3. Nebraska (2013)
Irritable, usually drunk septuagenarian Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his estranged adult son (Will Forte) travel to Nebraska to claim his lottery winnings and are forced to confront their unhealthy relationship and Woody’s past mistakes in the process.
Almost 20 years after directing his daughter, Payne worked with Dern senior on a film that is up there with the very best of both of their impressive careers. This is the closest thing he has done to an arthouse film, all (digitally processed) black-and-white footage from James Mangold’s regular cinematographer Phedon Papamichael of expressive faces and impressive landscapes, marrying well with the film’s measured pacing and the existential themes of the screenplay from Bob Nelson. This combination clearly pleased the Cannes jury, the film being nominated for the Palme d’Or and winning Dern Best Actor.
The storytelling itself is leisurely, composed of loosely linked vignettes that reflect the deteriorating state of mind of our elderly P.O.V character, and everything is given a feeling of melancholy and acceptance over his looming mortality and the very real sense that Woody’s final act might be a wild goose chase.
2. Election (1999)
Precocious high schooler Tracy Flick (Reece Witherspoon) clashes with teacher Mr McAllister (Matthew Broderick) who is trying to derail her campaign for the upcoming school election.
Election is made in its performances, script and editing. This was Broderick’s most compelling screen turn in years as a well-liked teacher who has seemingly got it all settled on the surface but in reality is filled with doubts, regret and a pretty malicious streak in regards to his most hated know-it-all student Tracy. Up against the obsessive Ms Flick (Witherspoon is a force of nature here) for School President is human Labrador and injured football star Paul (Chris Klein) and his rebellious lesbian sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), who both have their own reasons (genuine or not) to be running.
This is a great high school movie and Payne’s funniest film by some distance, with scathing voiceovers from the leads and ingenious use of editing tricks to hammer home the key comic beats. The film has a dark side too, featuring inappropriate student-teacher relationships and discussions of such issues as mental health, social inequality and a number of other weighty subjects in an admirably matter-of-fact manner.
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1. Sideways (2004)
Depressed teacher Miles (Paul Giamatti) and struggling actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church) go on a vineyard holiday in California Wine Country the week before Jack’s wedding. But Miles’ recent relationships and Jack’s desire for one last fling put a strain on their friendship and steadily digs them both into a deeper hole.
What else could it be? The film that truly put Payne on the map with five Oscar nominations and one win for its screenplay (Giamatti was cruelly snubbed) is still an excellent vintage even two decades on. Payne’s go-to story elements are all here – a troubled teacher protagonist, slow-burn structure, issues of mental health and relationship problems, garbage fire people making selfish decisions – but never again have all of these elements come together so satisfyingly.
Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church make for one of the great odd couples. Though neither Miles or Jack are irredeemable, they keep making all the wrong decisions that land them in hot water and ruin their chances with the women they meet on their journey (Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh). This is most definitely a road movie (yep, another one of those from Payne) that gives our protagonists ample time to come to some profound realizations about wine and relationships, and it is also technically a rom-com, though the romance is bitter and the comedy is sad.
If you need evidence of how much Sideways had ingrained itself in American culture, look no further than the fact that Miles’ angry tirades against Merlot caused US sales of the red wine variety to drop by 2% following the film’s release. The characters, and their strongly held opinions, right or wrong, live on. You just really hope to God nobody’s tried to drink the spit bucket at a wine tasting in tribute.
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Alexander Payne is a hit with both critics and audiences because he can make dumb people feel smart and smart people enjoy dumb situations. He is a poet filmmaker for the times, viewing contemporary society through a wry and pragmatic lens and giving us characters we love to hate then learn to love.