While other critics and film writers prepare their ‘Best of the Year’ lists, priming the Oscar pump and launching the 2005 awards season, I have decided instead to hold off on a general list of 2004’s best movies until January and take some time for an in depth exploration of what I consider to be this year’s finest film, Alexander Payne’s Sideways. For those who have not yet had the chance to see the film, I can only assume that the oncoming tsunami of award nominations and wins for this film will propel it into wider release, where it deserves to be seen by a broad audience. So, hang in there America. While Christmas With The Kranks and National Treasure currently occupy 10 screens at the local movie theater, I’m sure someone at the multiplex will wake up and realize that perhaps one or two screens might better be dedicated to showing the best movie of the year.
Alexander Payne is an intensely gifted filmmaker, and Sideways is the best film he has ever made.
To watch each Payne film in chronological order (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, and now Sideways) is to witness the development of a master filmmaker who would be a perfect match for Hollywood, if only the studios could learn how to build for the future. Instead of spending $140 million dollars on the latest Jerry Bruckheimer or Oliver Stone or Ridley Scott or (insert ego-maniacal baby boomer male filmmaker’s name here) fiasco, studios could make 4 to 5 smaller, quality films that truly deliver on the tradition of the true masters of the Hollywood form. Instead of creating another Alexander, perhaps the studios should spend their time trying to create the next Billy Wilder or George Cukor and fulfill the true promise of the Hollywood film, a promise I so desperately miss; Warm, humanist movies that tell great stories and speak to the current generation of adults who are looking to find their own lives represented on the big screen.
Sideways is, in every way, the fulfillment of this promise. Essentially an updating of the classic “buddies on a road trip” genre, the film tells the story of Miles (Paul Giamatti), an aspiring writer and gourmand trapped in the body of a middle school English teacher, and his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a former soap opera actor turned hunky voice over talent who is on the way to the altar. The two friends drive from Los Angeles to the wine country of Santa Barbara County in order to celebrate the last week of Jack’s bachelorhood by enjoying the good things in life; delicious food, a few games of golf, and some of the best wine in California. Actually, a lot of the best wine in California. At their first dinner stop in wine country, Miles’ insecurities are made manifest by a beautiful waitress named Maya (Virginia Madsen) who expresses an interest in his unpublished novel. Miles’ ineptitude in matters of the heart is matched only by the raging charisma of Jack, whose womanizing ways remain unimpeded by his pending wedding.
As the bachelors’ week unfolds on the screen, so too does a wonderfully authentic portrait of male friendship and a sun-drenched tour of longing, hope, and regret that is an exquisite, universally recognizable representation of adult relationships. At the center of the film is Paul Giamatti’s performance as the deeply flawed Miles. Giamatti is perhaps the most under-appreciated actor in American movies, and after his recent turns in American Splendor and Sideways, one can only hope that somehow, his greatness can be recognized and utilized properly by a film industry built on the perfectly chiseled features of young, toothless eye-candy. There is a moment in the middle of the film that is transcendent, and it is one of those moments in the movies when a director and an actor are working at the height of their powers, creating something that feels like true magic. Miles and Jack meet Maya and her sexy friend Stephanie (Sandra Oh) for dinner for the first time, and Miles gets progressively drunker. In the hands of any other director, the lens would blur, speech would be slurred, a glass of water might be spilled. Payne and Giamatti instead deliver a beautiful montage of dinner conversation, the drinking of wine, the passing of wine bottles, and a pivotal drunk dial, all scored to the melancholy strains of timeless jazz. The scene feels like a note perfect memory of every rousing, tipsy dinner party you’ve ever been involved in.
Like all great filmmakers, Payne understands the magic of the movies and in scenes like the dinner montage or the wonderful exchange between Miles and Maya about the rationale for their oenophilia that simply bristles with sexual tension (and features the best movie monologue in recent memory) shows that the essential dramatic concern of a great film is not so much action, but the human possibilities of finely drawn characters. Sideways is soaked in the possibility of inertia and the character’s potential inability to do what they so desperately want to do with their lives. The film flows not from a series of clichéd plot devices or pre-determined destinations, but from the examination of life undertaken by the characters that leads them to rediscover their own agency, and thereby, the ability to pursue their goals and their own ideals with dignity. The real story of Sideways is less the story of two male friends arriving at a fork in the road of their lives and choosing divergent paths, but more the story of two men who come to realize they have a choice in determining what is valuable, and thereby possible, in their own lives.
Like any good explorer charting the interior landscape of his characters, Payne makes certain that the visuals of the film provide a wonderful subtext and, at times, counterpoint to the dramatic action that unfolds. Watching the warm, earthy landscape of wine country roll by as Miles and Jack travel from vineyard to vineyard on a wine tasting tour, it seems impossible that the oncoming existential crises of the characters are on the horizon. The film looks and feels like a memory, the memory of a road trip taken in the 1970’s; all sunshine, winding roads, and the discovery of true love. Never before has the good life looked so good. When Miles learns of his ex-wife’s recent re-marriage, he runs down a hillside, wine bottle at his lips, as Jack pursues him into a vineyard. After running himself into exhaustion, Miles tosses the bottle aside and grabs his knees, only to be confronted by a bunch of grapes on the vine. He extends a hand and touches them with an aching tenderness; we learn all we need to know about Miles’ capacity for love in a single gesture. The film is full of wonderful, unexpected resolutions like this, and these moments, coupled with the seemingly psychic comic chemistry of Church and Giamatti, create a mood of wistful melancholy that sweeps you off of your feet.
If About Schmidt hadn’t already done so, Sideways assures that Alexander Payne, who has long been associated with the bratty, wise-ass filmmaking generation of directors like Wes Anderson, David O. Russell, and Paul Thomas Anderson (I am a fan of all of them), has broken away from the pack and established himself as a truly masterful filmmaker. There have been few films this year that are worthy candidates for recognition, let alone the price of a movie ticket, but Sideways would stand above the crowd in any year. A glance at the movie listings at any multiplex tells you all you need to know about the state of American movies; we live in the era when in-your-face, big-budget event films have become so ubiquitous, there is literally no room for the smaller, thoughtful drama in a movie theater. As television becomes more and more driven by the staged interactions of competing non-professionals on reality shows and Hollywood continues to generate enormous, $150 million spectacles (with equally massive marketing campaigns) geared toward international profitability (thanks James Cameron!), what is left for the rest of us who long for quiet, thought-provoking stories that, through the beauty of well-written drama, show us something of ourselves we might not otherwise have found? Sideways is a simple revolt against big Hollywood; a welcome reminder that the best thing a story can do is to show us the truth about who we are and who we might aspire to become. If only more of us were looking.