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Oscars Spotlight: 'Nomadland' is, far and away, this year’s best picture

From left, Director and Writer Chloe Zhao, Director of Photography Joshua James Richards and Frances McDormand on the set of "Nomadland." Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures/2020 20th Century Studios/TNS

"Nomadland” is this year’s best picture.

Normally, I would be hesitant to make a claim that bold about any movie.

Yet, for a myriad reasons, I would be absolutely stunned if “Nomadland” doesn’t come away with this year’s top prize at the Academy Awards. 

The film’s screenplay was adapted from a 2017 book of the same name, which details the joys and the struggles of the nomadic lives led by van-dwelling gig workers. 

The movie is a painstakingly detailed dramatization of the lives they have led on the move. Three of these nomads — Linda May, Charlene Swankie and Bob Wells — even play themselves in the movie.   

Yet the film mainly focuses on Fern (Frances McDormand), its fictional protagonist who, after the 2008 financial crisis, lost her job and her home in Empire, Nevada. After she finishes a seasonal job at an Amazon fulfillment center in the winter, she takes the van she calls home further south to a desert rendezvous spot for fellow nomads operated by Bob Wells. 

Once she arrives, Fern meets up with Linda, the friend who told her about the group, where she meets several colorful characters at the camp. She befriends a man named Dave (David Strathairn), whom she will run into again later on in her travels. 

After Fern blows a tire on her van, she is chastised by a woman named Swankie. The two bond after Swankie teaches Fern how to become more self-sufficient. After a while, she has a melancholic conversation with Fern about her cancer diagnosis, and the two part ways after talking about the importance of making good memories on the road.

“Nomadland” depicts the themes of personal and economic hardship in the wake of a crisis alongside the loneliness one might feel when struggling to survive it — both of which will seem eerily prescient as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers on. 

The film benefits from an exceptionally written, Oscar-nominated screenplay, which, like the nomadic characters it conjures, captivates our attention as it takes us on a journey across the American West. The heartfelt insights into the characters helps viewers feel an emotional connection to every character on the screen and adds to the authenticity lent by its source material. 

The unbelievable performances from its cast bring the whole thing to life. 

It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if the understated gem of a performance from McDormand lands her another win in the Best Actress category, with her soft-spoken, honest portrayal of the afflicted Fern anchoring the film emotionally. Her muted, understated reactions to the hardships she encounters, and the resilience with which she fights on despite them, leave a long-lasting impact on viewers. 

Even more impressive are the non-professional actors — especially Linda May, whose relentless positive energy and caring attitude uplift audiences, providing the hope that we must all desperately cling to throughout the film’s events.

The movie looks and feels outstanding thanks to its phenomenal cinematography, which is also nominated for an Oscar. The cameras are able to weigh the intake of natural light beautifully, making for invitingly picturesque depictions of vast, open desert landscapes. The textures of the snow and sand come alive through the screen, complementing the superior sound and film editing on offer. 

The project is brought together by director Chloé Zhao, who along with Emerald Fennell  (“Promising Young Woman”) is one of two female directors nominated for Best Director, marking the first time two women have ever been nominated for the award. She is able to masterfully pair unique landscape shots with focused, intimate shots of the film’s protagonists. Perhaps her skillful directorial effort was aided by her role as the screenplay’s co-writer. 

The last time I was this confident about a film winning Best Picture was in 2019, when “Roma” so magnificently captured the story of a live-in housekeeper in a middle-class family in Mexico. Like “Nomadland,” the film was an authentic, deeply emotional and beautifully constructed tale.

“Roma” lost out to “Green Book” that year — an outcome I remain bitter about, and always will. But I highly doubt “Nomadland” will meet the same fate. (11/10)

“Nomadland” is streaming on Hulu and is nominated for six Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing. 


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