6. Citizen Ruth (1996)
A young pregnant addict named Ruth (Laura Dern) is caught between the warring ideologies of a fundamentalist Christian group and abortion rights campaigners who both want to use her as a poster child for their respective causes.
Payne’s most hard-hitting film, with a raw and poignant performance from Dern at its heart, Citizen Ruth is pretty ahead of its time in how it presents the American abortion debate, though it still takes a couple of cheap shots at certain sections of society and falls back on a couple of impressive, if distracting movie star cameos for its final act in the form of Burt Reynolds and Tippi Hedren,
This is the Payne film with the fewest laughs and perhaps the most explicitly political reason for existing. Ruth is presented as an addict estranged from her family with little motivation to give up her aerosol paint-sniffing habit who flits between the two sides of the abortion debate not out of concern for, or any real connection with her child, but because both factions keep offering her more money. What will really stay with you beyond the hopeless case of a protagonist is that in one of the film’s final images Ruth walks seemingly invisible right between and past the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice protestors who are too busy discrediting each other to notice.
5. The Descendants (2011)
Following a boating accident that put his wife into a coma, Hawaii lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) has to make some tough decisions including how to meaningfully connect with and raise his daughters and what to do with his family-owned acres of island paradise.
Between this and his collaborations with the Coen Brothers, George Clooney added being a gifted physical comedian to his usual charm and screen presence. Who knew Clooney would be so funny running in flip-flops? The Descendants has that classic combination of a pretty dour story juxtaposed against a beautiful locale. While plenty of character actors like Beau Bridges make their mark playing the extended King family, it is Clooney and his strained dynamic with his daughters (Shailene Woodley in a breakthrough role and Amara Miller stealing the show) that gives the film its soul.
In the end, The Descendants is really the story of a fairly privileged man who’s trying to get through a really bad year in his life. It is also thematically a road movie even though it doesn’t leave Hawaii for long, Matt King’s main moment of enlightenment and peace coming at the same time as, and because of, his daughters accepting that the harmonious family unit they once were is now just a memory.
4. The Holdovers (2023)
Hated boarding school teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is given the responsibility of supervising the boys forced to stay at the prestigious Barton Academy over Christmas and makes an unexpected connection with kitchen manager Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and pupil Angus (Dominic Sessa).
Rightly seen as a return to form for Payne following the disappointing Downsizing, his belated reunion with Paul Giamatti is an unshowy, emotionally and geographically confined character piece that takes its time revealing what makes its characters tick.
Taking a depressing setting and colour palette, scattering some subtle sight gags in the background of scenes and letting the central trio played with aplomb by Giamatti, Randolph and Sessa evolve naturally over several weeks of film time, The Holdovers avoids becoming monotonous because we really care about these three and their steadily warming relationship to each other. When the story opens out in the final act, it still manages to throw a few dramatic curve-balls without overdoing it. You’re ultimately left in an uncertain place, though things certainly seem to be looking up for Paul, Angus and Mary.
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