Standard caveats (really standard — same as last year!): I don’t watch everything. I am behind on many things. That’s just the way the world is. So if something you loved isn’t here, it is not a rebuke.
And: These are cultural — mostly pop-cultural — things. These are not the best things in the world. Like yours, my actual list of wonderful things from the year, if I wrote it in a journal instead of for work, would be a list of people and moments spent with them, of days when it was unexpectedly sunny and of times when things suddenly felt better. But whatever journey you’re on at any given moment, you can always use more good things. So here we go.
1. Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lively performance of “A Cover Is Not the Book,” a preposterously catchy dance-hall number in Mary Poppins Returns.
2. Miles Morales’ father talking to him through his door in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The film is full of visually inventive sequences, but this emotional scene between father and son might be its most important moment.
3. “Must the duck be here?” Yorgos Lanthimos’ royal court comedy-drama The Favourite isn’t as fussy as it could have turned out, and it runs on the performances of Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. Its absurdity is carefully apportioned, including when Harley (Nicholas Hoult), exasperated by a companion’s feathered pal, wonders whether the room could be smaller by a couple of webbed feet.
4. The climactic moment of Steve McQueen’s Widows. It’s been hard to explain this difficult and thoughtful but also exhilarating heist film to audiences. But as it reaches its end and concludes as it must, Viola Davis stands in for many women who have simply had enough.
5. The gold shades of If Beale Street Could Talk. Barry Jenkins’ entire film is a series of lush images, beginning with the breathtaking opening shots, in which Tish’s (KiKi Layne) coat and Fonny’s (Stephan James) shirt and the canopy of leaves in their neighborhood are all the same autumn gold.
6. Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant’s final scene in Can You Ever Forgive Me? McCarthy, as a curmudgeonly forger, and Grant, as her lonely accomplice and only real friend, meet up at the end of Marielle Heller’s film after a long estrangement. And while the scene is deeply felt, it doesn’t betray the story’s fundamental sense of isolation.
7. Carla Gugino’s performance in Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. The series was uneven and overlong, but one part that was riveting throughout was Gugino’s work as Olivia Crain, a mother slowly feeling her grip on reality slide.
8. The blues of Wildlife. Directed by Paul Dano and written by Dano and Zoe Kazan, the family drama Wildlife showcased great work from Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ed Oxenbould. But it also stands out as a stunning example of color in visual storytelling. Watch the film when you can, and watch for where the blue is, where the neutrals are, and where unexpected colors are. It’s a fully thought-out color story in a way that’s immensely satisfying.
9. “Shallow.” For all the fuss that came and went over Bradley Cooper’s reimagining of the oft-told show-business tragedy A Star Is Born, the moment that stuck — for good reason — was Lady Gaga and Cooper performing the song “Shallow,” which Gaga wrote with her collaborators. In that moment, it’s utterly believable that Ally and Jackson are falling in love and finding that love in art, despite the fact that the literal telling of the tale, in which she warbles a bit of it in a parking lot and he completes a full arrangement with which she sings along flawlessly, doesn’t make the least bit of sense.
10. Blake Lively’s various looks in A Simple Favor. A tonally playful film, Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor is funny and tense and over-the-top all at once. One of its signatures is Blake Lively’s gorgeous menswear-inspired wardrobe, which plays against Anna Kendrick’s almost cartoonish femininity. Everyone in the film looks great, and the film looks great, and it continues Feig’s history of working very effectively with actresses to showcase notes they haven’t quite hit before.
11. The Good Place: The Podcast. Behind-the-scenes podcasts are difficult. They can easily collapse into a bunch of people talking about how great it is to work together which, without more, isn’t much. The Good Place: The Podcast, however, hosted by actor Marc Evan Jackson, makes the formula work. They interview not only actors and writers, but also folks who work in areas like effects, set design, props, music and stunts. Taken together, the podcast’s run is a great way to learn how TV shows work and how many people put their full hearts into the ones that are good.
12. The opening montage of Forever. The show starred Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph as a couple whose marriage faced a very unexpected set of circumstances. And while not all of it worked, the opening sequence, showing how a couple can go from blissfully in love to contentedly in love to companionably cohabitating, was efficient and alarmingly plausible.
13. Peter Kavinsky’s selfie. The Netflix adaptation of Jenny Han’s YA romance To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was a hit, not to mention a real boon to lovers of romantic comedy in general. And while its final scene is swoonworthy and its adorable flirtations are many, none stayed with me quite like Peter (Noah Centineo) taking a selfie for Lara Jean (Lana Condor) to use as the background on her phone. Gently and confidently funny (only because you know it’s supposed to be funny), it’s one of the moments that make it believable that Peter is very, very excited about Lara Jean.
14. The wig throw. Look, there are so many things to love about Black Panther. How do we choose? Well, I choose the moment in which Okoye (Danai Gurira) hurls her wig at one of the men attacking her, just long enough for it to distract him. Wigs detached from heads (and sometimes on heads) are inherently funny and that scene is inherently great, so it winds up being one of the film’s OH BOY NO WAY moments that work especially well in a crowded theater.
15. The end of Avengers: Infinity War. If you haven’t yet seen the penultimate installment in this set of Avengers films, just move right along. Skip this one. Don’t spoil yourself. Okay, if you’re still here, I assume you know that there were heavy losses at the end of the film (most of which, sure, will be undone in the next). Peter Parker (Tom Holland), in particular, was allowed to show fear as he began to vanish, and that fear and panic made his (come on, surely temporary) loss all the more emotional.
16. “Oh no, he died.” The comedy Game Night is much, much better than it sounds like it would be, thanks in part to the cast. Jason Bateman, Kyle Chandler, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury … everybody is good. But there is no performance in the film better than Rachel McAdams as Annie, a deadly serious competitor on game night with her friends who becomes a surprised participant in what film-lovers know as One Crazy Night. You can already know going into it that you will hear her say “Oh no, he died!” at one point and it will be one of the best line-readings of the year. It will still make you laugh. I can still watch it now and still laugh. Putting this together, I just did.
17. The scene where Kayla’s dad comes clean about his fears. There has been a ton of praise, all earned and all deserved, for Elsie Fisher’s performance as young Kayla in Bo Burnham’s stunning Eighth Grade. But the film also relies on Josh Hamilton as Kayla’s father. In one scene, the focus briefly shifts to him as he tries to explain how much he loves her and how much he loves being her father. There isn’t a false note. It’s a beautiful scene.
18. The Rumble In The Restroom. Little bits of the fight scene in which Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill and Liang Yang bounce each other off walls and sinks and mirrors started to circulate well before the release of Mission: Impossible – Fallout. But in the end, the whole thing was as claustrophobic, exciting, stylish and sort of funny as you could have possibly hoped.
19. Cate Blanchett’s suits in Ocean’s 8. If you saw the film, then you know.
20. The singing lineup. As depressing as it was to see Fox cancel the fantastic comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, that’s how much fun it was to see NBC pick it right back up again for a sixth season that will start just after the new year. Where would we be without Jake Peralta having the guys in a police lineup sing “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys?
21. Tully‘s montage. It was a good year for montages, actually, and like the one in Forever, the one in Tully that showed the drudgery and monotony of caring for an infant gave us something that only a sequence like that can do. It compressed time — faster and faster, in fact — to tell a story about a lot of moments, none of which are memorable.
22. Sandra Oh in Killing Eve. All the performances in the BBC America series are terrific. But Sandra Oh, who has been one of our most indispensable actresses for many years, played the obsessed spy with an intensity and vulnerability that helped Jodie Comer’s somewhat broader portrayal of the assassin Villanelle remain grounded.
23. A Quiet Place‘s final shot. The entire film is almost unbearably tense, since one key to survival is to stay silent even as danger mounts, passes or arrives. It becomes difficult to imagine what could be a satisfying conclusion — what could feel fair and consistent with the story and not, at some level, just nihilistic and awful. It’s very smart that the story ends where it does — which I wouldn’t dare to give away.
24. John Mulaney and the horse in the hospital. Mulaney’s special Kid Gorgeous has long sections devoted to stranger-danger training and Saturday Night Live. But the peak is an extended simile in which he compares politics to having a horse loose in a hospital. Even if nothing else in the special worked, it would be an astounding document just for that.
25. The last line of Barry. The comedy-drama Barry stars Bill Hader as a hit man trying to go straight, in part by taking acting classes. While it sounds like the setup for black comedy only, the first season builds to a final sequence in which the entire point of the story and the entire meaning of the character’s experience up to this point come into focus in one jarring moment.
26. A dogfight over some garbage. I wound up having mixed feelings about Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, but a sequence in which two packs of dogs scrap over discarded and rotting food, all the while calmly negotiating over how to proceed, turns into a delightful Looney-Tunes-ish moment.
27. Chris Pine in A Wrinkle in Time. I was candidly baffled by the public ambivalence about Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of the Madeleine L’Engle novel, in part because the relationship between Meg (Storm Reid) and her father, played by Pine, was so moving. He’s just wonderful in it, human and scared, brilliant and lost.
28. New Greg. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is approaching the end of its run. The creators, not surprisingly, decided that it would be a better story if Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) got to close the loop on her relationship with old boyfriend Greg. But when Greg’s original portrayer, Santino Fontana, wasn’t available, they recast with Skylar Astin. But they didn’t pretend it hadn’t happened. Instead, they used the change as a way to play with the idea that when you have changed and someone else has changed in the years since you dated each other, it can feel like the ex is literally a different person. It’s a clever and respectful way to recast a character who was much loved.
29. The sad, exciting, adventurous, devastating portrayal of middle school in the Netflix series Everything Sucks! Rarely has coming of age been so fairly and painfully drawn.
30. Revisiting ER. One of the fun things that happens in the streaming era is that when a series becomes available in a new place, it can be an excuse to talk about it. That’s what happened when all 15 seasons of ER arrived on Hulu in January. It became an opportunity to look back on an influential show, its blind spots and its stars in the making.
31. The Annihilation plants. Alex Garland’s thriller Annihilation features great performances from actresses including Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson and Jennifer Jason Leigh. But it also showcases genuinely beautiful visual effects. That’s not only the case in its purely frightening sequences or its curious finale. It’s true throughout, with the creation of unusual plants and strange sights that signal to the traveling women that they are somewhere they’re unprepared to be.
32. Successful reinventions. When The Great British Bake Off, broadcast in the United States as The Great British Baking Show, moved from the BBC to Channel 4, it lost judge Mary Berry and hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins. Without them, it was almost impossible to imagine it continuing. Nevertheless, while it feels disloyal to say so, those charged with carrying on have actually done a marvelous job. Hosts Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig have a very different but also entertaining dynamic, while judge Prue Leith is just a bit more naughty than Berry was, making her able to play off the eternally self-important Paul Hollywood in a slightly different way.
33. The two episodes of the podcast Reply All about policing. In a way no individual true crime podcast could, these episodes, called “The Crime Machine,” shed light on the development of New York’s crime statistics system and how a tool intended to create more just results became a weapon used against people who are already marginalized.
34. James Acaster’s Repertoire. Acaster, a British comic, released a set of four specials on Netflix in March together under the label Repertoire. They’re brilliantly structured, weird, insightful and profoundly funny.
35. Paige on the platform. The series finale of The Americans was wrenching in different ways than longtime viewers of the spy show might have expected. Maybe the biggest reveal in the entire run, though, happens the last time Paige (Holly Taylor) and her mother Elizabeth (Keri Russell) make eye contact. Perfectly timed to the period music that was always so thoughtfully used to score important scenes, it was more dramatic than any of the Jenningses’ capers.
36. In a world full of woe, there’s nothing that’s grown on me like Billy on the Street. It is an extremely your-mileage-may-vary situation, but in short bursts, I am always cheered by Billy Eichner running around the streets of New York surprising people and asking them questions. All that despite the fact that I would never want it to happen to me.
37. The second season of Netflix’s One Day at a Time was just as good as the first — that’s a very high bar. And the season finale, which featured Rita Moreno wrenching the tears from your very eyeballs, was shamelessly manipulative and very moving and very sweet. It was all you could ask from your favorite family show.
38. The capes of Lando. Not everything about Solo was successful, to say the least. But Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian was such a fine invention that it often seemed like it should have been his movie. I’d have watched a film about just his cape choices.
39. The Tara Westover book Educated, a memoir of Westover’s childhood, is sometimes terrifying, sometimes upsetting, and sometimes even inspiring. While it’s a hard read about a family’s isolation, it’s a riveting family story that makes for great conversations with friends.
40. Focaccia lessons. The Samin Nosrat book Salt Fat Acid Heat led to a four-part Netflix series of the same name. And while it seems weird that the Fat episode is first (making the series feel more like … Fat Salt Acid Heat?), it makes sense that they’d want to lead with the frankly sexy scene in which Nosrat learns to make focaccia with high-end olive oil. It will make you want to bake bread, at the very least.
41. Russell Hornsby in The Hate U Give. Hornsby plays the father of young Starr Carter in the adaptation of Angie Thomas’ hugely successful YA novel. And while Amandla Stenberg and Regina Hall and a lot of other folks are terrific in it, none stands out more than Hornsby, whose complicated portrayal of a dad who wants the best for his daughter gives the story much of its sizable heart.
42. Constance Wu in Crazy Rich Asians. When you’ve been watching an actress kill it as long as she has on ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat, seeing Wu have a huge year in a huge film can be so inspiring. Wu got to be glamorous and sparkly and funny in Crazy Rich Asians, and she deserves every magazine cover she got.
43. Mrs. Rogers. The documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the story of Fred Rogers and his work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But it also becomes the story of his wife Joanne, who likely knew this complicated man better than anyone, and who provides humanizing insight into the man behind the cardigans.
44. Windows in windows in Searching. Very few stories reliant on technology work very well. Searching, starring John Cho as David, the father of a missing teenager, takes place entirely on screens — mostly on her laptop, as you see the texts and chats and messages and emails and videos he looks through while trying to find her. One of the film’s best qualities is that David isn’t either a tech genius or a dummy who has to learn what an emoji is. He’s somewhere in between, where a lot of parents fear they would be. Cho’s performance and the cleverness of the presentation make the film well worth seeing.
45. Jack-Jack. Hiding inside Incredibles 2 is a sequence in which Jack-Jack, the superhero baby (maybe), gets into a fight in the backyard. Worthy of any classic Saturday morning cartoon, the fight is a fully contained and fully delightful adventure of its own.
46. Mortal danger, by choice. Free Solo is the story of Alex Honnold, who set out to do something he’d dreamed of doing for ages. He wanted to “free solo” climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. “Free solo” means rock-climbing with no ropes, no safety harness, no nothing. Just you, skittering up a flat rock face. And while the climbing sequences are unforgettable (see it on the biggest screen you can; it’s out now), the filmmakers also examine what it is that makes a guy want to do something like this when everyone acknowledges that death is a very real possibility.
47. The other lost teenager. Leave No Trace, directed by Debra Granik, didn’t get as much attention as Eighth Grade did. But it, too, contains a beautiful story of a father and his young teenage daughter. Here, Ben Foster plays a dad who lives in the woods with his daughter, played by Thomasin McKenzie. McKenzie’s quiet portrayal of a girl fiercely loyal to a father she doesn’t entirely understand gives the movie its serene sadness, very much grounded in love.
48. Frederick Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana is a documentary that (as is Wiseman’s way) only observes the town of Monrovia and never comments on it with narration or talking heads. This leads to some remarkable sequences, like one in which many of us will see our longest-ever look at a Freemasons’ ceremony.
49. The #Hamildrops. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s series of monthly additions to the Hamilton canon could have seemed like a desperate attempt to keep the brand going as the touring companies travel. But it didn’t. “First Burn,” an earlier draft of Eliza’s angry song aimed at her husband, let listeners glimpse a process that’s often opaque. In some cases, it may even put them in a position to second-guess the composer about what was left in and what was taken out. That’s a vulnerability not everyone wants to display.
50. Dog Twitter. I simply can’t end 2018 without mentioning that, because this was the year I got a dog, it was also the year I discovered Dog Twitter. To all of you who sent me photos of your dogs — in hats, in sweaters, begging, wagging their tails — I thank you. I’m glad we’re all here on Dog Twitter together.