‘Nomadland’ Hits Home With A Story of Life On the Open Road
Life ain’t easy. And life on the open road is even harder. But the tumbling characters of Chloé Zhao’s latest masterpiece, Nomadland, represent more than just people on the fringe of American society. They may be echoing the future of a world that is increasingly pricing people out.
Nomadland follows the story of an aging widower named Fern, played by no-nonsense Frances McDormand, who loses her job when the gypsum factory she’s worked at most of her life shuts down for good. With nothing rooting her down, she decides to pitch all her possessions, throw a mattress in her van, and hit the road.
Along the way, she takes a series of odd jobs (including a seasonal warehouse job for Amazon) and meets a gaggle of fellow nomads who show her how to survive life as a tumbleweed. While these travelers come in all shapes and sizes, one thing binds them together: The delicate freedom of a life untethered.
Director, Zhao (who also wrote the screenplay) deftly widens the scope of her lens, treating the film as both a tragic consequence of and liberation from the mighty dollar. From this distant gaze, existence is still a wide-open frontier. The chaos of life is both small and quiet, and the tribulations we face are as inevitable and commonplace as the turning of the Earth.
With so much content these days pushing toward escapism, uber-hotness, or whatever’s trending on TikTok, Nomadland manages to grip the heart with a tale as un-Photoshopped and unrelenting as life itself. (Now streaming on Hulu.)
If you’re in the mood for a mental reset movie-fest, check out these other cerebral cinematic triumphs that’ll make you feel surprisingly good about being little more than a speck of dust floating in the vast cosmos.
Cover Photo: SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
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When it comes to downplayed character-driven slices of life, few do it better than the great Alexander Payne. Wrapping the existential crisis of a failed writer inside the easy-to-swallow lozenge of a picaresque dude flick, Sideways somehow achieves film perfection without even meaning to.
'Into the Wild'
Based on the life and death of Christopher McCandless, a college student who dropped off the grid to chase life on the road and ultimately died doing so, Into the Wild captures the freewheeling feeling of riding the wind into the American west. Director Sean Penn utilizes all his talents to create a visceral, understated, yet inspiring film.
'My Octopus Teacher'
Few films that are as singular and ephemeral as My Octopus Teacher will stick to your DNA like a hydrogen tentacle. This simple story about one man befriending an octopus in the kelp forest near his home is as refreshing and rejuvenating as a dip in the sea.
'The Big Country'
William Wyler directed some of Golden Hollywood's biggest epics, but there's something a little different about his handling of The Big Country. His take on the American frontier reduces the battle of human egos to miniature. Where the life and death struggles of man are nothing more than a smudge on the horizon.
'2001: A Space Odyssey'
One of the greatest films ever made, this is Stanley Kubrick as cold and calculating as the universe itself - and just as bewildering. If you make it through this glacial chronicling of evolution, it will leave you in a vegetative state for at least 24 hours.
Inception is where Christopher Nolan's obsession with bending time and reality finally meets Hollywood polish. With plenty of punches and explosions thrown in for effect, the heart of the movie is really a meditation on self-deception. Afterward, you'll be wondering if the life decisions you've made are really your own.
'The Tree of Life'
Terrence Malick has divided audiences over his 50-year career. Half complain of utter boredom while sitting through his films, while the other half are too lost in revelation to speak. Decades in the making, The Tree of Life is his stab at cramming the meaning of everything into one film. It sounds impossible, but Mallick comes closer than most who've tried.
'Children of Men'
Alfonso Cuarón has always been a visionary director, but Children of Men is the first time all his powers of storytelling come together with the might of a mystic. In a world faced with its own demise, Cuarón wonders who will keep hope alive while the petty foibles of man live on until their dying breath.
An epic tale of mountains and men, Free Solo follows the life of climbing wizard Alex Honnold as he attempts to summit Yosemite's El Capitan without the use of ropes. While the experience will humble you in the presence of such ancient rock formations (and give you serious heart palpitations), Honnold's unshakeable resolve will inspire you to follow your own path.
For about two weeks in the '90s, Terry Gilliam could make any film he wanted. But long before studio execs gave him the keys to Hollywood, Gilliam had already made his masterpiece. The mind-bending dystopia of Brazil is equal parts campy, hilarious, whimsical, and frightening - and not to be missed.
'Synechdoche, New York'
Phillip Kaufman has carved out a career exploring the back alleys of the psyche. Synecdoche, New York once again visits his obsession with the meaning of existence and legacy, ultimately leaving more questions than answers. But in classic Kaufman style, the end result will plant a strange flower in the back of your mind to dish out thorny jabs to your brain when you least expect it.
Taken from the Hopi word for "life out of balance," Koyaanisqatsi is not your average popcorn flick. Combining hundreds of hours of stop motion footage and splicing it together in unsettling ways, this 1983 experimental film by Godfrey Reggio was both a landmark achievement and a preview of the way humans would ingest media in the decades to come. If you have enough patience (and weed) to make it through the entire film, you may find yourself reconsidering what you want your future to even look like.
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