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We’re all just trying to power through. After more than a year of global calamity, political whiplash and upended daily life, there are likely few individuals who don’t feel pounded into oblivion most days. The world of film often serves as an escape route, but this year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has bestowed its highest honors on the films and filmmakers that have captured the hardscrabble mood of the moment. In particular, the 2021 directing nominees have each gazed inward to home in on narratives of survival.
For some of these directors, their nominated films represent a culmination of their oeuvres. Nomadland‘s Chloé Zhao, who grew up in mainland China, has devoted her career to exposing the beauty and bleakness of the American heartland. Her 2015 debut drama, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, and juggernaut 2017 indie Western The Rider both depict the struggles of real-life Lakota Sioux youth living in the Badlands of South Dakota. She continues this documentary-style fictional storytelling in Searchlight’s Nomadland, which focuses on Fern (Frances McDormand), an older wage worker who roams the American West in a customized van while seeking seasonal gigs. Zhao adapted her screenplay from a nonfiction book about this true-to-life post-recession subculture of retirement-age Americans who don’t have the luxury of leaving the workforce. Nomadland is a lyrical neo-Western that explores themes of scarcity and independence, but above all, it details what it takes to endure such a demanding lifestyle.
In a similar vein, Emerald Fennell’s career-spanning themes of life-or-death feminism persist in her daring feature debut, Promising Young Woman. The British multihyphenate has acted in a number of staid, female-forward period dramas like The Crown and Call the Midwife, but her boldest work has been the darkly comic and violent stories she’s written herself. In 2018, she took over for Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the second-season showrunner on the hit BBC thriller Killing Eve, about the erotic, bloodthirsty dynamic between an assassin and the female MI5 agent hunting her. That same year, her short film Careful How You Go premiered at Sundance, telling the story of three women who indulge their inherent cruelty through random acts of mischief. In Focus’ hyperreal black comedy Promising Young Woman, Fennell further delves into chaos and carnage by dissecting the #MeToo movement. Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, a medical school dropout who spends years pursuing revenge against all those complicit in the rape and eventual suicide of her best friend. Nomadland‘s Fern and Promising Young Woman‘s Cassie each fight to navigate their harsh worlds after experiencing shattering trauma.
While Zhao and Fennell have crafted complex survivalist stories informed by their activism and sociopolitical interests, fellow directing nominees Thomas Vinterberg (Another Round), Lee Isaac Chung (Minari) and David Fincher (Mank) each draw from their personal lives to tell intimate stories about men on the precipice of losing their families and careers.
In the Danish dramedy Another Round, Mads Mikkelsen plays a demoralized high school teacher who at first improves — but then nearly destroys — his relationships when he and his friends dabble in constant drunkenness to boost their self-confidence. Vinterberg initially envisioned a more overtly comic tone for the film, including more intergenerational conflict in the school setting. At the beginning of the shoot, however, his teenage daughter, Ida, died in a car accident. After a period of mourning, he eventually returned to the film to honor Ida, and the completed version of the film is a delicate, spirited and heart-wrenching examination of modern masculinity. Another Round‘s final scene is its most memorable: During a waterfront celebration, Mikkelsen’s boozed-up Martin suddenly explodes into liberated dance as a crowd of students cheers him on. It’s both exuberant and aching, evoking Vinterberg’s persistence in the face of tragedy.
Notions of memory and fatherhood similarly yoke Chung and Fincher to their own 2020 survival-themed films. In his semiautobiographical A24 drama, Minari, Chung looks to his 1980s rural Arkansas childhood to tell the story of a young Korean immigrant family that moves to the backwoods of the American South to start a produce farm. Jacob (Steven Yeun), a character inspired by Chung’s father, is so determined to carve out a space for himself in this desolate and unfamiliar environment that he ends up alienating his homesick wife.
Mank is equally personal for Fincher, who directed the Netflix film based on a decades-long project originally conceived by his father, Jack. The black-and-white homage to 1930s Hollywood stars Gary Oldman as scandalous scriptwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, a raconteur alcoholic who systematically destroys his relationships to craft the infamously gossipy Citizen Kane screenplay. Fincher spent years working on Mank‘s story outline with his now-deceased dad, starting in the 1980s, until they had whittled down the historical components into a grand portrait of a truth-teller who is eventually squeezed out of his profession. Both Minari and Mank question what it takes to persevere for the sake of a dream — and whether one’s legacy is worth all the suffering.
This story first appeared in the April 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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