‘Nomadland’ director Chloe Zhao poised to make history at Oscars

“Home, is it just a word? Or is it something you carry within you?”

These Morrissey lyrics are at the heart of Chloe Zhaos “Nomadland,” a film that follows the itinerant lives of older Americans searching the country for a living wage with their campers, vans, and trailers in tow. While prefaced as an account of the economic collapse of Empire, NV due to the closure of their sheetrock factory in 2011, this Searchlight Picture shines a light on the rise in migrant workers due to the Great Recession of 2008 and the plight of this marginalized group’s eroded American Dream.

Zhao adapted the 2017 non-fiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica BruderFrances McDormand stars as Fern, a widow at a crossroads with only her trusty van, cleverly named Vanguard, by her side. She is joined by David Strathairn and a supporting cast of many non-actor nomads who add depth with their poignant, true tales of being on the road.

Zhao also edited and produced the picture, which will be released on December 4. She excels by using real world stories and people to communicate the power in community and the bare necessity for survival and love. Her unique docufiction style mixed with a naturalistic, Terrence Malick-like cinematography and Ludovico Einaudi’s delicate, moving score creates a contemplative environment of breathtaking views and composition. She sits atop our Best Director chart and would be the first female Chinese helmer to contend at the Oscars.

SEE Chloe Zhao (‘Nomadland’) on finding ‘peace in solitude’ on the road with Frances McDormand [WATCH]

What makes “Nomadland” even more compelling is watching McDormand immerse herself completely as Fern. With our current odds showing her tied for the lead with Viola Davis for Best Actress, she is well-positioned to accomplish a rare Oscar feat. Katharine Hepburn holds the record with four Best Actress Oscars, winning her middle two back-to-back. A win for McDormand would make her the only other leading lady to have three. Her path is very similar to Daniel Day-Lewis’s three wins, in which there was an 18-year gap between his first two, then a third win shortly after.

“Nomadland” has garnered almost unanimous praise amongst viewers (currently at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes) after also winning top honors at multiple film festivals, including the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Both of these festivals have been strong, recent indicators for a Best Picture nomination.

SEE Can ‘Nomadland’ follow its Golden Lion grand prize in Venice with a Best Picture Oscar? Recent history bodes well for it

While only two winners of the Golden Lion have ever won Best Picture [“Hamlet” (1948) and “The Shape of Water” (2017)], the past two winners became top contenders for the top prize, [“Roma” (2018), and “Joker” (2019)]. And six of the past People’s Choice Award winners have gone on to win the Best Picture Oscar while 12 have been Best Picture nominees.

The only obstacle in its path is that low-budget films rarely win the top Oscar. With its “mid-seven-figure” budget, “Nomadland” would be among the least expensive Best Picture winners adjusted for inflation, alongside “Moonlight” (2016), “Marty” (1955), “Rocky” (1976), and “It Happened One Night” (1934).

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With an unwavering vision, Zhao’s success in creating complex characters within bold, transformative stories has been  praised by critics and awards bodies alike. Both of her previous films, “Songs My Brother Taught Me” (2015) and “The Rider” (2017), have garnered multiple nominations and wins including Best Feature at The IFP Gotham Awards and the CICAE Award at the Cannes Film Festival for “The Rider.” She was the first recipient of the Bonnie Award, a grant honoring a “mid-career female director,” at the Film Independent Spirit Awards in 2018.

Her next film, “The Eternals,” is part of the Marvel franchise. Its release has been delayed until November 2021 due to COVID-19. This marks a move away from her independent filmmaking roots and could attract attention among those still unfamiliar with her work. The new territory comes with a massive $200 million budget and relinquishing credits as writer and producer, but she says she “shot exactly the way [she] wanted to shoot.” The film’s diversity is a testament to Chloé’s commitment toward representation and inclusion.

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