The 58th annual New York Film Festival is going high- and low-tech to deliver its slate of fall awards contenders.  During the COVID-19 edition of the festival, film lovers can attend through the drive-ins scattered around New York City. Fans from across the country can buy tickets for the virtual on-line screenings.  This week on The Screen Scene I’ll be talking about two of my favorites from the festival’s first week.  One is coming to theaters in December, and the other will be on Amazon Prime later this year.

Nomadland is the new feature from Chloe Zhou, the writer-director of the 2017 film The Rider.  Her latest feature focuses on Fern, a woman in her sixties who has lost her husband and decides to hit the road in her van and see America.  Fern once taught in her local school system.  When she bumps into a former student, the young girl asks if Fern is homeless.  “I’m houseless.  There’s a difference,” she responds with a smile.

In the opening scenes of the film, we see Fern giving away her furniture and appliances along with her household knickknacks.  She keeps a couple of dishes from a set her father once gave her, then sets out in a van fitted with a mattress, a single electric burner and a five-gallon bucket for a toilet.  She listens to the radio or reads for entertainment. 

It seems like an austere way to live.  What could the allure possibly be to lead a life on the margins of society?  Nomadland gives us some answers.  Shot after shot shows the beauty of the American landscape surrounding Fran.  She encounters fascinating people along the way.  To Fran, life isn’t what you own, it’s the experiences you have. 

Nomadland is based on the nonfiction work of the same name by Jessica Bruder, an investigative journalist.  Bruder lived for over a year in the nomad community, roaming the country with a variety of “travelers,” some of whom appear in the film playing themselves. 

They believe in freeing themselves from the shackles of home ownership, planned neighborhoods and corporate cubicles.  They instead choose to work seasonal jobs as they travel across the country, earning just enough money to provide for their meager lifestyles.

Frances McDormand gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Fern.  She explores the fine line between running toward freedom and running away from heartbreak.  Is it brave to hit the road with only the clothes on your back?  Or is it simply choosing flight over fight?  Is it a form of psychological surrender? 

In The Rider, Chloe Zhoe entered the world of rodeo riders.  She focused on the story of Brady Jandreau, a young cowboy who is recovering from a career-ending injury.  Zhoe used Jandreau himself as her lead and filled out her supporting cast with Jandreau’s actual family members.  It created an unforgettable, immersive experience.

In Nomadland, Zhoe uses actual nomads and travelers to play themselves and inserts pieces of their actual lives into the narrative of the film.  In the Q&A following the screening, Zhoe discussed her efforts to create an “ecosystem” where actors, non-actors and crew can all co-exist within a film production and contribute their pieces to the story being told. 

Nomadland won top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, and is gaining Oscar momentum with each stop it makes on the festival circuit.  It’s one of this year’s best films and hits theaters on December 4thThe Rider is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD and through digital rental platforms like Vudu and Red Box.

Mangrove is the new film from British writer-director Steve McQueen.  McQueen previously directed 12 Years a Slave, the Oscar Winning Best Picture of 2014.  Mangrove finds McQueen returning to history for his source material, telling the true story of The Mangrove Nine who clashed with British police in 1970 while protesting the mistreatment of black businesses and their patrons in London’s Notting Hill.

The Mangrove is a restaurant run by Frank Crichlow.  He wants to offer his Caribbean cuisine to his neighborhood.  As the restaurant grows in popularity, members of the Black Panthers and other revolutionary groups begin to use The Mangrove as a place to mobilize local support for their protests and their policies.

Like it or not, Frank begins to be seen as a community leader and reluctantly joins in the struggle against racism.  When the police begin raiding The Mangrove on a regular basis and disrupting Frank’s livelihood, his solidarity with the protest movement begins to grow.      

The film opens in 1968, but the conflict between black citizens and white police officers could be set in today’s America.  When a black family complains about their treatment at the hands of law enforcement, a white officer dismisses them with the words “Go back to wherever you come from.”  These words and the sentiments behind them are all too familiar in recent American politics and on social media.

In addition to its uncanny timeliness, Mangrove is masterful filmmaking from beginning to end.  The film gets underway as a compelling character drama and wraps up as an equally compelling courtroom drama.  The ensemble cast is nothing short of perfection, and McQueen has always been a master visual stylist.  After veering into crime thriller territory with his 2018 film Widows, McQueen returns to the kind of hard-hitting dramas he was making fifteen years ago. 

Mangrove is the first installment in Small Axe, an anthology of films directed by McQueen that begin streaming on Amazon Prime on November 20th.  Having already seen the second installment, Lovers Rock, I can tell you that Small Axe will be one of the major film events of the year.