Academy Awards 2021: Nomadland Wins Best Picture

Chloe Zhao, Best Director for Nomadland

Did you watch the Academy Awards a week ago?  I often watch at least part of the Academy Awards because I like going to the movies and am interested to see what wins awards.  I am usually surprised by the things that get the top awards, and this year was no exception.  Nomadland won best picture, best director, and best actress.  I was shocked because it was actually a movie I saw and appreciated and I read the book on which the movie was based.  You can read my review of the book here.

It was a weird year for the Academy Awards.  There was an extra two months of eligibility for movies and they changed the eligibility rules.  Previously, to be nominated for an award, a movie had to play at theaters in Los Angeles or New York for at least a week.  This year a movie could be released in a commercial theater OR drive-in theater in six cities: Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, or Atlanta.  In addition, films were deemed eligible that had been intended for a theatrical release but were initially made available through streaming.  Because of these relaxed rules, there were 366 movies eligible to be nominated for the 2021 Academy Awards.

Despite not going to a movie theater, I saw my usual number of new releases this year.  Tom and I saw one new release in Georgia in February and it made such an impression I can’t even remember what it was.  We also streamed several movies including Nomadland, News of the World, and Greyhound.  I intended to watch Mulan but it got such horrible reviews that I decided not to waste my time.  I will probably watch the animated feature Soul before I cancel my Disney+ subscription next month (I’m at the end of the free year from Verizon).

Nomadland absolutely deserved the awards it won.  It is a beautiful and nuanced movie about the choices we make willingly and those we are forced to make.  Frances McDormand lets every crease and line show in her expressive face.  Because Nomadland is based on a non-fiction book, it examines the lives of the people in the movie through the eyes of Fern.

Fern’s husband has died and the plant where they both worked closed.  You get the impression that she had to abandon a house she could no longer afford and leave behind the medical debt she incurred with her husband’s illness.  She doesn’t have any children and she moves into a van leaving behind the community ties that are tenuous and painful.  Along the road, she learns how to survive on her own, making friends and choosing her own path.  We learn about Fern bit by bit as she is revealed through her interactions with others.  At various turning points throughout the movie she chooses independence over security.

Frances McDormand as Fern in Nomadland

Most of the people in the movie are real nomads who live full-time in vans or cars.  During the filming of the movie, Frances McDormand also lived full-time in Fern’s van.  They play fictionalized versions of themselves, but the places they live and work are real.  Many seasonal workers move from Amazon warehouse to sugar beet harvest to campground worker.  They winter in on BLM land in Quartzsite, Arizona and go north in the summer when the weather gets warm.  These are not people who expect or want a handout:  they are hardworking people who value their independence.  Houseless does not equal homeless.

I am usually disappointed in who wins the Academy Awards, but not this year.  Frances McDormand, Chloe Zhao, and Nomadland were worthy winners.  Nomadland is not an easy, feel-good movie, but it is worth watching.  The cinematography alone is spectacular, giving a sense of the invitation of the horizons ahead.  If you value independence and hard work without complaining, this might be a movie that will speak to you.