A woman exchanges her house for a van as she criss-crosses the American West, looking for gig work and companionship amongst fellow travelers.
Directed by Chloe Zhao
Starring Frances McDormand and David Strathairn
Review by Jon Kissel
My number 1 and number 2 favorite films of 2020, Possessor and Nomadland, oddly rhyme with each other despite a complete lack of violence in the latter and a rarely-matched brutality in the former. In Possessor, a vision of the near-future is corrupted from gleaming office buildings as tech magnates invade the homes of users and monetize their every thought, while in Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, the latest wave of those who opt out of late-stage service-oriented, barrier-to-entry capitalism take to the roads with their vans and their shit buckets. Many of the characters, likely real-life nomads themselves who happened to be around when Zhao was filming, have been injured in some way by neoliberalism and globalization and the general cruelty that’s touching more and more Americans as they try to live as their parents did in the latter half of the 20th century. Possessor crystallizes that cruelty in a pitch-black view of a future that, in Nomadland, is starting to develop. However, stripped of competition and most of one’s possessions, left with no one around other than those who are going through the same experience, a quiet charity and camaraderie develops where security and predictability and insulated comfort used to exist.
In the book Twelve Who Ruled, an in-depth examination of the Reign of Terror period of the French Revolution by Robert Roswell Palmer, a lot of pages are given over to Louis Antoine de Saint Just and justifiably so. In his mid-20’s when he makes it onto the Committee of Public Safety that runs France during this period, Saint Just is depicted as an effective firebrand, not as bloodthirsty as some of his colleagues but plenty vigorous in keeping France from falling to the monarchist armies that surround it. He gets the book’s most romantic passages, like he and his close friend Le Bas are mythic heroes riding into towns beset by counter-revolution, only for them to quickly set thing right and move on into the sunset. Saint Just died in shame like a lot of other French did in this period, but a year or so before he went, he uttered his most famous line at the trial of Louis XVI; ‘One cannot reign innocently.’ In Judas and the Black Messiah, it’s unknown if the young revolutionary at its center could’ve one day achieved great power and influence only to fall into the traps of governance himself, as Saint Just did, because those that reigned during Fred Hampton’s time made sure that never happened. What Hampton shares with his revolutionary antecedents is the certainty of youth and a single-minded focus on a better future, plus a cadre of enemies who have no vision but the furtherance of the status quo.
Denzel Washington is such a great actor that the Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period podcast could credibly exist for years. I listened to almost every episode and the hosts never allowed for the possibility that there was an alternative to their podcast title. However, Washington hasn’t been in a great movie since the mid-2000’s depending on if one is an American Gangster, Man on Fire, or Inside Man partisan, and the greatest director he’s worked with in the last fifteen years is probably himself. He’s gone down the old-man action path far more than the prestige path. Washington’s an actor of instant name recognition who can seemingly do whatever he wants and he wants to remake the Magnificent Seven. His latest, The Little Things, is another odd choice. I doubt Washington wanted to fulfill a career goal by working with the director of The Blind Side, John Lee Hancock. The Little Things’ triple-Oscar winner main cast does nothing to elevate a script that offers essentially nothing to the serial killer genre, including Washington who’s in paycheck mode. Add the lackluster presence of Rami Malek and the terminally off-putting Jared Leto, and this is a film whose existence is completely unnecessary.
Gangs of New York is the union of one of the greatest working directors (Martin Scorsese), one of the greatest writers (Kenneth Lonergan), possibly the greatest actor of the last thirty years (Daniel Day-Lewis), and his potential successor (Leonardo DiCaprio). A pedigree like that demands a scope and a scale with no less a goal than explaining America in 167 minutes. A college-aged me, snowed by the grandeur and the ambition, elevated Gangs of New York amongst Scorsese’s very best, but all this time later, it falls into the second or third tier. Scorsese’s trademarks become more intrusive, and his casting is either off or before its time. Such a serious assemblage of talent and vision could never be judged as anything less than compelling, but college-aged me was a sucker for a well-spoken threat at a rapid cadence and middle-aged me just isn’t as moved.
If anyone’s been reading my reviews over the seven+ years I’ve been writing them, they might know that I’m an atheist and a materialist who sees no reason to buy into non-corporeal entities like souls. Consciousness is a side effect of brain chemistry, alterable by the addition of chemicals or physical injury, and death is a light switch that returns a human, or any organism, to the same state of unbeing that preceded their lives. With all that said, a film that’s about afterlife and ensoulment is going to have to work hard to overcome my latent skepticism and get me to the buy-in stage. Pixar’s latest film, Soul, is in-house director Pete Docter’s third, after Up and Inside Out, two top-tier entries into the film-as-tear-producing-machines genre that Pixar specializes in. Inside Out also had problems of visualizing personality development and memory, a process that Docter is obviously interested in, but the best parts of that film overpower any knowledge of neurology and get to some level of emotional truth. Soul is even more arbitrary with its developmental allegories, but it has a lot on its mind beyond the Pixar clichés of hidden worlds and communities beneath the surface. My consciousness might exist solely in the folds of my brain, but it does get charmed and moved when Soul is at its best.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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