In contemporary American cinema, I would argue that there are few filmmakers as little known as Alexander Payne given the impact he’s had and the accolades he’s acquired over his 20+ year career.
Films I consider to be classics or modern masterpieces, such as About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska—which have for the most part been box offices and critical successes—are bizarrely still well-kept secrets or little talked about, and for reasons I’m not all too sure of. One possible explanation is that unlike the wide majority of filmmakers, he depicts characters as vividly realized humans with good and also bad qualities. Alexander Payne is what I call “the master of the comedy/drama” as no other director can meld the two genres in a way that’s cohesive and as poignant as when he does it. If you were to look for directors with similar sensibilities, you would have to go back to the 70’s with the likes of Hal Ashby, Bob Rafelson, and Peter Bogdanovich.
Since that time, much has changed, made obvious by studios leaning towards tentpole films and the mad rush on the part of filmmakers to television, but it fascinates me that the stories that Alexander Payne tells are so successful, at least enough to get the next one made. Most people look towards films as a form of escapism, however, the reason I love Payne’s films so much is because of his uncanny ability to put a mirror towards reality while at the same time making it laugh out loud hilarious and painfully sad. Other than the fact that his films turn a profit, he has been able to continue making what his sensibilities lead him to because he consistently evokes career best performances from his cast and crew, leading to wide critical acclaim. For anyone unfamiliar with his work, I highly recommend that you explore his filmography for a truly unique experience.