Here are some of the things you can say about movies to sound like you know what you’re talking about:
- Refer to films in the context of their director’s oeuvre. It’s not my favorite Baumbach, but I like it well enough.
- Say you love any foreign director with a name that is – to most American ears – very foreign-sounding. I love the works of Hirokazu Kore-eda.
- Observe that a film reminds you of another, older film. You can see here where they’re taking this straight from Battle of Algiers.
- Lament a particularly performance did not merit an Oscar nomination or win, even if you don’t know who was nominated or who won. It’s absolutely criminal that Emily Blunt didn’t get nominated for Sicario.
- Recommend a double-billing. A very interesting double-billing would be Nomadland and Minari.
Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland and Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari have long been on the radar, but have just in the last two weeks become widely available (Nomadland is available on Hulu and Minari is available VOD). They are two of the best films to be released in this fluid 2020-21 season, and they very well could combine to take four of the big six Oscars, so there is already reason enough to juxtapose them. But it turns out that thematically, narratively, and stylistically the two films are natural conversation partners.
They are stories of America that are inextricable from their physical settings. For Nomadland, that setting spans the southwest to the Dakotas as Fern follows the opportunities for work in her van/house. She exists on the borders of the wild and the sparsely populated municipalities, flitting back and forth between natural beauty and synthetic grime, at all times, no matter where she goes, a free spirit having to find a way to make herself valuable in a system even bigger than the land she traverses. Minari is situated in the middle of fly-over country, too, but is confined to the small home and the fifty acres the Yi family calls their own. They are isolated in a strange land that, for Jacob, represents the boundless opportunities associated with putting down roots. His American Dream is to find a patch of dirt where he can succeed; Fern’s is to keep moving without being tied down.
They are their own American portraits – one of an aging white woman in the 2010s, the other of a Korean-American family in the 80s – but both are about the opportunities and the perils of lower-class American life. An economic recession upended Fern’s life, and now she has to go from Amazon warehouses to construction sites to tourist traps just to be able to keep moving. She and her fellow nomads do not fit neatly in the constructs of American capitalism. If they are smart, committed, and a little lucky, they can make their own way. But if anything goes wrong, they find themselves up against it in a hurry. The Yi’s immigrate from Korea to California in the hopes of finding a better life, and then again from California to Arkansas to do more than just barely making it sexing chickens. If everything goes as planned, Jacob and Monica’s hard work could build something great. But there are no safety nets. If anything goes wrong, they are instantly in peril of losing what they hope to secure for their family.
Between the two films, their shared themes are examined through the story of a single woman, grieving the loss of her husband and estranged from the rest of her family, and of a family, trying to manage a fraying marriage, a sickly son, a growing daughter, and a newly-arrived grandmother. Fern finds family in the the people she meets along the way, while the Yi’s must learn to live with the few people they are around all the time.
They make a nice pair visually and sonically, and both move at a nice pace while not being driven by conventional plots. They are both sincere and heartfelt, hopeful if not entirely optimistic, realistic and grounded as they are aspirational and spiritual.
So watch these films, and – if you can – without too much time between. There are worse ways to spend an evening or a weekend.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria