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‘Nomadland’ takes best picture at the Oscars, and director Chloé Zhao makes history

Director Chloé Zhao, left, with actress Frances McDormand on the set of "Nomadland."
Director Chloé Zhao, left, with actress Frances McDormand on the set of "Nomadland."Searchlight Pictures via AP

Nomadland,” a moving and poetic wide-screen examination of modern American van-life and the gig economy, won best picture of 2020 at the 93rd annual Academy Awards Sunday night. The ceremonies, an unusual pandemic-era production held at Los Angeles’ Union Station, represented a hopeful and resurgent film industry putting on its finery and face masks to celebrate the medium.

Chloé Zhao accepts the Academy Award for best director.
Chloé Zhao accepts the Academy Award for best director. Handout/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images

“Nomadland” helmer Chloé Zhao also won the Oscar for best director, capping a long victory tour for her film. She is only the second woman to win the award (after Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker” in 2009) and the first woman of color. Accepting the best picture statue, Zhao dedicated the win to the many real-life nomads she met on the road while preparing and filming “Nomadland.” “Thank you for teaching us the power of resilience and hope and for teaching us what real kindness looks like,” she said.

In addition, Frances McDormand won best actress for her portrayal of Fern, the footloose heroine of “Nomadland.” It is McDormand’s third Oscar, after “Fargo,” in 1997, and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” in 2018, and the star seemed in a relaxed and quixotic mood, howling like a wolf after the best picture win for “Nomadland” and quoting her character in the film, Fern, upon accepting the acting award: “I have no words, my voice is in my sword, we know our life is in our work, and . . . I like work.”


In the evening’s biggest upset, the best actor award, which many assumed would go to the late Chadwick Boseman for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” was won instead by Anthony Hopkins for his portrayal of a fading patriarch in “The Father.” The oldest ever winner in an acting category, Sir Anthony was neither present at the ceremonies nor available virtually, and so the awards, which had been rearranged to present the lead acting awards after best picture – and presumably end on an elegiac win for Boseman – fell embarrassingly flat. It was a limp finale for an otherwise intimate and innovative Oscars.


Frances McDormand, winner of this year's best actress Oscar poses in the press room with  Yuh-Jung Youn, winner of this year's best supporting actress Oscar.
Frances McDormand, winner of this year's best actress Oscar poses in the press room with Yuh-Jung Youn, winner of this year's best supporting actress Oscar. Pool/Getty

Daniel Kaluuya won the Oscar for best supporting actor for his ferocious portrayal of murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” The British actor, whose tour of the awards circuit led up to an expected Academy win, gave a moving speech thanking God, his family, the cast and crew of the film, and the memory of Hampton. “Judas” also won the Oscar for best song (“Fight for You”), an award many had predicted would be won by “Speak Now” from “One Night in Miami . . .”

Yuh-Jung Youn took home the award for best supporting actress. The South Korean acting legend won for her portrayal of the grandmother in “Minari,” a much-loved independent film about a Korean family struggling to start a farm in 1980s Arkansas. After a number of wins earlier in the awards season, a puckish acceptance speech was expected, and Youn did not disappoint. After apologizing to fellow nominee Glenn Close for beating her, Youn thanked “my two boys, who made me go out and work. This is mommy’s reward for working so hard.”

Daniel Kaluuya accepts the Academy Award for best supporting actor.
Daniel Kaluuya accepts the Academy Award for best supporting actor. Handout/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images

Emerald Fennell won the award for best original screenplay for writing “Promising Young Woman,” a startling tale of revenge in the #MeToo era. In one of the evening’s early upsets — and perhaps a premonition — “The Father,” adapted from Florian Zeller’s play by Zeller and Christopher Hampton, won the award for best adapted screenplay, an Oscar that many thought “Nomadland” had sewn up.


Another Round,” a darkly comic Danish film about men and alcohol, won best international feature, and director Thomas Vinterberg spoke for every Oscar winner, ever, when he said “This is like something I can’t imagine ... except it’s something I’ve always imagined.”

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a Netflix production that was notably not nominated for best picture, won the awards for best hair and make-up and best costumes. The latter statue went to Ann Roth, at 89 a legend in her field whose 60-plus year career includes five previous nominations and one win (for “The English Patient” in 1996).

Sound Of Metal,” which memorably employed sound design to re-create the encroachment of deafness on the hero played by Riz Ahmed, won best sound, an award newly merged from the sound editing and sound mixing awards of previous years. The film, nominated for six Oscars, also won the best editing award.

If a Pixar movie is in the running for the feature animation Oscar, it’s useless to bet against it, and so “Soul,” a frisky tale of jazz and the bardo, triumphed. Co-director Pete Docter, in accepting the award, said, “My wish for all of us tonight is that we could follow the example of jazz musicians — that wherever we are, whatever we have, we turn it into something beautiful.” In addition, the score by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and jazz pianist Jon Batiste took home the statue for best score.


Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor, and Atticus Ross, Oscar winners for best score for "Soul."
Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor, and Atticus Ross, Oscar winners for best score for "Soul." Pool/Getty

This year’s Academy Awards took place under the slowly receding shadow of COVID-19. For the first time in Oscar history, the live audience was restricted to the nominees and their immediate families. (The “Nomadland” crew did include Swankie and Linda May, two of the many non-professional actors who essentially played themselves.) Still, the evening was an improvement over the mass Zoom meetings that have been the run-up awards ceremonies this year.

The pandemic also directly affected the race itself: With the major studios shelving their 2020 awards hopefuls for a year rather than risk releasing them to streaming platforms, the nominations were more than ever dominated by independent distributors, which included (ironically enough) those same streaming platforms. Netflix had 35 potential chances to win an Oscar Sunday night, among the highest tally by any studio in the Academy’s annals, and by evening’s end had won seven statues, more than any other company. The streaming giant’s ubiquity delivered “My Octopus Teacher” to a broader audience than most nonfiction films receive and arguably to the Oscar it won for best feature documentary over a number of critically acclaimed nominees.

That higher profile for indie films and an increasingly diverse Academy membership helped field the most varied nominations to date, with the directing category, traditionally held down by Hollywood’s old boy’s club, including two women (Zhao and Fennell) and two directors of color (Zhao and Lee Isaac Chung). Actors of color held down nine of a possible 20 slots, a healthy increase since the #OscarsSoWhite campaigns of recent years. In the end, however, established white actors won in the lead performance categories.


The pandemic pushed back the Academy ceremonies to late April and created the longest awards season in recent memory, and some of the categories seemed foregone conclusions. While “Nomadland” came into the evening the heavy favorite to win best picture, David Fincher’s “Mank,” a Netflix production about the creation of the 1941 screen classic “Citizen Kane,” was the night’s most-nominated entry, with 10 nods, including best picture, director, actor (Gary Oldman), supporting actress (Amanda Seyfried as actress Marion Davies). A movie made for those who really, really love movie history, “Mank” was the nominee with the least mainstream appeal but most fondness from a voting group made up of actual moviemakers. In the end, it came away with only two Oscars, for production design and cinematography.

The Awards also took place in a transitional era for the movies. There were complaints, as always, from pundits who felt the nominated pictures constituted a misery parade (hardly true); more to the point, movie experiences seemed passe as more and more consumers flocked to multi-chapter series on burgeoning streaming channels like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. Did the gripes that this year’s Oscar nominees were too obscure hold water, or was the culture’s attention simply elsewhere? Given that almost all the nominees were loudly acclaimed and available on video on demand, the second answer seems more likely. What that bodes for the future is anyone’s guess, but Sunday night the Oscars did the best they could with limited resources. Until fate threw a curveball in the ninth inning, it worked.

Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.