Nomadland won the 2020 Best Picture Oscar, and two others: Best Director (Chloé Zhao) and Best Actress (Frances McDormand), more Oscars than any other film that year. The other contenders for Best Picture were The Father, Judas and the Black Messiah, Mank, Minari, Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal and The Trial of the Chicago 7; I haven’t seen any of them. The Hugo went to The Old Guard, which I really didn’t grok, and the Bradbury Award to a TV script.

Apart from this and the six films nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form), I have also seen Enola Holmes and the film-of-the-stage-show of Hamilton from that year, which was of course the first full year of the pandemic. I’d put Nomadland somewhere in the middle of that pack. IMDB users rank it an OK 13th on one scale, but a lowly 43rd on the other. The top films on the two IMDB rankings are Tenet, which I also couldn’t get on with, and Extraction, which I have not heard of.

Here’s a trailer.

I normally run through the other appearances of the cast in Oscar/Hugo/Nebula-Bradbury winners and in Doctor Who. This time, there are hardly any professional actors in the film – most of the cast play themselves. McDormand has the most exposure, but I had only previously seen her in Raising Arizona and Almost Famous. (This is a serious omission on my part; Nomadland was her third Oscar win for Best Actress after Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, putting her level with Ingrid Bergman and Meryl Streep, and more likely than either of them to catch up with Katharine Hepburn.)

The film is about McDormand’s character, Fern, who is displaced from her home by capitalism and links up with the American subculture of people living in their vehicles, crossing the huge area between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi, working on subsistence jobs. As I said, while not my favourite film of the year, I liked it well enough.

It is one of a number of Oscar winners to be based on a contemporary factual situation with some fictionalised elements – apart from the biopics, I would include On the Waterfront, The French Connection, Argo and Spotlight. But Nomadland is a very different kettle of fish. In The French Connection, two of the real-life protagonists play minor figures in the story, and one minor figure plays himself. Here, almost all of the speaking roles, apart from the lead character and a couple of others, are played by people playing themselves.

It makes me a little uneasy, to be honest. A documentary is a documentary; it’s a work of art, sure, but one that relies on showing an existing truth to us on the screen. But this is a film where an A-list Hollywood actress pretends to be part of the lives of very real people with very real problems. To tell their story, was it necessary to bring in a fictional person to help them tell it? And if so, is it still their story, or a similar yet different story belonging to the film-makers? Are we getting the real Linda May, Gay, Patty, Angela, Carl, Doug, Ryan, Teresa, Karie, Brandy, Makenzie and Bob Wells? Or are we getting Chloé Zhao’s version of them?

Still, it’s unusual to be asking this question about middle-aged and elderly white people. (cf Slumdog Millionaire.) These folks are making the best of the disruption to their lives caused by late stage capitalism in a crumbling state (ie the USA); they narrate their situation to themselves and to us as a positive choice; we get to make up our own minds. Some may wish that the film had taken a more polemical stance against poverty and its causes, and I think I’m probably one of them, but I don’t know if an angrier film would have been a better film in this case.

Apart from that, you have to admit that the film looks really good and sounds really good. Those landscapes from the sparsely populated Mountain Time Zone speak for themselves. The music could have been gruesomely sentimental and manipulative, but opts for quiet and contemplative. McDormand herself is not called on to do all that much, but does it very well, and it is impossible to take your eyes off her. (Somewhat related: not many actors of either gender get nude scenes, however discreet, in their 50s.)

So I’m putting it about three fifths of the way down my list of Oscar winners, just below Marty and above The Life of Emile Zola.

As previously mentioned, it’s based on a book with the same title by journalist Jessica Bruder. The second paragraph of its third chapter is:

Empire was six miles north of “the gyp,” an open-pit gypsum mine nestled at the foot of the Selenite mountain range. There miners detonated blasts of anfo—an explosive blend of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil—to dislodge white, chalky chunks of ore from five terraced pits, the largest a half-mile across. Haul trucks shuttled sixty-ton batches of gypsum up the highway to a drywall plant on the edge of town. There workers pulverized it, heated it to 500 degrees in massive kettles, and shaped it into the wallboard found in homes across the American West.

I’m a huge sucker for the participant-observer mode of anthropology, and this brand of “immersive journalism” comes very close to it. Good writing like this lets the stories come out in their own way and their own time, and although the book is not long, nobody is rushed into fitting into a film scene. Inevitably the book ends up angrier than the film, even if its subjects in general accept their lot, because the mere facts of what the USA is doing to its own people are so enraging, and decent reportage will bring that out.

It also reminded me of Svetlana Alexievich, though Alexievich rarely inserts herself into the narrative as Bruder perforce has to, and her subject matter is much rawer. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the impact on its people was far more gruesome and broad than what has happened in America. So far.

You can get the book here.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017) | Green Book (2018) | Parasite (2019)
2020s: Nomadland (2020) | CODA (2021)

One thought on “Nomadland

  1. I really wanted to see Judas and the Black Messiah in the cinema but managed to miss it (given it was the same year as Tenet, I am blaming COVID). Daniel Kaluuya might be the best English-language actor working today.

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