With the (allegedly) COVID-safe telecast of the 2021 Oscars ceremony looming, I decided to finally make an effort to catch up on this year’s contenders. Due to various technical difficulties, however (seriously, A24, what’s up with the limited online screening windows for Minari?), I was only able to get around to watching Nomadland—which was, thankfully, absolutely spectacular.
In addition to its six Academy Award nominations, Chloe Zhao’s latest film recently won her two Golden Globes (for Best Picture and Best Director). These accolades are well deserved. Her cinematic style is simple, subtle, and unobtrusive—and is all the braver for it; after all, it takes a lot of courage to have enough confidence in your story to just stand back and allow the material to speak for itself. Zhao works primarily in wide shots and closeups, cutting between expansive natural environments (sprawling deserts, rocky mountains, stormy seas) and the weathered landscape of the human face; the infrequent tracking shots, while visually impressive, don’t call attention to themselves (unlike, for example, the flamboyantly ambitious opening sequence of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil), instead functioning on a subconscious level to add texture to the setting and immerse the viewer in the distinctive rhythm of the narrative.
As expected, Frances McDormand delivers a tour-de-force performance as our wandering heroine, imbuing the role with her trademark toughness, vulnerability, and compassion. More surprisingly, the supporting characters that she encounters in her travels are equally vivid and fully-realized—even those that appear in only a single scene. The result is a beautiful, intimate, and emotionally-resonant odyssey about damaged (but never completely broken) people discovering communities, families, and homes wherever their individual journeys happen to take them.