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It’s hard to describe Nebraska without making it sound like the last film you would want to see during the holidays. To begin with, it’s in black and white. I can tell you that the cinematography (by Phedon Papamichael) is gorgeous, filled with endless landscape vistas of unpopulated areas of Montana and Nebraska that would not be nearly as striking in color, but many people will simply think, “Back and white? Ugh. What time does that Disney movie start?”

So be it. There aren’t going to be long lines for it, but this new film by Alexander Payne (The Descendants, About Schmidt, Sideways) is moving, surprisingly funny, and one of the handful of movies you should make a point of seeing this season.

It stars that great underrated actor Bruce Dern, who has already won the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival for this performance. He plays Woody, a retired auto mechanic living in Billings Montana. He lives in what can only be described as a truce until death with his wife Kate (June Squibb), who has the tartest tongue this side of Dorothy Parker. (Asked how her mother-in-law died , she sneers “Looked in a mirror one day.”)

Between alcoholism and the ravages of age, Woody’s grasp of reality is heading downhill, and when he gets one of those letters from a magazine distributor saying “You may have won a million dollars!” his mind omits the “may.” When his family is unable to stop him from trying to walk the 700 miles to Nebraska to claim his prize, it falls to son David (Will Forte, late of Saturday Night Live and fine in a dramatic role) to drive him there.

The route takes them through the town where Woody and Kate were born and raised and where his family still lives, and circumstances land them in the bosom of his family for a weekend. Payne, who is from Nebraska, handles these scenes like one of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon monologues, with a drier sense of humor.

If Nebraska comes to a conclusion that makes you feel good, it does so in an honorable way, by not avoiding the pain involved in these lives. It’s a slight story but an uncommonly moving one, aided by a strong sense of place and Payne’s keen eye for casting (many of the actors in small parts are residents of the areas where the movie was filmed.)

Full disclosure: Nebraska’s homey score includes a piece of the song “If You Lose An Angel,” performed by Cathy Carfagna and composed by Artvoice associate editor Buck Quigley, who in his spare time is the singer-guitarist of the Steam Donkeys. You can hear it 16 minutes into the film in a bar room scene, when Dern says “Beer ain’t drinkin’.”

Watch the trailer for Nebraska

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