“One day very, very soon take everyone you know into a theater, shoulder to shoulder, in that dark space and watch every film that is represented here tonight.” – Three-time Academy Award winner Frances McDormand, accepting the Best Picture Oscar for her film Nomadland

Those who believe the Academy Awards don’t matter will point to Sunday evening’s ceremony as a prime example.

After a tumultuous year where moviegoers were prevented from seeing a majority of the nominees on the big screen, the Oscars were meant to be a celebration of the industry’s perseverance and hope for the future.

But the disjointed, often disingenuous gala held inside Los Angeles’ Union Station will forever dampen the luster of its nominees and winners – especially its Best Picture honoree Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s intimate portrait of life on the open roads during harsh economic times in the American West.

When people should be celebrating this magnificently small independent feature and star Frances McDormand’s wolf cry to propel moviegoers back to the cinemas, it will be forever tarnished by winning that prize before the final commercial break only to have McDormand with very little left to say after her Best Actress win and Sir Anthony Hopkins a no-show to accept his Best Actor prize for The Father.

The real question now becomes, will moviegoers even bother to watch Nomadland at home where it can easily be streamed with a subscription to Hulu, let alone head out to the nearest cineplex to see such a quiet film “shoulder to shoulder” with fellow theater patrons as McDormand put it.

A haunting yet powerful portrait of a hidden life across the heartland, Nomadland finds some of the best of America wandering across the country in search of boundless freedom and of themselves.

McDormand stars as Fern, a seasonal worker traveling the country in an inauspicious white van following the death of her husband and collapse of the town they lived in after the US Gypsum plant closed down. Along the course of her travels, she meets a variety of interesting characters living as van-dwellers.

Nomadland meanders slowly through its 105-minute running time with a subtle grace that allows for deep reflection. Zhao’s film is an unassuming portrait of Americana through the lens of a woman unable to cope with massive changes in her life.

Nomadland is a quiet road movie filled with introspection, genuine performances from raw untrained talent and endlessly striking cinematography that maximizes natural light.

It’s truly disappointing that director of photography Joshua James Richards’ brilliance behind the camera isn’t readily available to be seen at movie theaters across the country as the billowing landscapes and intimate moments he captures transcend what home viewing experiences can provide.

Richards masterfully utilizes an extended wide angle lens to frame the long, empty vastness of the film’s outdoor landscapes and mirrors that by pulling his camera in close to characters, tightening the frame to the point where there’s nowhere else to look but people telling stories.

McDormand is certainly worthy of acclaim for this, her third Academy Award for Best Actress following 1996’s Fargo and 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the true stars of Nomadland are the ancillary characters Fern meets along the way.

Real life nomads playing themselves deliver a large majority of the film’s emotional stakes and authenticity. Characters like the reclusive Swankie or energetic Linda May provide Nomadland with a sense of color, bursting any superficial sheen that studio features might have. 

At times, Zhao’s film becomes almost a documentary with McDormand playing tour guide to an unknown world of America’s heartland. Her film honors the nomadic culture with quiet reverence and respect, allowing these wandering seniors to express themselves in pure honesty that radiates off the screen.

For the first time since 1971, Best Picture wasn’t the final award handed out at the Academy Awards.

In doing so – to try and create a moment – the producers ripped away a potential moment for the second female filmmaker to ever win Best Director and a celebration of small, independent filmmaking.

Nomadland is certainly a worthy Best Picture winner that hopefully will long outlive this miscue and reach a much wider audience in a revitalized movie theater setting or in the comfort of their own homes.

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