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Oscars: With ‘Nomadland,’ Chloé Zhao Could Be the First Asian Woman Nominated for Best Director

The acclaimed director of "The Rider" captures the soul and life of middle America beautifully.

Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND
Courtesy of SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES

Searchlight Pictures (formerly Fox Searchlight) has flexed its awards muscles proudly the past decade. Except for 2016, the independent studio has had at least one film nominated for best picture in the last 10 years. They’ve shown their affinity to identify filmmakers and stories that touch the human spirit fearlessly. More so, they’ve accomplished monumental feats within that timeframe. In 2013, Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” became the first film by a Black director to win best picture. They would follow-up one year later with “Birdman,” which made writer, director, and producer Alejandro G. Iñárritu the first Latino to win three Oscars in one night, including the top honors.

Used to breaking down barriers, one of the leading independent companies in the movie industry will have another shot on goal with director Chloé Zhao’s tremendously moving “Nomadland.”

At a special drive-in presentation, Searchlight and the Telluride Film Festival are unveiling the film before a crowd of critics, pass holders and industry counterparts on Friday evening. The results are an unwavering study of the human condition that is profoundly deliberate and affecting.

Adapted from the Jessica Bruder book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” the film follows a woman named Fern (Frances McDormand), who in her 60s loses everything in the Great Recession. Fern then embarks on a journey through the American West, meeting new people, confronting her past and living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.

The movie’s most prominent commodity is Zhao herself, who serves as the director, writer, co-producer and editor, owning every single description of the job. The work is so stellar, and with the backing of awards savvy strategists like Searchlight, she may be able to tie a record that is currently owned by the Warren Beatty. It was in 1978 when Beatty received four Oscar nominations for “Heaven Can Wait” in best picture, director, lead actor and adapted screenplay, the only filmmaker to achieve this feat. Beatty would repeat the record once more three years later for “Reds,” in the same categories, but this time bringing home the best director award. Walt Disney holds the record for the most nominations by any person in a single year (six nominations in 1953, where he won four). This may be the road that Zhao finds herself traveling.

If nominated for best director, Zhao would become the first Asian woman in the category in Oscars history. With the rollout of the representation and inclusion requirements for Oscars 2024, it’s a real opportunity for the Academy to show the world if they do or do not need these new conditions. Alongside director, Zhao would also be the first Asian woman to be nominated as a producer on a best picture nominee, following in the steps of the historic win by “Parasite.” Competing in adapted screenplay could be a no-brainer for the writer’s branch, making her the fourth Asian to occupy the category 20 years after Wang Hui-ling and Kuo Jung Tsai were cited for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” On the editing side, she would be the seventh Asian nominee, but the first woman to make the lineup. Talking about breaking ceilings, Zhao is poised to shatter the whole damn house.

A small, intimate cast of players, McDormand, who has netted two best actress statues in her career (“Fargo” and “Three Billboards outside, Ebbing Missouri”), is once again, audaciously refined. Probably one of her more internalized and secular turns, the 63-year-old is no doubt one of cinema’s most gifted actors. She connects to material in a way not many actors can express, which would likely explain her work on this also as a producer, only her second credit of her long career. With five overall career nominations, the role of Fern should throw McDormand right back in the mix for No. 6(maybe even Oscar No. 3).

Fifteen years have passed since veteran actor David Strathairn portrayed Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney’s masterful “Good Night, and Good Luck.” The performance garnered his first nomination for best actor, losing out to Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Capote.” Since then, he’s not had much success on the awards circuit despite roles in buzzy projects such as “Lincoln” and “Howl.” Reserved yet surrendering, Strathairn makes the most of every moment and every frame. Admittedly, it’s a supporting role that can be easily overlooked by awards bodies. No loud, jaw-dropping acting set-piece that gets quickly identified as the “Oscar scene,” but there’s plenty that Strathairn sinks his teeth into, and the final product is quite extraordinary.

In what has become Zhao’s signature style of storytelling, she utilizes two real-life nomads playing themselves. The honest and loving Swankie (real name Charlene Swankie) has probably the definitive and pinnacle scene of the film, and if the quality is at the forefront when Academy members vote in March 2021, I’m not sure we’ll see a more heartwrenching supporting turn this year. However, we’re not in the “quality first” world of Oscar voting, and she’ll need a groundswell of support to pull her through. The same goes for Bob Wells, who has another killer scene that’s sure to fill your tear ducts, but he’ll have Strathairn to pull votes away.

The film could very well find support in below-the-line categories. Zhao’s cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who she’s used on her previous features, has finally arrived on the scene, seemingly taking movement cues from masters like Emmanuel Lubezki. The American West has never been so realized by an independent voice such as this, and Richards is one of the leading causes of it. Possibly continuing the streak of newer composers being recognized by the Academy, Ludovico Einaudi’s melancholy and steady chords could slip its way to the forefront.

Playing at TIFF later Friday evening, “Nomadland” will make a few more stops on the fall festival run, including the New York Film Festival, where it’s the Centerpiece selection.

“Nomadland” is scheduled for release on Dec. 4.