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Film Comment’s Essential Cinema: “Nebraska”

The man who raised hell with Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson in the 1960s is back. Nebraska, the latest film from director Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants), premiered at the 66th Cannes Film Festival in May to positive press and a Best Actor award for Bruce Dern, its leading man. It went on to screen in the Main Slate at this year's New York Film Festival. Praised for his performance as an elderly father who takes a cross-country trip to claim a cash prize he believes he's won, Dern has received awards (National Board of Review and Los Angeles Film Critics Association prizes for Best Actor) and nominations (Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild) for his turn here. June Squibb, the character actress who plays his wife, has also been the subject of much adoration.

A notable entry in Film Comment's Essential Cinema year-end supplement (included with the publication's November/ December issue), Nebraska is the topic of much critical consideration. Writing for the magazine, Larry Gross contextualized Nebraska's rightful place within Payne's body of work.

 Payne’s first four films were all character, acting, and dialogue. The Descendants marked a big leap in visual sophistication. To lapse into critical cliché: the landscape of Hawaii became a protagonist. But the staging was also more flexible and fluid, and it was an exciting film to watch.

Nebraska is the first film by Payne that is visually ravishing. However character-centered it is, audiences will also come away remembering many magnificent images: Woody roaming the desolate highwayside, the depleted main street of Hawthorne, the ruined farmhouse.

A Film of the Week pick, Jonathan Romney discussed the film's visual pallatte in a review earlier this year for Film Comment.

All of this adds up to an immensely satisfying adult comedy and one of Payne’s best. The film’s additional claim to distinction is Phedon Papamichael’s superb black-and-white photography (digital, although you wouldn’t know it). The camera contrives to distill the film into essentially a series of majestically lugubrious stills, in the spirit of a journey essentially defined by stasis rather than motion. Nebraska also comes laden with echoes of cinema’s color-era black-and-white landscape tradition—The Last Picture Show most obviously, not to mention Wenders’ Kings of the Road, which was nothing if not a search for America in the middle of Germany.

Nebraska is currently playing in select cities throughout the country. Be sure to check back on Wednesday for another selection from Film Comment's Essential Cinema 2013. And if year-end lists and rankings are your thing, the magazine has something for you as well.

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