Worst Best Picture: Is Nomadland Better or Worse Than Crash?

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2021 winner Nomadland. Is it better than Crash?

Now that the majority of this site is something other than this feature, I feel like I need to reset this. A few years ago I watched every single Best Picture winner and compared them to Crash. I’m now updating it once a year to add a new movie after the Oscars each year. Now that Nomadland has won, I have to ask the question I’ve now asked almost one hundred times: Is it worse than Crash? In recent years it seemed like an increasingly silly question, with Moonlight and Parasite winning and ranking among the best films to ever get this honor. Green Book showed that the Academy still has some Crash in them and that the old habits would die hard. Nomadland is a great movie, not as good as those two but better than many of the movies on this list, but still, we do this once a year so let’s get on with it.

This year everyone will talk about the Oscars because they messed up. I’m sure much will come out by way of explanation, but it seems likely that the producers felt like Chadwick Boseman would win and thus having Best Actor close out the night would be a dramatic ending. It’s unheard of in recent memory to not close with Best Picture, so that is the only possible explanation. Anthony Hopkins winning for The Father will overshadow everything else. Would it still have if they hadn’t changed the order this year? Probably, but not to this degree. I love the Oscars for what they could be a celebration of Hollywood and an increasingly global recognition of excellent film that you should see but they continue to fall short of that. For all the progress and all the greatness of the last few years, and even that has been inconsistent, this year’s was a mess of unforced errors. I think they largely got the major categories right, in my opinion, but in a way that no one will find satisfying.

The story won’t be Nomadland, but it should be. The film won three Oscars, the most of the year, which is in turn the least for a top competitor in many years, and won Best Director and Best Actress on top of the main prize. This is the first year since 2016 that I think nothing truly awful was nominated for Best Picture, but the top of the category was less crowded than usual. This felt foretold, which may contribute to the deflated feeling after the ceremony. It will all be about that Best Actor mess, but I try to keep this series focused on legacy and on the future. And on Crash, but we’ll get to that.

Nomadland is the story of what you do in America when you have no more options. The film shows real “nomads,” or people who live out of vans and RVs and work seasonal or otherwise temporary jobs to survive. Much has been written about Fern, Frances McDormand’s character, working at Amazon but only saying the pay is great and that she wants to come back to the work. There’s an enormous social conversation going on about Amazon workers being forced to work in impossible conditions and the consequences of globalization and capitalism. The argument is that by mentioning Fern’s role in this but not using the platform to condemn it, you’re doing a disservice. I get this argument, but I feel like it misses the point of Nomadland.

Fern’s husband dies and the mine in their company town closes. These are catastrophic losses that threaten to unravel the things at the center of Fern’s world. She has to learn to cope, both logistically to cope with the actual challenges of loss of income and loss of her physical home and metaphorically to cope in a world that’s unexpectedly empty. Fern tells one of the nomads late in the film that she felt like she couldn’t leave because she had to stay. Fern doesn’t condemn Amazon because the lesson of her life was that dedicating one’s self to work, whether it’s in a positive, affirming sense or a frustrated, raging sense, is to ignore what’s right in front of you. Fern chooses an epiphany about the “now” of life and the missed opportunities by not moving and being open. It’s a coping mechanism, sure, but it’s also an entire philosophy. You could view this cynically, but I don’t walk away from it that way.

The best movie I saw in the last year was Another Round, which was nominated for Best Director but lost to Nomadland, though it did win Best International Feature Film. Another Round and Nomadland have similar messages. Both films want you to find something life affirming, but they want you to do it yourself. I would really encourage you to watch both of them, as they have incredible lead performances that are largely in the eyes and the way the actors take in situations. Nomadland is an incredible film that came out in a very weird year and beat a lot of really great pieces of art. MinariJudas and the Black Messiah, and Promising Young Woman were all excellent and any of them could have won this year.

The Oscars have a long way to go, which I feel like I’ve included in this series every year since we caught up to real-time. They have managed to make a product that effectively no one really likes, as they lean into what conservatives condemn as the same old Hollywood “issues” stories but don’t lean far enough to make consistently clear real statements or to hold a true perspective that any other viewer would appreciate. They continue to do things that any viewer could tell them will be met poorly, like speed up the “In Memoriam” section during a year of a global pandemic. They do a better job of picking nominees, but put on a performance that drags during boring sections and then spends less than five minutes on three categories 99% of the audience is locked in to see. They still take three hours to do all this, even after removing most of the “film” that they are supposedly there to honor.

Five years ago, the Academy honored Spotlight and ten years ago it was The King’s Speech. The wheel of time moves very quickly and I’m worried Nomadland will get missed under the weight of the weird ceremony and, uh, the end of the world that seems to keep looming. Frances McDormand spoke passionately at the ceremony and asked people to go see movies again and to really make an effort. Really, that’s what the Oscars should be doing, albeit less directly than she had to do it. This should be about getting you excited to see these movies and honestly, you should be excited with this year’s crop. Almost everything nominated this year is great, if not a little better than great. I’m sure the ratings will be bad and the response will be worse, but even as the Oscars lose their shine more and more, the films they mean to bring attention to deserve it. Just not Hillbilly Elegy.

The Best Part: Towards the end of the story, Fern revisits the closed town she left before the narrative started. We hear about Empire a lot, but only see it in these closing moments. There is so much storytelling done with the visuals and the absence of humanity that it feels like a scene from a movie about the apocalypse. Really stunning stuff.

The Worst Part: It takes a little bit to get going and does feel pretty slow. This is a contemplative story, a “movie for grownups” I guess, and calling a story about the modern world that finds a way to make you think without reading as preachy “slow” feels reductive, but it really does become something outstanding once Fern speaks with the real nomads.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It is better and everything nominated for the big award this year is better. I thought Mank was the worst of the eight Best Picture nominees, but even that has some charms. There were a few movies nominated this year for the other awards that weren’t perfect, but the only movie nominated for anything this year that would give Crash a run for the money is Hillbilly Elegy. It’s written from the same miserable worldview but with even fewer things to say. I think it’s a worse movie, on message and on craft, and while it obviously couldn’t win and wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture, I’m saying for posterity’s sake that it would have killed this whole exercise because it would have dethroned the legend. Nomadland is a thoughtful work of art, but the Academy still wanted to make sure to throw one nomination, at least, to something miserable and frustrating.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the NightAn American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of Africa | Schindler’s List | Gandhi | Ben-Hur | The Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Spotlight | Moonlight | The Shape of Water | Green Book | Parasite | Nomadland

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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