Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” is poised to be named Best Picture at next year’s Oscars, if you track the very early momentum for the bleak meditation on America’s disenfranchised citizens. A pair of nominations at New York’s Gotham Awards on November 12 for Best Picture and Best Actress (Frances McDormand) comes after the film already won the Audience Award at the virtual Toronto Film Festival—a sure-fire indication that you have the inside track to take it all, judging by past winners “Green Book,” “12 Years a Slave” and “The King’s Speech”—and the top prize at the Venice Film Festival have paved the way for the Hollywood elite to anoint the film.
Two-time Academy Award winner McDormand, whose third Best Actress win will be a hotly debated question as she will likely square off opposite Viola Davis as the scenery-chewing lead of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Davis’ one Oscar is for another role in a Wilson play, as the wife in “Fences.”) Gold Derby experts place them neck-and-neck with 39-to-10 odds to win the Oscar.
McDormand’s affinity for playing working-class heroines makes her a natural choice as Fern, a woman in her 60s who loses everything in the recession and takes to the roads of the American West, living out of a van and feeding herself with a series of odd jobs. The film includes a scene of Fern cleaning a filthy campsite toilet—surely the acting challenge of the year as most Hollywood stars haven’t cleaned their own toilets in decades—and gives the Academy a welcome opportunity to prove that they feel the pain of people who’ve been reduced to similar circumstances due to the economic downturn.
From “The Grapes of Wrath” (1941), which won Best Director for John Ford and Best Supporting Actress for Jane Darwell, and “Marty” (1955), which took four Oscars, including Best Picture, to last year’s champ, “Parasite” (2019), Oscar has always had a weakness for the little guy and wants to see him triumph. “Nomadland,” which will be released in December, seems to capture the zeitgeist in the same way that “Parasite” did.
Though McDormand is the marquee name in “Nomadland,” the film’s secret weapon is director Zhao. She’s been bubbling under the radar for the last few years with highly acclaimed films such as “Rider” and “Songs My Brothers Taught Me.” She is held in high esteem by such power brokers such as “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins, who termed “Rider” a “masterpiece” at the 2019 National Board of Review awards ceremony. The Beijing-born triple threat produced, directed and edited “Nomadland,” which currently has 7-to-1 odds among Gold Derby experts to win Best Picture. If she is nominated for Best Director, she will be the first Asian woman to receive the honor. A Best Picture nomination will make that so much easier to achieve.
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