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Nomadland First Reviews: Frances McDormand Delivers a Powerhouse Performance in One of the Best Films of the Year

Critics say writer-director Chloé Zhao's latest is a surefire Best Picture candidate, and it just won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

by | September 14, 2020 | Comments

While Marvel fans await Chloé Zhao’s delayed superhero blockbuster Eternals, the filmmaker has delivered a drama that many critics are calling the best film of the year. Nomadland and its lead performance from Frances McDormand are receiving rave reviews and awards recognition following its simultaneous debut at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals. The movie, adapted from a nonfiction book about the growing post-recession culture of wandering, RV-driving “house-less” folks, mixes real people in with McDormand’s lead character for a special snapshot of the current American landscape.

Here’s what critics are saying about Nomadland:


Is this one of the year’s best?

One of the best films of the year.
– Jo-Ann Titmarsh, HeyUGuys

One of the best films you’ll see this year.
– Norman Wilner, NOW Toronto

One of 2020’s best and a reminder of why I love films.
– Carey-Ann Pawsey, Orca Sound

Perhaps the only film that’s come out in 2020 (so far) that could legitimately be called a masterpiece.
– Chris Bumbray, JoBlo

A movie that will be hard to top for the title of best film of the year.
– Andrew Parker, The Gate

It would be an absolute shock if it isn’t somehow nominated for Best Picture.
– Mike Ryan, Uproxx


How is Frances McDormand in it?

It’s one of her greatest performances.
Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

This quiet, self-effacing performance may be the best of her career so far.
Peter Bradshaw, Guardian

One of the best career performances from one of our best actresses. It’s just breathtaking.
Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com

McDormand is a joy. Her unmade-up, no-vanity appearance quietly redefines what a cinematic face is supposed to look like.
Jessica Kiang, The Playlist

There is no end to her talent or versatility. It’s an understated performance of the utmost tenderness and care.
Hannah Woodhead, Little White Lies


Frances McDormand in Nomadland

Ryan Fujitani

How important is McDormand specifically to this movie?

McDormand is the perfect actress for this story.
Matt Goldberg, Collider

McDormand provides a blend of toughness and vulnerability that’s a perfect fit for the material.
A.A. Dowd, AV Club

It’s hard to imagine any other movie star whose presence would not compromise the purity of Zhao’s approach.
Jessica Kiang, The Playlist

It’s hard to picture any actress other than McDormand (who also has a producer credit) in the part. She doesn’t just become Fern, she creates her.
Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly


How well does Nomadland mix the real aspects with the fictional ones?

The documentary conventions being employed here give Zhao’s latest a uniquely lived in quality.
Andrew Parker, The Gate

Ironically enough, what the film does best is what brings it closest to criticism: Zhao’s brand of docu-realism suggests something soberly true.
Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

When an actor of McDormand’s calibre can react to the authentic, pure, and raw emotion of the confessionals laid bare by the workampers, the hybrid effect draws the best from both worlds.
Pat Mullen, POV Magazine


Filming on the set of Nomadland

(Photo by ©Searchlight Pictures)

How are these people and their lifestyles depicted?

The filmmaker doesn’t quite romanticize the migratory way, but she does seem to selectively privilege its sagest salt-of-the-Earth proponents.
A.A. Dowd, AV Club

Nomadland never feels like a brochure for being a nomad (although it does paint a beguiling picture), but rather a deeply empathetic look at people who have chosen to find a new life away from what society dictates.
Matt Goldberg, Collider

The key to its success is the way director Chloe Zhao refuses to sensationalize the unfolding drama. Even calling this a drama undermines the spirit of the film, as it is simply a look at life.
Aaron Neuwirth, We Live Entertainment

Nomadland is the type of gorgeous capturing of the forgotten and downtrodden that could easily fit inside a modern Woody Guthrie track.
Robert Daniels, 812filmreviews


What about the story?

There’s not, ultimately, much going on within Nomadland in terms of plot, and yet the movie remains absolutely compelling for the duration of its leisurely-paced yet spellbinding 107 minutes.
David Nusair, Reel Film Reviews

While episodic by design, the film is utterly compelling from the first frame to the last.
Chris Bumbray, JoBlo

Not directionally shaped by narrative… it is more of a group portrait and a portrait of the times, brought off with exceptional intelligence and style.
Peter Bradshaw, Guardian

With its episodic narrative, Nomadland is a character study that builds convincingly and incrementally.
James Mottram, South China Morning Post

If road movies have an intrinsic weakness, it’s the episodic nature of their narratives, but Nomadland solves that beautifully, creating a pattern in which the path is more circular than linear, and impactful characters come back around to more deeply enrich Fern’s journey.
Peter Debruge, Variety


Frances McDormand in Nomadland

(Photo by ©Searchlight Pictures)

How does the film look?

The cinematography by Joshua James Richards is exquisite.
Gary M. Kramer, Salon

There’s a kind of postcard aesthetic… that evokes a travelogue, which is particularly apt for Nomadland.
Joe Lipsett, Consequence of Sound

She frames her subjects against majestic landscapes and gorgeous watercolor sunsets but never aestheticizes nature for postcard effect.
David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

[Zhao’s] rapport with the natural world and the American landscape penetrates the film, becoming a central protagonist in the story.
Jo-Ann Titmarsh, HeyUGuys

It’s honestly hard to figure out how Zhao has made a film that’s this beautiful in its compositions and somehow still feels like it has dirt under its fingernails.
Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com


What else is the film reminiscent of?

Scenes of the fellow nomads reminded me of Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace.
Jo-Ann Titmarsh, HeyUGuys

Nomadland also calls to mind Ken Loach’s kitchen-sink realism… not to mention Kelly [Reichardt’s] visions of wayfaring loners (imagine Michelle Williams’ wanderer from Wendy and Lucy, all grown up and still no place to go).
Eric Kohn, IndieWire

Zhao’s instinctive curiosity and identification with outsiders, reminiscent of French filmmaker Agnès Varda… Zhao is clearly influenced by Terrence Malick as well.
Peter Debruge, Variety

There’s a scene in Nomadland so beautiful I gasped as it whisked my brain to some of Terrence Malick’s early work, Badlands and Days of Heaven.
Mike Ryan, Uproxx

Settles into a cinematic atmosphere that calls to mind Days of Heaven and other dreamlike scenery out of a Malick film.
Aaron Neuwirth, We Live Entertainment

Nomadland might recall the work of Terrance Malick and Kelly Reichardt, but Zhao is not “the next” anyone – she’s the first Chloé Zhao.
Hannah Woodhead, Little White Lies


Chloe Zhao on the set of Nomadland

(Photo by ©Searchlight Pictures)

So fans of Zhao’s other movies should love it?

It continues in a similar vein to Zhao’s earlier work, and could almost be considered part of an informal trilogy of small, intimately observed stories set against inversely expansive backdrops.
David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

Nomadland firmly establishes Chloé Zhao as one of the best directors working today. Not that this declaration couldn’t be seen coming with her last film… But Nomadland is just one of those types of movies that announces a director’s presence with authority.
Mike Ryan, Uproxx


How is the score?

A moving score by Ludovico Einaudi that’s easily my favorite of the year adds to the poetry of it all.
Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com

There is a beautiful score by Ludovico Einaudi that complements the sweeping vistas of the vast open spaces that Fern encounters on her journeys.
Jo-Ann Titmarsh, HeyUGuys

Ludovico Einaudi’s solitary, piano laden score makes every composition of this character study ache as though it were ripping off highway to reveal the tread marks of abandonment.
Robert Daniels, 812filmreviews

The use of famed Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi’s music is exemplary in guiding our access to Fern’s inner life, starting with delicate piano melodies and steadily growing richer and more emotional as the movie progresses.
David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

My one major gripe with the aesthetics of the film is the use of the great composer Ludovico Einaudi’s music, which sometimes telegraphs emotions that don’t really sync up with where Fern’s psyche seems to be.
Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair


Frances McDormand in Nomadland

Ryan Fujitani

Are there any major criticisms?

The film falters whenever it slips into sentiment… the film does not quite deliver the emotional impact Zhao is likely striving to achieve.
Gary M. Kramer, Salon

Zhao’s elegant, wise offering to us could, perhaps, use a little more grit and nastiness to roughen up its tranquility.
Tomas Trussow, The Lonely Film Critic


Does the film have something to say about America?

This may not be a story that could only ever happen in America, but it’s a story that speaks to both the promise and the lie of a uniquely American mythos.
Angie Han, Mashable

The film’s genius is in deciding to shatter the paradigm of the American Dream completely to argue that the Dream doesn’t get to serve as a metric of a life well-lived.
Matt Goldberg, Collider

This is a story about the end of the American dream, but we needn’t interpret that as a negative thing.
Norman Wilner, NOW Toronto

Nomadland is a snapshot of contemporary America where the American dream is in tatters, but hope for a better alternative nevertheless resides.
Pat Mullen, POV Magazine


Nomadland is currently set to open in limited release on December 4, 2020.

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