Dir: Alexander Payne
When Alexander Payne met Jack Nicholson, he described the character as "Jack, I want you to play a small man."
Perhaps that is what makes Jack Nicholson's performance so remarkable. Nicholson himself is such a larger-than-life character, but in this role, he truly shrinks.
The film follows an insurance salesman, Warren Schmidt, who, upon retirement, struggles to find meaning in life.
If one were to be re-incarnated as a character in a film, one would not want that film to be directed by Alexander Payne. He is remarkably cruel to his characters. Life is tough, it is not fair, and it does not follow rules. And just deal with it. Because it's all you've got.
Payne's characters are never really heroes. They struggle with their own weaknesses, and suffer the consequences of their misdeeds.
And yet somehow in the mess that he depicts life as, Payne finds humor, poignancy, and sometimes even a form of redemption.
When one thinks of great painters, they usually have an individual style. Part of the requirement for a true artist is perhaps an obsession with a certain subject or manner of depiction. It is as if a true artist is constantly in search of an inner truth, and circles it, constantly trying to hone in on its centre.
The creative freedom to indulge these personal passions was afforded to film directors partially as a result of the 'auteur' theory, which brought new creative respect to the director.
Directors' names are still used on the posters. We might know that a film is a 'Michael Bay' film, but is an obsession with spaceships, robots and explosions, really a creative quest for truth, or just a playground game?
In the shrinking list of true 'auteurs', Alexander Payne's name is up there. He remains one of the few directors still using his work to explore the great mysteries of life.