Nomadland could win the Oscar for this very weird year

With heavy hitters pushed back, an understated film that would normally get lost in the fray has a real chance

Frances McDormand.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Searchlight Pictures, iStock)

When I predicted what movies would win the 2021 Oscars back in January, I regrettably had not accounted for the possibility of a global pandemic. Let this be a lesson against foolish, premature prognosticating — you truly never know when a virus is going to scuttle the plans of an entire industry!

As a result, looking back at my list now, in late September, is a little like visiting an alternate universe, one where my projected Best Picture winner, West Side Story, never got pushed back to December 2021, and Netflix never pulled its highly-anticipated films, like David Fincher's Mank and Ron Howard's Hillbilly Elegy, from the fall festival circuit. It's to imagine a world where we all saw Tenet in July like we were supposed to, and the Academy Awards were still set for Feb. 28 of next year, not postponed two months to April 25, 2021.

And it's also to imagine a year when understated, more meditative movies like Nomadland were lost, as usual, in the fray. But even with this odd Awards Season That Wasn't shaping up the way it is, I can't say I'm sorry that we've been given the rare pause and space to enjoy films like it. The result means that Nomadland could — and probably should — be the Best Picture Oscar winner for this very strange year.

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Inspired by journalist Jessica Bruder's 2017 nonfiction book of the same name, director Chloé Zhao's version of Nomadland tells the story of an invented character, Fern (Frances McDormand), who decides to live out of her van following the collapse of her company town in Nevada, rather than move in with her well-off sister. The film was programmed by the Toronto Film Festival and New York Film Festival, hybrid virtual-and-live events that have allowed critics and audiences across North America opportunities to see it, with Searchlight optimistically promising its release "only in theaters" come December.

As is typical with Zhao, who also directed the magnificent films Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, the movie blends narrative and documentarian techniques to the point that it can be hard to be certain of the line between the two; along Fern's journey, she is befriended and assisted by real modern-day nomads like Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells, who are profiled in Bruder's book and play fictionalized versions of themselves in the movie. While to some, these characters might sound like they're homeless ("living out of her car" having long been a polite euphemism), the preferred term by the van dwellers is "house-less," and as McDormand's performance shows, there can be great freedom and dignity in calling the road one's home.

While road movies aren't necessarily doomed from the outset at the Oscars — Little Miss Sunshine, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Bonnie and Clyde were all nominated for Best Picture, and Green Book of course won in 2018 — Zhao tends to be a subtler director than her cohorts in the genre. The film's emotion is largely not in its sparse dialogue, much of which seems organic and improvised, but in its palette of purple and blue skies, and the pale pink of the Badlands, captured by cinematographer Joshua James Richards' camera. Fern frequently wanders through this soothing landscape, wordless, while Ludovico Einaudi's delicate piano score plays. Nomadland is a deeply internal and even mournful film in this regard, and asks its viewers to pause and reflect, like the listeners of a eulogy. Were this a normal year, it could easily have been bulldozed in Academy voter's minds by flashier productions like West Side Story.

Nomadland also only has one major star, which is unusual for a Best Picture winner, albeit a moving performance by McDormand, which could justifiably earn her a third Best Actress statuette. While David Strathairn, who plays Fern's friend Dave, might be another recognizable face in the film, the rest of the cast are mainly nonprofessional actors, a rarity (although certainly not unheard of) for Oscar Best Picture winners. Typically, if an Oscar movie is going to tell a real, or realish, story, you still end up with a full cast of professional actors, as with Argo and Spotlight, not with the inspirations for those characters playing themselves. Though the choice to have the fictional Fern interact with real people and their real traumas and struggles is a thorny, and perhaps not always defensible one, it also gives the film the heft of being about "the true America" and the tapestry of people trying to survive within it. (Bruder, in her book, remarks on the overwhelming whiteness of the van-dwelling community, concluding that "living in a vehicle seems like an especially dangerous gambit for anyone who might be a victim of racial profiling.")

The careful handling of the movie's relevance, especially following an election, is also something Awards Daily predicts might elevate Nomadland above more outwardly political movies that are still presumably in the running, such as Aaron Sorkin's forthcoming and buzzy Trial of the Chicago 7, which could be tinted by the outcome. Nomadland checks the box of being the kind of Important Movie voters love, at least when you stop to listen to what it has to say; scattered chatter about the 2008 crash, the tyranny of capitalism, and America's work-'til-you're-dead attitude bubble up throughout (one seemingly-real van dweller even briefly shows off his Confederate tattoo, though the characters' politics are never openly discussed). The movie also won't make anyone feel too terrible about all the packages they ordered from a certain e-commerce giant over Christmas; the film's greatest misfire is that it sidesteps the criticism of Amazon exploiting older workers that is at the forefront of Bruder's book, possibly so that the crew could gain permission to shoot inside a working fulfillment center — a real deal with the devil, if there ever was one.

To be sure, Nomadland is not a runaway frontrunner just yet. Critics and voters still haven't seen David Fincher's Mank nor Chadwick Boseman's final film, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, nor many other movies that could still come out within the Oscar's extended eligibility window. But by virtue of its bigger-budget competition likely needing to high-tail it to a year when costs might be recouped theatrically, it stands out as a sure contender. The film has additionally already won the Golden Lion at Venice and the Toronto Film Festival audience award — long considered a Best Picture bellwether — as well. Plus other potential competitors, including Regina King's One Night in Miami and Wes Anderson's French Dispatch, are still question marks on the release calendar; Nomadland's path could continue to clear.

And if the pandemic really has paved the way for Nomadland to be a winner, that would be huge. A statuette in April would make it only the second Best Picture in the ceremony's history to be directed by a woman, the first by a woman of color, and provide additional legitimization for Zhao's poetic style of filmmaking (it seems unfair to continue to relegate her to the category of "up-and-comer," seeing as she's already been given the industry's golden ticket of helming a forthcoming Marvel movie).

The big fear, of course, is that this year will forever be remembered as the one that "didn't count," the year when all the heavy-hitters got booted to the 2021 cycle. But it's not that Nomadland can only win an Oscar now because its competition has thinned — rather, in a quieter arena and in a strange and delayed awards season, it has been given a unique opportunity to shine for what it is, without the distractions of the fuss and pageantry that follow bigger budget competitors. Nomadland ought to be a frontrunner in any Oscar year; the difference is, in one like 2020, it actually gets to be.

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