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.
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.
Of all the sequels in all the world, it’s only a scarce few that top their respective originals. Even the best sequels, like Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back, have plenty of honest detractors who prefer what came before. There’s always that feeling of discovery that is associated with a franchise’s first entry, as well as the dangling suspicion that the sequel is more of a commercial enterprise than a creative one, especially in recent cinematic history when a list of any given year’s top grossing films is dominated by remakes and next chapters in ongoing stories. Paddington 2 avoids that stink by replicating the warmth and charm of the original and incorporating indelible new characters. It also has the gift of timeliness, a pitch for friendliness and good faith towards one’s neighbors when the world seems to be taking the opposite stance. Paul King’s film qualifies as one of 2018’s biggest surprises, a joy delivery system that takes what works from the original Paddington and crushes it into a diamond of irresistible delight.
Swiss Army Man, better known by its Sundance moniker as the 'farty boner corpse movie,' does certainly contain all those things. The marooned Hank (Paul Dano) finds Manny's (Daniel Radcliffe) dead body (check) on a beach and he soon discovers all the magical abilities this corpse is capable of. His farts (check) have the ability to both amuse and propel and ignite, there's a deep well of water inside him, and his erection (check) serves as a divining rod/compass. Manny eventually learns to talk, and, having no memory of life before his 'death,' it falls to Hank to teach him about the world and how people interact with each other, though Hank himself is generally unskilled at relationships.
There are movies tethered to their time, and then there’s Danny Boyle’s The Beach. Philosophically, this film is the essence of pre-dot-com-bubble, pre-9/11 America, a frivolous place with a flat culture that must be abandoned to find whatever life really is. A person can only view a work for the first time once. I don’t know what it would have been like to watch The Beach in 2000, but watching it nineteen years after its release is an eye-rolling experience.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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