catch it. How to join with it.” When Diana must lose Steve a second time in order to regain her powers from the Dreamstone, she lassoes a passing jet plane (another very cool moment) and there among the clouds, she finds that Steve’s advice is true: she can fly. But it’s a bittersweet newfound ability, as Diana revels in her ability to surf through the air while mourning the final “gift” that Steve has left her with. It’s a scene that feels true to the Richard Donner-level awe that Wonder Woman 1984 emulates, especially in Diana’s final Superman-like pose as she flies toward her final battle. (Hoai-Tran Bui)
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