Nebraska – Oscar nominee for best film, best director, best actor, best supporting actress, best cinematography and best original screenplay – releases today on DVD. It should probably go without saying that the film deserves a look. Bruce Dern is Woody, a boozy old man who believes he’s won a million dollars and talks his son into driving him to Nebraska to pick up his winnings. It’s a lovely, surprisingly funny voyage and not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the best films in director Alexander Payne’s impressive arsenal.
After Nebraska, a quick look at one of Payne’s underseen early films is in order. How about Election, a subversive laugh riot about a high school presidential campaign? Oscar nominated for screenplay, the film proved Payne’s agility as a filmmaker and showcased Reese Witherspoon’s spot-on comic ability.
The engrossing and immersive romantic drama may be best known for its NC-17 rating, but the beauty and heartbreak in this loose narrative make it one of the best films of 2013. Adele Exarchopoulos provides among the strongest performances onscreen this year in a love story that is as emotionally explicit as it is sexually frank.
9. Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley proves her mettle as a documentarian with a private story that becomes universal, entertaining and genuinely moving. Through a profoundly personal investigation, Polley looks at the validity of those comfortable truths that live in every family, and it’s all clever, fascinating, funny stuff. Polley has quickly become a filmmaker you cannot ignore, and it is a testament to her own storytelling skill that even as she turns her focus inward, you can’t help but look at your own world in a different way.
8. The Wolf of Wall Street
Director Martin Scorcese’s three hour showcase of unchecked hedonism is a terrifically frenzied, wickedly funny ride. Leonardo DiCaprio is electric as Jordan Belfort, the real life Wall Street wizard who made millions before the Feds brought him down for rampant securities fraud. This is no hand-wringing reflection on the wages of sin, just a swaggering, appropriately superficial and completely entertaining lesson in the American dream.
The great Alexander Payne exceeds admittedly high expectations with this gracefully restrained father/son journey. The Oscar favorite will no doubt pull in a nomination for its lead, an unforgettable Bruce Dern, but the entire ensemble – June Squibb as Dern’s spitfire of a wife, in particular – beautifully convey the spite, regret, hilarity and insanity of family. Wistful and rambunctious, the film packs a dramatic punch but still leaves you smiling.
Alfonso Cuaron redefines SciFi with a jaw-dropping interstellar adventure – undoubtedly this year’s most surprisingly tense action flick. He untethers a novice astronaut in outer space, and his audience with her, in the most intimate and epic journey of the year. His stunning directorial achievement reminds us of why people started making movies in the first place.
Though it won’t hit many theaters until January, this film is too magnificent to be relegated to the category of afterthought. Spike Jonze has written and directed this year’s most poignant love story, cast it impeccably and set it just far enough into the future to let breathe. The eternally underappreciated Joaquin Phoenix breaks your heart as the lonesome lover in a world that encourages isolation, while Scarlett Johannson – in her second excellent turn this year, following Don Jon – delivers an award worthy performance with just her voice. It’s a beautiful, imaginative, relevant image of love in the modern world.
4. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Brothers Coen offer just another nearly flawless film, this time immersing us in the tribulations of a struggling musician in the 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene. Boasting a beautifully nuanced lead performance from Oscar Isaac and populated with hilarious and touching supporting turns, the film is the brothers’ most impeccably crafted character study. It’s also another great exploration of the artistic connections possible between cinema and music, reminding us again of that Coen genius.
3. The Act of Killing
Those responsible for exterminating more than a million Indonesians during the 1965 government overthrow re-enact their savagery for Joshua Oppenheimer’s camera in the most surreal and riveting documentary of this year, or perhaps any other. You simply cannot believe what you are seeing. The film is absolutely not what you expect it to be, regardless of what those expectations may be. It is essential viewing.
2. American Hustle
With a dream ensemble, wickedly sharp writing and an explosive pace, director David O. Russell gives us a con movie that explodes with heart and humor. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper erupt while Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner anchor a very human, impossibly captivating comedy/drama.
1. 12 Years a Slave
Intimate storytelling and flawless acting come together to eliminate the distance of time and create a powerful, visceral, unforgettable cinematic and human experience. Director Steve McQueen has created a film that makes all others set during the shameful American history of slavery seem almost precious. His film is a profound and brutal experience, and an awe-inspiring feat of moviemaking. There is no close second in a list of the best films of 2013.
After a string of charmingly insightful films such as About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants, Alexander Payne has joined that group of filmmakers whose every effort is met with winning expectations.
His latest is Nebraska, and it exceeds them all.
The film follows the trail of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an aging booze hound in Montana who gets a contest solicitation in the mail. Convinced he’s already won the million-dollar sweepstakes, Woody is determined to make the required trip, on foot if necessary, to the contest office in Omaha where his prize awaits.
To appease his stubborn father, Woody’s son David (SNL vet Will Forte) steps in, and the estranged pair hit the highway for Nebraska. Along the way, they stop off in the small town where Woody grew up, reconnecting with old friends and family who have differing reactions to Woody’s new “millionaire” status.
As is his custom, Payne is able to convey much with graceful direction and an intelligent, restrained script. Artfully filming in black and white, Payne often lets wide shots linger, utilizing exquisite cinematography from Phedon Papamichael to create scenes brimming with a stark beauty. Similarly, the faces and facades of Woody’s hometown reveal the dark corners shared by any of a thousand communities weakened by hard times.
Dern is smart enough to realize what he has with Woody, and he doesn’t waste the role of a lifetime. With an awkward gait and world-weary countenance, Dern digs into the dimensions of his character, delivering a deeply touching performance sure to get attention in the coming award season.
Though casting MacGruber opposite the legendary Dern does seem surprising, Forte shows some nice dramatic chops, allowing us to relate with David as he slowly begins to see his father in a new light.
Scene- stealing honors go to June Squibb, who’s a flat-out riot as Woody’s cantankerous wife Kate, and the venerable Stacy Keach as a long lost friend who may not be so friendly after all. Keep an eye out, too, for Angela McEwan. In limited screen time as Woody’s old girlfriend, she breaks your heart in the best possible way.
In many ways, Nebraska seems to be Payne’s most personal film, which is ironic considering it is the rare directorial effort that Payne didn’t also write. Bob Nelson gets that credit, and his debut screenplay is layered with poignancy and humor. It clearly spoke to Payne, and his vision for fleshing it out is impeccable.
Nebraska is infused with a subtle longing, a wistfulness for what you’ve left behind. That may sound like a recipe for rampant sentimentality, but Payne and Nelson have other plans. There’s also a rambunctious, often downright nutty spirit at work here, and it makes sure Nebraska leaves you smiling, even as it hits you squarely in the heart.