Nomadland (2020)

Where’s it on? Disney+

Presumptuously timed for release on Disney+ the first Friday after the Academy Awards, Nomadland comes to us steeped in glory. Chloe Zhao’s story of an uprooted 60-something woman living out of her van nabbed Oscars for best film, best director and Frances McDormand’s third win as best actress. It’s the closest any best picture winner has ever come to documentary – albeit with an A-lister in the lead. Through her films Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017), Zhao has honed a hybrid style perched between low-key drama and docu-naturalism to explore marginalised lives in the modern American west. Languidly paced and lyrically shot, Nomadland puts McDormand among real-life nomads, playing versions of themselves, as they roam the US – an itinerant community on the edge of society. Zhao follows Fern (McDormand) into the wide open spaces of the west, but also to the farms, factories and Amazon warehouses where she looks for seasonal work to keep herself afloat.

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Let Him Go (2020)

Where’s it on? Digital platforms, DVD and Blu-ray

Here’s another story of the modern west, this time more like a genre movie. Diane Lane and Kevin Costner play grandparents in 1960s Montana – the Blackledges. Their son dies, leaving a wife and young son. But when the widow remarries into the unruly Weboy family, and they witness her being physically abused by her new husband, the grieving Blackledges become fearful for their grandson’s safety and travel to the Weboy homestead in North Dakota to confront the family. In a deliciously offbeat piece of casting, regent of the Weboy roost is our own Lesley Manville, who gives a film-stealingly colourful turn as malevolent matriarch Blanche Weboy. Tripling down on her Mrs Danvers routine in Phantom Thread (2017), Manville lords it terrifyingly over her brutish brood of wrong-’un kids. She’s queen bee of the rednecks, and she’ll stop at nothing to protect her own. This handsome and pleasingly old-fashioned thriller is based on a novel by Larry Watson. It’s had a relatively muted release on disc and digital platforms this week, but in any other moment could have kept a packed cinema in its grip.

Identifying Features (2020)

Where’s it on? BFI Player

We move south of the border for this Mexican drama. Again, the subject is the search for an absent loved one. Fernanda Valadez’s film begins with two teenage boys leaving their home in Guanajuato to travel to the US in search of work. Their mothers, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) and her neighbour Chuya (Laura Elena Ibarra), are left behind to fret, and when they don’t hear from their sons for months, Magdalena goes looking for them. Her journey takes her into the barren border country where drug cartels conduct their deadly reign. She hears about a bus ambush and discovers that Chuya’s son was killed. But, without a body, she refuses to believe that her own son is also dead. Valadez’s slow-burning mystery – her debut feature – is steeped in sadness and an oblique sense of horror and violence. Magdalena’s trip is a voyage into the heart of darkness, given a mythic dimension by glimpses of a fabled devil called El Diablo.

Labyrinth of Cinema (2019)

Where’s it on? Mubi

Labyrinth of Cinema (2019)

Labyrinth of Cinema is the final film from Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi, conceived and shot while he was being treated for the cancer that killed him in early 2020. UK audiences may know Obayashi only for his cult debut, the loopy haunted house horror Hausu (1977), as so little of his other work has seen release here. Labyrinth of Cinema follows a trend in his recent output for reflecting back on days of youth and the horrors of the Second World War. But it does so as part of a three-hour rush of beauty, in a hyperactive, hyperreal style that makes breathless use of goofy effects and ostentatiously naff green screen to conjure a helter-skelter fantasia of memory, national trauma and cultural flotsam. A group of young people attend a marathon of old war movies on a cinema’s closing night and find themselves tumbling back into scenes from history, including feudal battles and Hiroshima on the day of the bomb. By rights, this visual pell-mell should be exhausting over three hours. Yet despite the number of spinning plates, Obayashi brings his time-travelling parable in for a landing of real emotional force. Awe is the only available response.

The Chess Players (1977)

Where’s it on? Amazon Prime and Mubi

The Chess Players (1977)

This Sunday marks 100 years since the birth of Bengali director Satyajit Ray, of whom Akira Kurosawa once said: “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.” He’s a monumental figure in world film, whose debut Pather Panchali (1955) cut out a path for a more personal kind of filmmaking in India. It’s still perhaps the most widely seen Indian arthouse film. Sadly, viewers looking to celebrate the centenary aren’t very well served on streaming platforms. Ray’s most famous films are available on disc, but the only Ray film on any of the major streamers is 1977’s period drama The Chess Players (though you’ll have to search for it under its original title Shatranj Ke Khilari to find it on Amazon Prime). Set in 1856, with the British on the verge of overthrowing the princely state of Awadh, it isn’t a bad jumping off point but it’s an outlier in several ways. For a start, it’s Ray’s only Hindi language film (not counting his 1981 TV film Deliverance). It also has the air of a more international production, with a bigger budget and a big-name cast, including Amitabh Bachchan as the narrator and Richard Attenborough as the coloniser looking to hoist the Union Jack over Lucknow. Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffrey play the noblemen who are too busy playing chess to notice the fateful transfer of power.