In 2019, Rotten Tomatoes turns 21, and to mark the occasion we’re celebrating with a series of features that look back at the brightest moments on screen of the past two decades – and one year – and the things that have us excited for the future.
We’re halfway through 2019 and feeling reflective, and so we’re counting down the biggest and best movie and TV moments of the year – so far. It’s been a big year for entertainment, with two of the biggest pop-culture series ever coming to an end: the first major arc of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and, of course, HBO’s Game of Thrones. Both of those events shook us, thrilled us, and in some cases, moved us to tears – and they’re well represented in the list below. But other shows and films managed to cut through all that dragon-riding and finger-snapping, including some TV and streaming surprises (Chernobyl, Russian Doll), delightful viral moments (Keanu’s entrance, Andy King’s commitment), and stunning musical performances. Check out the list of incredible moments below, and let us know which you loved the most – and what we missed – in the comments. (Spoiler warning: the following contains spoilers for Us, Endgame, Game of Thrones, Veep, What We Do In the Shadows, Captain Marvel, The Walking Dead, and Fleabag.)
Who’s powerful enough to face off against the collective force of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, and Zoe Kravitz? Meryl Streep, that’s who. Queen Meryl is at the top of her game as the grieving mother of Alexander Skarsgård’s Perry in the second season of the HBO drama, and asserts her power in the premiere with a primal scream that went viral across social media.
The biggest laugh in Jordan Peele’s mind-bending horror hit, Us, comes during one of its most gruesome scenes. Elisabeth Moss’s Kitty is crawling on the ground having been attacked by a doppelgänger of her husband, and – her voice just audible as blood presumably pools in her lungs – she calls out to her Google Home-like device to “call the police.” The device misunderstands her and switches from “Good Vibrations,” which has been playing in the scene, to N.W.A.’s “F–k the Police.” Universal Pictures film music president Mike Knobloch told IndieWire that the scene could have gone a different way – the punchline was originally going to be a song by The Police. The movie was tested, though, and audiences responded to the N.W.A. song. “I think it became very clear at a critical point in the process that N.W.A was a much more satisfying choice,” Knobloch told IndieWire.
The first time Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia walked out of her friend’s bathroom during her weeknight birthday party, the peppy piano of Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” seemed like a fun retro soundtrack cue. The 20th or the 30th however, and the tune became a little more ominous — as did her pal Maxine’s (Greta Lee) slurred greeting of “sweet birthday babyyyy.” The call became a signature for the show, which was one of Netflix’s biggest and most acclaimed hits (Certified Fresh at 96%) of the first half of 2019.
Emilia Clarke knew the fate of Daenerys Targaryen when she sat down for the table read of Game of Thrones’ final season, but many of her costars didn’t. Not even her on-screen beau/nephew Kit Harington, whose tearful reaction when he learned what would happen — and how he would be involved — was a rare behind-the-scenes look into the making of season 8, which received a mixed reception from critics.
For seven seasons, HBO’s savage political satire Veep never let up in its pursuit of breaking our funny bones with vicious one-liners and some of the darkest comedy we’ve seen on American TV. In its final episode, though, it broke our hearts. The moment comes just before Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) takes the stage to accept the Democratic nomination for president, and, hugging her loyal bagman, Gary (Tony Hale), tells him she couldn’t have done it without him. She’s almost teary, and so are we, because we know what Gary doesn’t: Selina has made him the fall guy for nefarious goings on at the Meyer Foundation; a few minutes later, as she rouses the crowd with talk of sacrifice, we see FBI agents approaching Gary offstage. In an epilogue set 24 years later at Meyers’ funeral, a loyal-to-the-end Gary shows up, armed with lipstick in her favorite shade.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco, directed by Joe Talbot from a story by Talbot and the film’s star, Jimmie Fails, features some of the year’s most beautiful cinematography. But this tale of gentrification on the Bay also features one of the most incredible music moments, as the film essentially pauses for a rendition of Scott McKenzie’s 1967 “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers In Your Hair).” The song is given a new, jazzy spin as performed by Michael Marshall (he does the hook/chorus on “I Got 5 On It,” part of another great movie music moment this year) and with tuba courtesy of Norway’s Daniel Herskedal. The song features heavily in the trailer for the film above.
FX’s TV version of the cult vampire movie was always in good hands coming from the film’s co-writer, co-director, and star Jemaine Clement, but things got extra-special when the comedy paid tribute to the vampire genre with a next-level star-studded seventh episode, directed by the film’s other star/co-writer/co-director, Taika Waititi. As Staten Island vampires Nandor, Laszlo, and Nadja prepare to face the all-powerful vampire council and answer for their wrongdoing, prepare yourself for a cameo-fest that will blow your mind.
Comic book fans might have known what was coming, but most moviegoers checking out Carol Danvers’ origin story were as shocked as Nick Fury when Goose the cat suddenly spewed out a bundle of alien tentacles and swallowed the Tesseract. Turns out Goose is a Flerken, a shape-shifting, egg-laying, tentacle-having species of alien with the capacity to house a pocket dimension inside themselves. Duh! In a movie full of scene-stealers – Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau, Ben Mendelsohn as Talos – this feline sidekick stole the whole damn show.
Samantha Morton’s Alpha wants the survivors from Alexandria, Hilltop, The Kingdom, and elsewhere to know where her boundaries end, so she mounts the (still jabbering) heads of 10 survivors on pikes and embeds them in the ground to mark the edge of the Whisperers’ territory. R.I.P. Addy, Rodney, Tammy Rose, Highwaymen Ozzy and Alek, DJ, Frankie, and, most shockingly, Henry, Enid, and Tara. The scene is a bloody tableau that Michonne (Danai Gurira), Daryl (Norman Reedus), Henry’s adoptive mom Carol (Melissa McBride), Siddiq (Avi Nash), Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura), and fans won’t ever forget.
Dexter Fletcher’s Elton John biopic is big on spectacle: the director’s staging of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” in a pub and carnival and of “Crocodile Rock” at the Troubadour left us with some of the most memorable screen images and sounds of the year. But it’s a quieter Rocketman scene that lingers longest. Sitting in his family’s living room, Elton (Taron Egerton) starts to put music to Bernie Taupin’s lyrics for “Your Song”; as the song takes shape, Taupin (Jamie Bell), as well as Elton’s mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and grandmother (Gemma Jones) become transfixed. Egerton delivers show-stopping numbers throughout the Certified Fresh film, but this could be the scene they play come Oscar night.
Andy King has seen all of your FYRE Fest memes — and he loves them! pic.twitter.com/mCNgDoHpjW
— Netflix US (@netflix) January 29, 2019
In the battle of this January’s Fyre Festival docs, it was Netflix’s Fyre that came out on top according to the Tomatometer, with a Certified Fresh score of 90%. While Hulu’s Fyre Fraud was no slouch at 78% on the Tomatometer, we think one key sequence may have given Netflix’s film the edge – and you know exactly what we’re talking about. With four 18-wheelers’ worth of Evian sitting in Customs, event producer Andy King confesses he agreed to “take one for the team” and perform fellatio on a government official to free the water. “I drank some mouthwash,” he tells us, before getting in his car fully prepared to do his duty for the fast-imploding festival. In the end King didn’t have to bend the knee – he says Customs released the water on the condition they would be paid soon after the festival ended – and things ended very happily for him. King’s story went viral, he became something of a folk hero, and has been fielding offers from networks for his own TV show.
In a franchise characterized by lethal stationery and unpleasant night-outs at the club, what makes a lowly, stabby knife fight stand out? First, it begins with a dash of humor: Keanu Reeves’ John Wick has been chased into an antiquated New York building, and as he and his assailants pummel each other, they take a second to pause and realize their surroundings. My God, it’s full of knives! And then comes the audience wincing as sharp blades of every curve and edge are tossed up and down the hallway, mixed in with some trademark Wickian “gun-fu,” all shot in steady and crisp camera angles. Then, as Wick emerges victorious, but with one would-be assassin still alive, he hurls an axe in a comically large arc into the guy’s skull – just for that last dash of mordant humor. The knife fight captures everything brutal and entertaining about the series.
This moving moment from the series finale from series creator, writer, and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge starts after Jake’s beautiful bassoon piece. The Priest – Andrew Scott, forever known as “hot priest” hereafter – delivers a speech about love at the wedding of Fleabag’s Dad (Bill Paterson) and godmother (Olivia Colman), starting with “Love is awful!” Claire (Sian Clifford) is alarmed: “There’s something wrong with your Priest.” Fleabag thinks maybe he’s talking about her, but it turns out, it’s a love letter to God — The Priest later dumps her at a bus stop. Check out the full speech:
“Love is awful. It’s awful. It’s painful. It’s frightening. It makes you doubt yourself, judge yourself, distance yourself from the other people in your life. Makes you selfish. Makes you creepy. Makes you obsessed with your hair. Makes you cruel. Makes you say and do things you never thought you would do. It’s all any of us want, and it’s hell when we get there. So no wonder it’s something we don’t want to do on our own. I was taught if we’re born with love, then life is about choosing the right place to put it. People talk about that a lot: It feeling right. When it feels right, it’s easy. But I’m not sure that’s true. It takes strength to know what’s right. And love isn’t something that weak people do. Being a romantic takes a hell of a lot of hope. I think what they mean is: When you find somebody that you love, it feels like hope.”
Not to take anything away from Forky or Duke Caboom – both great additions to the Toy Story world, and both with their own fantastic moments in the series’ fourth film. But for pure scene-stealing skills, we’re going all in on plush with Ducky and Bunny, voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. As the movie turns into pure heist flick, these two carnival toys kick into comedy high gear, and their one-note suggestions for how to steal a key provide for one of the most gut-busting running gags we’ve ever seen in a Pixar film. Definitely stay for the credits.
In the Year of Keanu Reeves, formerly known as 2019, there was just so much Keanu goodness going around – Duke “Yes I Can-ada!” Caboom; John Wick on a horse; the promise of next year’s Bill and Ted reboot. But perhaps our favorite Keanu moment came in Netflix’s Ali Wong-Randall Park rom-com Always Be My Maybe, in which Reeves makes one of the movies’ great entrances, strutting slow-mo into a fancy San Francisco restaurant, shaking hands and blowing kisses as Awolnation’s synthy “Sails” blasts on the soundtrack. It was the walk that launched a thousand memes, and Reeves’ performance as a cocky and surreal version of himself in the film is inspired.
Sent to kill Ronny Proxin (Daniel Bernhardt), Bill Hader’s Barry has the misfortune of learning during that job that Ronny is a taekwondo champion. Barry manages to break the guy’s windpipe and appears to kill him – and that’s when little Lily (Jessie Giacomazzi), Ronny’s daughter and also a martial arts master, comes home. The fight that ensues is the highlight of an incredible season of the Emmy-winning show. Feral with grief, Lily growls and shows off some supernatural leaping abilities. She finally subdues Barry by stabbing him repeatedly, then runs away. “What are you?” Fuches (an always hilarious Stephen Root) screams into the night when the petite warrior later takes a chunk out of his cheek with her teeth. The episode was directed by Hader.
The story in HBO’s acclaimed miniseries Cherobyl begins in Moscow on April 26, 1988, with the dramatic suicide of enfeebled Valery Legasov, played to perfection by Jared Harris (The Terror). In a recording, Legasov indicts Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), the man who ran the room at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exactly two years earlier when its core exploded, and calls for his death. The explosion resulted in the worst man-made environmental disaster in history and in untold deaths — estimated in the thousands when reduced life expectancy is included. The story then flashes back to Pripyat, Ukrainian SSR, in 1986 and takes viewers directly into the room following the explosion. Dyatlov embodies blind arrogance, as he denies eyewitness accounts that the core has exploded. “You’re confused,” he tells one of his men. “RBMK reactor cores don’t explode.” It turns out that under exactly the right circumstances — one having to do with cost cutting and infuriating incompetence — they do. This scene is where the horror story begins. (Check out our interview with series’ director Johan Renck.)
Avengers: Endgame is chock full of moments that are like emotional kryptonite to Marvel fans (hello, mixed media metaphors!). But you’re going to need Doctor Strange doing magic hand jazz to hold back the onslaught of tears most of us felt when Tony Stark snapped his fingers as the Infinity Stones were infused into his Iron Man armor, sending Thanos back to the dust from whence he came, and frying himself in the process. It’s a pulverizing moment coming at the end of a very long battle – or the end of a very long movie, or the end of a very long series depending on how you look at it – made all the more devastating with the funeral and reunion that immediately follows it. Or how about the moment preceding the snap, when Stark looks straight into the purple fiend’s eyes and proclaims, “I am Iron Man”? It’s all a whirling carousel of rising intensity and action, and that snap really ties it all together.
Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us is a gripping and harrowing journey through the darkest corners of the criminal justice system: from bent investigations and interrogations to heavily weighted legal proceedings to the corruption and horrors of the prison system and finally the way that the label of “prisoner” sticks hard in a post-prison life. The four-part retelling of the eventually overturned rape and assault convictions of the so-called Central Park Five – Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, and Raymond Santana – is stacked with moments that shock, anger, and move, but there’s one image that lingers perhaps more than any other (or anything else we’ve seen on TV this year). In the closing moments of episode 2, as the boys are read their guilty verdicts, DuVernay cuts to Richardson (played by Asante Blackk) sitting in the middle of a Harlem street and raising his trumpet to his lips, a pair of handcuffs dangling from his left wrist. Richardson plays a few tortured notes before we cut back to court to see him, wide-eyed in terror and shock, lower his head, closing out the episode.
The Stark family’s own Faceless (Wo)Man schools us on what that whole Braavos excursion was for: to wield an ancient Valyrian-steel dagger and kill the Game of Thrones villain many viewers thought was destined to face Jon “Aegon Targaryen, sixth of his name” Snow in his final confrontation. But for every Jon Snow fan whining about how the Night King was his to kill, there’s an Arya Stark fan fist-pumping because the gal has mad skills. Yes, even silently stalking her prey and becoming virtually invisible when the undead masses are focused on their leader as he readies a death blow against the No. 1 target on his hit list, the Three-Eyed Raven. Stealthy assassin Arya would not let her brother go out like that.
Think cutting off “Avengers assemble” mid-line at the end of Age of Ultron was a major blockbuster tease for MCU fans? They’d only been waiting since 2012 when the first Avengers movie came out – diehard comic book fans have been anticipating to hear the famous battle cry on the big screen since the ’60s. And everybody got what they came for in the fan service fantasia that is Avengers: Endgame. During the climatic battle, as Captain America tightens his shield, standing alone against Thanos and his cosmic hordes, Infinity War‘s fallen come rushing out of the portals. As the triumphant music swells, the heroes stand in unison, awaiting Cap’s command, which comes softly growled, with the impact of destiny fulfilled at last. (Read how composer Alan Silvestri brought the moment to sonic life.)