Every day, from now until the weekend of the 2014 Academy Awards, HeyUGuys will be publishing an article championing one of the nine films in contention for the coveted Best Picture Oscar. We will be collecting them all here, where you can find the previous articles.

Alexander Payne renews his Oscar credentials with a sour take on an age-old problem. Setting his scene in the emotional oubliette of middle America Nebraska is a stark and brilliant portrait of a man, and his family, in quiet crisis. It is a powerful take on a modern, dilapidated Americana. Adam Lowes is our guide…

An elderly man, alone and confused, shuffles along the spiralling concrete road edging across the outskirts of a listless, dilapidated industrial Northern US city. Looking increasingly befuddled and agitated, the gentleman is stopped by a passing police car, its driver offering a lift to this sad figure. Thus begins the long and protracted journey of Woody Grant and his quest to venture out to Lincoln, Nebraska under the misapprehension that the $1 million sweepstakes prize he’s received via a letter in the post is a genuine win.

On the surface, Nebraska may not appear to be the most grandiose of Academy nominees. There are no debauched dwarf-hurling freeze-frames or thundering cinematic montages. There’s zero scenes of a life-or-death struggle on the cusp of the earth, or unflinching, gut-wrenching moments of barbaric human-on-human behaviour (well, not in a physical manner anyway). But then director Alexander Payne’s films always look a little unremarkable at initial glance – the beauty presenting itself once you’re invested in the world his flawed, all-too-real characters inhabit.

These are usually figures that have reached an uncertainty in their lives, be it the melancholic failed novelist Miles in Sideways, the emotionally-absent father forced to reassess his priorities when tragedy strikes in The Descendents, or Woody’s early onset of what looks like dementia, here. Many of these characters are on a quest of sorts, a road movie without a grand destination, yet it brings for them a subtle self-discovery which also impacts quietly on the lives of those around them.

Payne is a chronicler of the kind of instantly-recognisable, homespun America seldom put under the microscope on the big screen. Nebraska is no exception, offering perhaps his most delicate and richly-observed character study to date (captured in stark black and white).
That ability to get under the skin of his main figures within the story, and his endless attention of the minutiae offers an utterly sublime and unusually uplifting yarn here, which sits amongst his very best and should rightly be the film to pick up that statuette in a fortnight.

Bolstered by an extraordinary, unshowy turn from the wonderful Bruce Dern (as great as he is, it’s difficult to envision original casting choice Jack Nicholson bringing that level of nuance), Payne, being the consummate actors’ director, also draws award-worthy performances from his fine supporting cast. Who knew Will Forte, k-*nown primarily for his broader comedic displays, could play wounded and repressed so damn well, while the 84-year-old June Squib (best known until now as Nicolson’s ill-fated wife in Payne’s About Schmidt) delivers the kind of spirited and bawdry turn which makes you wish you could turn back the cinematic clock and sprinkle her across a whole array of indie features from the past.


As worthy a winner Nebraska truly is, it’s worth noting that two of the director’s previous films have trod those long exhaustive steps towards Oscar recognition, but to no avail. Sideways was beaten to a bloody pulp by Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (the veteran filmmaker also thrashed Payne in the directing category), while even the more ostensive crowd-pleaser of his oeuvre, The Descendents, couldn’t compete with the nostalgic love-in reserved for The Artist.

In total, Nebraska film has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Director for Payne, Best Actor for Dern, Best Supporting Actress for Squibb, and Best Original Screenplay. Of these, the last on the list offers the best chance for the film to come away with any recognition on that night (uncharacteristically for Payne, this is the first screenplay which he didn’t write). There is still a considerable challenge in this area, however, as it competes with more noticeably audience-friendly fare in that field, such as American Hustle and Dallas Buyers Club.

Payne will undoubtedly receive his due at some point soon, but until that day, his films act as a reminder that the finest examples of contemporary US cinema can linger in the minds, memories and hearts of viewers more so than many of their awards-heavy counterparts.