So here it is, the last of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture. I’ve now ticked off all nine. Regardless of which movies you might have loved or hated in this year’s batch, the variety is pretty amazing. There’s the technical brilliance of Gravity, the intensity of Captain Phillips, and the glorious mess of American Hustle. There’s the inspiration of Dallas Buyers Club, the sublime uniqueness of Her, and the mega heart string pulling of Philomena. There’s also the extremes of the mind blowing, ass kicking awesomeness that is The Wolf of Wall Street, right down to the overly earnest, overly obvious and overly everything-Oscar-bait of 12 Years a Slave. Amongst them all is something small, quiet, minimal and unassuming. And it’s all of these qualities that somehow make it the perfect last movie in this list for me to have seen. Because if you need a nice way to wind down after the extremities of all the other movies mentioned above, I can’t think of a better movie than Nebraska.
Bruce Dern is Woody Grant, a confused old man, ambling along the highway until a squad car picks him up and takes him in. When collected by his son, David (Will Forte), we learn Woody thinks he’s won $1million in a dodgy sweepstake, and is one his way to Nebraska to claim the prize. The rest of their immediate family is made up of Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squib) and their eldest son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk). When none of them can convince Woody that’s it’s a scam, David eventually agrees to take his father to Nebraska, if for no other reason than to just spend some time humouring is aging father.
Along the way, Woody and David are briefly stuck in their former home town, where they haven’t been since David was a young boy. Staying with Woody’s even older brother, the story of the million bucks spreads across town until everyone thinks they have a claim to a share. Especially Stacey Keach’s Ed, Woody’s former business partner from three decades earlier.
When Nebraska first came out, there was a lot of talk about Dern being a legit contender for the Best Actor Oscar. The likelihood of that has all but disappeared since, but now that I’ve finally seen his performance, it’s up there as one of my favourites of the year.
I don’t know if I’m not perceptive enough, or if it was a deliberate choice on Dern’s part, but I never knew for sure what was going on in Woody’s head. Is he suffering from some variety of Alzheimer’s or dementia? Is he a little forgetful as an octogenarian might be? Is he just a stubborn old prick with no regard for how his actions affect others? Is he lying to himself just as much as he’s lying to everyone else so he has a reason to live just that little bit longer? For me, that ambiguity was a big part of what made me like Nebraska so much.
Director Alexander Payne has copped a little flack for making fun of his small town characters. Accused of laughing at them, never with them. But I thought it showed more of a familiar affection for them. I think he actually likes these small town people and is making fun of them the way only an insider can. As much as I like Sideways and The Descendants, those characters and settings don’t seem as personal to Payne as movies like Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt. I’d definitely put Nebraska in that latter group.
Nebraska might not be my pick for Best Picture, but in in such an eclectic year, it’s inclusion makes me the happiest. So many of the other eight nominees were built from the ground up to be Oscar contenders. Nebraska seems like it was made for no other reason than to just tell its own unique little story.
Directed By – Alexander Payne
Written By – Bob Nelson