Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000 to 2009.

Usually known for shredding the notion of altruism to bits, director / co-writer Alexander Payne delivered what became, ultimately, a story about keeping consistent the kindness in one’s heart.

2002’s About Schmidt studied the character of one lonely old man (Jack Nicholson) trying to make a shred of difference after his wife dies. But it also depicted a fascinating microcosm of misery that found something with which every viewer could empathize. The result generated as many honest tears as brutal laughs.

Too often in his career throughout the Zeroes, Nicholson found himself overwhelmed by the need to be “Jack!” (See how he torpedoes The Departed.) Aside from the broad comedy of Anger Management, there was no film in recent years in which Nicholson’s vulpine persona really worked onscreen.

Here, Nicholson mutes his ego, vanity and virility — much as in 2001’s equally stunning The Pledge — and delivers what is easily his best modern-era performance.

In one of the decade’s most moving conclusions, Payne not only redeems his main character, but turns the tables on the cynicism that we, as an audience, have brought to one specific plot element. (You’ll know it as soon as you hear the name Ndugu.)

Like Alejandro González Iñárritu with 21 Grams, this was the Payne film deserving of the Oscar love lavished on Sideways (itself great in a sly-fox fashion). Schmidt’s quiet magnificence only grows upon further viewings and reflections.