Friday, November 25, 2011

THE DESCENDANTS: Heirs to the glimmering world

A few thoughts on THE DESCENDANTS, and ranking Alexander Payne's movies.

Earlier this year, "The Five Album Test" emerged briefly as a meme.  It suggests that one way to determine a musical act's greatness is that they made five great albums in a row.  This was then extended to "The Five Movie Test": which great directors had made five great films in a row?  Personally, I don't think this test is a very good representation of an artist's greatness - a great director, like a great band, introduces a lot of risk in each new project, and risk is a key element of both success and failure.  But now comes THE DESCENDANTS, director Alexander Payne's fifth movie, and he's five for five.

In THE DESCENDANTS, George Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaii lawyer whose wife lies in a coma from a recent boating accident.  The movie takes place over the final few days of her life, but THE DESCENDANTS is about so much more than grief and shock.  You will cry, of course, but you will also laugh.  Alexander Payne's movies don't really follow the traditional, most expected beats of their plots, and that's one of the things I love most about them.

As good as Clooney is (and he's really, really good), the movie's breakout performance is that of Shailene Woodley, who plays teenage daughter Alex.  Alex may first appear to be a typical rebellious teenager, but Woodley gives her tremendous depth and subtlety.  And there's a wonderful scene near the end of the movie, it's just a brief wordless shot really, which reveals how much Alex has grown during the movie's few grief-filled days.  The look on Woodley's face - now mature, compassionate - should be enough to earn her an Oscar nomination.

THE DESCENDANTS is now playing at Chinook, Crowfoot, and The Globe.

Ranking Alexander Payne's movies:

5. ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002).  In many ways, Payne's least accessible work.  If his movies walk a fine line between mocking and loving the characters, this one may be a little too much on the side of mocking.  Still: wonderful performances from Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, and Hope Davis, and an Encyclopedia Brown gag that's among the funniest bits in all of Payne's movies.

4. CITIZEN RUTH (1996).  Wicked satire of both the pro-life and pro-choice movements.  Featuring a wonderful, brave performance by Laura Dern.


2.5. 14e ARRONDISSEMENT (2006).  Payne made this glorious short film for the movie PARIS JE T'AIME.  Margo Martindale plays a woman recounting her trip to Paris as an assignment for her French class.  It packs a much bigger wallop than its six-minute runtime suggests.

2. SIDEWAYS (2004).  I recently re-watched this one, and it holds up beautifully.  Paul Giamatti's lack of an Oscar nomination is perhaps the Academy's most egregious oversight in the last 20 years, at least in categories other than Best Documentary Feature.

1. ELECTION (1999).  Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick is one of the great movie characters of recent memory: amoral ambition wrapped with a bow. 

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