5 Best Movies to Watch by Alexander Payne

Staff & contributors

Nebraska is a poem distilled into a film. Peter Travers from Rolling Stone says "is it a comedy or a drama? Both at the same time, as life itself." Everything about it is perfect: the acting, the photography, the story. In case that's not enough and you need to know the plot to get convinced, I'll tell you that it's a road movie about a senile old man and his son. If you still want more information, you can Google it, but come on! You'll just be wasting time that would be better spent on watching this masterpiece.

Genre: Adventure, Drama

Actor: Angela McEwan, Anthony G. Schmidt, Bob Nelson, Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Dern, Devin Ratray, Franklin Dennis Jones, June Squibb, Mary Louise Wilson, Missy Doty, Rance Howard, Stacy Keach, Tim Driscoll, Will Forte

Director: Alexander Payne

Rating: R

Of all the Christmas-set films to have come out over the last couple of months that were, inexplicably, about grief and regret (you'd be surprised by how many there are), The Holdovers easily outdoes its contemporaries by being confident enough to just sit with its characters. Like the best of director Alexander Payne's other films, there are no melodramatic crescendos or overcomplicated metaphors; there are only flawed individuals going about their lives, occasionally noticing the things that bind them together. Payne's gentle touch means the characters (and the audience) aren't forced to "solve" their grief, but allowed to come to terms with it in their own way, with each other.

Payne evokes the film's 1970s setting through a muted color palette and analog—almost tactile—sound design, giving warmth to this New England despite all its snow and chilly interiors. It's understandable that these characters are similarly cold to each other on the surface at first, but they manage to thaw the ice simply by taking the chance to listen to each other's pain. It's the kind of film in which relationships develop so gradually, that you hardly notice until the end how much mutual respect has formed between them when they return from their dark nights of the soul back to their status quo.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alexander Cook, Andrew Garman, Brady Hepner, Carrie Preston, Carter Shimp, Cole Tristan Murphy, Colleen Clinton, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Dakota Lustick, Dan Aid, Darby Lee-Stack, David J. Curtis, Dominic Sessa, Dustin Tucker, Gillian Vigman, Ian Dolley, Ian Lyons, Jim Kaplan, Joe Howell, Kelly AuCoin, Kevin Daigneault, Kevin Fennessy, Melissa McMeekin, Michael Malvesti, Michael Provost, Naheem Garcia, Oscar Wahlberg, Osmani Rodriguez, Pamela Jayne Morgan, Paul Giamatti, Rena Maliszewski, Stephen Thorne, Tate Donovan

Director: Alexander Payne

Rating: R

Starring Matthew Broderick and a young Reese Witherspoon as, respectively, Jim McAllister, a high school teacher and Tracy Flick, a notorious 'that girl' in his class. When Tracy decides to run for class president, we see the floodgates open as all sorts of bizarre and insane behavior pours out of the two. Quickly, it becomes clear that Tracy will do nearly anything to win, and as circumstances spiral out of control, madness descends - along with hilarity!

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Mystery, Romance

Actor: B.J. Tobin, Chris Klein, Colleen Camp, Delaney Driscoll, Frankie Ingrassia, Holmes Osborne, Jason Paige, Jeanine Jackson, Jessica Campbell, Jillian Crane, John Ponzio, Kaitlin Ferrell, Marilyn Tipp, Mark Harelik, Matt Golden, Matt Malloy, Matthew Broderick, Molly Hagan, Nicholas D'Agosto, Phil Reeves, Reese Witherspoon, Rohan Quine

Director: Alexander Payne

Rating: R

This anthology of 18 short films — directed by the likes of the Coen brothers, Gurinder Chadha, Wes Craven, and Olivier Assayas — is a cinematic charcuterie board. Each director offers their own creative interpretation of one north star: love in Paris. Romantic love is heavily represented, naturally, but in diverse forms: love that’s run its course, dormant love in need of rekindling, electric chance encounters, and, apt given the location, honeymoon love. Segments like the one starring Juliette Binoche and Alfonso Cuarón’s five-minute-long continuous take opt to focus on parental love instead, with the former also exploring love through the frame of grief. 

If this all sounds a little syrupy and sentimental, fear not: there are dashes of bubble-bursting humor from the Coens, whose short stars a silent Steve Buscemi as a stereotypically Mona Lisa-obsessed American tourist who commits a grave faux pas in a metro station. Instead of sightseers, some directors offer more sober reflections on the experience of migrants in the city, which help ground the film so it doesn’t feel quite so indulgent. Still, the limited runtime of each vignette (sub-10 minutes) doesn’t let any one note linger too long, meaning the anthology feels like a series of light, short courses rather than a gorge of something sickly.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Aissa Maiga, Alexander Payne, Axel Kiener, Barbet Schroeder, Ben Gazzara, Bob Hoskins, Bruno Podalydès, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Cyril Descours, Elijah Wood, Emily Mortimer, Fanny Ardant, Florence Muller, Gaspard Ulliel, Gena Rowlands, Gérard Depardieu, Hervé Pierre, Hippolyte Girardot, Javier Cámara, Joana Preiss, Julie Bataille, Julien Béramis, Juliette Binoche, Leila Bekhti, Leonor Watling, Lionel Dray, Ludivine Sagnier, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Margo Martindale, Marianne Faithfull, Miranda Richardson, Natalie Portman, Nick Nolte, Olga Kurylenko, Paul Putner, Rufus Sewell, Sara Martins, Sergio Castellitto, Steve Buscemi, Thomas Dumerchez, Wes Craven, Willem Dafoe, Yolande Moreau

Director: Alexander Payne, Alfonso Cuarón, Bruno Podalydès, Christopher Doyle, Daniela Thomas, Ethan Coen, Frédéric Auburtin, Gérard Depardieu, Gurinder Chadha, Gus Van Sant, Isabel Coixet, Joel Coen, Nobuhiro Suwa, Oliver Schmitz, Olivier Assayas, Richard LaGravenese, Sylvain Chomet, Tom Tykwer, Vincenzo Natali, Walter Salles, Wes Craven

Rating: R

Best friends Miles and Jack are off to wine country to celebrate Jack's last week of freedom before he gets married. They drop white lies about themselves, with Miles pretending to be a successful writer and Jack not mentioning his impending wedding, and soon meet two beautiful women whom they spend the rest of their stay with. What sounds like a dreamy bachelor's celebration, however, soon unravels into a messy tangle of tall tales. Miles and Jack contemplate their situation in smart, sad, and silly turns, delivering excellent performances and an overall hard-hitting road movie. 

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Alysia Reiner, Cesar Ramos, Jessica Hecht, Joe Marinelli, M.C. Gainey, Marylouise Burke, Missy Doty, Patrick Gallagher, Paul Giamatti, Peter Dennis, Phil Reeves, Robert Covarrubias, Sandra Oh, Shake Tukhmanyan, Shaun Duke, Stephanie Faracy, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen

Director: Alexander Payne

Rating: R