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25 Movies to See Before the Oscars: 11. Nebraska

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Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, Cinematography

Nebraska isn’t about a band of sexy grifters trying to outplay the Mob and FBI, and it isn’t about unlikely heroes banding together to survive attacking pirates, and it isn’t about a morally inept cocaine-huffing billionaire – no, nothing as glamorous as all that. Director Alexander Payne’s latest wandering-spirit narrative is about a wispy-haired codger named Wood Grant, played by the truly original Bruce Dern in perhaps his best role ever, who is looking so hard for something to give his life meaning that he buys into a magazine-selling gimmick that tells him he might be a millionaire, much to the chagrin of his piss-and-vinegar wife Kate, played by diamond-in-the-rough June Squibb, and weary-eyed son David, played by the pleasantly surprisingly adept dramatic actor Will Forte. So David decides to give into his father’s fantasy, whether driven by desperate denial or dementia, and relents to drive him to Nebraska to see if Woody has won a million dollars.

The film, shot in dreamy black-and-white, dances on the razor’s edge between mockery and sympathy amazingly well; blurring such lines between open pity and mild observance has always been one of Payne’s greatest directing fortes. Woody’s story is so utterly unexciting though that its easily to confuse what sentiment one is supposed to feel. Despite this and films general melancholy, the film broils with a quiet heart. David is stuck in middle age, struggling and frustrated with his mediocrity, just as his father had once – its their roadtrip together where David begins to identify with the father that always kept him at arms length. In a sense Payne acts as a non-conformist by being a conformist: Nebraska doesn’t fall in with the twenty-first century, beautiful-tragedy-of-human-life Absurdist trope that so many filmmakers nowadays use as a default narrative of honesty, it blooms with a warm and fully satisfying third act that reaffirms the father-son bond at the soul of the movie that makes the painfulness of trudging through lies, deception, and alcoholism all the more meaningful.

Lots of people don’t like to make movies about people like Woody and the flat land middle America they inhabit, and for good reason. Payne’s being a born and bred Omaha man gives him a distinct edge of knowing what these average rubes with their practical clothes and their houses decorated with home-spun kitsch, and he uses this knowledge to avoid the obvious pitfalls of this story with the help of screenwriter Bob Nelson. He lets the quirk of the environment breath as it wills like it is a living thing, letting it be bland as it wants as well as ridiculous or frustrating or weird or sweet or hilarious. There’s no forcing of mawkish interludes or uncomfortable and forced doofus humor to fill those open spaces (though there are some oafish cousins who’s gullibility feels like the witty alternative to the idiot archetype) – Nebraska is what it is. And in the very center there’s Dern, the only actor to ever kill John Wayne in a movie, in his lauded performance as boozy, old Woody, full of happenstance acting genius. AMPAS prefers to fill its acting fields with young blood, the younger the better, so there was only one actual space for an elder statesman (At seventy-seven, Dern is thirty-three years older than the next youngest actor, Matthew McConaughey, who is forty-four); Dern is so plainly brilliant that one could be certain that he is reason that Robert Redford wasn’t upset over his Best Actor snub – he carries that torch deservedly for the both of them.

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