Column: ‘Nomadland,’ Best Picture favorite, finally hits Hulu for all to see

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes 'Nomadland' on Hulu

If a film falls in a pandemic, but no one is able to see it, does it really make a sound?

Critics across the country have spent months hailing “Nomadland” as the best movie of the year and the favorite to win Best Picture at the delayed Oscars on April 25.

However, if you stop anyone on the street, it’s doubtful that they’ve even seen it. Not because of the usual divide between mainstream blockbusters and award contenders, but because they literally can’t see it, a bizarre irony in our supposed democracy.

At long last, “Nomadland” hits Hulu this Friday, meaning it can finally be seen by a majority of moviegoers, err, umm, movie streamers.

How exactly did we get to this point? It’s been a long, winding journey, similar to the road traveled by the film’s protagonist Fern. A widow who lost her husband, her job and her identity in 2008 when the Great Recession closed her factory in Nevada, Fern is forced to embark on an odyssey through the American West as a van-dwelling nomad.

The buzz over “Nomadland” began when it became the only film ever to win both the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Locally, it opened the Middleburg Film Festival in Virginia in October before a one-week run in select cities to qualify for the Oscars.

And yet, no one in the public could see it.

In December, it topped countless “Best of 2020” lists, which I couldn’t bring myself to do since most folks still couldn’t watch it. It felt disingenuous to say, “Hey, listeners, here is the greatest movie of the year — but sorry, you can’t see it until late February because I’m a critic with special access and you’re a hardworking American with a life.”

And yet, no one in the public could see it.

By January, “Nomadland” was named Best Film by critics circles in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Greater Western New York, Houston, Indiana, Kansas City, London, North Dakota, North Texas, San Francisco, St. Louis, Toronto and my own D.C. critics group at the Washington Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA).

And yet, no one in the public could see it.

Finally, we’ve reached Feb. 19 with the Hulu release, a date that’s long been circled on my movie calendar, so that I can finally declare what I’ve privately known for months: “Nomadland” is the film most likely and most deserving to win Best Picture this year.

From a cinematic standpoint, it’s hard to top the sunsets by director Chloe Zhao, who debuted at Sundance with “My Brothers Taught Me” (2015) before her underrated masterpiece “The Rider” (2017). If Zhao wins the Best Director Oscar, she’d make history as just the second woman ever and the second Asian filmmaker in a row.

Zhao is confident enough to give audiences credit. In an era of dumbed-down hand holding that assumes viewers need everything explained to them and wrapped up neatly in a bow, Zhao builds to a trifecta of silent scenes at an empty table, abandoned factory and foreclosed rancher that allow us to assign our own interpretations.

Likewise, her visual language cleverly subverts the form, rolling out like a hybrid of narrative and documentary, dropping fictional characters into a supporting cast of real nomads to chronicle their unique lifestyle. At one point, a nomad accidentally calls the protagonist “Frances” instead of “Fern,” which oddly adds to the film’s authenticity.

Frances McDormand could very well join acting’s Mount Rushmore with a third win after “Fargo” (1996) and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017). Only five actors have ever won three or more Oscars, while only two have done it in leading roles. Believe it or not, their names aren’t Marlon Brando or Denzel Washington.

Best of all, “Nomadland” perfectly captures the zeitgeist of our pandemic reality. While the plot is not specifically about COVID-19, its themes very much are: tackling the grief of lost loved ones, stresses of economic crisis, and the desire to hit the road to escape heavily populated areas for a quieter, more self-sufficient, introspective existence.

Who wouldn’t want to travel the country in a van right now? My wife and I seriously considered getting an RV to ride out quarantine, but the idea of a mobile hotspot with spotty WiFi was too risky to conduct Zoom interviews and review streaming shows.

Now, other folks who are similarly stuck at home can finally experience the quiet wonders of “Nomadland” on Hulu. It’s not only a chance to see the Oscar frontrunner for Best Picture, but also proof, finally, that this critically acclaimed film actually exists.

Read my 4-star review of “Nomadland.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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