Alexander Payne’s Best Movies: Ranking the Films of the Bard of Middling America

On the occasion of the release of his sixth feature-length motion picture, we pause now to consider how each of his works stack up. (With the proviso that perhaps none of the following are as good as his exquisite seven-minute vignette, 14e Arrondissement, that ends the 2006 anthology film Paris, je t’aime.)


6. Citizen Ruth

Ruth — a simple-minded, pregnant, paint-huffing addict played by Laura Dern — finds herself a pawn in a fight between pro-choice and pro-life forces after a judge agrees to reduce her jail time if she’ll have an abortion rather than give birth to another child who would become a ward of the state. Payne’s first feature pokes fun at the stereotypes of those on both sides of this divisive issue, but in its implication that Ruth alone should be allowed to make the decision about whether to continue her pregnancy, it’s clear to which viewpoint it leans. The characters and scenarios are cartoonish, making this the broadest comedy in his body of work and the least effective (though still entertaining).


5. The Descendants

A wealthy Hawaiian man (George Clooney) learns that his comatose, soon-to-die wife was having an affair. He simultaneously must confront the challenges of becoming a single parent to his two troublesome daughters, breaking the bad news to his wife’s family and friends, and confronting his wife’s lover. Plus his extended family is in the midst of a major land sale. (See full review.) The film was Payne’s first feature without co-writer Jim Taylor. He teamed up instead with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash on the screenplay, which won an Oscar. The Descendants deserves to be ranked a tier below the remaining titles on this list because it lacks their elegant subtlety. I most admire the way in which the characters in Payne’s films most often communicate their thoughts and desires only indirectly. They feel true to real life. By contrast, in the Descendants seemingly no thought goes verbally unexpressed, resulting in far too many moments of phony confrontation and catharsis.


4. About Schmidt

The most common trope running through Payne’s work is men waking up to the fact that they’ve been living lives of quiet desperation. Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is newly retired from the insurance game when his wife dies, and he’s suddenly rudderless. He sets off on a road trip to his daughter’s wedding in Denver, desperate to feel once again that his presence in the world matters. He only regains that sense through an unexpected source, as he writes letters to an African child whom he sponsors after responding to a television ad for the charity. Payne delights in poking fun at the bourgeois tastes, attitudes, and interior design of Middle America’s middle class, never more than in this film.


3. Nebraska

A 40-something stereo salesman (Will Forte) drives his father (Bruce Dern) to Lincoln, Nebraska, after the old man mistakenly believes a magazine-subscription-promotion means he’s won a million dollars. (See full review here.) With marvelous performances by Dern and June Squibb as his feisty wife, this is a thoughtfully observed and funny film. His first feature for which Payne didn’t receive a writing credit, the story still echoes his familiar concerns: road trips as both literal and metaphorical journeys of transformation, and men facing up to the disappointing reality of their own lives.


2. Election

The election of the next student council president of an Omaha high school is the backdrop for a story about power, sex, and manipulation. All told with a wholesome, and funny, Midwest gee-whiz sheen. Government and ethics teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) works to stop the seemingly inevitable rise of overachieving student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) to the head of the class. Election is nearly perfect in its storytelling, and the entire cast delivers performances worth watching again and again.


1. Sideways

Two friends take a trip through California wine country in the week before one of them gets married. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a sad-sack teacher, aspiring novelist, divorced, and a pretentious oenophile. Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is a womanizing actor whose career highlights are likely behind him, and he’s looking for one last dalliance before he ties the knot. This is Payne’s masterpiece, funny and heartbreaking, hopeful even as it ends on a note of uncertainty about what’s to come next. Kinda like life.