Best Picture. Best Director. Best Actress. Winning over 100 awards in total, Nomadland’s success at the Oscars may have seemed, ultimately, inevitable, but there was still a surge of warranted joy when Chloé Zhao become only the second-ever woman recipient of Best Director. All her previous work, with its trademark use of natural lighting and involvement of non-actors for results with genuine immediacy, had ushered her in as a filmmaker to take note of, and when the chance came to show everyone what she could do on a bigger scale – hired on by producer/star Frances McDormand for this expansive road movie – she didn’t miss.

After the death of her husband and the shuttering of the main industry in Empire, Nevada, McDormand’s Fern leaves for a life on the road. In her van, she travels from town to town, shift to shift – “houseless, but not homeless.” Familiar faces come and go throughout the year, suggesting a natural migration and travel route for working nomads, in keeping with the film’s beautiful cinematography through which the travellers become part of nature. For a film about riding solo, Fern is rarely without a friend to laugh with or whom she can depend upon.

Nomadland 1

Courtesy of: Searchlight Pictures

Some of those friends are played by real-life nomads. Linda May and Swankie speak with scripted lines but genuine heart about their lifestyle. Everyone has their own reason for being out there, whether it’s financial or refusing to sit still while waiting for death, and while it’s easy to sympathise with those who don’t have a roof over their head, Nomadland never pities them. By giving voice to stories about lifelong workers whose pension isn’t enough to house them and widows watching their husbands die before retirement, it’s a more politically radical film than it has sometimes been given credit for. Yes, there is something profoundly romantic about the notion of four wheels and the open road – made all the more fairy tale-like by Ludovico Einaudi’s vista-evoking piano score – but everyone Fern meets is hurting and, ultimately, should not be there.

Empire is now a ghost town, and Fern one of its ghosts with nowhere to go. Her father used to say, “what’s remembered, lives.” In Fern’s wedding ring, in her rich resumé of work, in memorabilia she keeps in her van, Empire survives. But its zip code has been deleted and this quiet act of bureaucratic brutality chips away at the town’s existence and the very notion that anyone ever lived there. Like cleaning up a crime scene, there’s nothing to see here. In real life, across the past two years, the news has brought constant uncertainty about jobs and industry, whether due to the pandemic or the changing high streets. These surface-level reports, littered with statistics, often forget the daily lives of the people affected by these changes, in which livelihoods are upended, often after years of service in one position. Despite her seemingly extraordinary life, Fern is a normal person impacted by a life-changing situation with no clear route back to normality and security. What makes Nomadland so exceptional is in the way, as Zhao is wont to do, it centres the individual at the heart of a tragedy and all the ways in which it affects them.

Nomadland 2

Courtesy of: Searchlight Pictures

So the film does that most mature balancing act of showing the liberation of van life while never undermining its terrible origins. Swankie takes control of her life and her ailing body by hitting the road, refusing to lie in a hospital bed with cancer, instead living every day until her last out in the great wide world. At Bob Wells’ Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a large group of nomads prepare food for one another and trade items they no longer need, while at night they sit round a campfire sharing their grief-filled origin stories and remembering those they have lost. In everything, there is celebration and there is pain.

That’s why it’s one of 2021’s very best. In dealing with conflict, it gets to the heart of what it means to get out of bed each day. Fern has accrued heartache and lives a difficult life, but even when her home-slash-van breaks down, she finds ways to keep it moving. She is directionless, but “down the road” is enough for now, taking her to each new place she needs to be. Relationships fluctuate; some people fit at some times more than others. The real people of the film’s non-fiction source material live in ways most of us will ever know, yet the struggles they face are similar to our own and our neighbours’.

One colleague of Fern’s has the lyric, “home, is it just a word? Or is it something that you carry within you?” tattooed on their arm. In a year that saw cinemas closed for long periods, a place many consider their home, Nomadland made everyone feel at home again.

So, to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 6…

#20 – After Love
#19 – Undine
#18 – No Time To Die
#17 – Ninjababy
#16 – The French Dispatch
#15 – Shiva Baby
#14 – Dune
#13 – Drive My Car
#12 – Annette
#11 – Minari
#10 – Sound of Metal
#9 – Spencer
#8 – First Cow
#7 – C’mon C’mon
#6 – Nomadland

Stay tuned for the remainder of 2021 as we count down our Top 10 films of 2021!