Sideways is arguably the best directed film of the year. Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt) not only provides a marvellously fresh angle from which to portray his characters, but he blends satire and realism in an absolutely singular fashion. His characters seem totally unbound and vividly believable while at the same time being under heavy criticism from their director. On top of that, Payne seasons his drama with a dash of exuberant comedy that manages to contain slapstick quality and still seem like natural, everyday occurrences.
Ultimately, however, the essence of Sideways is its characters and the process they are going through. Compared with Payne's previous (and similarly structured film) About Schmidt, his protagonists here are much less bleak and much easier to empathize with. This time Payne isn't as concerned with bringing his characters to life by making them think and act weird, but rather explores the nature that makes them make mistakes and feel miserable, before ultimately providing them with the necessary hope and belief they need to go on.
Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church are both excellent in the leads. They work remarkably well together and have a wonderful balance to their communication with the camera. It is nice to see a middle-aged actor like Church come from nothing and give a performance like this. He will definitely earn his fifteen minutes of fame after this. As for Giamatti (who may feel he soon deserves an Oscar-nomination), he continues to take his acting to new levels. There was never any doubt about his comic potential, but in Sideways he further enhances his acting from the quite similar role he did last year with American Splendor. His performance here is extremely nuanced and powerful.
Sideways is a film that wants to show every aspect of its characters, but never seizes to care for them. In a similar fashion, the film is as passionate about wine as the Giamatti character is, and it wants us to learn from it, without being didactic. It is a remarkably accomplished and rewarding film. You'll recognize all the situations it draws attention to, but in a delightfully fresh approach. The flair and skill with which this film is conceived is the mark of one of the most talented filmmakers of our time.