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scene

Claire Reid | The Observer

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: 2020 was an unprecedented year. 

Nowhere was this truer than on the screen, both silver and small. Barely any films were released theatrically, and television (rather, streaming) dominated our media appetites like never before. 

2021 — while frustratingly similar to the year that came before — at least brought us back to the cinema. Not that TV slowed its roll, either!

Spanning film and television, live-action and animated, American and international, Scene has compiled a snapshot of the best visual media of the year. Presenting: Scene on the Screen 2021.

“Titane”

By Aidan O’Malley, Scene Editor

I’m not sure “Titane” is the best film of the year, or even my favorite, but it’s far and away the most memorable. Maybe you heard of it when it won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Or maybe you know its director, Julia Ducournau, who became only the second woman in Cannes history to win world cinema’s highest honor. Or maybe you know it as the movie where a showgirl turned serial killer with a titanium plate screwed into her skull has sex with a car and then impersonates the long-missing son of a lonely fire chief.

Yeah. If you thought Ducournau’s first feature, cannibal horror film “Raw,” was too much to stomach … Strap in for her second! Ever the provocateur, Ducournau litters “Titane” with scenes that will make your jaw drop, if you don’t first look away. But “Titane” is more than just a controversy (or several). Circling back to the body horror genre, Ducournau has made a movie that is shocking, but smart. It’s a film about the malleability of flesh, the transience of identity and the terror of living as a woman in a world that’s constructed to destroy you. Somehow, it’s also about love — how love can be ugly, how love is in fact born of ugliness. 

Call that a contradiction. “Titane” is another.

“The Green Knight”

By Anna Falk, Scene Writer

My favorite film of the year is David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” – a beautiful combination of King Arthur tales, dazzling aesthetics, existentialist storytelling and, my favorite actor, Dev Patel. 

Patel takes on the role of Gawain in the dramatic retelling of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The basic premise of the story finds Gawain, a knight with no epic adventures to boast about, suddenly challenged by the Green Knight. The knight tells him that whatever blow Gawain gives will be returned to him in a year. Gawain accepts and chops off the Green Knight’s head. 

This story is about what it takes to be honorable and to face your own mortality. Everything is well told, the color grading is insanely intricate and the casting is phenomenal. “The Green Knight” is one of the only movies to leave me completely and utterly stunned several minutes after the credits began to crawl down the screen. I would easily say that this is my favorite movie of all time. 

There are honestly too many good things about this movie that I could pick out and use to try and convince people to watch it. While I have begun to list some, I would not know where to end. “The Green Knight” is the product of the stars’ alignment, and when stars align, heads will roll. 

“Black Widow”

By Olivia Seymour, Scene Writer

My favorite film from 2021 is the long-awaited “Black Widow.” Several years overdue and delayed twice due to the pandemic, the bombshell super spy Natasha Romanoff’s solo film finally hit theaters in July and rocked the world. Packed with ambitious fight sequences, surprisingly vulnerable moments, and a hilarious family dynamic, Cate Shortland’s film topped my list of best cinematic experiences. 

I anticipated an emotional rollercoaster going in, as I knew it would be my last time watching Scarlett Johansson’s brilliant portrayal of the Russian assassin (who quickly became one of my favorite movie characters of all time). Not even fifteen minutes into the movie, I sat there with my mouth open and tears streaming down my face. When the opening credits began to roll, I knew that this was going to be unlike any Marvel film I had ever seen.

Marvel chose to go in a darker direction with “Black Widow” by shedding light on human trafficking through the story of the Red Room and its exploitation of young girls. It was both haunting and extremely powerful to watch Natasha and her sister figure, Yelena, go after the place that had manipulated them in order to bring it down once and for all. The casting was brilliant. Florence Pugh, David Harbour and Rachel Weisz brought some much needed comedic relief among the heavier themes.

“Black Widow” is about mending broken relationships and having the courage to confront the past in order to move forward. Natasha’s backstory provides a deep emotional context to her sacrifice in “Avengers: Endgame.” Most importantly, “Black Widow” acts as a bittersweet goodbye to the unlikely hero. Plus, it’s utterly epic.

“Bo Burnham: Inside”

By Claire Lyons, Scene Writer

Viral internet sensation and music comedian Bo Burnham broke the internet for the millionth time with the release of his fourth comedy special – “Bo Burnham: Inside.” The songs from the special were played everywhere. (Looking at you, despicable yet undeniably catchy “Bezos I.”)

While the internet has reduced “Inside” to catchy meme songs, Burnham’s genius is undeniable. “Inside” is insightful social commentary, disguised as a comedy special. Songs like “How the World Works” and “That Funny Feeling” critique the world we live in and the exploitation we are complicit with. Besides his expected high-quality song-writing, Burnham directed, wrote and edited the impressive special by himself during the many quarantines of 2020. 

In the special, Burnham is reeling from both the coronavirus pandemic and the isolation of quarantine. As he spirals into a depressive episode, the creation of this special is something he both hates and hangs onto. “Inside” builds on his last special’s analysis of what it means to perform, especially at the sake of one’s mental health, by blurring the lines between Burnham’s vulnerable “real” self and comedian “fake”self. Considering how online we’ve been in the last year, “Inside” explores how much of the self is a performance.

“Bo Burnham: Inside” grapples with difficult questions. He asks us: What can we do in a post-pandemic world which has made us aware of so many systemic injustices? Will it ever be enough?

“On My Block” (Season 4)

By Lexi Kilcoin, Scene Writer 

I’m not usually one to binge watch Netflix’s series. If you know me, you know I watch “The Office” on repeat or watch “The Office” bloopers or virtually anything with John Krasinski in it. 

When “The Office” moved to Peacock, I needed something new to watch. “On My Block” was a bandaid for my woes. Unexpectedly, I became hooked. In just a few short weeks, I ended up watching seasons one through three and made my way through Freeridge filled with magical gnomes, stolen money, risqué teenagers and an abuelita who loves to blaze…if you know what I mean.

The fourth, and final, season of “On My Block” came out in October, so, naturally, I set aside a few hours here and there to binge the last few episodes of an amazing series. To my surprise, there were a lot of disappointing shifts in characters that left me heavily confused. Don’t get me wrong, we all deserve to grow a little, but I didn’t appreciate the unanticipated, out-of-nowhere shifts in disposition presented by each member of the classic crew of four high school teenagers.

There are also some unexpected deaths and new arrivals that left me sobbing with my arms wrapped around my pillow, but these certainly made the plot interesting and allowed me to get over my dismay caused by the poor set up of character development. Overall, if you’re looking for a show filled with high energy, unexpected twists and turns — and maybe a little ganja — you’ve found yourself in the right place.

“Midnight Mass” 

By Evan McKenna, Managing Editor

There’s a temptation to call “Midnight Mass” a slow burn, but that might not be entirely accurate. Shows like “Ozark” or “Breaking Bad” fit the definition perfectly — a bad decision made in episode one festers until the finale, wherein everything goes wrong for everyone. From the beginning, you know the conflict, and you know the consequences.

But if “Midnight Mass” is a slow burn, it’s a different type. Throughout most of the seven episodes, you barely know what’s burning — and you can’t see the fire, or even the smoke. It keeps you guessing until the flame is right below your feet.

And director Mike Flanagan controls this flame with intense precision. Celebrated for his understated and character-driven horror, he sets a perfect pace for the series, revealing and withholding information with top-notch intentionality. What results is a labyrinthian mystery that starts slow but ends in an avalanche.

Most impressive, though, is Flanagan’s ability to turn the quaint, unassuming Crockett Island (population 127) into the setting of a psychological horror story — one that feels surprisingly large-scale and high-stakes. It doesn’t hold back in its social commentary, and it will leave you thinking about issues far larger than its surface-level scope.

And “Midnight Mass” isn’t just dazzling in concept. The series also boasts some incredible-looking cinematography, both visually stunning and technically impressive. Mirroring the drab scenery of the setting, the cinematography favors simple shots and muted colors — but it’s hardly ever boring to look at. 

I’ve avoided saying much about the actual storyline, primarily because it’s a plot that’s best experienced with absolutely zero prior knowledge. It thrives off its surprises. So please, don’t go and read some tell-all think piece before you tune in. Honestly, don’t even watch the trailer. Just go in blind, and let Flanagan guide you through this masterfully crafted, screwed-up horror story.

“Dune”

By Justin George, Scene Writer

Frank Herbert’s “Dune” is one of those books that I considered to be unadaptable, but I was pleasantly proven wrong by Denis Villeneuve’s latest film.

It is clear from the very first shot that the audience is in the hands of a master filmmaker, and that feeling persists throughout every frame of “Dune.” Every aspect of the film is meticulously crafted, from the placement of each cut to Hans Zimmer’s immaculate score, to the CGI to the cinematography. A masterclass on the technical aspects of filmmaking, every person involved with this film is firing on all cylinders. “Dune” is, in a word, perfect.

“Dune” is not a film you watch; it is a film you experience. I had the good fortune of being able to see this film in IMAX and if there ever was a film that warranted the IMAX treatment, it is “Dune.” Much like in “Blade Runner 2049,” Denis Villeneuve uses the film’s grandiose run time to deeply explore the world(s) the characters inhabit and delve deeply into the inner workings of each character. I have never seen anything like “Dune.” Nothing, barring “2001: A Space Odyssey,” holds a candle to the scope of this film. This film is an epic of Biblical proportions. Please, do yourself a favor and see this on the largest screen you can find.

“Attack on Titan: The Final Season (Part 1)”

By Caitlin Brannigan, Scene Writer

Part 1 of “Attack on Titan: The Final Season” came as quite a shock to fans of the series. After a four-year long timeskip, everything that felt familiar about the show had been flipped completely upside down, from the characters’ personalities to subtle details like the more mature animation style. By far the biggest change is the protagonist, Eren Yeager, who is very detached from the viewers in a way that is incredibly jarring compared to previous seasons. At times, it almost feels like he is the villain. 

By far the season’s greatest strong point is its moral ambiguity. The show spends a lot of time with the villains, to the point where their motivations and actions, while still detestable, seem more understandable than Eren’s. It offers the viewer much food for thought on the reality of war, and if there is truly a “good” and “bad” side within that context. 

I absolutely could not stop watching. Every episode feels incredibly high-stakes and dives deep into the struggles of each character. The new animation style, amazing soundtrack and complex politics all add to the grim atmosphere. The pacifist sentiment is communicated very well, calling viewers to question their favorite characters and the critique of utilitarian ideals is weaved seamlessly into the plot. It is by far my favorite season of the long-running show and the quickly approaching release of Part 2 is the only reason I’ll get through finals this year.

 “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”

By Gracie Eppler, Scene Writer

While “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is far from Marvel’s best movie, it is an important one. The colorful, fast paced movie not only proved that Phase Four of Marvel can be just as amazing as the first three (and all without Iron Man), but gave the Asian community the representation it was lacking in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

Shang-Chi truly has it all: insanely creative fight scenes, high stakes, quirky characters with all kinds of side quips, gorgeous actors and even an enemies to lovers story arc. Except, the fight scenes are not just fight scenes but art — graceful battles between opponents who can float through the air with Tai Chi martial arts. The quirky, sarcastic character is played by Awkwafina herself. And the enemies to lovers arc is like never before, featuring an immortal villain with a tainted past as his elegant yet powerful love interest. Destin Daniel Cretton manages to take everything that audiences may be familiar with and somehow make it more dramatic, more colorful and more perilous.

Shang-Chi is, at first glance, the tale of a boy who must return to his home in China to defeat monsters that threaten to destroy his family and his home. Shang-Chi is the son of the powerful and fabled Xu Wenwu, who possesses the mystical “Ten Rings,” and he must leave America to help explore his past and fight creatures that are featured in Chinese mythology. But it is more than just a story about a hero and his adventure. It is also a story of a broken family, posing the question of whether forgiveness is always the right response. It’s about identity and how the influences of our ancestry plays into who we are. It’s a love story. It’s a comedy. It does it all, while challenging the normal stereotypes of who can be a superhero. 

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About Aidan O'Malley

Scene Editor, Aidan is.

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About Anna Falk

Anna is a sophomore studying neuroscience, French, and linguistics. You should follow her Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/user/annam.falk?si=88e09848b64547c3

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About Olivia Seymour

Olivia is a freshman from Traverse City, Michigan, pursuing a double major in English and Film, Television, and Theatre. Though the rules of journalism prohibit it, she is also a serious Oxford comma enthusiast.

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About Claire Lyons

Claire is a sophomore from Fort Worth, TX studying Political Science and English. She loves Sufjan Stevens, sad indie movies and the Art Institute of Chicago.

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About Lexi Kilcoin

Lexi is an aspiring journalist studying Creative Writing and Religious Studies at Saint Mary's College. She loves all things The Office and is sure to start a conversation with anyone she meets.

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About Evan McKenna

Evan is a senior at Notre Dame from Morristown, Tennessee majoring in psychology and English with a concentration in creative writing. He is currently serving as the Managing Editor of The Observer and believes in the immutable power of a well-placed em dash. Reach him at [email protected] or @evanjmckenna on Twitter.

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About Justin George

Video Unit Leader. Scene's Resident Spooky Boi. My taste is better than yours: https://letterboxd.com/JWG5150/

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About Caitlin Brannigan

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About Gracie Eppler

Gracie Eppler is from St. Louis, Missouri and lives in Flaherty Hall. Her top three favorite things ever to exist are Nutella, the ND drum circle, and thesauruses (in that order).

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