Payne. Lists like these are often unkind to comedies and comedic filmmakers but Alexander Payne’s resume and talents as an auteur can’t be ignored any further. Like so many others he burst onto he scene in the artistically fertile American 1990’s independent cinema movement and fully arrived with his sophomore effort, 1999’s Election. He may not have ever matched the artistic highs of Election— but Sideways, Nebraska and About Schmidt aren’t far off—they share many qualities of a true author at work (more below in style/traits). Six archiveable films and counting (2017’s Downsizing didn’t help) bearing that bearing Payne’s brand is nothing to sneeze at – nor is 1 top 500 film of all-time (Election) and 3 top 100 films of their respective decade (in three consecutive decades): Election, Sideways, Nebraska.

Best film: Election. There’s much to praise here in Payne’s artistic breakthrough film (Citizen Ruth isn’t too much more than a promising little debut) but with 20+ years of distance behind us now since 1999 (a banner year) and Election I find it harder and harder to talk about the history of the freeze frame from Hitchcock’s Champagne to It’s a Wonderful Life, to Truffaut to Butch Cassidy to Goodfellas without mentioning Election—brilliant work here.

Like so many others he burst onto he scene in the artistically fertile American 1990’s independent cinema movement and arrived with his sophomore effort, 1999’s Election
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I find it harder and harder to talk about the history of the freeze frame from Hitchcock to It’s a Wonderful Life, to Truffaut to Butch Cassidy to Goodfellas without mentioning Election—brilliant work here

total archiveable films: 6

top 100 films:  0

top 500 films:   1 (Election)

top 100 films of the decade:  3 (Election, Sideways, Nebraska)

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from Sideways here- three top 100 films of their respective decade (in three consecutive decades): Election, Sideways, Nebraska.

most overrated: At the time in 2011 when it was showing up on everyone’s top 10 of the year I thought The Descendants was overrated but it now sits at #20 for 2011 on the TSPDT consensus 21st century list and that’s ok with me. Sideways is, I think, #4 for 2004 (I’m a slot or two lower) and Payne’s #1 film overall (and only film in the top 1000) on TSPDT so I guess it is a little overrated but it’s a great film- I’m splitting hairs here.

most underrated: Election. I hate to have it here again but I have it in the top 500 of all-time and TSPDT has it way down at #1256 still.

gem I want to spotlight :  Nebraska. Yes, I guess it’s cliché to call an auteur’s only black and white film his most beautiful but I don’t have any other choice, Nebraska doesn’t have the bold aesthetics of Election but it is his most painterly work.

Nebraska doesn’t have the bold aesthetics of Election but it is his most painterly work
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certainly an auteur– 9 years apart, different films, one b/w and one color- yet this is the same shot as the picnic table shot below in Sideways
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rich characterizations in Payne’s work– strong lead performances from Bruce Dern (here in Nebraska, Paul Giamatti, Reese Witherspoon (her best work), Nicholson and others

stylistic innovations/traits:  

  • I mention it above but the history of the use of freeze frame in cinema has to include notes on Election– brilliant use
  • often uses voice-over
  • Comedy/drama blends—certainly the influence of Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder and Hal Ashby can be felt—real people, under extreme stress, acting, at times, buffoonishly
  • Fly/over country- Most of his work (About Schmidt, Election, Ruth, Nebraska) set in or featuring characters from Omaha, Nebraska
Fly/over country- Most of his work (About Schmidt, Election, Ruth, Nebraska) set in or featuring characters from Omaha, Nebraska
art that belongs on a wall in a museum here in Sideways
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tapped in into Clooney’s screwball comic talents like the Coen brothers here in The Descendants

top 10

  1. Election
  2. Nebraska
  3. Sideways
  4. About Schmidt
  5. The Descendants

By year and grades

1996- Citizen Ruth R
1999- Election MS
2002- About Schmidt HR
2004- Sideways MS
2011- The Descendants R
2013- Nebraska MS

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives