Top Ten Movies of 2020 — Number Three

The cold calculation of capitalism is all but guaranteed to cast multitudes of people aside. Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland embeds with some of those discards, both in the empathy of its fictionalized narrative and in offering several of them a chance to essentially play themselves on screen. Adapted from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book-length reportage, Nomadland follows Fern (Frances McDormand) as she motors around the country in her modified van, scrounging up menial, low-paying jobs where she can. She and many of her fellow travelers have routes mapped out according to seasonal hiring opportunities — an Amazon distribution center for the Christmas season, Wall Drug for summer tourism — and the film depicts their transitory existence with a sociological acuteness tinged with earnest acceptance. In Zhao’s reckoning, this spanning of side roads inspires neither pity nor condemnation. She seemingly admires the camaraderie she sees, but also fairly depict the precariousness of the lifestyle, where one trip to an auto mechanic can wipe out whatever modest savings has been amassed. The film is blessedly unguarded. It’s also ravishingly beautiful. Working with her regular cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, Zhao finds the abiding majesty in landscapes under wide skies, the shifting sun of dawn and dusk casting a hard world in shifting tones of exquisite beauty. Modest stories need not be always cast in drab tones, and Zhao has an uncommon eye for the striking among the the mundane. Without erasing her authorial fingerprints, Zhao achieves a plainspoken poetry that suits the figures she films, many of them first-time film performers essentially enacting their lived experiences for the camera. Nomadland is fiction that aims for the honesty of documentary. It’s a reflection of the enormous skill of its director that the film achieves that goal with grace and moving exactitude.

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