Chloé Zhao made history at the Oscars last night after becoming the first woman of colour - and the second woman ever - to win an Academy Award for Best Director.
The 39-year-old Chinese-born, British-educated filmmaker also took home the top prize of Best Picture for Nomadland - her third feature film which follows Frances McDormand as a sixty-something woman embarking on a journey through the American West to find employment.
The premise of Nomadland is similar to the essence and soul of Zhao's two other acclaimed movies - they provide nuanced portraits of people living on the margins of society in neglected and impoverished areas of the American West, which Zhao captures by working with the real-life people that are being represented in her films, beginning with her 2015 debut, Songs My Brothers Taught Me.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me premiered at Sundance Film Festival six years ago, and earned Zhao a nomination for the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, and the Caméra d'Or Award for best first feature film at the Cannes Film Festival. Zhao's second film, The Rider, also garnered critical acclaim upon its release in 2017, and was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film and Best Director.
For Nomadland, Zhao has now won Best Director at the Oscars, Golden Globes, Directors Guild of America Awards, and BAFTAS, following Kathryn Bigelow as the second woman to win a Best Director Oscar (Bigelow won 11 years ago with intense war thriller The Hurt Locker).
As the awards circuit concludes, Variety reports that with "34 awards season trophies for directing, 13 for screenplay and nine for editing, Zhao has surpassed Alexander Payne (Sideways) as the most awarded person in a single awards season in the modern era." Zhao's next film is a step in a different direction as she directs Marvel's The Eternals, starring Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan, Salma Hayek, Kit Harington and Brian Tyree Henry.
Regardless of whether you're familiar with her name or not, Chloé Zhao is one of the most talented female directors working today - and, now with an Oscar under her belt - her star will only rise further. Below, we discuss her films, so you can decide which to watch first.
Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015)
Chloé Zhao's intelligent debut follows the lives of brother and sister (John Reddy) (Jashuan St John) living with their single mother on the remote Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, blighted by alcoholism, addiction issues, poverty and unemployment. Their lives are suddenly upended when their absent father dies, compelling Johnny to strike out and leave for LA with his girlfriend Aurelia (Taysha Fuller), despite concerns about leaving his younger sister behind. The film was commended for its honest depiction of young people's lives on the reservation, and for casting non-professionals in the lead roles, each playing approximations of themselves.
The Rider (2017)
Zhao was credited for reinventing the western with her visceral, contemporary drama The Rider, which she wrote, directed and produced. The film tells the story of a real-life young cowboy called Brady Jandreau, who is trying to get back on his feet after a serious rodeo accident. Zhao revealed that when she returned to visit the Pine Ridge reservation, where Songs My Brothers Taught Me was set, she saw Brady and wanted to work with him straight away. "I just thought, wow he has a presence, I think the camera is really going to love his face," she told The Guardian. "And then I saw him training horses and I knew I had to make a film with him."
Frances McDormand plays a sixty-something woman forced out of her home in search of employment after losing everything in the Great Recession. She represents a generation of Americans in their 60s and 70s whose financial lives were shattered by the 2008 financial crisis, inspired by Jessica Bruder's 2017 nonfiction book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. McDormand plays Fern, a widow and former substitute teacher from a town in Nevada in economic decline after a factory closure. Fern sets out with a few possessions in her van to find work to keep herself afloat.
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