MUSTWORTHINESS Whether it's high school politics (''Election'') or a retired insurance man's spiritual angst (''About Schmidt''), Payne wades into the backwaters of American life and dredges up dark, caustic comedy. In ''Sideways,'' a middle-aged failed novelist (Paul Giamatti) and his soon-to-wed, washed-up actor buddy (Thomas Haden Church) cling desperately to their youth on a weeklong booze-soaked road trip.
WHAT'S WITH ALL THE MIDLIFE CRISES? ''I think any thinking person always feels him-or herself in some degree of crisis,'' Payne says.
AND HIMSELF? ''I'm feeling pretty good, actually.''
NEXT ''Sideways'' hits theaters this fall.
MUSTWORTHINESS Don't be fooled by his aw-shucks demeanor. The cinematic godfather of Austin is a genuine maverick who, in films like ''Slacker,'' ''Dazed and Confused,'' and ''Waking Life,'' never compromises his quirky outsider vision. As a follow-up to his biggest hit, ''School of Rock,'' he returns to his indie roots with this summer's unlikeliest and most soulful sequel, the low-budget romantic talkfest ''Before Sunset,'' with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprising their roles from 1995's ''Before Sunrise.''
WHICH WAS, WHAT, NINE YEARS AGO? ''Hollywood wasn't exactly beating down our door for a sequel,'' Linklater admits. ''It's your classic labor-of-love-type thing.''
NEXT An adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel ''A Scanner Darkly,'' starring Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder.
MUSTWORTHINESS He makes his oddballs, like the inept would-be criminals of ''Bottle Rocket'' and the quixotic prep-school misfit of ''Rushmore,'' endearing, heroic, and downright cool. His upcoming comedy, ''The Life Aquatic,'' due in December, stars Bill Murray as an oceanographer-filmmaker (think Jacques Cousteau crossed with, well, Bill Murray) who gets swept up in an adventure with costars Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, and Anjelica Huston.
ON HIS MUST LIST Brazilian musician-actor Seu Jorge. ''He was in 'City of God,' and now he's in our movie playing a character named Pele. We got all these David Bowie songs for the soundtrack, and he adapted them into Portuguese and sings them throughout the movie.''
NEXT He may begin work on an animated adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's story ''Fantastic Mr. Fox.''