The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win persuaded everyone that director-writer Tom McCarthy is a skillful provider of the same kind of adult relationship or family dramedy, more or less, that Alexander Payne churns out. For my money Win Win, which I first saw at Sundance 2011, is in the same class as The Descendants. They’re both about families in transition, and about ethics, character, parent-child relations and working through hard stuff.

Win Win director-writer Tom McCarthy — Thursday, 12.1, 12:35 pm, Four Seasons hotel.

The reason Win Win isn’t in the current award-season “conversation”, of course, is the fact that (a) Fox Searchlight has distributed them both, and (b) FS made a decision in late 2010 to open Win Win in March 2011, presumably in order not to have two family dramedies playing during the fall-holiday season.

FS obviously decided to bank on The Descendants as the award-season thoroughbred, primarily for two reasons — Payne has acquired more of an accomplished auteur and prestige factor over the last decade, especially since Sideways, and The Descendants has George Clooney in the lead. Win Win‘s Paul Giamatti is a solid adult draw (for people like me, at least) but Clooney is a top-tier, across-the-board star.

As mature and satisfying as Win Win is, Fox Searchlight also had reason to expect that The Descendants might deliver a little more bing-bam-boom with critics and Academy voters.

How do the two films stack up when you apply the old Howard Hawks rule about a successful movie having three great scenes and no bad ones? You tell me.

I sat down with McCarthy at noon today and talked it all out for…oh, roughly 25 minutes or so.

I wrote last January that Win Win “is warm but not sappy, smartly written, very well acted and agreeable all the way. McCarthy is always grade-A, and this is more from the same well. It isn’t quite as good as Little Miss Sunshine — it’s an 8.5 to Sunshine‘s 9 — but it’s a wise, perceptive and affecting little family-relations flick that works just fine. If only more films labelled ‘family-friendly’ were as good as this.

“Paul Giamatti delivers another one of his dependably solid half-Gloomy Gus/half-wise man performances. But for my money Amy Ryan is the most enjoyably on-target. She’s so solid, so real. And Alex Shaffer definitely holds his own.

“Costars include Jeffrey Tambor, Bobby Cannavale and Margo Martindale. McCarthy wrote the screenplay, based on the story by himself and Joe Tiboni. Michael London (Sideways) produced with McCarthy, Mary Jane Skalski and Lisa Maria Falcone.