Fern, Mank, and Oscar

Nomadland meanders toward profundity, while Mank never arrives

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The more time passes, the more it seems to blur. Nomadland takes place in 2012 and is therefore a kind of period piece, but that designation runs the risk of suggesting that the problems it depicts aren’t as real today as they were eight years ago. More optimistically, one might argue that the recent-past timeframe underscores those issues in a way that setting the film in the present day might not — it reaffirms that they’re neither new nor going away anytime soon.

Frances McDormand stars as Fern, who takes to an itinerant lifestyle in her RV after the death of her husband and the loss of her company-town job during the Great Recession. It’s the kind of performance that would make even the all-timers blush. I tend to favor spreading the wealth when it comes to year-end awards, especially for a performer who’s already won two Oscars, but it’s difficult to think of any other reason why the Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri honoree shouldn’t take home her third trophy. Most of the actors she shares the screen with aren’t actually actors but real-life nomads playing slightly fictionalized versions of themselves, and they do so so casually — aided in no small part by McDormand’s skill as well as those of writer/director Chloé Zhao — that you’d never guess this is their first time onscreen.

Zhao’s last film, the equally moving The Rider, took a similarly verité approach. She’s enormously gifted, and though it’s hard to imagine that her upcoming Marvel project Eternals (starring the likes of Angelina Jolie and Kumail Nanjiani) will be remotely similar to these two (I still haven’t seen Songs My Brothers Taught Me, her first film) I’m certainly more excited for it than I am for the next attempt at rebooting Fantastic Four.

For all that, I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed this as much as most of my peers seem to have. In addition to being the most well-reviewed film of the year, Nomadland has picked up major awards from both the New York Film Critics Circle and my alma mater, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association; I don’t begrudge these accolades, but I’m not sure I would have voted for them. It’s quiet and spare in a way I admired more than I actively loved.

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Just as likely to be receive pride of place at the Academy Awards is Mank (on Netflix), David Fincher’s first film since 2014’s regrettable Gone Girl. That he went from directing Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Social Network in three absurdly productive years to making these two over the course of six is nothing if not a bummer. (If the final scene of Benjamin Button doesn’t at least make you misty-eyed, we probably shouldn’t be friends.)

Though the different theories regarding Citizen Kane’s true authorship aren’t as conspiratorial or far-fetched as their Shakespearean counterparts, they do make for good trivia. And while this look at Herman Mankiewicz’s rushed, boozy writing process gets points for actually being about writing in a way that few movies are, it never gives the impression of having needed to be made by Fincher as opposed to some replacement-level director of autumnal prestige pictures. At their best, Fincher’s movies have a sense of urgency that threatens to leap off the screen; here, despite being about the Greatest Movie of All Time, it almost feel lackadaisical.

The black-and-white cinematography and era-appropriate production design really do make it look and feel like a ‘40s picture in a genuinely immersive way, and Amanda Seyfried is as good as you’ve heard as the unfairly maligned Marion Davies, but Gary Oldman’s performance in the title role left me longing for his days as the under-appreciated character actor who tore it up True Romance and The Fifth Element. I’m glad he got his Oscar, but can he get his sense of daring back as well?