Oscar-winning writer/director Alexander Payne is one of the most acclaimed writer/directors of his generation. He specializes in films, such as “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” that can be darkly funny while at the same time being extremely moving. His depictions of the flawed character that he creates has almost become a genre unto itself — say a film is “like an Alexander Payne movie,” and film fans will know exactly what you mean.
Payne has a remarkable track record at the Academy Awards — he has made seven films and has earned seven Oscar nominations. Granted, it wasn’t one for each film, but percentage-wise, that’s still enormously impressive. And of those seven noms, he has won two Oscars for co-writing 2004’s “Sideways” and 2011’s “The Descendants.” In addition, he has received four Golden Globe nominations for his directorial work (2002’s “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” “The Descendants” and 2013’s “Nebraska”).
Payne takes his time taking on new projects — there was a seven-year gap between “Sideways” and “The Descendants” — so we might have to wait a while for that eighth film. But given his track record, we’ll always be excited for a new movie, no matter how long it takes.
Let’s take a photo gallery tour of all seven films in his career, ranked from worst to best.
7. DOWNSIZING (2017)
Director: Alexander Payne. Writers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor. Starring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig.
Payne had a rare stumble with both critics and audiences with this ambitious sci-fi satire set in a futuristic world that is beset with overpopulation and global warming. However, technology has perfected a way to shrink people to a height of only five inches and place them into designated downsized communities where they can enjoy life with other neighbors who are their size. As money goes farther in downsized communities, cash-strapped couple Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig) agree to downsize, but once Paul has successfully shrunk, Audrey says she can’t go through with it and divorces him, leaving Paul to start a new life five inches tall and alone. “Downsizing” is nothing if not ambitious, but critics faulted the film for failing to follow through on its execution.
6. CITIZEN RUTH (1996)
Director: Alexander Payne. Writers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor. Starring Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Burt Reynolds, Tippi Hedren.
Payne’s directorial debut received high praise for its treatment of both sides of the abortion debate while still working as a funny comedy, no small feat. Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern), an irresponsible drug addict, already has four kids and finds that she is pregnant once again. Facing felony charges, the judge tells her that her sentence would be lighter if she has an abortion, but when she meets several pro-life advocates, Ruth finds herself conflicted as to what she should do. Her dilemma is used by both sides of the abortion debate to further their respective causes, forgetting Ruth and the fate of the baby she is carrying. “Citizen Ruth” demonstrated loud and clear that this guy Payne had the chops to balance a political point of view with laughs, a trait that would serve him well in years to come.
5. ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002)
Director: Alexander Payne. Writers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor. Starring Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates.
For Payne’s third film, “About Schmidt,” Jack Nicholson earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Warren Schmidt, a recent retiree who is at a loss as to what to do with the rest of his life. He buys a cheap Winnebago for retirement with his wife (June Squibb), who promptly dies. So he drives his motor home to see his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) and is distraught to learn that she is about to marry Randall (Dermot Mulroney), a loser of a waterbed salesman. Unlike his first two films, which had politically satiric elements to them, “About Schmidt” is much more of a character study, and despite his usual elements of comedy, Payne’s script handles the subject of life after retirement with sympathy and insight. For his direction of “About Schmidt,” Payne was nominated for his first Golden Globe Award, winning for co-writing.
4. ELECTION (1999)
Director: Alexander Payne. Writers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick, Chris Klein.
Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor received their first Oscar nominations for their wicked satire of the American electoral system as seen through the prism of a high school election for student body president. Overachieving senior Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), who has already used her sexual wiles to get one faculty member out, is now determined to win the election for president by turning her eye toward popular teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick). Jim, not wanting to meet the same fate at Tracy’s hands as his colleague, enlists football lunk Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against Tracy, although at first he seems to be no match for her scheming. “Election” remains one of the smartest comedies of the 1990s and cemented Payne and Taylor’s reputations as two of the town’s best screenwriters.
3. THE DESCENDANTS (2011)
Director: Alexander Payne. Writers: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash. Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster.
Payne won his second Academy Award for writing and second Oscar nomination for direction for this drama focused on wealthy land owner Matt King (Oscar nominee George Clooney) who is under great pressure from his siblings to sell off his share of the family’s valuable Kauai estate. At the same time, Matt must deal with the fact that his unfaithful wife is in a coma, and his daughters Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) are acting out. What’s a father to do? It’s a good story well told, with a rich characterization by Clooney that’s one of his very best. Payne shared his co-writing Oscar with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (“Community”) and earned yet another nomination for producing the Best Picture nominee. He also earned his third Golden Globe nomination as Best Director.
2. NEBRASKA (2013)
Director: Alexander Payne. Writer: Bob Nelson. Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk.
Nebraska native Payne pays tribute to his home state in this memorable road movie focusing on the aging Woody Grant (Oscar nominee Bruce Dern, superb), who is convinced that he has won a million-dollar prize in a magazine sweepstakes and asks his son David (Will Forte) to drive him there so that he can collect his winnings. David sees through this obvious scam but agrees to take him so that father and son can have some much-needed bonding time on the road, much to the skepticism of Woody’s wife Kate (Oscar nominee June Squibb). “Nebraska” is the only film that Payne directed in which he had no credited part of writing the screenplay, but Bob Nelson’s script channels Payne’s voice throughout. For his direction of “Nebraska,” Payne received his seventh Academy Award nomination and his fourth Golden Globe nod.
1. SIDEWAYS (2004)
Director: Alexander Payne. Writers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor. Starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh.
Arguably, “Sideways” is Payne’s most celebrated film and with good reason. On paper, a tour of Santa Barbara’s wine country with a merlot-hating misanthrope (Paul Giamatti, brilliant) and a washed-up soap actor (Oscar nominee Thomas Haden Church) would seem to have little more than niche appeal, but somehow the story of this pair and the new women in their lives — waitress Maya (Oscar nominee Virginia Madsen) and wine pourer Stephanie (Sandra Oh) — struck a nerve with movie audiences. My guess as to why may be Payne and Taylor’s Academy Award-winning script, which creates four characters who are terribly flawed, but each in their own way is looking for happiness, whatever that may mean to them. It’s a film that’s both funny and deeply moving at the same time. In addition to the Oscar screenplay win, Payne earned another Academy Award nomination for his direction and his second Golden Globe nomination.