Nomadland: celebrating Frances McDormand's best movies

Frances McDormand is poised to win her third Oscar in Nomadland, the acclaimed new drama from Chloe Zhao. It's set to reach us in February 2021 (at the time of writing), and casts McDormand as the widowed Fern, who embraces a nomadic existence in America's midwest.

The movie mixes fiction with documentary as Fern mingles with real-life nomadic communities to imperceptible effect. Critics have lauded McDormand's sensitive performance: The Daily Telegraph's Robbie Collin describes her as "one of those rare actors who can somehow make the act of listening as thrilling as a barnstorming speech".

In anticipation of Nomadland's release, we're rounding up McDormand's best movies so far. Scroll down to discover what are.


1. Blood Simple (1984)

McDormand made her assured movie debut at the same time that Joel and Ethan Coen, aka the Coen brothers, took their first steps behind the camera. (McDormand would later marry Joel Coen.) In this darkly atmospheric southern noir, she plays a woman drawn into a dangerous game of adultery, bloodshed and blackmail, the movie's themes anticipating later Coen efforts like the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men.

Blood Simple ratchets up the tension as McDormand's character Abby finds inner-strength, particularly in the nail-biting final showdown with greasy and murderous private investigator Visler (M. Emmet Walsh). In a darkly ironic twist that is redolent of the Coens' approach, Abby thinks that the attacker, whom she hasn't glimpsed, is her husband, whom Visler has already killed. This mingling of gallows humour and extreme nastiness would eventually earmark the Coens as singular and distinctive in their vision.

2. Mississippi Burning (1988)

McDormand is somewhat more sympathetic in this controversial and incendiary drama from Angel Heart filmmaker Alan Parker. Mississippi Burning is nominally based on the true story of the murder of a group of black Civil Rights activists in the 1960s. However, Parker's movie liberally dramatises the events that took place; fortunately, there's a clutch of excellent performances at the centre of the movie to ground us in something emotionally authentic.

Chief among them is Gene Hackman's FBI man who immediately clashes with the local town rednecks who are aiming to cover up the murder. McDormand plays the abused wife of Brad Dourif's racist and corrupt Sheriff who almost pays the price for her decency with her life. She received her first Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress, and even to this day stands out amidst an excellent ensemble that also includes Willem Dafoe and R. Lee Ermey. The "hatred is taught" scene remains chillingly resonant and true.

3. Darkman (1990)

McDormand proved her versatility with Darkman, leaping for the first time into the realm of action and blockbuster cinema. Darkman is an original comic book property from director Sam Raimi, whose early affiliation with the Coen brothers helped get McDormand on board. Years before he elevated comic book cinema with Spider-Man, Raimi tackled this intentionally overwrought and bombastic thriller about a disfigured scientist who adopts the mantle of Darkman, and returns to punish those who wronged him.

The striking Darkman is played by a pre-fame Liam Neeson, whose imposing height is put to good use by Raimi's typically kinetic camerawork. McDormand plays Darkman's reporter girlfriend and although she didn't compliment the finished product, there's no denying that she and Neeson, in the pre-Darkman flashback sequences, share enjoyable chemistry. Once again, it falls to McDormand to bring human credentials to overblown material.

4. Short Cuts (1993)

Robert Altman's sprawling and cutting look at disillusioned Los Angeles lives, adapted from the short stories of Raymond Carver, can't strictly be described as a Frances McDormand movie. The cast is simply too huge for that, with a plethora of A-list faces including Robert Downey Jr., Julianne Moore, Andie McDowell, Jack Lemmon, Lily Tomlin and more. Nevertheless, McDormand stands out from the crowd, another clear sign of her ability to get beneath the skin of a character and get the audience on-side.

At the same time, it proves her willingness to play less-than-sympathetic characters, her Betty having an affair with cop Gene (Tim Robbins). This sets up a confrontation with Betty's husband Stormy (Peter Gallagher), who returns to their house to promptly chainsaw and destroy her belongings in a darkly comic, absurdist scene. It's one of many hard-hitting plotlines peeking out through Altman's richly enveloping canvas of narratives.


5. Fargo (1996)

Fargo is often considered the crowning achievement in the careers of both the Coen brothers and McDormand. It's not hard to see why. This celebrated black comedy-thriller takes place amidst the windswept wastes of Minnesota where a kidnapping and blackmail scam goes horribly awry. William H. Macy's useless car salesman has enlisted two crooks (a nervy Steve Buscemi and a terrifying Peter Stormare) to abduct his wife so he can elicit money from his wealthy father-in-law. Of course, it goes wrong, which is where McDormand's cop character, Marge Gunderson, enters.

Fargo takes great delight in its shocking contradictions, veering between satirically mocking (the so-called 'Minnesota nice' accent is exploited for huge laughs) and moments of savage violence (the climactic woodchipper scene). But Marge's gentle warmth cuts through the noise: newly pregnant and hospitable to all those around her, she is nevertheless like a bloodhound on the trail of a scent. McDormand claimed her first Oscar for the movie, and is the steady moral heart of an often challenging watch.


6. Primal Fear (1996)

Here's another small but significant role for McDormand, again demonstrating that she doesn't need a lot of screen time to make an impact. This gripping legal thriller was an early, Oscar-nominated showcase for Edward Norton, playing a troubled choir boy on the stand for murder. Was it pre-meditated, or is he suffering from a disassociative personality disorder?

McDormand's doctor character believes it's the latter, which fuels the movie's complex mixture of truth and lies. Thrown into the middle of it all is Richard Gere's defense lawyer who experiences doubts over his client's actions. McDormand's character is very much the voice of reason as things become increasingly more tangled, but is her medical opinion actually correct in relation to Norton's character? Finding out is the fun part in this box office hit.


7. Paradise Road (1997)

This harrowing wartime drama is primarily a showcase for Glenn Close, but there are strong turns from Frances McDormand and a breakout Cate Blanchett as well. Directed by Bruce Beresford, Paradise Road details the experiences of a group of women incarcerated in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Sumatra. The movie is inspired by the true experiences of Australian World War II nurse Betty Jeffrey, aspects of whom are apparent within the movie's various fictional characters.

Together, the group of women, variously from England, America, Holland and Australia, band together to form a female voice choir, designed to inspire others amidst the horrors of war. McDormand's performance as Dr. Verstak is one of this underrated drama's strongest elements, glimmering in its humanity through the gloom and brutality.

8. Almost Famous (2000)

Cameron Crowe's delightful drama is an autobiographical one, based on his own experiences writing for Rolling Stone magazine as a wide-eyed teenager. Almost Famous is surely one of the greatest-ever movies about rock and roll, inhaling the euphoric fumes of live performance and life on the road while also examining the complex internecine relationships between band members and their assorted groupies.

The band in question is called Stillwater, and Patrick Fugit's youthful, bushy-tailed, wannabe writer has been tasked with profiling them. It proves to be an odyssey of self-discovery as the likes of Billy Crudup's frontman and Kate Hudson's groupie arrange and re-arrange themselves in the complex emotional hues of a psychedelic album colour. Buoyed by a typically excellent soundtrack, the film offers a plum, Oscar-nominated role to McDormand, by turns hilarious and moving as the over-protective mother of Fugit's character.

9. The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

McDormand reunited with the Coen brothers for this stylish black and white noir thriller, artfully arranged by the Coens' regular collaborator Roger Deakins. It's another twisted, darkly amusing story of small-town blackmail and chaos as Billy Bob Thornton's hapless schmoe finds himself trapped in a nightmare of his own making.

McDormand portrays Doris Crane, the hard-drinking wife of Thornton's central character Ed. Tragically, Doris ends up being arrested by the police as a result of her husband's blackmail schemes, suspected of embezzlement and eventually placed in the dock. The atmospheric black and white photography serves to draw out the compelling facets of McDormand's performance as her character slides from ambiguous to sympathetic and back again.

10. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)

Light comedy is the order of the day in this overlooked British gem, one that allows McDormand to tap into a different side of her screen talents. Winifred Watson's book is the basis of this pre-World War II story, in which McDormand's straight-laced governess Guinevere Pettigrew emotionally awakens under the influence of flamboyant socialite Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams).

It's all about the slow-burn in this charming McDormand performance, which evolves from unsmiling sourpuss into a woman about town who learns the value of fun and vitality. McDormand is well-matched with an exuberant Amy Adams, and the critics praised her characteristic subtlety. 

11. Burn After Reading (2008)

It's back to frivolous black comedy for McDormand in this mean-spirited Coen brothers satire. She takes on the role of the particularly unlikeable Linda, a gym employee who collaborates with dunderheaded co-worker Chad (a riotously funny Brad Pitt) to blackmail recently fired CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich).

The movie is essentially an extended exercise in eating its own tail: all of the central characters are variously holding grudges and fighting with each other, and it all implodes in a spectacularly violent fashion. The Coens take great relish in undermining the conventions of the spy movie, with McDormand's amusingly self-centred Linda staying the course because she wants to fund several plastic surgery operations. That Linda ultimately gets away with it, in spite of the chaos she's helped cause, further underlines the Coens' notion that the not-so-nice guys (and girls) are often destined to finish first.

12. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Wes Anderson's whimsical coming-of-age comedy imagines a romanticised America, the sort only he could come up with. In the 1960s, on a remote island community, a 12-year-old boy scout and his great love take off together, forcing the various adults to overcome their differences and track them down. Imagine Swallows and Amazons by way of The Royal Tenenbaums and you have an idea of Anderson's singularly offbeat vision, which this time is lent a residual sweetness by several of the big-name stars.

The most likeable of them all, surprisingly, is Bruce Willis as lonely, lovelorn cop Captain Sharp. As for Frances McDormand, she plays Mrs. Bishop, mother of the runaway girl Suzy (Kara Hayward), one of several grown-ups whose childish behaviour is a hilarious contrast to the self-assured and deeply-in-love adolescents. It's a typical Anderson twist and McDormand fits right in given her background with quirky, offbeat portrayals. (She reunites with Anderson for next year's The French Dispatch.)

13. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018)

McDormand claimed her second Oscar for this incendiary drama, helmed by In Bruges director Martin McDonagh. Centrally, it's a story of small-town vengeance, but it's McDormand who holds it all together through sheer steely force of personality. Her character Mildred is driven by a need to do justice to her murdered daughter. To antagonise the local police into action, she hires several billboards and uses them to display provocative messages, an act that draws out latent racism, hatred and compassion on all sides.

Mildred is the equivalent of a Rubik's cube, alternating between fierce anger and a grieving parent. The role demands that McDormand package up all the facets of her previous work and assimilate them into one compelling, contradictory whole. Mildred is on a crusade but in the process becomes a victim of her own rage, the story reminding us of the importance of listening, as well as taking action. With her Oscar win, McDormand re-affirmed her ability to take on the most formidable and complicated characters, and make it look effortless.


Nomadland is scheduled for release in the UK on 19th February 2021. What's your favourite Frances McDormand movie? Let us know @Cineworld.