“Nebraska” (2013) dir. Alexander Payne, scr. Bob Nelson

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In a year of admittedly very strong films, it’s still a shame “Nebraska” didn’t walk off with a single Oscar at the 2013 Academy Awards. It’s one of the best American films of the last several years and one of the best films about the concept of family ever made.

As much as the film, its director, its writer and stars Bruce Dern and Jane Squibb have earned much-deserved accolades, sadly missing is recognition for Will Forte’s performance. It may be a straight-man performance, but arguably, Forte is the film’s heart-and-soul and what keeps “Nebraska” from being the heartless kick to the Heartland’s gut that some critics have accused it of.

The film’s premise is simple. Elderly Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern) receives notification in the mail from a magazine subscription company that he may have won $1,000,000. However, Grant believes he’s actually won the million dollars and wants to go to Nebraska to claim his prize. Everyone tries to convince him it’s a scam, but Woody believes otherwise. His wife of several years, Kate (played by Jane Squibb), has written Woody off as a loser and a drunk and constantly berates him for how foolish he is. However, their well-meaning and long-suffering son David (played by Will Forte) decides to take his Dad to Lincoln, Nebraska to learn the truth about his prize, mainly because Woody won’t have it any other way.

What starts out in David’s mind as a chance to bond with a father who has been neglectful turns into a far different experience than he ever imagined. David is an unsuccessful home theater salesman who has just been given the axe by a girlfriend because he can’t commit to marriage. Given the toxicity of his own parents’ union, it’s easy to understand his trepidation over the idea of marriage. When he asks his father whether he ever wanted to have children, Woody’s response shocks him: “I liked to screw, and your mother’s a Catholic, so you figure it out.” They stay with Woody’s family in the town where Woody grew up and the family’s homespun charm turns venal when Woody carelessly tells them about his impending fortune and they start laying claim to past debts both real and imagined.

Despite a lot of funny moments, “Nebraska” is a profoundly sad film. However, it’s also a very moving tribute to Forte’s character David. David’s quest to bring his aging father one last shot at happiness and to bond with a severely flawed person who has done nothing to earn such efforts is heroic. David’s perseverance in giving his father his dignity may seem misguided, but it’s an affirmation of the humanity in even the most screwed-up individuals.

Forte plays a character trying to manage several volatile personalities that are important to him. Because it’s not a particularly showy role, it’s easy to dismiss it in the whirlwind kicked by Dern, Squibb, and Stacy Keach playing Woody’s embittered ex-business partner. When David finally explodes (similar to an earlier explosion by Kate), it is not a careless expression of emotion, but the only logical response to an escalating series of indignities. Despite what many people feel about their families, when someone is threatened, all past hostilities and grudges are quickly laid to rest to defend the slighted party.

“Nebraska” is a tremendously complex film that will stay with you a long time and is a genuine American classic.

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“Citizen Ruth” (1996) dir. Alexander Payne, scr. Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor

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Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor have emerged as America’s leading satirists of middle-class delusion. “Election,” “About Schmidt,” and “Sideways” were all critical (and sometimes) box-office hits roundly deserving of their universal acclaim. However, rarely mentioned is Payne and Taylor’s first film, the wonderfully acidic “Citizen Ruth.”

Ruth Stoops, the titular hero played by Laura Dern, is a drug-addict and petty criminal who finds out she is pregnant during one of her many stints in jail. Given the fact that she’s had four other children (all under foster care or under the care of ex-boyfriends/husbands), a judge offers leniency if she will abort her unborn child. This raises the attention of a local pro-life group called the Baby Savers who bail her out and try to use the judge’s offer as a call to arms for their cause. Through a series of circumstances, she then winds up under the care of a pro-choice group who want her to promote their cause.

Believe it or not, the degenerate Ruth winds up being the character you root for the most in the film. Dern pulls off the impossible in her characterization of Ruth. She manages to be sympathetic while still acting like someone you’d never even remotely think of inviting into your home.

No matter where you stand on the abortion issue, “Citizen Ruth” mercilessly attacks both sides. While I don’t think Payne and Taylor are saying that all pro-life or pro-choice people are like the characters in this film, they illustrate what happens when activists use people as symbols to “send messages” instead of actually doing something to help the people they’re exploiting.

In addition to Dern, the rest of the cast, which includes Kurtwood Smith, Burt Reynolds, Swoosie Kurtz, Kelly Preston, Mary Kay Place, M.C. Gainey, Tippi Hedren, Kenneth Mars, David Graf, and Diane Ladd (Dern’s real-life mom), all deliver terrific career-best performances.

A wonderfully brittle and nasty skewering of an extremely sensitive topic. If you have a brain, a heart, and a very dark sense of humor, you’ll hopefully find this film as hilarious as I did.

“Election” (1999) dir. Alexander Payne / scr. Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor

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One of the most brilliant comedies of the last 25 years, “Election” is the kind of film Stanley Kubrick would have made had he ever made a high school comedy. However, as many other terrific films (“Citizen Ruth,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways”) have confirmed, Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor are in a class by themselves.

The central plot centers around a high school election, but is actually a very dark satire of American politics in general. What’s so great about “Election” is how you can’t trust anyone in this film. With the notable exceptions of Chris Klein’s character Paul and his sister Tammy (played by Jessica Campbell), almost all of the characters are unreliable narrators. The way Payne juxtaposes each character’s narration with how their character actually behaves is consistently hilarious and unnerving.

With the exception of her role in 1996’s “Freeway,” Reese Witherspoon’s characterization of the ruthless Tracy Flick is her absolute finest acting performance. The film also contains Matthew Broderick’s all-time best acting performance as the high school history teacher in charge of running the election. He is the ultimate unreliable narrator of this film and his portrayal of a teacher in his late 30s who is secretly bitter about his fate while his students move on and move up is exceptional.

Easily the best film MTV ever slapped their logo onto.

“Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession” (2004) dir. Alexandra Cassevetes

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Z Channel was a Los Angeles-based cable-TV movie channel that was active during the 1970s and 1980s. What made Z Channel different from HBO, Showtime, and other popular movie channels at the time was their eclectic programming and willingness to show films no one else was showing on television, cable or otherwise. The programmer, a man by the name of Jerry Harvey, was a hardcore cinephile and was diligent about tracking down the most obscure cinematic gems.  His intelligence, intensity, and diligence impressed (and sometimes annoyed) a lot of filmmakers, studio executives, and other creative types in Hollywood.

Z Channel was incredibly popular with the creative community in Hollywood.  Harvey was so well-respected, he was able to get the rights to show Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” during the 1977 Oscar season (while it was still in many theaters) which arguably led to its multiple Oscar nominations and wins.  He also championed Oliver Stone’s “Salvador,” which also led to its critical resurgence and subsequent Oscar nominations in 1986.  However, Harvey’s most important legacy was the promotion of the so-called “director’s cut” and “letterboxing,” which preserved the widescreen composition of films for viewing on non-widescreen TVs.  In 1983, he showed the original director’s cut version of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” a film many considered a notorious flop, but a film that Harvey felt was a great film undermined by studio tinkering and the director’s own insecurity after the original director’s cut was severely criticized.  This led to premiering Bernardo Bertolucci’s 5 1/2 hour European (and in America, X-rated) director’s cut of his classic “1900,” as well as the European cut of Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece “The Leopard.”

Despite the professional respect he won by many in the creative community, Harvey was a very, very troubled man.  He eventually shot and killed his second wife, before committing suicide in 1988.

“Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession” is a great documentary not only about Z Channel and the early days of cable TV, but of Harvey himself.  It was directed by John Cassevetes’ daughter Alexandra Cassevetes and contains interviews with Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman, Paul Verhoeven, Vilmos Zsigmond, Henry Jaglom, Jacqueline Bisset, Alexander Payne, Jim Jarmusch, Theresa Russell, James Woods, Penelope Spheeris and many, many other directors, screenwriters, and actors who testify about the importance and influence of Z Channel.

While a lot of it is sad, the documentary is an orgy for film buffs, with lots of great clips and interviews.  This is one of my desert island films.

“Sideways” (2004) dir. Alexander Payne, scr. Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor

One of the best films of the past decade was Alexander Payne’s acidic and poignant comedy-drama “Sideways.” While much of it is funny (painfully and raunchily so), it’s also very sad. Having been lost in my own head and ill-conceived creative ambitions in my 20s, let’s just say this film is very much of a “There but for the grace of God go I …” kind of film.

Paul Giamatti does a brilliant job in the lead role of Miles, a failed author and wine snob who is spending his days teaching middle school English and going to too many wine “tastings.” Giamatti does a brilliant job making you like a character who is not particularly likable. I can’t describe how Giamatti is able to do it, but you do find yourself rooting for Miles, despite your better instincts. Why Giamatti’s performance was not even nominated for that year’s Oscars is one of many examples of why the Oscars have very little credibility for me.

However, the Oscars didn’t get it completely wrong that year. “Sideways” was nominated for Best PIcture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Haden Church) and Best Supporting Actress (Virginia Madsen) and won its sole Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The film’s best scene is the one where Maya, played by Virginia Madsen, explains to the lead character Miles (played by Paul Giamatti) what she finds meaningful about wine, though she’s really talking about herself. This is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about love between people who are, well, of a certain age. A truly amazing speech from a very special and wonderful film.

While “Sideways” doesn’t have a traditional happy ending per se, it does give the long-suffering lead character a push towards happiness, and sometimes, that’s all you need.