On a smoky Friday night at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, filmmaker Chloé Zhao and the Telluride Film Festival’s Julie Huntsinger introduced “Nomadland” (December 4) at an outdoor drive-in screening, hosted by Searchlight Pictures, which provided car-sniffing dogs, food-truck meal pickups, and checkerboard parking for 300 cars. At the end of the movie, instead of applause, attendees enthusiastically honked and blinked their lights. Afterward, Pasadena’s KPCC host John Horn conducted a live panel with Zhao, star Frances McDormand, and several of the film’s nomads. For many in the crowd, it was the first screening they’d attended since the lockdown in mid-March. “The world was still light when we first met,” said McDormand of her film collaborators. “It got darker later on.”
Also on Friday night, Francis Lee’s “Ammonite” (November 13, Neon) which had been selected by Cannes and Telluride, debuted at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. The next day, on Saturday, at closing ceremonies in Venice, “Nomadland” took home the festival’s Golden Lion, while Vanessa Kirby won Best Actress for Kornél Mundruczó’s “Pieces of a Woman,” which had just played at TIFF and was scooped up by Netflix to add to its fat awards slate.
Let the Best Actress Oscar race begin. Kirby had already earned raves out of Venice for her shattering performance as a woman who loses her child in a home birth. Also earning praise were McDormand, who plays a low-income widow who roams the highways in her van, learning self-sufficiency as she meets fellow nomads along the way; and “Ammonite” star Kate Winslet, who plays a lonely 19th-century paleontologist who opens up to a young wife (Saoirse Ronan) who has succumbed to melancholia.
All three movies demanded a high degree of difficulty for their stars. Having already won two Oscars (“Fargo,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), McDormand developed and produced “Nomadland,” based on her passion for journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction account of her own road odyssey. McDormand chose Zhao, who directed the 2017 western docudrama “The Rider” (with Marvel’s “Eternals” coming in 2021) to help her fashion a hybrid cinema vérité fiction narrative. McDormand had to perform not only with David Strathairn as her romantic interest, but a cast of actual road warriors acting out versions of their own stories. The result is a gorgeous and poignant odyssey that brings to light a part of America that has been marginalized. Zhao and McDormand have pulled off an innovative filmmaking feat.
“It was a lesson in humility to be accepted by this group of people,” said McDormand, “to know that whatever currency I had as an actor didn’t make any difference if I couldn’t pull my weight…It takes a lot of courage to commit to the life.”
Also an Oscar winner is Winslet (“The Reader”), who takes on a shut-down, taciturn woman who barely speaks, yet expresses depths of feeling as she slowly allows another human being to touch her physically and emotionally in a way she has never felt.
New to film awards contention is Kirby, who scored a BAFTA win and Emmy nomination as rebellious fashionista Princess Margaret in Netflix’s royal saga “The Crown.” Since then her star is rising: she also scored Venice kudos in her supporting role in Mona Fastvold’s lesbian love story “The World to Come,” and stars in another TIFF entry, Agnieszka Holland’s “Mr. Jones.”
In “Pieces of a Woman,” Kirby is raw and vulnerable as a woman who is broken by the death of her baby daughter within minutes of her birth, which was filmed in an astonishing 30-minute take. The aftermath of the loss takes its toll on her job, her partner (Shia LaBeouf), and her mother (Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”). With Netflix behind it, the film could go far.
While there will be more movies to follow over the long haul between now and this year’s two-month-delayed award season, culminating in the Oscar telecast on April 25, 2021, these three extraordinary actresses are taking the early lead.