Every Alexander Payne Movie, Ranked

Movies Lists Alexander Payne
Every Alexander Payne Movie, Ranked

Alexander Payne makes small movies, mostly about the emotional burdens (and subsequent screw-ups) of Midwesterners. Even when they’re in Hawaii or New England or San Diego, they’ve still got Nebraska in their DNA. With a delicately balanced combination of take-no-prisoners needling and empathetic affection, he brings us into these lives through prickly characters—ok, sometimes just pricks—who go on journeys both physical and emotional to better cope with their disappointment and ennui. After making a few movies so searing and energetic that they’ve retained a “timeless quality,” as our Tara Bennett put it when we interviewed Payne, the filmmaker has settled deeper into his niche of making old-school, small-scale dramedies. His latest, The Holdovers, leans so far in this direction that it bleeds into all parts of the holiday film’s ’70s setting and aesthetic. Ranking his movies means watching the evolution of an artist, reflecting on and playing with pet themes that have never strayed far from his heart.

Here is every Alexander Payne movie, ranked:

8. The Descendants

Alexander Payne’s adaptation of the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel is somehow both rougher and less lacerating than his more satirical works, because its characters are a bit more forthright in their grief and anger, making fewer fumbling attempts at social niceties. This puts George Clooney’s performance as Matt King, the trustee of a land-owning Hawaiian family coping with his wife’s impending death, front and center. He’s supported by an eclectic ensemble that includes Shailene Woodley, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges and Judy Greer, but the camera is never far from Clooney’s face, searching for a way through the emotional mess in front of him. Payne uses Clooney’s authority and confidence beautifully: Matt spends much of the movie trying to figure out the practical logistics of improving himself as a father and a man, because it seems like his chance to improve as a husband is about to pass. This makes it a terrific Clooney movie, but maybe only a good Payne one.—Jesse Hassenger

7. The Holdovers

Alexander Payne’s once-acidic tone has undoubtedly taken a shift toward the sincere since newcomer Reese Witherspoon first hit screens as know-it-all Tracy Flick in Election, 25 years ago. With the early 1970s-set holiday drama The Holdovers, his indictment of the American Dream may burn more slowly, but the gut punch is no less severe, so long as you aren’t put off by a healthy dose of nostalgia. Stinky, sweaty, disgruntled Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti with a lazy eye), a hardass Ancient Civilizations professor who makes no attempt to hide how much he despises his “vulgar” students, is put in charge of babysitting the students whose parents don’t want to deal with them over the Christmas holiday break. “And I thought all the Nazis had left for Argentina,” quips the smartass leader of the gang, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), when Paul harshly disciplines the boys for fighting. Angus and Paul are not alone are joined by Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the head of the school cafeteria, who recently lost her beloved son Curtis, himself a Barton alum, in the Vietnam war. If this sounds like the trappings of an “unlikely family of outsiders finds understanding during the holidays” kind of movie, it’s because that’s exactly what The Holdovers is. Neither Payne nor screenwriter David Hemingson are afraid to lean into the romantic notion that three disparate people with vastly different circumstances can briefly come together as a family. All three of the protagonists are hiding deeply held secrets and desires that are slowly revealed over the course of their time together, to the point that they truly come to rely on each other for trustworthy companionship. This is made more plausible thanks to Hemingson’s well-developed screenplay, strong performances from all three leads and The Holdovers’ refined, cozy vibe. The syrupy soundtrack and softly glowing photography set the snug tone. If Election is a shot of tequila, The Holdovers is a slow succession of sips of bourbon that you don’t realize have affected your spatial awareness until you get out of your armchair.—Katarina Docalovich

6. Downsizing

“The best anyone can say about Downsizing is that it shows Payne trying to push himself into new terrain,” Tim Grierson wrote for Paste at the time of its release, “and the worst is that the movie finds him struggling to find new variations on his familiar themes.” Both of these statements are probably true, but perhaps in a different ratio than many critics initially felt at the time. A big-swing satire after a series of more intimate stories, Alexander Payne focuses on Paul (Matt Damon), one of his patented middle-aged doofuses (and a role Damon’s tastes very much grew into over the years), who agrees to a process that shrinks him down to approximately the six-inch scale of an action figure, in exchange for vastly increased wealth (and vastly decreased resource drain). He finds himself in a kind of ersatz upper-middle-class bubble, a quiet nightmare of gated-community blandness—which he can no longer afford after his wife (Kristen Wiig) decides at the last minute not to go through with this procedure. Paul eventually becomes aware of slums outside his community’s walls, and winds up working with Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), and contemplating a possible end to the human race. Bleak stuff, even for Payne, and sometimes unwieldy in its attempt to balance his satirical instincts with his more humanist leanings, as if he’s trying to hastily resharpen knives without hurting anyone in the process. Yet Downsizing is far thornier and more worthwhile than its reputation suggests, with terrific performances from Damon and especially Chau, willing to follow the story’s winding uncertainties that often feel like chapters from a nonexistent novel.—Jesse Hassenger

5. Citizen Ruth

Extra punk-rock points for such a cheerfully omnidirectional satire feature debut that it almost justifies the First Album Syndrome that so often accompanies early works. Citizen Ruth is a 1996 comedy about abortion, a subject more often treated with understandably hushed sensitivity, when it’s treated at all. Laura Dern does terrifically bold work as Ruth Stoops, an oft-pregnant drug addict who becomes the center of an abortion debate when a judge orders her to terminate her pregnancy due to her endangerment of the fetus and inability to take care of her other four children. Pro-lifers take it upon themselves to save her pregnancy, which in turn raises the ire of pro-choice activists; no one but Ruth is portrayed with much sympathy (and she still huffs wood sealant to get high while pregnant). Maybe today, after the fall of Roe vs. Wade, the movie would be seen as both-sides-ing an important issue; saying everyone sucks is punk rock, too, in the more reductive sense. But what Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor are really savaging is all-consuming righteousness, which they brilliantly pit against the weirdly indomitable spirit of an irresponsible fuck-up.—Jesse Hassenger

4. Sideways

Alexander Payne abandons the Midwest for Southern California, but his heroes don’t exactly affect a carefree San Diego-ready lifestyle: Miles (Paul Giamatti) is an English teacher and probably-failed novelist, while his actor buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church) seems altogether unfit for the marriage he’s ostensibly celebrating with a wine-country bachelor party. So yes, Sideways is the second of Payne’s three misadventuring road movies, and maybe just a touch overrated compared to his absolute best movies (and even some of his relatively lesser ones). Giamatti makes a funnier cranky teacher in The Holdovers, Will Forte is a more quietly nuanced everyman in Nebraska, and Matthew Broderick behaves badly with cringier, more self-deceiving edge in Election. On the other hand: This is still Paul Giamatti in a too-rare leading role that should have gotten him an Oscar nomination, and Thomas Haden Church in a career peak that did get him his. If Sideways sometimes makes its characters’ “unlikable” foibles a little too palatable (hence those Oscar noms, and Payne’s win, with co-writer Jim Taylor, for Best Adapted Screenplay), it’s still attuned to one of the filmmaker’s favorite subjects: The little ways we can try to confer some form of meaning on a seemingly screwed-up life (and the bigger ways we can continue screwing up).—Jesse Hassenger

3. Nebraska

In his Midwestern films, Alexander Payne’s protagonists are often coping with lives that aren’t quite as happy as maybe they would have hoped. They don’t have big dreams—it’s not as if they want to be musicians or champion boxers or astronauts—but still they’ve fallen into mediocrity and regret. Payne may poke fun at them, but the deep affection for their foibles is just as evident. Nebraska stars Will Forte as David Grant, an electronics salesman living in Billings, Montana, the same town where his parents now reside. His father, Woody (Bruce Dern), is a miserable cuss: He drinks too much, can’t hear very well, and generally wants to be left the hell alone, especially by his wife Kate (June Squibb). Woody’s mental faculties are fading, demonstrated by the fact that he’s giddy about winning a million dollars. He hasn’t, of course, but he assumes that he has because of a sweepstakes offer that came in the mail saying that he did. (Woody isn’t interested in the fine print.) The catch is that he has to go to Lincoln, Nebraska, to redeem his money, and although David knows that the whole thing is nonsense, he reluctantly agrees to drive his father, figuring if it’ll make the old man happy, what’s the harm? This father-and-son road movie has certain conventionalities embedded in its DNA. But whether because of the black-and-white images or the stripped-down sparseness of Payne’s compositions, Nebraska feels somewhat different than his other films, a little more deadpan and a little more depressive (and, occasionally, a little more formulaic). At the same time, Payne has moved away from the piercing satire of his early movies for a more mature, sentimental tone that flows freely here, reaching an emotional conclusion with grace and finesse.—Tim Grierson

2. About Schmidt

Acclaimed in its day and seemingly not much discussed now, Alexander Payne’s third feature occasioned Jack Nicholson’s (presumably) final Oscar nomination, dressing down to play midwestern retiree Warren Schmidt, who finds himself adrift without a job or a wife to distract him from his life’s meaninglessness. Instead of a proper hobby, he focuses his energy on a road trip intended to halt the wedding of his sad-sack daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), hoping she can do better than he has. Nicholson still holds the screen with movie-star gravity, but he lets Payne really muss him up, playing the kind of emotionally constipated Silent Generation man who relies on a loyal wife to keep his affairs in order, and on a good-on-paper career to maintain the illusion of social correctness. Payne doesn’t exactly go easy on his sort-of hero, which only prompted more questions about whether he condescends to his Nebraskan characters. But there’s always been a deep well of affection beneath the surface sting. Here, the darkly comic misadventures are punctuated by a running gag—“Dear Ndugu,” Schmidt begins a series of voiceover letters to a young African child he supports with one of those monthly payment plans—that turns, in the movie’s closing moments, almost shockingly moving. Nicholson’s final close-up may be the most emotionally cathartic moment in Payne’s filmography.—Jesse Hassenger

1. Election

Tom Perrotta writes novels that strip the veneer from polite and “civilized” mid-American suburban life to expose it as the Starbucks-ian jungle that it is: The most reptilian impulses of human nature can strike at any time to dismantle the weak ones in the pack, or to at least flirt with pure narcissistic and hedonistic behavior. In fact, two great films based on his work outline this thematic connection—in Todd Field’s Little Children, the sexual indiscretions of small town characters are narrated like an old school National Geographic documentary, and in Alexander Payne’s Election, the soundtrack blares with a screeching, angry tribal chant whenever a character feels slighted, preparing for an attack to socially destroy an enemy. Perrotta and Payne’s narrative covers a rift between a high school teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who isn’t self-aware enough to realize how much of a selfish prick he really is, and a student, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), the embodiment of blind and ruthless ambition, during the election to appoint the new student body president. Underneath this simple story rides a precise and nimble exploration about the lengths anyone might go to on the road to success to protect their fragile ego while stabbing many backs. Witherspoon’s now-iconic take on Tracy Flick is the embodiment of that person we’ve all encountered who will do and say literally anything to get ahead in life. However, Broderick’s seemingly caring and guiding teacher also succumbs to his own basest desires. Which one perishes, and which one comes out on top depends not on any preconceived cosmic hierarchy of good morals (or ethics—what’s the difference?), but on who can be the shrewdest and cleverest animal in the pack.—Oktay Ege Kozak

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