The Back Row Manifesto's Incredibly Personal, Completely Subjective List of the Best Films of The Decade (2000-2009) will be unveiled over the course of the month of December. Think of it as a sort of misguided advent calendar without the little chocolate surprises. Either way, thanks for reading and please check back every day over the next few weeks for the full list. The introduction to the list can be found here.
So far, my list of best films of the decade has been relatively easy for me to assemble; even if I were to face recrimination for any of my choices, I feel as though the movies to this point have been great films that continue to speak to me in interesting ways. But now, with the selection of Alexander Payne’s Sideways, I feel as though it starts getting really personal. Any look at the critical reaction to this movie, which I consider to be the best American film of 2004, tracks like a stock market chart; Up and down, from high to low, people buying in and selling off their interest at various points in the film’s lifecycle. But, like any good investment, Sideways continues to pay great, consistent dividends, year after year, viewing after viewing. How can it be?
I think, now five years removed from the initial release, the answer lies in my personal and deep connection to both Paul Giamatti as one of the most underrated comedic actors of this decade and to his portrayal of the character of Miles in this film. There is no greater thrill to be found in a film than watching an actor inhabit a character that is perfectly drawn for him, and Giamatti's brilliant turn in this film seems to me one of those perfect marriages of actor and role. Here is a man who has a deep passion for wine; he is recognized among his superficial and less dedicated associates as an expert oenophile, vocal about his opinions and seemingly secure in his self-belief and his understanding of who he is and what he loves. And yet, just beneath the surface of things, self-loathing, inaction, doubt and, most recognizable, the fear of being discovered as a fraud. Why? Because for everything Miles loves, for all of the special moments he creates, beneath it all he is unable to create meaningful real life connections of his own.
If there is a better metaphor for the modern state of cinephilia, well, I’m all ears. I know that A.O. Scott famously drew the comparison in his initial review of the film all those years ago, but I don’t think it’s quite right to equate Miles with a professional writer like Scott; it is the directionless love of the amateur, of a rarified passion without any meaningful venue within which to express it, of the emptiness of the expert outsider who will never be a tastemaker, that Giamatti captures so brilliantly. To paraphrase Armond White at a recent panel on internet film writers, Miles "doesn't rate", and that makes me love him all the more. All of the anger and self-sabotage, the way he regrets each word just as it comes out of his mouth, carries the responsibility of being “the guy that loves wine” like a cross on his back, always there, all the time, well, let’s just say as an amateur writer myself and as a film programmer whose own life often feels external to his own work, I deeply connect with this movie and especially with Giamatti's brilliant physicality; the way his eyes flash with anger, like a tsunami of feeling has suddenly washed through him, or the submission found in his shaggy tenderness and sad eyes as he recognizes the futility of a passion he can never truly share with others. I just love him in this film.
Back in 2004, I wrote about the movie and what I said then still holds true today:
”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.”
In the years since Alexander Payne completed Sideways, he’s made one short film (the brilliant 14th arrondissement segment in Paris, J’taime) and, while he has worked in various capacities on other people’s projects, hasn’t even begun making his next film, a comedy called The Descendents that recently was rumored to have attached George Clooney and that, thankfully, should begin shooting in 2010. While the movie was green lit in 2007 by Fox Searchlight, still, it's been five years now.
Five years. Five years between films is far too long and, while Hollywood has gone and turned itself into a children’s literature tentpole business (from the Harry Potter films to the Twlight series through innumerable comic book blockbusters), what film for adults has given us anything close to the wonderful touch of Payne’s Sideways? The film, reportedly made for $16 million, is said to have cleared over $85 million in international box office and even spawned a Japanese remake. And yet, five years, and nothing. But the movie still lives for me; nothing captures my heart like Giamatti as Miles, or those sun soaked California vineyards, or that lonely moment on the porch of a mega-winery when Miles’ cell phone rings and the latest and final rejection of his book arrives like a sucker punch, or the way that pain is transformed as Miles is pushed into pouring an entire spit jar of Merlot on his face, or even the great scene where Miles goes to retrieve his comrade's wallet from the bedroom of a sexually generous waitress. Looking back, it's hard not to miss a film like this; has the American comedy for adults gone and disappeared? Looking back now, was Sideways the end of something?
Alexander Payne's Sideways
23. Quiet City by Aaron Katz
22. Mutual Appreciation by Andrew Bujalski
21. Frownland by Ronald Bronstein
20. Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola
19. Up The Yangtze by Yung Chang
18. Platform by Jia Zhang-Ke
17. Tarnation by Jonathan Caouette
16. Lilya 4-Ever by Lukas Moodysson
15. Far From Heaven/ I'm Not There by Todd Haynes