Considering a return to theaters? 3 offbeat, acclaimed films worth the trip

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Frances McDormand is Fern, a widow adrift in Western states in her beloved van, who follows seasonal work and connects with the subculture of van and RV nomads in Golden Globe-winning Nomadland. -IMDb photo

For seekers of worthy film offerings, three offbeat but critically acclaimed stories of American struggles are worth checking out.

Nomadland: Winner of the Golden Globe on Sunday for Best Motion Picture-Drama and Chloé Zhao only the second woman ever to win a best director Golden Globe.

Frances McDormand is Fern, a widow left adrift after her gypsum-mining village in Nevada becomes a ghost town. She wanders the Western states in her beloved van, which she calls “Vanguard,” following seasonal work, and connects with the subculture of van and RV nomads with a hub in Quartzsite, Ariz.

She works cleaning state parks or in the kitchen at Wall Drug in South Dakota, at a beet harvest in Nebraska, at an Amazon facility in Nevada. She makes friends. A fellow nomad named Dave (David Strathairn) might even be a love interest, although Fern is cautious in such matters.

Scripted and directed by Zhao, this adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book feels like a true original, heartwarming without sentimentality, maybe a hair slow but beautifully acted and shot. McDormand and Strathairn are the only two professional actors that I recognized. Most of the rest of the cast, including “van-dwelling” YouTube guru Bob Wells, use their own names and play themselves, with great warmth and poignancy.

This gives the movie the quality of a documentary, but with a movie-star presence at its center.

And it need hardly be said that McDormand is wonderful. Fern is another of her classic sensible yet frayed-at-the-edges creations. She gets across Fern’s aching sadness at finding herself at such a cosmically loose end, but she also shows us the exhilaration she feels at her independence.

Whenever Fern is tempted with an offer of permanence, her instinct is to move on. Maybe when Kris Kristofferson observed that “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose,” Fern’s lifestyle is what he meant.

Minari: Winner of the 2021 Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture-Foreign Language. It really is an American film but because it has considerable dialogue in Korean, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association placed it in this category.

Lee Isaac Chung wrote and directed this autobiographical chronicle of a Korean family struggling to start a farm in rural Arkansas in the early 1980s. Dad Jacob (Steven Yeun) is an expert “chicken-sexer” (able to quickly determine the sex of chicks at a hatchery and sort them).

He’s dragged his family from California to the south, to the horror of his pretty, pious wife Monica (Han Ye-ri), because he wants to start a produce farm specializing in Korean vegetables and fruits for what he perceives as a growing immigrant market in Dallas and Oklahoma City (the title refers to an herb popular in Korean cuisine).

The couple and their two young children, Annie (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim) are eventually joined by a mischievous, fun-loving Grandma (Youn Yuh-jung), who doesn’t seem to David to act like a grandma is supposed to.

There’s also a showcase role for Will Patton, as a religiously ecstatic, tongue-speaking farm hand trying to help Jacob realize his dream.

This may be the best film I’ve seen so far this year; a contemporary take on the early-’30s dramas about ordinary people up against agricultural and meteorological fate, like Murnau’s City Girl or Dovzhenko’s Earth.

As in those films, the antagonists are largely elemental: water, fire, health. But Minari’s characters aren’t emblematic; they have a psychological subtlety and reality, and their passions and priorities also drive the conflict.

The story-telling is simple, but the problems these people have with the land, and with each other, are anything but.

The Mauritanian: Jodie Foster won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.

The title character, played with disconcerting charm by the Algerian-French actor Tahar Rahim, is Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who was held at Guantanamo Bay for a decade and a half, and tortured, without ever being charged with a crime, on suspicion of having been a recruiter for 9/11 terrorists.

Foster and Shailene Woodley are the pro bono lawyers working to free Salahi under habeas corpus, and getting stonewalled by U.S. intelligence. Benedict Cumberbatch is the Marine officer assigned to prosecute Salahi, who finds himself equally stonewalled.

Directed by the capable Scotsman Kevin Macdonald, this is another of the surprisingly large class of political dramas like The Report or Official Secrets or Fair Game, which remind us of the constitutional outrages of the W. Bush administration as well as the failure of the Obama administration to rectify most of them.

Macdonald sets an unhurried pace, and generates a steadily waxing sense of almost Kafkaesque fury and horror.

It’s a well-acted, compelling movie and it can boil your blood. And it should.

Nomadland, Minari and The Mauritanian play at multiplexes Valley-wide. Nomadland also plays on the IMAX screen at Arizona Mills. For those who still prefer to watch from home, Nomadland is available on Hulu, Minari on Amazon Prime and other streaming platforms, and The Mauritanian is available to rent on several platforms.

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