14 months after my last time in a theatre (for Uncut Gems), I returned yesterday to see this. Quite surreal, being back in an environment familiar for nearly 30 years, but off-limits/dangerous this long stretch. Happily(?), the auditorium was sparsely filled, and my movie companion and I sat, per normal preference, in the fifth row, distant from possible infectees, experiencing the movie in peace.
Chloe Zhao's esthetic is miles away from my kind of movie -- I love narrative; she's almost categorically opposed to it. Beyond that, I favor the vividness of characters created from the imagination; she prefers people at life-scale, content with/even proud of their ordinariness. I could well have rebelled against the film (as I did with The Rider). But there's no denying that, within her realm, Zhao creates something impressive, verging on powerful. I have to say I'm hugely glad I saw this on a big screen; the visuals are without question the greatest strength of the film, and absorbing them at the overpowering level only possible in a theatre carried me a long way. Without them, the film's narrative shortcomings might have bored me senseless (as they did in The Rider, watched at home). Even as it is, I think of the film a bit the way I do United 93: I acknowledge it as some kind of singular achievement, but don't care if I never see another film like it.
It must be said that Sabin's take below is spectacularly on-target: this film isn't really about its subject matter or its central character; it's about Chloe Zhao's filmmaking talents. if you like/love this movie, it's because you're enthusiastic about it as a piece of her filmmaking. There's certainly something to be said about having a distinctive, all-your-own voice -- Altman and Malick, for two, are directors I'm not sure could direct a routine screenplay competently, but who've created hugely memorable films only they could have made. I'm not elevating Zhao to their class, but I will say she's got her own vision that's similarly divorced from mainstream movies, and it's worth celebrating on some level.
When I say the visuals are impressive, I don't mean simply in ravishing-beauty terms, like Days of Heaven or Blade Runner 2049. Nomadland certainly has its share of gorgeous shots -- about 2/3 of the movie seems to have been shot at Magic Hour, which any cinematographer knows is going to give you some frameable pictures. But it goes deeper than that. I had the sense that this film is largely a collaboration between Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards -- that she relied on his framing and lighting to convey the film's many moods and subtexts to a far greater degree than anything the actors said or did. If I felt like I'd traveled a journey over the course of the two hours, it was largely through what I picked up in the silences and, especially, from the wordless shots of McDormand interacting with the various lands around her.
Zhao also deserves credit for her use of the many amateurs in the cast. They don't seem like actors, but they also don't quite feel like interviewees in a documentary. For me, Zhao has created a netherworld, where I believed in these people as part of this particular environment, and didn't give that much thought to whether they were professionals or not; I simply accepted them as authentic. In a way, it's variation on Beatty's use of the witnesses in Reds -- though Zhao's esthetic is otherwise quite different from Beatty's.
As for the central actress -- having agreed with Sabin so strongly on Zhao's achievement, I have to disagree with his contention that McDormand (and Strathairn) throw the film out of balance. The potential for such a thing to happen is clearly there -- the old Firesign Theatre line "stories of honest working people, told by rich Hollywood stars" pops to mind. But I found myself thinking, throughout, that McDormand was maybe the one prominent Hollywood actress who wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb in this environment. This is partly because of her cultivated reputation as gnarly maverick -- she's the lady who shows up at the Oscars in something light-years from a evening gown. But it's also her lack of actress-y vanity. When a lot of actresses do the de-glam, it's almost more ostentatious than wearing heavy make-up: they're making sure you see how they've sacrificed their beauty for this effort. McDormand just seems like someone who doesn't have time to throw on make-up, and doesn't really care what you think of her for it. This feels like the performance perhaps closest to her natural self...but maybe that's not the case, Maybe I underrate her as an actress; maybe she's just uniquely capable of making this seem like her slipping into a role so comfortably and easily.
Having said all this in praise, let me return to first principles: this is totally not my kind of movie. The determinedly oblique approach to any kind of drama irked me, even while I admired the consistency of the approach. This is a movie whose dramatic high-point involves someone dropping a box of plates -- and even that is brushed off quickly. I could imagine a different version of the film, where contradictions are heightened, themes are emphasized. And it's possible such a film would be far more banal, less inspired. But it might also engage its audience more deeply.
Which leads to the ultimate banal question: is this movie going to win best picture? Would it in a more "normal" year? To the second question, I'd say it's easy to imagine, in a fuller release schedule, the film doing no better in awards contention than The Florida Project, with which it shares aesthetic characteristics. But you never know. Alfonso Cuaron won best director just year before last for a film that was similarly short on narrative but strong on "filmmaking". Nomadland doesn't seem like the kind of movie that would win best picture...but, over the years, I've seen other films that seemed too off-the-beam for such a consensus award that won anyway (Annie Hall back in the day, The Deer Hunter, and, more recently, No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker). On the other hand, there've been other films about which I was similarly doubtful that, after initially bright prospects, fell short at some point -- notable Boyhood, and, for best picture, Roma. Tonight's PGA will give us a strong clue. If Nomadland wins there, it will feel like it's passed a hurdle and, though it won't feel in-the-bank till the moment the last envelope is opened, it will be more likely than not to be this weird year's winner. But if something else (Minari, Promising Young Woman, Trial of the Chicago 7) triumphs, a sense of "this is a critics' movie, not an Oscar movie" might kick in, and cause some other film to rise to the surface.
Bottom line for me: Nomadland wouldn't be my number one choice this year -- I like Promising Young Woman and Judas & the Black Messiah better, with Minari still unseen -- but I like it enough that I wouldn't lament its winning in any serious way.