Another year in film and television is behind us. Whether your tastes leaned toward superheroes, horror, family, musicals, science fiction, thrillers, documentaries, or even shark movies, almost every conceivable genre offered something to get excited about in 2016. But, of course, not all shows and movies are created equal. Not even all show and movie moments are created equal. So, in honor of a great year in on-screen offerings, we thought we’d narrow in on the ten moments — whether individual shots, lines, or scenes — that we loved most for their craft, skill, or just heartstring-pulling. Check out our picks below, and share your own in the comments!
Game of Thrones: Hold the Door
SPOILERS AHEAD! For six seasons, many of us have wondered if we would ever find out why beloved Hodor only says “Hodor.” We finally did this year, and few were prepared for how heart-wrenching the reveal would be. The emotional impact of the moment alone would be enough to include on this list, but it stands out too because of the impressive narrative juggling involved — a scene that involves an origin story, a surprising twist, a character death, a suspenseful escape, a heroic sacrifice, and time travel. It’s a testament to the creators that the moment never collapses under the weight of that.
Atlanta: Coconut Crunchos Commercial
In one of the year’s most experimental bits of television, the “B.A.N.” episode of Atlanta saw the show present itself as if it were a 30-minute excerpt from a fictional BET-style channel. It even included fake ads — one of which was a perfect recreation of a Trix cereal ad, with a wolf, instead of a rabbit, trying to steal breakfast cereal from some kids. Where it became one of the year’s best on-screen moments was when it suddenly swerved to depict the treatment too many black men face at the hands of the police. It’s bold political commentary, effective not just in how it captures the everyday prejudice African Americans face, but how it can happen anywhere.
Bojack Horseman: The Door Crack
Melancholy is no stranger to Netflix’s Bojack Horseman. In this year’s brilliant silent episode (“Fish Out of Water”), however, there’s one shot that especially pulls at the heartstrings. After Bojack spends part of the episode trying to return a lost young seahorse to his father, the reunion is painfully anticlimactic: Mr. Seahorse didn’t even notice his child was gone, and the child itself forgets about his savior. The rare time the title character tries to do something unselfish and noble, he finds his attempt to change overlooked, ignored, and made inconsequential. All of that is achingly captured in the shot as his body is made as small as he feels in the tight squeeze of the door crack. It’s not just a shot that reflects our hero’s emotional state, but a common theme in the show: how Bojack’s good intentions never seem to work out the way he hopes, and he faces more closing doors than open ones.
Deadpool: The Opening Titles
Movies know that first impressions matter, which is why opening titles exist. And no opening sequence this year made a more immediate first impression than that of Deadpool. In the span of two minutes swirling around inside a car frozen mid-crash, we were left little doubt as to what kind of “superhero” movie Deadpool would be: irreverent, self-referential, crude, and unconventional. Certainly the sequence is an impressive conceptual and technical feat, but more than anything, it stood out for providing a thrilling reminder of how titles — when done well — can be highly effective mood-piece previews of what’s to come.
La La Land: The Gene Kelly Homage
For classic movie-musical fans, the 21st century may not be lacking in movies or shows to watch, but too many fail to capture the feeling — not just the tropes, routines, or logistics — of what made the Hollywood musicals of old so special. Not La La Land. The whole film is a charming evocation of bygone musicals, but its standout moment is when it recreates the look, narrative purpose, and feel of Gene Kelly’s “Broadway Melody” sequence in Singin’ in the Rain and the ballet from An American in Paris. The adrenaline rush of recognition, and relief that director Damien Chazelle “gets it” on both the production and thematic level made this an unforgettable highlight of the year.
O.J.: Made in America: The Crime Scene Photos
Ezra Edelman’s tremendous seven-hour documentary isn’t afraid of delving into the life and trials of O.J. Simpson to present tough questions about big issues such as race, the media, and the legal system. But the hardest moment to shake — in a doc full of them — was the startling inclusion of graphic crime-scene photos of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman’s dead bodies. In 99 percent of cases, the use of those images would have been gratuitous or sensationalist, but what makes their use in O.J.: Made in America so powerful is Edelman’s intent: to remind us that despite all the larger social issues O.J.’s case came to represent, we shouldn’t forget that it all came about because of two people who tragically and brutally lost their lives.
Pete’s Dragon: The Flight
It’s a strange paradox that the more CGI has become able to realize the impossible on massive scales, the more wonder and awe has vanished from the summer blockbuster. Pete’s Dragon restored some of that wonder with nothing more than a single CGI dragon, in a forest, taking flight. Director David Lowery created one of the year’s most spellbinding moments by channeling how wonder often involves the ordinary act of tilting your head up to take in the grandeur of something magnificent. We get just that in an early moment in the movie: a simple pan-up, a centered shot, and an almost imperceptible POV shot that makes us feel like we’re there, wishing we could be taking flight too. Seeing something on-screen and wishing you could live it? That’s what going to the cinema is all about.
Stranger Things: The Van
Netflix’s surprise, 1980s-loving, pop-culture phenomenon has no lack of great moments, but for most, the top one would have to be when Eleven uses her powers to flip a van over the heads of her friends. The moment stands out as both an impressive technical accomplishment (achieved without CGI) and a cool narrative moment (seeing just how powerful the character can be). But freeze-frame it, and the shot above proves to be a memorable symbolic snapshot of what made Stranger Things such a joy: the juxtaposition of the impossible and the ordinary (a psychically flipped van existing in a place as mundane as a suburban street). Those two worlds colliding culminate in a moment in which you can’t help but think, “This is why I love this show.”
Westworld: The Restaurant
When the grand maestro of the theme park in Westworld freezes all the robotic hosts around him in place, it marks one of the HBO’s shows eeriest moments. Much of its effect wouldn’t work nearly as well, however, if it weren’t for a single shot that’s so quick and unglamorous that it feels almost visually irrelevant. That shot is where Ford is delivering a monologue, while in the foreground, just out-of-focus, a wine glass seems about to overflow. It’s a classic example of an Alfred Hitchcock-style technique of letting an audience realize something on its own — in this case, the true extent of Ford’s powers over the hosts.
Weiner: “Why Are You Letting Me Film This?”
There aren’t many who would have been willing to look past the punchline of Anthony Weiner and show us the actual man. Who he is becomes most clear in Weiner‘s best moment when — after another scandal breaks out and he’s wrestling with what to do — co-documentarian Joel Kriegman asks, exasperated, “Why are you letting me film this?” It’s not just an engrossing rare case of filmmakers questioning (not relishing) their subject’s involvement in an unflattering moment; the inclusion of the question is a smart way to get to the core of Weiner‘s subject: the man’s strange blend of ego and self-destructiveness. It’s a great moment captured on camera, but it’s also the film in a single line.
The Witch: The Disappearance
A lot of things happen in this year’s best horror film that are unsettling, but the best is one that gets it all going very early on, when young Thomasin is playing a game of peek-a-boo with her baby brother — until he suddenly vanishes. It’s a nerve-tingling moment because of how it’s put together: back-and-forth POV shots that emphasize how impossibly quick the disappearance is, leaving you struggling to find a logical explanation. It may be a simple scene, but what makes it great horror filmmaking is that it puts the audience exactly where it needs to be for The Witch — in a state of awareness that the supernatural may well be at play here.
Top image: Still from La La Land, courtesy of Lionsgate Entertaiment
What were your favorite on-screen moments from 2016 that didn’t make our list? Tell us in the comments!