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James L. Brooks (#110 of 2)

New York Film Festival 2011 Alexander Payne’s The Descendants

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New York Film Festival 2011: The Descendants

Fox Searchlight Pictures

New York Film Festival 2011: The Descendants

Part Coen brothers and part James L. Brooks, Alexander Payne makes comedies about serious stuff like abortion and midlife crises. His characters may verge on caricature and his scripts on contrivance, but nuanced acting and lingering close-ups make their emotions feel vividly, even painfully real.

His best film since Election, aside from the segment he directed for Paris Je T’aime, The Descendants is based on a novel written by a young woman, Kaui Hart Hemmings, which may explain why the two girls in the story feel so well-rounded. But then, Payne has always gravitated toward interestingly prickly female characters, from the glue-sniffing title character of Citizen Ruth to Election’s endlessly ambitious Tracy Flick and the impetuous biker played by Sandra Oh in Sideways.

The main women in this story are Matt King’s (George Clooney) wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), and the couple’s two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), both of whom are acting out like crazy as the story begins. Elizabeth never speaks a word (we see her first as a gigantic face filling the screen with delight as she rides in a speeding motorboat, then as a comatose husk of a body in a hospital bed), but we get a pretty good sense of her through the things other people say about her—and to her as she lies there, a pale slate for other people to scrawl their emotions on.

5 for the Day: The Simpsons

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5 for the Day: The Simpsons

FOX

5 for the Day: The Simpsons

Picking the five best Simpsons episodes is well-nigh impossible.

Even if you accept that basically nothing from season nine onwards is going to match up to anything in the first eight seasons (despite seasons nine and onwards having a few choice episodes), you still have to contend with the sheer amount of classic episodes in those first eight seasons. The Simpsons were the cultural institution of the 90s, for better or worse, a touchstone of a whole generation (Slate.com press critic Jack Shafer has argued that we’ll know that baby boomers have ceded control of the media to younger generations when Simpsons quotes start turning up in headlines).

For those who grew up in the ’90s, The Simpsons became the lingua franca of life. When I was in college from 1999 to 2003, Simpsons quotes or references became a kind of conversational shorthand, a way to sound clever on dates, or a way to size up whether the person you were talking to might be the very best kind of friend. It was a common denominator, one of the few things everyone knew about and could agree on. Saying “My cat’s breath smells like cat food” wasn’t just leeching off of someone else to be funny; it was both an ice breaker and a quick way to signify that you didn’t completely suck. And that was in rural South Dakota! Surely the phenomenon was more pronounced elsewhere; TV writer Denis McGrath has talked about how TV writers rooms often descend into long Simpsons quote-a-thons.

Aside from my top choice, the rest of the lineup could change on any given day. If anyone has the exact same list as me, I won’t only be shocked, I’ll be a little frightened. This is all an elaborate preamble to saying that picking the very best is impossible, so I singled out episodes that I think exemplify some of the things the show does best (and I made an effort to pick only one episode per season—otherwise, I could have filled the whole thing with Season Four entries). So, in the wake of the titanic success of The Simpsons Movie (a work that doesn’t rank with the best-ever episodes, but sits comfortably enough on the second tier—which is a pretty damn great tier), here are my five.