Architecture of the unsettled: Oscars’ best picture nominees reveal an America in transition


The first time you see Jacob and Monica’s home in “Minari, ” it’s from the vantage point of the moving car. Images of bucolic landscape hugging the country lane give way for an open field. In the middle of that will isolated field sits the couple’s future house, that is neither a brightly coated country farmhouse nor wonderful log cabin.

Instead, the camera forms on a wheezing, putty-colored mobile home. Its lack of dress siding reveals the system by which it was towed straight into place. “Look, wheels! ” the kids helpfully exclaim because Monica, their mother, pictured by Yeri Han, looks on in horror.

“This is not what you promised, ” the lady says to her husband, John, played by Steven Yeun.

Inside, she is greeted by visions of frayed wallpaper and wooden paneling, with drop ceilings blanketed in industrial traditional tile. It is less a house than basic shelter. Plus it’s a shelter that seems to grow more tenuous since the film proceeds: a heavy hurricane reveals many leaks like a newscaster appears on a staticky TV set to warn associated with possible tornadoes. Already vulnerable, the family is now dangerously exposed.


In a movie season turned upside down by COVID-19, it seems right on brand that this eight best picture candidates for this year’s Academy Awards all channel a feeling of the unsettled — in their narratives, but also in the architecture which they depict.

In these films, the aspirational, single family dwelling from the mid-20th century seems yet a hazy dream. Instead, characters carve out their everyday living in the in-between spaces: vehicles, trailers, guest rooms and the ramshackle houses shared simply by activists fighting for a common cause. In the case of Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari, ” a tale of Korean immigrants seeking to make a new life with regard to themselves in rural Illinois, that space is a 1970s-era mobile home no one has quite gotten around to anchoring to the earth.

Indeed, bits and pieces of various eras of cellular homes were stitched jointly by the film’s production developer, Yong Ok Lee, to generate the on-screen home.

A film still shows actress Frances McDormand with her hand on a van, its hood up as a mechanic works.

Inside “Nomadland, ” Fern (played by Frances McDormand) inhabits a van she has baptized “Vanguard. ”

(Searchlight Pictures)

Certainly, no movie articulates the theme of dislocation quite like “Nomadland, ” the current front-runner for the best picture Oscar. Directed by Chloé Zhao and starring Frances McDormand as the headstrong Entfernt, “Nomadland” tells the story of a recent widow who finds out herself adrift after a Nevada gypsum plant goes out of business — and requires the entire company town by it. To make ends meet, Fern strikes the road as a 21st century migrant laborer, working at an Amazon . com warehouse, harvesting beets plus tending to campground bathrooms.

The van that takes her through site to site will be her conveyance; it is also her home — one the lady baptizes “Vanguard. ” Similar to home, Fern customizes it. Her husband’s old deal with box holds a set of dishes her father once offered her and a Santa light illuminates her as the lady sleeps, as if the vestiges of a more stable existence were quietly observing her from the past.


The film, which was inspired by Jessica Bruder ‘s 2017 nonfiction book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, ” features real-life nomads among the cast. And it is as much a story of economic disenfranchisement as it is a meditation on the American myth of individuals seeking freedom on the road. As Entfernt tells her sister, who has offered her the visitor room in her home: “I can’t live in this room. I can’t rest in this bed. Thank you, yet I can’t. ”

Her living has another architecture.

A view of the driver and passenger seat area of the Airstream RV occupied in "Sound of Metal."

In “Sound of Steel, ” rock musicians played by Riz Ahmed and Olivia Cooke inhabit a lovingly retrofitted Airstream movie trailer.

(Amazon Studios)

“Sound associated with Metal” also features itinerant protagonists in whose lives are entirely contained inside the frame of a vehicle — in this case, an idiosyncratic Airstream motor home.


Ruben and Lou — played by Riz Ahmed and Olivia Cooke — are rock musicians whose entire domestic world matches neatly between the white lines of a parking space. Like Fern‘s van, their RECREATIONAL VEHICLE is fully customized, filled with sound recording equipment — a rolling home plus studio they carry using them not on their backs, but under their feet. (It’s an environment that was meticulously believed down to the last band sticker by production designer Jeremy Woodward. )

Like Fern, Ruben plus Lou live a fragile existence. A precipitous situation of hearing loss and the demons of addiction sideline Ruben from drumming, the particular art that gives him their purpose. And Lou, facing her own emotional struggles, leaves him to return to her loved ones in Paris (played by Antwerp in the movie). Since Ruben struggles to reclaim some semblance of their former life, he begins to strip down the trailer they have lovingly built, selling away its various components in search of a cure for his faltering seeing and hearing and his emotional losses.

Soon, the world he had carefully constructed is stripped down to a shell — one that a stranger gently drives off with.

Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton stands before Black Panther activists in uniform

Daniel Kaluuya, center, in a scene from “Judas and the Black color Messiah” that takes place in the former Presbyterian church in Cleveland, which serves as the stand-in for Chicago.

(Glen Wilson / Sundance Institute)


Other films feature more traditional archetypes of the domestic, but these settings nonetheless have an air of the improvised.

Aaron Sorkin’s “The Test of the Chicago 7″ and Shaka King’s “Judas as well as the Black Messiah” take place primarily in the open public and civic realms, which includes streets, parks, assembly areas and courts. Activists share tumbledown houses, and an individual piece of architecture can serve multiple functions: a property is as much a house being an activist center; a storefront with peeling paint does dual duty as a school.

Particularly cinematic is a scene from “Judas” in which Fred Hampton Jr. (played by Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Illinois section of the Black Panther Party, takes a meeting with a competitor group called the Crowns in the crumbling Gothic church. ( North Presbyterian Chapel in Cleveland — a structure that dates to the 1880s — served as the location. ) The scene has a magnificence worthy of a session of the Roman senate.

A lot of “Judas” takes place in the community realm, but private space ultimately becomes part of a public battleground for Dark self-determination: Hampton is murdered by police in the apartment he shares with other Black Panther members. His house is not truly his own.


A major feature of this year’s best picture nominees is an structures seen from the point of view of characters to whom will not belong.

Henry Mankiewicz, the cantankerous, heavy-drinking screenwriter at the heart of Jesse Fincher’s “Mank, ” played by Gary Oldman, is certainly shuttled off to a ranch in the high desert to operate on “Citizen Kane. ” The adobe farmhouse where he stays is lovely plus redolent of California history — filmed in moody black and white at the Kemper Campbell Ranch outside of Victorville, in which the real Mankiewicz worked on the particular script. (Among the film’s 10 Oscar nods , Donald Graham Burt was nominated regarding production style . )

But Mank, in many ways, is really a prisoner of this space. He or she is not only the victim of a car accident that has left him immobilized with a broken lower-leg, he is the victim associated with his own worst tendencies. At the same time he should be enjoying excellent professional success, nothing except his pithy observations are part of him.


Cassandra (played by Carey Mulligan) sits on a gaudy couch in her parents' home in "Promising Young Woman"

Carey Mulligan like Cassandra in “Promising Young Woman” has no space of her own — living with the girl parents instead.

(Focus Features)

The same could be said of Cassandra Thomas, the vigilante heroine (played by Carey Mulligan) at the heart of Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Small Woman, ” another character who seems adrift in a foreign space. She lives with her parents in a single-family home that is a veritable mausoleum of styles both cloying and out of date: ‘70s-era textured glass cabinets and shiny Louis XIV couches mingle with pink carpet and Lladró figurines. It is a space that will Cassandra inhabits, but of which she is not truly a portion. Her arenas are the raucous hookup spots where she seeks predatory men where to mete out her very own brand of justice.

Architecture — specially the architecture of the home — can provide a character with an point. But in Florian Zeller’s “The Father, ” which functions production design by Philip Francis (who received an Oscar nod for their work), architecture is used to destabilize.

Anthony, played by Anthony Hopkins, is an 80-year-old man in whose memory is beginning to falter. Is the well-to-do London chiseled he inhabits his? Or does it belong to his girl and her dyspeptic companion? Or is it the storage care facility where he has been interned?


Side by side images show two hallways bearing similar architectural styles but with different decorative motifs

The architecture of the makes its presence felt “The Father” echo each other as a way of displaying the protagonist’s growing sense associated with confusion.

(Sony Pictures Classics)

The action takes place more than a series of sets, all which evoke each other in design and in form: a warren of rooms clustered around a hallway that become scrambled in the protagonist’s mind. “The apartment metamorphoses throughout the film, so in a way we’re likely to new places, ” Zeller told The Times of the design and style concept. “I wanted to end up being as subtle as possible, simply to create something uncomfortable without having to be too obvious. ”

For fleeting times, Hopkins’ character seems to live in spaces he controls; however in so many others, that manage slips from his know.

In our outbreak year, when we have been along estranged from the familiar, it is a resonant view. Good we build on firm terrain. It turns out our foundations are shakier than we supposed.