This fall, after a couple years of trying to mind my own business, I took a few halting steps toward the community of movie critics. I spent a few days at the Toronto film festival, joined the Chicago Film Critics Association, and accepted an invitation to vote in the annual Village Voice poll. And I liked Alexander Payne's Sideways, whose endorsement by a multitude of critics' polls has caused my colleague Jonathan Rosenbaum such consternation.
I don't find the film's success in the polls so mysterious: like President Bush, it won not by being the best candidate but by getting the most votes. As J. Hoberman notes in his recap of the Voice poll, which focuses on the alternative press, Sideways was "a movie with many friends but no lovers." Of the 94 critics voting, 40 (including me) named the film one of the year's ten best, but among those critics its average ranking was sixth. The Chicago Film Critics Association poll asked for only five nominations in most categories but no rankings, a system that tends to produce consensus. My ballot included only one nomination for Sideways (for Paul Giamatti as best actor), but it won best picture, screenplay, actor (Giamatti), supporting actress (Virginia Madsen), and supporting actor (Thomas Haden Church).
Even less mysterious is the critical backlash against the movie now that so many have praised it. Critics are contrarian by nature, and Michael Atkinson of the Voice seemed to sum up the rap against Sideways when he labeled it "the year's most hallowed schlub wet dream . . . a forgivable favorite for self-pitying menopausal Charlie Browns--be they critics or pear-shaped civilians--hoping against all rationality that Virginia Madsen awaits on a dusk-bathed hillside, ready to get drunk and screw." Equating people who like the movie with its seriously flawed protagonist is a transparent tactic, and assuming that Payne applauds those flaws is even less defensible. Are people who like Citizen Kane megalomaniacs? If I were a better person, I might have rejected Sideways, a solipsistic comedy about an unpublished novelist who finds love with an incredibly fine woman, in favor of the Voice poll's number-one film, Before Sunset, a solipsistic drama about a published novelist who finds love with an incredibly fine woman.
Many of those who dismiss Sideways seem to think it's some sort of statement about American men, and given the movie's premise--two old college buddies embark on a weeklong bachelor party across California wine country--that's an understandable mistake. But the real subject of Sideways is snobbery, that peculiar combination of ego and aesthetic that allows a person to build a protective fence around himself. Miles, the self-pitying, menopausal, pear-shaped schlub played to perfection by Giamatti, has spent years crafting an unpublishable novel while working as a middle-school English teacher. His wife has divorced him, he drinks too much, he lies to himself and others, and his studied taste--in books, movies, and especially wine--has become the last refuge of a frustrated man.
During his vacation he meets Maya (Madsen), who shares his love of fine wine but knows the difference between having good taste and being a good person. When Miles talks about wine he's really talking about himself: "Pinot needs constant care and attention and in fact can only grow in specific little tucked-away corners of the world. . . . Only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential can pinot be coaxed into its fullest expression." When Maya talks about wine she looks outward: "I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing. . . . I think about all those people who tended and picked the grapes, and if it's an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I love how wine continues to evolve, how every time I open a bottle it's going to taste different than if I had opened it on any other day." By the end of the movie Miles finally understands that he can realize his potential only by opening himself up to the world, and the final shot, of his hand knocking at someone's door, is the most exquisitely hopeful I saw in a movie all year.
In that sense Sideways couldn't be more salient to serious-minded critics, whose foremost credential is their studied taste. A good critic is like Maya, excited about the medium and aware that people's varying interpretations are a sign of its richness. But if you've ever been in a roomful of movie critics, you know that many of them are like Miles--to borrow one of the movie's biggest laugh lines, they want you to know they're not drinking any fucking merlot.
Unfortunately, ego has a way of working its way into any critical undertaking. Last year no movie shook me up as much as Ben Coccio's Zero Day, a simultaneously touching and horrifying mock video diary by two high schoolers plotting a Columbine-style massacre. I was proud to be the only critic in Chicago to review it prior to its weeklong bomb of a run at the Gene Siskel Film Center and proud to cast the only vote for it in the Voice poll--maybe too proud. When I look at the ten-best list I drew up for 2003 it strikes me as willfully obscure--so many great movies flash by unnoticed in any given year that I wasn't inclined to waste any ink on Mystic River. I still think all ten are terrific, but I wonder if that list is more about me than them.
Every ten-best list is an exercise in egotism, because no critic could possibly have seen every movie that played in Chicago last year. These are the best of the ones I saw:
1. Zero Day.
2. Zach Braff's Garden State.
3. Kim Ki-duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring.
4. John Curran's We Don't Live Here Anymore.
5. Jennifer Abbott, Mark Achbar, and Joel Bakan's The Corporation.
6. Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers.
8. Lars von Trier's Dogville.
9. Julie Bertucelli's Since Otar Left. . . .
10. Shane Carruth's Primer.
If none of those floats your boat, try one of these: AKA, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, The Aviator, Before Sunset, Closer, Dig!, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Fahrenheit 9/11, A Home at the End of the World, I (Heart) Huckabees, I'm Not Scared, Incident at Loch Ness, James' Journey to Jerusalem, Kinsey, Maria Full of Grace, Overnight, Saved!, Secret Things, Seeing Other People, Shaun of the Dead, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Super Size Me, Undertow, Vera Drake.
When I submitted my Voice ballot I forgot to vote for the year's best undistributed films--an unforgivable goof, because these movies need the exposure a lot more than Sideways does. My four days in Toronto were enough to remind me that many great movies--like Todd Solondz's Palindromes and Cate Shortland's Somersault, both of which screened there--have to fight like hell for a U.S. release. Three others that deserve to open on a thousand screens are Susanne Bier's painful Danish drama Open Hearts, James Miller's heroic Middle East documentary Death in Gaza, and Danny Schechter's media muckraker Weapons of Mass Deception.
Last year I closed by listing the five worst movies I'd seen, but this year the sheer volume of crap forces me to cite ten. Needless to say, most of them enjoyed long runs on multiple screens around the city and suburbs: The Butterfly Effect, Games People Play: New York, Godsend, Johnson Family Vacation, My Baby's Daddy, Saw, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, The Stepford Wives, SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2, and Van Helsing. I don't mind a glass of merlot once in a while, but Thunderbird is another matter.