It’s Oscar Season y’allllllllllllllll! I try to watch all the Best Picture nominees each year, and the fact that everything is streaming means it’s a little easier this time. (Incidentally – did anyone see the article in Variety magazine which was fretting about how no one had heard of the nominees? I’d love to know how we would have done when most of these films weren’t even on streaming platforms until a couple days ago.)
I also like to do a quick-and-dirty review of the nominees; here are the first two I’ve seen.
On paper, this sounds like it would be one of the more Oscar-baity entries; Sir Anthony Hopkins stars as a man slipping into dementia, with Olivia Colman as the daughter looking after him. But what spares it from feeling like the kind of formulaic “Oscar movie” thing you half suspect came in an Ikea flatpack is that the film attempts to show dementia from Hopkins’ character’s perspective, and so it gets pretty disorienting – conversations repeat themselves mid-scene, different actors show up in various roles, other characters flat-out deny having said things we heard them say not 15 minutes prior. Even the set randomly changes – paintings appear and disappear, wall colors change, rooms fill and empty. It’s a disarming technique which leaves you unsure, even after the film, exactly who certain people were and when certain events took place. The Wikipedia review claims that the events in the film covered “a few years”, which surprised me as it felt like a matter of a few days.
Colman and Hopkins are unsurprisingly excellent in this and both deserved their nominations for their respective performances.
I had a fairly complicated reaction to this one.
Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a widow forced to live out of her van after her husband dies and the mining company where he and she both worked shuts down, and the surrounding town – which was almost wholly supported by the mine – dissolves soon after. It was inspired by a non-fiction book addressing the phenomenon of retirees who were forced to do the same following the Great Recession, and the film actually features several actual transient vandwellers in supporting roles, playing themselves (or fictional versions of themselves).
The Great Recession element left me really uneasy at first, since there was a time – not too long ago – when I feared that I was very close to having to do what Fern did. A lot of people fall through the cracks in this country and are forced into lives where they have very few good options, through no fault of their own. And when your only options are living out of a van or rolling over and dying, sometimes…you have to suck it up and live out of a van, and that is a hard life. I’ve recently stumbled upon some Instagrammers who live out of vans as a kind of aesthetic choice, and I’ve always rolled my eyes – it’s easy to do the #vanlife thing on a lark when you’re 25 and have family money to draw on, but having to do it when you’re 65 and you’ve lost your pension and your IRA was devalued….that’s something else again.
But the van life depicted here kind of sucked me in. Fern does find work – transient work she hears about from people she runs into on the road, like seasonal work in an Amazon warehouse or cleaning staff at a National Park. She finds a community of other travelers, the unemployed or the sick or the just plain outcast who help teach each other coping skills or tip each other off to jobs or pool resources. She even finds possible romance – David Strathairn has a supporting role as another nomad who runs into Fern now and again and is obviously taken with her, and tries to tempt her into settling down.
The biggest thing Fern finds, though, is moments of grace. You don’t actually hear from Fern all that much – McDormand’s whole performance is mostly caught up in facial expressions, whether she is stoically trying to cook chicken soup over a campfire or giggling with a campmate over a joke or staring in awe at the Badlands she is driving through. About 30% of the shots are of the scenery Fern is looking at, distant mountains in Arizona or groves of redwoods in California, and another 30% of the shots are closeups of Fern’s face as she looks out towards the horizon or listens attentively to a new friend from the road. But enough of her story comes out that you gradually understand that somehow, deep down, Fern always was kind of wired for this kind of life – and that harsh as it is, there are also gifts in it.