Chloé Zhao’s Favorite Movies: 10 Films the Director Likes

The "Eternals" and "Nomadland" director recommends everything from "Man of Steel" and "Bladerunner 2049" to Werner Herzog documentaries.
Chloe Zhao's Favorite Movies: (Clockwise from bottom left): "Bladerunner 2049," "The Lord of the Rings," "Man of Steel," and "Into the Abyss"
(Clockwise from bottom left): "Bladerunner 2049," "The Lord of the Rings," Chloe Zhao, "Man of Steel," and "Into the Abyss"
Courtesy Everett Collection

When you listen to Chloé Zhao talk about the films that she loves, an obvious pattern emerges. The Oscar-winning director describes her favorite movies by focusing on their scope and the worlds they create. One of her favorite ways to praise a director is by focusing how they approach using their locations: how the tiny details that populate a setting are considered, and how the characters’ interactions with their surroundings establish and reflect their own internal universes.

The films that use their locations successfully, in Zhao’s eyes, can vary widely. Some are massive epics like “Lord of the Rings” or “Interstellar,” while others are intimate romantic dramas like “Happy Together” or “Wuthering Heights.” Zhao’s films are often compared to the works of Terrence Malick, and she’s unsurprisingly a big fan of the director’s absorbing and gorgeous works, especially his 2005 historical epic “The New World.” But Zhao’s no snob about the other movies and TV shows she considers her favorites: “Man of Steel” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” are among the titles she’s quick to praise.

The priority Zhao gives to world-building in film is well reflected in her own work as a director. Across her first three movies — “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” “The Rider,” and “Nomadland,” which made her the second woman in history to win Best Director at the Oscars — she established herself as a chronicler of the American West, making movies about ordinary people in society’s margins navigating their ordinary troubles. Her first two films both starred non-professional actors, many from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux region. “Nomadland” had Oscar winner Frances McDormand in the lead as a widow who travels through the country working seasonal jobs as a nomad, but also featured of real-life modern nomads in its supporting cast. All three films are quiet and contemplative, placing the audience in the often quiet characters’ heads through the way they interact with the exquisite landscapes around them.

Those three movies established Zhao as an independent film darling, which made it intriguing when she joined up with Disney to direct “Eternals”: a big-budget superhero space epic and linchpin in Marvel’s Phase 4. The film didn’t become the critical darling that her pedigree promised, but nonetheless, seeing her move her sharp observant style to new subjects and genres remains an intriguing proposition. Zhao’s next film will see her take a stab at a historical romance; based on the book by Maggie O’Farrell, “Hamnet” will focus on the relationship between William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway (not that Anne Hathaway), and the devastating death of their only son.

It’s unclear how long we have to wait for Zhao’s return to the director’s chair, as “Hamnet” is still in pre-production. To bide the time before we can get another one of her movies, why not look at the movies that shaped her into the filmmaker she is? Here is a list of 10 of Zhao’s favorite films, compiled from interviews she’s given over the years and listed in no particular order.

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