Updated: Aug 15, 2021
You may not have heard of Chloé Zhao before this year. Her ripple-making Nomadland is one of the few universally acclaimed films to come out in 2020, winning the big prize at both Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals. At this rate, she’s a lock for a her first best director nomination at the Academy Awards. But not all know her earlier features. From Beijing to London to Los Angeles, it might seem odd that Zhao landed on the Great Plains as her subject of interest. Her freshman and sophomore features take place in the Dakotas, using relatively inexperienced actors to great effect nearby to Native American reservations and horse ranches. With her documentary-like shooting style and uncritical lens, she is among the most interesting directors working today. Let’s take a look at her feature filmography.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015)
There is most definitely a shortage of films documenting modern-day Native American life on the common filmgoer’s radar. I like Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River well and good, but big names Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olson’s attachment to the project shows how difficult it is for such stories to be told without making compromises to appeal to the masses. Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a film that belongs to the actors and the location; a slice of life with no ulterior motives. Zhao in collaboration with long-time cinematographer and life partner Joshua James Richards captures the scenic views of Pine Ridge in a thoroughly beautiful manner, with soft natural lighting and an emphasis on quiet moments. This culminates in a finale that stimulates the senses and breathes life into the soul thanks to a stellar composition by Peter Golub. It is heartfelt, it is momentous, and most importantly, it feels oh so real. Travis Lone Hill is a highlight, although seeing Irene Bedard (most well-known voice of Pocahontas) in a meaty role is quite the reward. Songs My Brother Taught Me is a mighty starting point for a stellar career.
The Rider (2017)
I had the pleasure of seeing The Rider in the cinema in the summer of 2018. Knowing very little about it, I was genuinely stunned when I found out, a good forty minutes in, that it was not, in fact, a documentary. A piece of docu-fiction, rather, would explain the onslaught of expertly coordinated horse training scenes led by real-life cowboy Brady Jandreau in the fields of North Dakota. Zhao continues the trend of incredible colors, naturalistic dialogue, and a relaxed approach as she observes the Jandreau family (playing the Blackburns) in their natural habitat: a dude ranch. Zhao had met Brady on the set of Songs My Brothers Taught Me, and he had actually suffered an injury from a rodeo-related incident, thus inspiring the making of this movie. His sister Lilly provides many of the comedic moments in the film, and the best part is that it’s never totally clear just how much of the family’s interactions are scripted. Laid-back and poetic even amidst the convulsions of the rodeo lifestyle, this simple movie is a modern western portrait for the ages.
For rent: Amazon Prime
Alas, we have arrived at the movie of the year and quite possibly this era as a whole. As someone who has been many times over compelled to denounce my worldly possessions and live with less material burden (further propelled by the isolation of this pandemic, I might add), Nomadland is a righteous acknowledgement of people's pent-up anxieties from the movie gods. Frances McDormand, who just keeps popping up in quality stuff, is at her most down-to-earth here as an aspiring vagabond in the great American west. It’s not showy or romantic (not that we’d ever expect that sort of thing from Zhao), and it doesn’t offer one right answer for how people should live their lives. Instead, it’s a single person’s journey for purpose and self-actualization in the face of a bleak alternative. Real life nomads made up all but two of the nomad actors (McDormand herself and seasoned actor David Strathairn being the exceptions) in the film, adding another degree of depth to the perspectives voiced by these aging individuals living on the road. I would also like to give a special shoutout to musician Ludovico Einaudi for providing the atmospheric compositions. Nomadland is immersive, enlightening, and all in all a true opus of independent cinema. I cannot recommend this movie enough, and I encourage my readers to seek it out.
Zhao’s upcoming projects include a Bass Reeves biopic (another western!) and Marvel’s Eternals, set to release in November 2021. I hope that her distinct style continues to prevail even in larger studio projects, and I wish her great luck with all of her future endeavors.