The wildest, most poignant, or unforgettable movie scenes of 2019

From a "Parasite" flood to J.Lo's dazzling entrance, these are indelible images & key moments from 15 notable films

Published December 22, 2019 11:00AM (EST)

Keon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo) in "Parasite"  (Courtesy of NEON + CJ Entertainment)
Keon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo) in "Parasite" (Courtesy of NEON + CJ Entertainment)

Looking back at the year in cinema there were some great films along with some polarizing ones. But love or hate the films this year, all of the buzzed-about movies had indelible images — scenes that generated giddy pleasures and captured the characters and the messages that the filmmaker wanted to get across — whether audiences were receptive to them or not. What makes a film memorable is often how it makes viewers a feel. A good film will make you feel something — even if it’s anger.

Here is a look at key moments from 15 notable films released in 2019.

“Parasite” While it would spoil the film's pleasures to describe two other scenes — one involving a dog’s meal at a party, and another, featuring a well-placed kick — two scenes, both hilarious and horrifying, reflect the ups and downs of the Kim family at the center of Bong Joon-Ho’s monster hit about class struggle. The first has the Kim patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-Ho) craftily manipulating reality to convince his employer, Yeon-kyo Park (Cho Yeo-Jeong), that her long-serving housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jeong-eun) has tuberculosis. The well-timed sequence is artfully shot — at times in slow-motion to build tension — as Ki-taek diligently sidles up to a trash can to spill hot sauce on a tissue. He is preying on the fears of his wealthy, unsuspecting boss, and when he holds up the “bloody” evidence, the placid Yeon-kyo closes her eyes from abject dread. Bong cuts to black before viewers see Yeon-kyo actually faint, but the impact of her body hitting the floor is palpable.

A later scene, during a torrential downpour is also quite vivid. The Kim family’s basement apartment is flooded with sewage water. (Yes, as Bong shows in a masterful sequence leading up to this moment, sh*t flows downhill, and the poor suffer the worst). While the Kim family scrambles to recover a few possessions — including the “rock” given to them to improve wealth — daughter Ki-Jung (aka Jessica) sits on lid of the family’s sewage-spewing toilet (which is at the top of the room — ground level) and enjoys a cigarette as the toxic water rises an she tries to contain a literal sh*tstorm in a scene that speaks volumes about inequality.

“The Irishman” Scorsese’s epic generated considerable discussion about the fact that the title character, Frank Sheeran’s (Robert DeNiro) daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin plays her as a young woman) does not speak much. But one of the best episodes in this magnificent film is all talk. Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) wants Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham) to endorse him for Union President, but an “altercation” the rivals had in the can makes this a tricky ask. When Tony Pro is late to their meeting, Hoffa gets his back up. And when Tony Pro arrives wearing shorts (it is Florida, he demurs) and making excuses for traffic, Hoffa really starts seething. Scorsese lets this scene unfold as these two mobsters bait each other while Frank tries to broker peace. But when Tony wants Hoffa to apologize for making an ethnic slur in prison, and Hoffa wants Tony to apologize for being late, and more, the men come to blows. It is a darkly funny encounter that delivers.

“The Farewell” In writer/director Lulu Wang’s poignant comedy-drama, Billi (Awkwafina) must keep secret the fact that her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) is dying from Nai Nai herself. When Billi and her family visit Nai Nai in China, she does tai chi exercises with her grandmother. It’s a bonding moment that echoes throughout the film. At first Billi is reluctant; she doesn’t quite buy into the health benefits of clearing out bad toxins and inhaling fresh oxygen, but Nai Nai tells her to be serious. However, when Nai Nai suggests slapping her arms, back, and legs for circulatory purposes, Billi can’t resist making a joke about butt-slapping. As the women pat each other on the back, it shows the real affection between grandmother and granddaughter. Moreover, this scene illustrates how life lessons are passed down from one generation to the other; Nai Nai suggests that Billi practice these moves on her own back in America. Here, “The Farewell” emphasizes not only the importance of family, but how laughter and connection can enhance one’s appreciation and memory of a loved one.

“Tell Me Who I Am” Arguably, the most powerful five minutes in cinema this year — not to mention the lives of subjects Alex and Marcus Lewis — is the “confession” scene in this extraordinary documentary. Alex suffered memory loss as a teenager and relied on Marcus to fill in the gaps about their lives over the years. Marcus, however, acts as a brother-protector, keeping some shocking details from his identical twin. The ethics of this is as knotty as the truth that is revealed in a shattering scene where Alex watches a video Marcus has made about their suppressed experiences. “I’ve never told a living soul about what happened. I barely told myself,” it begins, and what is revealed is heartbreaking and extremely disturbing. “Tell Me Who I Am” considers the impact a family member’s actions can have over a lifetime, and why silence and regret can be dangerous and damaging.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” Joe Talbot made a helluva debut with this fable set in the titular city. The opening sequence is a mesmerizing sequence of events. As a little girl looks at a man in a hazmat suit, the camera follows her until she passes a street preacher (Willie Hen) who asks, “Are you paying attention?!” He continues to talk about the water as Jimmie Fails (Jimmie Fails) and his buddy Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors) wait for a bus and look on. Jimmie and Monty mention jail and religion as the Preacher encourages listeners to “Fight for your land. Fight for your home.” Soon, the guys decide to skateboard to their destination, Jimmie’s old childhood home. Their travels take them through the city streets showing their unity and observing still images of people as well as one guy who implores the guys to take him with them. And when the preacher says, “We are these homes” Talbot focuses on the cupola, and gilded details of the house Jimmie want to return to throughout the film. It’s all set to a driving score by Emile Mosseri. If this opening sequence doesn’t suck viewers in, they are missing one of the year’s best films.

“Climax”  In Gasper Noé’s head-spinning film, a group of dancers unexpectedly drugged by LSD-laced sangria. But before this unfortunate incident happens and things quickly to go hell, Noé offers another dazzoling opening sequence in which  20 young, attractive dancers gyrate sometimes alone, sometimes in synchronized routines, to an upbeat, high-energy EDM soundtrack. Watching the dancers do flips and move in almost slow-motion as the camera circles around or above them is simply breathtaking.

“Hustlers” Jennifer Lopez’s electrifying performance as “The one . . . the only . . . Ra-mon-a,” is easily the best entrance of any character in any film this year. Standing in shadow on a strip club’s stage in a sparkling silver cap and jacket, she starts to disrobe to the strains of Fiona Apple’s apt tune, “Criminal.” As she reveals a booty-baring costume made with less material than the contents of a bag of Twizzlers, the men in the club throw money at her. And her smile as she motorboats two of customers is infectious. Ramona is having a good time, and it is hard not to gasp and admire her splits. Her colleague Destiny (Constance Wu) watches, practically gawking, just like the viewers. When Ramona walks off the stage, arms full of cash, she asks Destiny, “Doesn’t money make you horny?” It’s a dazzling come-on, about as seductive as the next scene when Ramona, still nearly naked, purrs to Destiny, “Climb in my fur,” as they smoke on the rooftop. It is impossible not to be suckered by these ladies who deftly hustle their rich customers.

“Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” One cannot ignore the radioactive scene that got Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon angry at Quentin Tarantino for disrespecting her father as portraying him as “arrogant.” While killing time on the lot, Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) tells a group of admirers about how he would fight Cassius Clay. This gets a laugh out of stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who thinks Lee is “a little man with a big mouth and a big chip.” So, they stage a “friendly contest” to see who can knock the other on his ass. Cliff puts down his milk, takes off his hairpiece and jacket, and gets ready to fight. He mocks Lee’s calls and even refers to Lee as “Kato” (a reference to Lee’s "Green Hornet" character; but also, perhaps a riff on “Cato” the Burt Kwouk character from the “Pink Panther” films.) While they each score a point, the scene ends as Janet (Zoe Bell, a real-life stuntwoman) interrupts to throw Cliff off the lot for reasons that go beyond him denting her car. Meanwhile, Lee tries to save face by explaining, “Nobody beat the shit out of Bruce. . . .  He barely touched me.” Whether audiences appreciate Tarantino’s revisionist history of Hollywood, or are offended, this sequence was as talked-about as the film’s ending.

“Joker” Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) pulls faces as the title character — in a mirror, with his social worker, and even with a kid on a bus — but generally Arthur is depressed, full of “negative thoughts.” (He writes, “The worst part of having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”) Oddly, after he commits a bloody murder, Arthur frequently breaks into an impromptu dance, the most notable being on the Bronx staircase he grudgingly climbs on his way home. The scene, set to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2” allows the mercurial Arthur to act out, splashing in puddles in slow-motion, and releasing his inner demons in a way the killings can’t — until the music segues into something more sinister, two cops call out for Arthur, and the chase begins. Critics and audiences were divided, but there is no denying the power of this sequence. In fact, the site, at 1156 Shakespeare Ave., has since become a tourist attraction.

“Midsommar” Christian (Jack Reynor) is a bad boyfriend to Dani (Florence Pugh). He is not a particularly good friend either, competing with his buddy Josh’s (William Jackson Harper) thesis on midsummer festivals. So, there is something satisfying when Christian gets trapped in a situation he can’t control. While he tries to reject the amorous advances of a young girl he is eventually forced to have sex with in front of 11 naked women. Performance anxiety aside, things get really weird — and darkly funny — when one woman puts his hand on her face and sings to him as he copulates. Later, another woman places her hands on his bare ass as if to assist him in impregnating the young girl. When Christian finishes his duty, he runs naked through the commune, encountering strange deaths that may foreshadow his own. Writer/director Ari Aster’s commentary on hedonism is as subtle as a sledgehammer (wink, wink), but “MIdsommar” was this year’s cult film and it developed a rabid fan base.

“Queen & Slim” There are many indelible scenes in Melina Matsoukas’s riveting feature debut, written by Lena Waithe, about the title characters (Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya) — folk heroes on the lam after killing a racist cop. After Queen and Slim hole up at her uncle Earl’s (Bokeem Woodine) place, they change clothes — he dons a velour track suit; she cuts her braids and puts on a tight-fitting leopard-print dress — and they head out in Earl’s turquoise Pontiac Catalina to meet their destiny. As they drive through a stretch of country, Slim, observes, “It’s beautiful out here,” while Queen spies a prison crew of black men working the fields out her window. “Is it?” she counters. This scene suggests what is at the core of their oil and vinegar relationship. He just wants to “make conversation.” She is just “being honest.” When she climbs into the back seat to sleep, he eyes her in the mirror, hinting at how much he is falling for her as their fates are forever intertwined. And viewers will fall in love with these flawed, sympathetic characters, too.

“The Lighthouse” Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) endures insults, backbreaking work, and humiliation working for lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Robert Eggers, the writer/director of this minor masterpiece, did not make it easy for his cast, forcing them to work under difficult conditions. So, when Ephraim first explodes by flogging one of the many seagulls that mock and pester him, it is a stunning moment of release. (Apologies to animal lovers). Ephraim thrashes the animal 18 — count ‘em — 18 times against the side of a privy pit, with blood and feathers flying. It is almost too much, but for Ephraim (and Eggers), it’s not. It precedes a moment where the winds change direction and Ephraim is about to gain the upper hand on his abuser. What transpires may be real, or it may not be, but it’s absolutely fascinating, darkly funny, and superbly acted by the two leads.

“Booksmart” This hilarious comedy, directed by Olivia Wilde, and written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman, has Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) trying to cram in all the partying they missed in high school into one night: graduation eve. While they have a series of peculiar, amusing, and even troubling experiences, one of the funniest scenes, set to the rhythms of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It,” has them tripping out on drugs and imagining that they are dolls. Their chests and legs are disproportionate, which gives the feminist Molly an opportunity to sound off on body issues that plague teenage girls while the lesbian Amy momentarily enjoys her breasts and butt being smooth and flexible. The feisty “Booksmart” succeeds because it gently punctures holes in its self-righteous characters while also having tremendous affection for them. I call Malala!

“For Sama” One of the year’s most moving documentaries has co-director Waad Al-Kateab chronicling what her life is like in war-torn Aleppo for her daughter. The film addresses many issues, both moral and ethical, but one sequence shows exactly how fragile things are in Syria. When an emergency Cesarean needs to be performed on an injured mother, the film documents the doctors’ efforts to deliver the baby and get it to live. It’s an astonishing moment, and viewers will hold their breath and collectively sigh in relief when the baby finally starts to cry. Moreover, the thought of the difficult life this child is being born into resonates.

“Give Me Liberty” This little seen, nervy, and rollicking frustration comedy, which came out of nowhere, is a fabulous showcase for Chris Galust and Lauren “Lolo” Spencer, who give two of the year’s best debut performances. They play Vic, a put-upon medical transport driver, and Tracy, one of his clients, respectively. Constantly late, and continuously sidetracked, Vic has the patience of a saint as his level of exasperation rises and rises and rises. His hectic day involves managing multiple clients with disabilities, keeping tabs on the irresponsible Dima (Maksim Stoyanov), coordinating a group of seniors needing to go to a funeral (an amusing set piece), and dealing with his high-strung mother, among others. But the film, full of humor and heart, has one scene where Vic gets a breather: he shows Tracy how to catch a track on a vinyl record using a paper, a needle, and a pencil. This tender scene is magical not just for how it illustrates Vic’s resourcefulness, but how these two characters bond. They need each other not just for professional reasons, but because they each provide a calming influence in the other’s chaotic life.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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