Nomadland is such a shameless Oscar flirt that it’s almost criminal that they charged regular people to watch it. If you aren’t an Oscars voter, we pick two other movies worth your time and consideration.
Every year there’s at least one movie that screams “Ooh, ooh, Academy Voters! Pick Me! PICK MEEEEEEE!”. Having covered the Oscars for a few years now, they are painfully apparent to my jaundiced eye. It took me twenty whole minutes to ascertain that Nomadland wasn’t interested in anyone that doesn’t have a ballot. When it sunk in that this film wasn’t trying to be, well, a film, my ability to put up with it nosedived. One hour in was as far as I could make it before begging HULU to show me something, anything else.
I’d like to spare you that pain, dear readers. I’ll quickly go over why this film left me cold, and offer you two other flicks to warm you back up.
Fern (Frances McDormand) is a widowed sexagenarian living in a van after the great recession. Moving from one place (and seasonal job) to another, she ekes out a living, befriending others who also live the itinerant life.
Nomadland looks and sounds very profound. All it asks the viewer to do is bring any actual profundity with them when they enter. This movie wants to say nothing about nothing, all while seeming pregnant with meaning. It’s scared to death of talking anything resembling politics, lest it alienate anyone who might vote for it. Seeing as late-stage capitalism and the plight of old, white Midwesterners is inherently political, it comes across as facile and disingenuous.
Director Chloe Zhao is so invested in playing safe, that the film bulges with “both-sides-ism”. We get Fern and a friend working at an Amazon (all shiny and clean), finding camaraderie with fellow workers, none of whom apparently are made to piss in bottles. We then pivot to a Nomad “Soup Kitchen”, where the leader rails against capitalism. See? Both sides considered! It won’t go so far as paint Fern et al. as victims, but it also won’t NOT dog-whistle that nearly everyone in Fern’s shoes is too crazy or prideful to let society help them. Watching Fern bounce from place to place is also an exercise in watching the film bounce from topic-it-won’t-examine to topic-it-won’t-examine. It’s exhausting.
Plot aside, everything else is focus-grouped, by the numbers Oscar material. Does it have a powerhouse actor (McDormand) suffering for “High Art”? She poops in a bucket, people! Is there any scenic vista they won’t shoot in the golden glow of dusk? Nope, hope you like golden hues. Does the soundtrack swell everytime they want you to feel something? They won’t tell you what to feel (God forbid), but every time they strike up the band, you know an ImportantTM moment is about to happen.
So yeah, Nomadland is this year’s shameless Oscar grab. I was sure it was going to be Mank, but that film manages to subvert expectations. Nomadland goes to a new level: it isn’t satisfied pandering to Hollywood in general (cough, La La Land), it laser focuses on just the people who matter: the Academy voters. By presenting this super-safe film in serious-film clothing, this film might win Oscar gold, but it will probably leave everyone else wondering where the beef is.
So… here’s the beef!
See It Instead: Nomadland
The Better Time: Forrest Gump (1994)
My first impression watching Nomadland was “Oh. It’s like Forrest Gump, but depressing”. We have a quirky character constantly whisked away by the whimsy of fate, but unlike Tom Hank’s ever-optimistic savant constantly spinning straw into gold, we get a homeless lady constantly turning down gold because of some unexamined notion that hard earned straw is better.
Forrest Gump was a best picture winner, and it follows the same formula, to an extent. It shows an individual navigating American life, with all it’s trials and tribulations. It’s a safe film, but it goes the feel-good route of “simple man sticks to his ideals and succeeds”. And at least it’s fun to watch.
The Better Film: Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982)
Here’s a film that has something to say. Pink is a man that can’t help but damage and be damaged by society every time he tries to interact with it. From problematic parenting, cookie-cutter schooling, and the perils of love, sex, and fame, we see a character constantly getting disillusioned with what the world tells him he should want. Eventually he snaps, creating a fascist persona that eggs his groupies into burning the world down.
The Wall doesn’t meet a single aspect of modern life it doesn’t want to examine. Every brick in Pink’s wall is a take-down of some hollow bauble society has told him he should aspire to attain. And I’m pretty sure the juxtaposition of a child growing up in the wreckage of WW2 deciding that fascism is the answer to his life is pretty political. Asserting that all the tchotchke the Western World offered as a surrogate to the fascism it just spent millions of lives defeating ends up being a recipe for a new fascism isn’t a Hollywood SafeTM take.
We probably should have listened to it though.