In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Justin Chang, Odie Henderson, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the previous dispatch here.
Dear funky bunch,
I feel lucky to have been served up Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland to write on for our last round. This was maybe my single favorite film of the year, or at least tied for that honor with First Cow (and I don’t say that just to butter up Evie, the ruminative guest star of Odie’s last post). No other movie better crystallized the anxieties and injustices of our current moment while also seeming to emerge fully formed from both its creator’s brain and some entirely different (past or future?) era of film history. Nomadland, based loosely on a 2017 nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder, follows a working-class widow in her 60s, Fern (Frances McDormand), who takes to the road to become a seasonal migrant worker when a mine closure turns her longtime Nevada home into a ghost town. A philosophical quest narrative with long dialogue-free stretches, Nomadland is a spare, roomy, and blessedly message-free movie that gives its characters as well as the audience space to breathe. Again and again, Zhao places her resourceful and prickly heroine in some situation that seems familiar from another, less idiosyncratic, more predictable movie—then subverts our expectations by letting Fern respond to that setup in her own stubborn and sometimes maddening way.
Some reviews have compared Zhao’s method—mixing seasoned actors like McDormand and David Strathairn with real-life van-dwelling “nomads” playing versions of themselves—to the quasi-documentary feel of some Italian neorealist classics. But the movie also offers exhilarating flights into lyricism, from the wistful score by Ludovico Einaudi to a Shakespeare sonnet unexpectedly recited from memory by the usually far-from-poetic Fern. It’s a movie that makes you reserve judgment and pay attention minute to minute, just as Fern’s new life forces her to discard what’s superfluous and jury-rig something new.
For me, Nomadland’s power lay in its refusal to violate its main character’s fiercely guarded autonomy—its refusal to tell us how to feel about her choice to remain independent, isolated, and permanently transient. (And it is a choice; while Fern is hard-pressed by economic circumstances, she also passes up two offers at a more settled and far from unappealing-seeming life.) Nomadland’s blend of road movie, verité slice-of-life, and enigmatic character study put me in mind of another movie about a woman who, for reasons never fully explained to the viewer, couldn’t or wouldn’t stop moving: Agnès Varda’s 1985 feature Vagabond, about a homeless young backpacker played by Sandrine Bonnaire. Nomadland is a less alienating and, in the end, more affirming exploration of female solitude on the margins than the profoundly sad Vagabond. But the two movies are alike in the delicacy with which they treat their subjects, women whose lives have been shaped and sometimes damaged—but never fully determined—by their social and economic circumstances.
Rewatching parts of Nomadland for this post, I found myself remembering all the other 2020 movies that brought together documentary and fiction elements in bold or funny or unsettling ways. There was the Ross brothers’ sort-of-but-then-not-documentary Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the record of a Las Vegas dive bar’s final day in business—except that the film was actually shot at a still-operational bar in New Orleans, using a group of regulars at that establishment to tell versions of their own real-life stories in this semi-fictionalized context. It was impossible to know for sure which situations were scripted and which were discovered by the Rosses’ fly-on-the-wall camera, but by the time this portrait of a ragtag community weaved its way to a boozy, Percy Sledge–scored finale, it didn’t seem to matter. Remember the moment late in this film when someone presents the barflies with a cake bearing the message “This Place Sucked Anyway,” then everyone heads outside to the parking lot with sparklers? That sounds like the ideal celebration plan for New Year’s Eve 2020.
And Alison, I’m in agreement about Kirsten Johnson’s brilliant Dick Johnson Is Dead, the veteran documentary filmmaker’s playful thought experiment about the impending death of her beloved Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. The movie progresses from whimsical to shattering in a masterfully paced series of staged patricidal vignettes—and then, in perhaps my favorite last shot of the year, swings impossibly back to whimsical again.
And of course, chief among this year’s many fiction/documentary mashups is one of the few films this year everyone talked about at the same time, if only for a couple of feverish days: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. (How do I feel about typing out in full that once and always glorious subtitle? Very nice!) Borat 2 was the only widely seen movie this year that dealt with the pandemic in real time, as Sacha Baron Cohen’s cheerfully uninhibited Kazakh reporter and his cage-reared daughter (the astoundingly fearless Maria Bakalova) found themselves fumbling their way across an America newly riven by idiotic yet impossibly high-stakes battles over face masks and deep-state conspiracies.
Baron Cohen’s guerrilla shock tactics and ability to infiltrate the previously closed spaces where racism, sexism, and other pernicious ideologies are reproduced and celebrated were thrillingly novel when the first Borat movie came out in 2006. Fourteen years later, the stupidity and cruelty of powerful people—mainly straight white men—is hardly in need of a comic muckraking, given how eager and even proud those in power appear to be to display their own ample reserves of muck. I seldom laughed out loud over the course of this new Borat, though I never stopped being gobsmacked by Baron Cohen’s and Bakalova’s deranged commitment to their maximally offensive schtick. But the moment when fiction, prank, and exposé collided in that hotel room encounter between Bakalova and Rudolph Giuliani—the moment we all thought, in our sweet late-October innocence, would be the most embarrassing thing to happen to America’s mayor in 2020—is one of the indelible memories of my cinematic year. It was a dizzying convergence of the kind of grim political news dump we’ve all come to regard with a sense of hopeless inevitability—breaking: Unethical man is unethical—and the new, antic idea that there might be a way of coming at that news sideways, making its discovery a game we could set our own rules for, laugh about together, and even, someday, win. And in answer to your question, Alison, yes, in that moment—which we couldn’t know yet was only a rehearsal for Rudy’s unsolicited audition for Borat 3 in front of the corrugated metal door of Four Seasons Total Landscaping—I viscerally longed for the lost communal space of the movie theater, a place we could all shriek in unison at the moment we saw the president’s lawyer’s right hand begin that ambiguous but terrifying journey past the waistband of his pants. Justin, I beg of you, please take us somewhere far away from the deeply unpleasant location that is Rudy Giuliani’s nethers.