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TOP 100 MOVIES in 2004!
Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh
Review by Tom Coatsworth
Miles and Jack, two middle aged buddies, take a road trip in California Wine Country one week before Jack’s to be married.
OSCAR WINNER for Best Adapted Screenplay
OSCAR NOMINATIONS for Best Supporting Actress (Madsen), Best Supporting Actor (Church), Best Director and Best Picture
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For many this was the best film of 2004. It was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar -- and won that award for best adapted screenplay. It won a stack of awards and nominations at festivals across the US and around the world. It struck a cord with wine drinkers as well. In the film Miles (Giamatti) is a big fan of Pinot Noir while he holds Merlot in contempt. The Christmas following its release Pinot Noir sales rose twenty percent and Merlot sales fell in tandem.
The story follows Miles and Jack (Church) as they have one last hurrah in Wine Country. Jack is getting married and this is Miles ‘best man’ gift to him – a chance to let loose, play some golf, eat some great food and sample wine. Miles is a public school English teacher with a trio of unpublished novels to his credit. Jack is a fading soap star who is reduced to commercial work. The pall of defeat and a broken marriage hang over Miles, he’s a depressive. Jack on the other hand, despite a waning career, is a die hard optimist. The trouble is he has bigger plans for this trip – he intends to get laid. He’s marrying way up to a young beauty from a rich family and the little boy in him wants to reassert authority, for perhaps the last time.
They travel north from Los Angeles into the beautiful countryside. This film has soft edges. Payne told his DP, Phedon Papamichael, he wanted a seventies feel. There is none of the hyper reality that digital cameras create: where every corner of the frame is in focus. With Sideways the subject is in focus, what’s in the foreground or the background has less importance and less focus. This is good old fashioned movie making. For that matter it is closer to our visual experience. In any case it has a more romantic feel, and in 2004 it was a welcome reaction to the prevailing trend.
Likewise the story comes slowly into focus. It starts in the dark with a knocking at the door – it is life trying to get through to Miles, past his disillusion, but he evades it at every turn. They visit his mother, a genial retiree in suburbia. She suggests Miles get back together with his ex, Victoria. Miles excuses himself from the dinner table and steals a few hundred dollars from her dresser, almost to get back at her. Small consolation – when he looks over the dresser he sees the family photographs – his dead father, his broken marriage. He returns to the table and his Mom offers to lend him some money.
Jack and Miles travel north and settle at The Windmill Inn. Mile’s picture perfect getaway seems to be taking shape. But almost immediately Jack spies Maya (Virginia Madsen) – an acquaintance of Miles who waits tables. He urges Miles to make some romance with her, but Miles sees nothing but obstacles. The next day they are on wine tour and Jack hits on Stephanie (Sandra Oh) who happens to know Maya -- they arrange a double date. This isn’t what Miles had in mind, this complicated life thing.
Jack tells Miles that Victoria has remarried and is bringing her new husband to the wedding. Miles freaks. He spends the evening pining for Victoria and gets morose and phones her from the restaurant. The sequence is a masterpiece of acting, direction, music and editing – for writing too, except it was largely improvised. Miles pulls himself together and the girls invite the men back to Stephanie’s ranch house. Jack and Stephanie waste no time and head for the bedroom. Miles and Maya take their time and have a wonderful conversation about wine. To Miles surprise Maya is much richer and deeper than he imagined – he makes a pass at her. She kisses him gently and says it’s late, that she should be going. But she asks to read his novel and this makes his day -- he hauls out a thousand pages from the back of his car.
In the days that follow Jack and Stephanie do the rabbit thing while Maya and Miles fall gracefully in love. The crunch comes when Miles lets slip they have to be back in L.A. for Jack’s wedding rehearsal dinner on the weekend.
Suddenly romance spins out of control and comedy takes flight. Like some knight of old (Don Quixote? – they were staying at the Windmill) Miles must face down all the dragons in his heart before he can claim the prize -- Maya. But he comes through it all and in the end finds himself knocking at her door, life’s door, full circle.
This is a wonderful comedy with a seasoned take on love and romance and the blurry ‘out of focus’ space between the two.