So rarely do we get the opportunity to sit and absorb a person and their environment in such beautiful and rhythmic means as in Chloé Zhao’s hypnotic Best Picture-winning drama Nomadland, and yet here it is arriving at just the right time for us all to evaluate and appreciate in such a way that we only ever truly could following months of isolating within our own homes.
Blending scripted drama with documentarian elements, Zhao and lead star Frances McDormand paint a portrait of a seemingly unremarkable life as grandiose and beautiful, and in doing so bring into focus so many of the United States’ lost nomads and the sensibilities that drive their way of life. As we see McDormand, as Fern, be offered advice from deeply personal real-life experiences by real nomads living on the road, Nomadland reminds us that for all of cinema’s beautiful manipulation, the form will always ultimately function as a tool for helping us to empathise with the experiences of others.
This is the kind of film to wash over you; one of 2021’s releases that will gradually and ever-so-softly envelope you in a rich tapestry of kindness, empathy and love, not only for your fellow human beings but for the land upon which you live too.
1. West Side Story
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is cinema’s past, present and future all at once; perhaps this legendary director’s greatest ever amalgamation of old fashioned film language and progressive political sensibilities; the greatest film of 2021.
Watching this version of West Side Story on the big screen brings to mind what it must have felt like to watch a 1940s Gene Kelly musical in a crowded cinema: magic. Every shot is perfectly constructed to present this classically told and well known story with the kind of colour grade that only Hollywood’s long-gone Golden Era could capture, and Spielberg is far more restrained in his camera movements than in much of his recent work, avoiding the pitfalls of unrealistic long takes and CG-driven camera trickery to instead favour a more traditional style reminiscent of his early career megahits.
Vitally, this version of the stage play (and 1961 film adaptation) isn’t just a remake, it’s an evolution and re-appropriation that has been cast with more consideration as to the ethnicities and backgrounds of the performers, and with more focus on the United States’ wealth gap. In Spielberg’s version, the poor hate the poor as the rich (always left out of view) are quietly committing war against them, in this case quite literally tearing down their homes. In this war, there are no winners, and in male-on-male violence, the true losers are the women left behind. With a backdrop of crumbling buildings, this is a war zone nobody escapes from.
Films like West Side Story remind us of the majesty of cinema. They are in of themselves everlasting evidence of how the form can transport us anywhere. These are the films that we dream about, that leave an impression, that bring awe and inspire us. West Side Story is one of those releases that reminds us why we go to the pictures, and why anyone would ever want to understand and write about film.
Recommended for you: 10 Best Films 2020 – Joseph Wade
The delights that await us in 2022 will no doubt offer more food for thought, will surely explore our fears and anxieties, and will (hopefully) shape us, change us.