When we think back on a movie that transported us, we often focus on a great scene — or maybe the greatest scene — in it. It’s natural. Those scenes are more than just defining. They can literally be the moment that lifts a movie into the stratosphere, that takes it into the higher reaches of our imagination — and, just as important, keeps it there. Here are 12 scenes from the movies of 2018 that did that without peer.
1. Jackson and Ally’s performance of “Shallow” in “A Star Is Born”
When Jackson invites Ally on-stage to perform a song she’s written, the two don’t just sing together. They merge, in a scene so romantically transporting it creates a tingle that ripples right through your heart.
2. The family-on-the-beach embrace in “Roma”
Alfonso Cuarón’s celebrated drama is not a movie of hugs, yet it has a single sublime one, rooted in the family rebirth that happens after Cleo, the devoted housekeeper, fishes several of the children in her care out of the ocean waves. In a film of indelible images, this is the most memorable: a wistful domestic Pièta.
3. The Live Aid concert sequence in “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Whatever your feelings about Bryan Singer’s biopic (many adore it; some, like me, think it should have been better), there can be no doubt that it saves the best for last: a recreation of Queen’s tour de force 1985 performance at Wembley Stadium that the movie ecstatically reconfigures as Freddie Mercury’s redemption.
4. The death of Erik Killmonger in “Black Panther”
Many have noted that Killmonger, the antagonist of everything we’re rooting for in “Black Panther,” doesn’t completely qualify as a “villain.” That’s because there’s so much righteous fire to his master plan to use Wakanda’s Vibranium to arm his brothers and sisters around the world. When T’Challa finally kills him, it’s less a triumph than a sobering — and moving — fall.
5. Joe the hitman’s invasion of a pedophile brothel in “You Were Never Really Here”
Imagine the bloody climax of “Taxi Driver” viewed through a panoply of surveillance cameras and scored to the 1961 doo-wop rapture of Rosie & the Originals’ “Angel Baby.” The most amazing sequence of Lynne Ramsay’s postmodern pulp character study is a voyeuristic plunge into hell driven by the most hypnotic and visionary film editing of the year.
6. The conversation between Reverend Toller and Michael the environmental terrorist in “First Reformed”
Speaking to a young man who thinks the climate-change situation is so doomsday dire that the time has come to blow things up, Ernst Toller, a man of reason and grief, makes a passionate case for believing in the future; then he gets radicalized and straps on a suicide bomb. It’s the dialectic between those two views that defines Paul Schrader’s film, and for about 15 minutes the movie mesmerizes us the way that art films used to and, on occasion, still can: with nothing but sheer, meditative, searching talk.
7. The opening X-15 sequence of “First Man”
For a while, we have no idea where we are: trapped in some unidentified flying object, hurtling into the surreal light-dark sky along with a pilot who doesn’t seem to be controlling his vehicle so much as the forces of the atmosphere are controlling him. This, in violent embryonic form, is man’s first rip into the world out there, and in a sequence as disorienting as it is mesmerizing, it sets the stakes for how Damien Chazelle’s film will immerse us in space travel.
8. The ending of “The Favourite”
Yorgos Lanthimos’ wicked costume drama from hell has a lot of surprises, yet none, in its way, registers as powerfully as the movie’s final moments, in which Abigail, having schemed her way to the top of the heap, stares in front of her to confront the idea that she still has…nothing. And then comes Lanthimos’ most audacious conceit: a haunting superimposed image of bunny rabbits, cuddly yet wild, suggesting the animal nature that will always drive the human desire to claw and conquer.
9. The hospital meeting between Brady Blackburn and Lane Scott in “The Rider”
Brady, a South Dakota rodeo rider who has suffered a serious head injury, is told by doctors that he should never ride again. The audience isn’t entirely sure where it stands on that advice until Brady goes to visit his old rodeo pal Lane Scott, who’s paralyzed, without the ability to speak. This is where director Chloé Zhao’s decision to cast real people as versions of themselves acquires an uncanny power. Lane’s enthusiastic but damaged presence strikes a primal chord, standing as a warning to Brady: This is what could happen to you. It’s a scene of heartbreaking humanity and, in its way, terror.
10. Starr Carter giving in to her inner activist in “The Hate U Give”
At a mass gathering to protest the police-shooting death of her friend Khalil, Starr finally touches the core of her rage and despair, getting up on a car to address the crowd. We’ve seen these sorts of grabbing-the-bullhorn scenes before, but Starr’s transformation is so moving because it’s so layered, the resolution of a war within herself.
11. A follower of Bahgwan Shree Rajneesh describes how she tried to murder his doctor in “Wild, Wild Country”
In the ‘80s, Jane Stork, a sweet and rather courtly woman from New Zealand, was a member of the Rajneesh cult when she was ordered to protect the beatific Indian guru Bahgwan Shree Rajneesh by injecting his personal physician with poison. Hearing Stork, 30 years later, narrate her descent into homicidal devotion is like experiencing a thriller from the inside out — from inside the head of its most possessed yet delusional believer.
12. Kayla presents her dork version of a birthday present in “Eighth Grade”
When 13-year-old Kayla gets invited to a cool kids’ pool party, it’s a sign that she’s broken into the top tier of middle-school society. But when the snob-queen birthday girl opens her presents, one by one, and treats Kayla’s — the sort of nerd’s box game you can play on a rainy day — as if it were a toxic object, the humiliation is soul-deep. The scene is lacerating, but it’s also triumphantly and hilariously ironic, since it’s the trivialization of exactly that sort of analog kids’ game that threatens to hobble a generation addicted to the hidden detachment of digital connection.