I thought it was overrated, too, but still worth my time.Originally Posted by CCL
I read this article in The New York Times and thought it made some good points:
(Sorry for copying the full article. I don't know if you have to / want to register.)
IN the next few weeks you will surely read - perhaps even in the pages of this newspaper - a great many articles about the Oscar race, and about how this year, for various esoteric reasons, no clear front-runner has emerged in the major award categories. (As the archive of earlier, similar articles suggests, this often appears to be the case, but for all I know, this year it may actually be true.) In the meantime, though, the movie critics of America, a collection of cussed individualists and ornery contrarians (some of them my best friends) have expressed themselves with unusual unanimity. At least as far as most critics are concerned, whether making their own personal 10-best lists or voting in their regional awards-giving groups, the movie of the year is "Sideways."
As of this writing, "Sideways," Alexander Payne's funny-sad story of two buddies on a ragged wine-tasting tour in central California, has been named best picture by critics' groups in New York (both print and online), Toronto, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago and Florida. If you take into account the acting, writing and directing prizes the critics' groups confer, Mr. Payne's film has won more than 40 awards, four times as many as any other contender. It is perched atop the annual Film Comment survey of 80 prominent English-language critics. According to a frequently updated chart at moviecitynews.com, it has also appeared on more year-end top 10 lists than any other picture.
Now this is very good news for Mr. Payne, a smart and adventurous filmmaker (his other movies are "Citizen Ruth," "Election" and "About Schmidt"), for his longtime writing partner, Jim Taylor, and for the cast of "Sideways": Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh, Virginia Madsen and especially, Paul Giamatti, who plays Miles, a failed novelist treading the narrow boundary between wine connoisseurship and alcoholism. The movie is well written and flawlessly acted, funny and observant (if also, at two hours and three minutes, a bit long for a four-person comedy). It also seems to me, through no fault of its own - indeed, through its real and modest virtues - to have become the most drastically overrated movie of 2004.
I don't just mean that the critical praise is out of proportion to the quality of the film. While that seems to me to be true - beyond the movie's occasionally slack pacing, I would cite a coy ambivalence about its main characters as its principal flaw - it would most likely be true in any case. The accumulated passions of people who are paid to have opinions about movies can sometimes place an undue burden of expectation on both the objects of those passions and the readers to whom they are communicated. Each of us, in proclaiming something or another the best movie of the year, is giving voice to a personal enthusiasm, and also tugging at your sleeve, as if to say, "Hey, be sure to check this one out." If 10 or 40 of us - in packs and phalanxes and carefully polled battalions - are saying the same thing, you may start to feel badgered and beleaguered, and by the time you get around to seeing the movie in question - whatever its merits - you may be more inclined to shrug than to swoon. But the risk of inflated expectations is one critics should always be willing to take, since if we hedged or soft-pedaled our opinions, we would hardly be doing our jobs. Overpraising good work is surely a more forgivable sin than underpraising it.
Still, the reaction to "Sideways" is worth noting, less because it isn't quite as good as everyone seems to be saying it is than because the near-unanimous praise of it reveals something about the psychology of critics, as distinct from our taste. Miles, the movie's hero, has been variously described as a drunk, a wine snob, a sad sack and a loser, but it has seldom been mentioned that he is also, by temperament if not by profession, a critic.
The contrast between him and his friend Jack is partly the difference between an uptight, insecure epicurean and a swinging, self-deluding hedonist, but it is more crucially the difference between a sensibility that subjects every experience to judgment and analysis and a personality happy to accept whatever the moment offers. When they taste wine, Jack is apt to say "tastes good to me," and leave it at that, whereas Miles tends not only to be more exacting in his judgment ("quaffable but not transcendent," which is about how I feel about "Sideways"), but also more prone to narrate, to interpret - to find a language for the most subtle and ephemeral sensations of his palate.
This makes him, among other things, an embodiment of the critical disposition, and one of the unusual things about "Sideways" is that, in the end, it defends this attitude rather than dismissing it. Yes, the film pokes fun at Miles's flights of oenophile rhetoric - all that business about asparagus and "nutty Edam cheese" - but it defies the usual Hollywood anti-intellectualism in acknowledging that, rather than diminishing the fun of drinking, approaching wine with a measure of knowledge and sophistication can enhance its pleasures. There is more to true appreciation than just knowing what you like.
In one of the film's best-written and most beautifully played scenes, Miles launches into a paean to the pinot noir grape that is also, evidently, an account of himself. Criticism always contains an element of autobiography, and it is not much of a leap to suggest that more than a few critics have seen themselves in "Sideways." (Several have admitted as much.) This is not to suggest that white, middle-aged men with a taste for alcohol are disproportionately represented in the ranks of working movie reviewers; plausible as such a notion may be, I don't have the sociological data to support it just yet. But the self-pity and solipsism that are Miles's less attractive (and frequently most prominent) traits represent the underside of the critical temperament; his morbid sensitivity may be an occupational hazard we all face.
In "Sideways," a good many critics see themselves, and it is only natural that we should love what we see. Not that critics are the only ones, by any means, but the affection that we have lavished on this film has the effect of emphasizing the narrowness of its vision, and perhaps our own. It both satirizes and affirms a cherished male fantasy: that however antisocial, self-absorbed and downright unattractive a man may be, he can always be rescued by the love of a good woman. (What's in it for her is less clear.)
There is nothing wrong with entertaining this conceit, and "Sideways" does it artfully enough. And of course, the critics respond to other stories as well. Or do we? For the most part, the groups that did not choose "Sideways" - the Village Voice Poll, for example, and the Washington film critics - selected "Before Sunset" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," both variations on the theme of a moody, cerebral fellow graced by the kind of romantic love he probably doesn't believe in and can hardly be said to deserve. Film critics, for our part, clearly have plenty of self-love to go around.