Nomadland (2020)

2021 #83
Chloé Zhao | 108 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Germany / English | 12 / R

Nomadland

Having won the top gong at the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, the PGAs, and the DGAs, plus various other smaller ceremonies, and at film festivals of varying significance, Nomadland topped it off by winning the headline prize at the Oscars last weekend, leaving no doubt that it’s been well and truly crowned the best film of 2020. Everyone will have their own opinion on whether it is or is not, of course, but there’s no questioning where the consensus lies. For me, this is the only one of the eight Best Picture nominees that I’ve seen to date, so if I would’ve preferred a different victor, I can’t yet say. Judged in isolation, however, it seems to me that Chloé Zhao’s film is a worthy winner.

The film follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a sixtysomething widow who ends up living on the road in a camper van, after the plant that provided work for most folk in her Nevada town is closed down in the wake of the late-’00s recession. It’s a lifestyle adopted by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others: a whole community of modern-day nomads, travelling the American West in their van-homes, moving from one temporary seasonal job to another. It might seem fantastical — perhaps even dystopian — were it not based on a real-life subculture (and, in particular, Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century).

Indeed, Zhao’s film plays almost like a documentary, observing Fern’s experiences in long takes, or edited in that slightly choppy way that suggests it’s been cut down from hours of footage. This is compounded by the absence of any expository voiceover or dialogue; a welcome decision that substitutes telling us what to think for a confidence to rest the film’s weight on the shoulders of Zhao’s filmmaking and McDormand’s performance, both of which are strong enough to take it. On top of that, at times the film arguably slips into genuine documentary: most of the supporting cast are real people, playing themselves or versions thereof, so when these people Fern encounters tell their stories, it not only feels real, it is real. There’s a lot of sadness — in the events that have brought people to this place, and in the struggle to live this lifestyle — but a lot of happiness in what it’s given them, too. The net result is a dignified, deeply humane portrait of people who we might describe with negative words like “homeless” or “dispossessed”, but who in reality are free, in their way. It makes for a powerful, quietly moving experience.

A story of people

Moments of beauty abound. Some of the places Fern visits, the scenery we get to see, are incredible. At times it feels like the film should have been shot in a taller aspect ratio. That’s partly expectations of a modern indie movie (this is the kind of film many filmmakers would opt for unmatted 16:9, or even self-consciously-old-fashioned 4:3), but also because it’s so focused on people and faces, and on small environments like the back of vans, for which a squarer ratio feels more apt. But when we reach the scenery — the wide open environs with distant horizons — the only appropriate choice is ’Scope. I bet those parts look incredible on the big screen. That there was an IMAX release felt daft when I first heard of it, but seeing those vistas, it seems justified. But it’s not just visual prettiness: when it turns out that one character has just months to live, she shares memories of stunning moments from her life, and it plays like a grounded version of Blade Runner’s “tears in rain” speech, conjuring up real (rather than fantastical) sights. The truth of it makes it just as emotionally affecting, at least.

While it was the real people who stuck with me, for others, McDormand’s performance was the big takeaway. Some have even called it career-defining. I’m not sure about that. I don’t think she’s bad in it, by any means, but I do think she spends a lot of it being quite blank; someone for us to follow, virtually a silent audience avatar, as we hear from and about other people. Only occasionally do we get to see anything of Fern herself. If the rest of McDormand’s career was unremarkable, sure, this would be a standout role; but when you’ve got iconic turns like Fargo and Three Billboards under your belt, I’m not sure this — judged purely as a character and performance — is wholly on the same level. I doesn’t make Nomadland any less of a film, just that if you really want to see what McDormand can do as an actress, I’d say look to one of those earlier films.

Talking of crazy assertions, some have floated the idea that Nomadland is a Western. Surely not? Well, it’s an interesting facet to consider, at least. In one scene, a character explicitly draws a link between today’s nomads and the pioneers of the Old West. They’re not necessarily wrong: these are individuals trying to create a new kind of life in an untamed landscape. If nothing else, there’s a definite parallel there. It could seem like a pretentious, self-mythologising viewpoint, but the fact it comes from an outsider (Fern’s sister, who lives a regular suburban life), rather than one of the nomads bigging themselves up, lends it more credence for me. But even if these nomads are like the pioneers, that doesn’t necessarily mean a film about them falls within the same genre. It might make an interesting point for future study, though.

Pioneer spirit

From what I’d seen and read in advance, I worried that I might find Nomadland a bit boring and “not my kind of thing”. For people who don’t watch this kind of film — who are more used to the regular “narrative fiction” style of cinema — I do think it helps not to approach it like a normal movie (even thought it is, technically, still a narrative fiction). If you’re expecting a clear storyline and character arcs and dialogue and whatnot, that’s not what you’re going to get. It’s more like a travelogue; almost like one of those TV documentaries where a celebrity presenter visits places worth seeing. You watch to appreciate the scenery, the places, meeting the people, experiencing a way of life; not to follow a story or character arc in the traditional sense. It’s almost a film to hang out in, or to escape with — to get away from ordinary life and spend time with these captivating, unusual places and people.

5 out of 5

In the UK, Nomadland will be available on Disney+ from tomorrow, Friday 30th April, and is expected to screen in cinemas when they reopen.

Darkman (1990)

2014 #38
Sam Raimi | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

DarkmanBefore he made the insanely successful Spider-Man trilogy, horror auteur Sam Raimi helmed this cinema-original superhero-esque fable, about a scientist caught in the crossfire between a corrupt developer and the mob who sets out for revenge.

Although ostensibly a comic-book-y action/vigilante flick, Raimi brings his horror chops (note the certificate), as well as a left-field filmmaking style that gives the film a unique edge. Add Liam Neeson as an action hero decades before Taken, throw in that je ne sais quoi of ’80s/’90s-filmmaking-ness (it’s the lighting, the effects… I don’t know), and you have an atypical, enjoyable, overlooked genre minor-classic.

4 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Burn After Reading (2008)

2010 #42
Joel & Ethan Coen | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / R

Ah, the Coen Brothers! Those indie-mainstream praise-magnets that I’ve never particularly got on with. But then, perhaps I was just too young and under-read (or, rather, under-viewed) to get The Man Who Wasn’t There when I watched it; and I did like Fargo, even if I awarded it ‘only’ four stars; and I had a similar perspective on No Country for Old Men, though leaving if off my end-of-year top ten list when some have claimed it’s the only worthy Best Picture winner of the last decade may be seen as filmic blasphemy. (On the other hand, those claimants are wrong. Not very wrong, maybe, but still wrong.) Nonetheless, the rest of the pair’s ’80s and ’90s output (bar, for no particular reason, Raising Arizona) sits in my DVD collection waiting to be got round to… but first, this: their star-studded follow-up to No Country that seemed to disappoint so many. Probably because it was a comedy.

Turns out Burn After Reading is another film I don’t have much to say about. I liked it. It’s nothing like No Country for Old Men, other than being occasionally obtuse, but that’s the Coen’s style. Still, I’m sure No Country is the better — or Better — film, but in the same way I prefer eating a bacon cheeseburger to a pile of vegetables, I think I enjoyed watching Burn After Reading more. Or maybe eating a Chinese would be a better analogy — in the same way you’re hungry again not long after, Burn After Reading is kind of unsatisfying.

You see, as two minor characters observe at the end, we’ve learnt nothing. There’s been a sporadically complex set of coincidences and accidents, some good laughs and some surprises too, but the end result is… what? But maybe that’s the point. For the characters in the film, it’s a confusing mess of a situation they find themselves embroiled in — no one has the full picture, and most don’t properly comprehend the bit they do see. For the viewer, it’s a fun bit of nothing. Things have changed by the end, certainly — most notably, several people are dead — but the events that got us there are pretty quickly forgotten.

Perhaps this is the Coens’ response to No Country for Old Men — not intellectually or artistically, but as people and filmmakers: a break from the existential seriousness of their Best Picture winner with a romp-ish bit-of-nothing, which entertains well enough for the 90-something minutes it occupies our vision but is all but forgotten before the credits have finished rolling.

3 out of 5

Almost Famous (2000)

2008 #41
Cameron Crowe | 118 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Almost FamousSometimes I find I have quite a lot to say about a film when it comes to writing my review for this blog — recently, witness Cloverfield, Transformers, or Indiana Jones 4 (of course, using Indy 4’s full title more than once guarantees a long review). Other times it’s a struggle to come up with anything at all — try the relatively brief comments on The Fountain, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or Field of Dreams. Almost Famous falls into the latter camp. Not because it’s no good, or because it’s middle-of-the-road, but because there’s nothing I’m dying to praise or slate about it.

Everything about it is solidly done. Patrick Fugit is an engaging and relatable lead, ably supported in the acting stakes by a good ensemble, especially Philip Seymour Hoffman (unsurprisingly) and fellow top-billers Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand and Kate Hudson. And there’s Zooey Deschanel, who doesn’t have many scenes, but, y’know, still…

Crowe’s autobiographical screenplay is a good one, with plenty of amusing and dramatic moments to keep it ticking over — the most memorable, on a crashing plane, manages both with aplomb. Likewise, his direction is rarely flashy but always works. The music, costumes, design and cinematography evoke the period well (to me, at least, who didn’t live anywhere near the ’70s). There’s probably some life lessons in here — it’s a coming-of-age film after all (as well as a rock & roll road movie, of course) — but they’re not over-laboured.

In short, I really liked Almost Famous. It’s the sort of film that might creep in at the lower end of a (relatively long) list of favourites, not because there’s anything exemplary about it, but because the cumulative effect makes for an enjoyable experience.

4 out of 5

Almost Famous is on Movie Mix (aka more>movies) tonight, Sunday 31st May 2015, at 1:15am.

Fargo (1996)

Fargo2007 #23
Joel Coen | 94 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Fargo is the latest film to have been inducted into the United States National Film Registry, donchaknow. It’s also 105th on the IMDb Top 250 [it’s now 153rd], and the 21st film from the 1990s. So it’s pretty much a modern classic then.

It is indeed very good; the only thing holding me off giving it 5 is a lack of that Something which leads me to rate so highly after one viewing. Maybe it will go up in time.

4 out of 5