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Why Sideways is One of the Past Decade’s Most Underrated Movies

A cursory glance at some of the movies released in 2005 reveals it was a pretty good year at the flicks. Sin City, Batman Begins, V For Vendetta, and Munich were all vying to get bums on seats.  As usual, though, amidst the more high-profile pictures were a few that slipped under the cinematic radar.

George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck was one of them, as was Factotum, starring Matt Dillon and based on the life and writing of Charles Bukowski.  But director Alexander Payne’s Sideways has to top the bill as one of the most underappreciated and possibly under-watched movies of the past decade.

True, Empire voted it their Film of the Year and it scooped up a plethora of accolades and awards by critics and the industry.  But as a film seen by the wider cinema-going public, there don’t seem to be many people that have heard of it. And even if they have, chances are they haven’t seen it.  Have you? If you have, then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about and what an underrated (and arguably misunderstood) masterpiece it is.

It’s the story of two middle-aged friends, played by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, who embark on a wine-tasting tour of Santa Barbara’s Wine Country before one of them gets married (he also wants to squeeze in one final fling), with hysterical, ridiculous, tragic-comic and all-too-human consequences.

For those of you that haven’t seen it, here are a few reasons why your DVD collection – and your life – will be much better with this movie in it.

Paul Giamatti

He’s regularly been referred to as the best character actor of his generation, and with Giamatti it’s not a case of overblown hyperbole. He truly is entirely in league and class of his own. From Private Parts to American Splendour, Shoot ‘em Up, Barney’s Version and Comsopolis, he’s an actor that always delivers.

In Sideways he plays the part of Miles Raymond to absolute perfection. Raymond is a melancholy, seething, angry, discontented, hostile individual, unhappy with the way his life’s turned out as a teacher, bitter his novel hasn’t been published, yet looking for meaning and love in a world that just doesn’t seem to give him a chance. And he’s drowning his sorrows in wine to forget his woes.

You have stars and you have actors, and Giamatti is the consummate actor, his jowly, hangdog expressions perfectly encapsulating the tragedy and humanity of this dark, insecure, emotionally brittle and confused character.

Love and other demons

Ahh, sweet d’amour. The subject of some of art and literature’s finest and most heartfelt stories. And Sideways is no exception. It’s the story about looking for love, finding love, even losing it (Giamatti’s character is still depressed from his divorce two years previously). In that sense it deals with one of the most endlessly perplexing yet universally understood themes ever.  And more than even that, it’s the story about the love and bond between two male friends, and all the anger, frustrations, pathos, misunderstandings and joy that comes out of knowing someone so well you can practically finish each others’ sentences.

a movie of many moods

Director Alexander Payne is a master of creating pathos (and bathos) in his movies (Election, About Schmidt). It’s a very tricky thing to get right, and lesser hands it can be a disaster. But he’s a master at the shifting and often subtle blend of light/dark and humour/tragedy to create a very particular mood and tone that’s often as up and down and perplexing as the characters’ mood swings.

It Demystifies The Arthouse Myth

I’ve always thought that one of the biggest obstacles preventing Sideways from being a more widely appreciated film is partly because of its perceived arthouse pretensions. Sideways is about wine, it’s about friendship, it takes a leisurely place that matures (like a good wine, appropriately enough) over its two hour running time, and it’s a film that has a very particular (even occasionally peculiar) tone, shifting from scenes that are gut-bustingly funny to heart-wrenchingly moving.

Sideways movie still

In many ways it’s an eclectic film, not easy to pin down (some have even compared it to a contemporary Western, featuring as it does two guys riding in to town and causing a certain amount of chaos), and with today’s popcorn-fodder audiences preferring to be spoon-fed rather than cerebral, it puts it at a disadvantage. Which is a shame, because with time and patience you’ll reap the film’s heady and intoxicating rewards.

there’s Not A CGI Spaceship In Sight

Everything about this film is high calibre and reeks of class, from the acting and directing to the script, soundtrack and production values. It’s smart, knowing, and very human. It has heart and soul and a literary intelligence that’s rare in modern film making. And in between the usual multiplex melange of exploding buildings, relentless car chases and CGI robots, that’s a welcome and cinematically articulate breath of fresh air.

The Wine Speech

About half way through the film, Giamatti’s potential  love interest (Virginia Madsen) delivers a speech on the ‘life’ of a bottle of wine (see below). To some, it might be overblown and pretentious, but for me there’s something sensual, magical, ethereal, haunting, and moving about the idea it’s conveying and the understated, touching performance.

In search of wine. In search of women. In search of themselves

That’s the poster tag line and, in a nutshell, that pretty much sums up Sideways. But it’s also a film that works on so many levels as a character study, a personal odyssey, a male soul searching, the meaning of friendship, and – as much as I loathe to use these faddish words du jour – something of a bromance.  In other words, in many ways it encapsulates the spirit, feelings, humanistic and emotional beats of all of us – and it’s that universality which makes it such an affecting  and unforgettable movie experience.

Have you seen Sideways, and what did you think of it? Or, for that matter, are there any other movies you think should be seen by a lot more people?

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  1. Anthony M. Grimaldi

    July 2, 201312:53 pm

    Sideways is easily one of my all time favorite films due to its warmth, humanity, heartbreak, interesting and funny characters (especially Thomas Hayden Church). The very best of films are always about real people, real lives, real struggles and triumphs. Sideways is all of these. It is excellent filmaking and I enjoy it on many levels: the script, acting, cinematography, and music. I own the DVD and watch it occassionally to exorcise all the CGI effects and loud sounds from my system. Sideways will always be there for me to enjoy and appreciate.

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