The Toronto International Film Festival brings out the best in temperate Canadian cineaste erudition and event planning – it’s a major-city fest with a small-town feel, famous for its huge but manageable menu of movie offerings, its unflappably personable festival volunteers, and the flagship Club Monaco clothing emporium alluringly situated steps from the primary screening venue. But this year Toronto briefly felt noisy and New Yorkish, because delirious, whooping love is a fair description of my reaction to Sideways. Which is to say, Alexander Payne’s follow-up to About Schmidt wasn’t just one of the festival highlights, but it’s also one of the best movies of the year.
Like Schmidt, this organic, intuitive, expertly under-determined story unfolds as a road trip. Miles (the unerring Paul Giamatti, due more awards for his priceless performance), a wine connoisseur and kvetcher in full midlife crisis, takes his friskier old college friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church, unfolding his wings, finally, after TV’s Wings) on a weeklong tour of California vineyards before Jack’s wedding. But what they scratch and squabble at is a whole deeper sense of manhood than those contained in the Loman-esque verities of Schmidt. (And I adored Schmidt.) Sideways belongs on the shelf of seminal American movies about men and their ineffable man-ness.
Payne represents the best of a modern, straightforward American storytelling style at ease with emotional ambivalence. David Gordon Green, whose Undertow gracefully mixes elements of Southern gothic storytelling with the filmmaker’s unique, lyrical visual style, specializes in the dark poetry of boyhood. On the other hand, Pawel Pawlikowski, who made the sensual word-of-mouth festival favorite My Summer of Love, represents the best of a pan-European sensibility, one attuned to class differences.
The love here is between a couple of teenage English girls who bond one Yorkshire summer. Tamsin (Emily Blunt) is upper-class and bored; Mona (Natalie Press) is working-class and rebellious. (The young actresses are phenomenally un-self-conscious.) As in his observant previous film Last Resort, Pawlikowski keeps his finger on the bruise of outsiderhood. But now he’s also more comfortable with spiritual hunger and female sexuality, and the combination is potent.
Did someone mention female sexuality? Catherine Breillat did, of course; we’d expect as much from the French fire-starter who made Romance and Fat Girl. In Anatomy of Hell, Breillat has something angry and troubled to say about how she thinks men see women’s bodies – i.e., with disgust. And in her harsh drama about a woman exhibiting herself to a dispassionate homosexual man, she backs up her findings with clinical gynecological closeups – to which Sally Potter, the filmmaker of Yes, would no doubt say … no! Potter’s blithely daft story of the hot affair between an unhappily married American scientist (Joan Allen, flushed and appealing in her sexiest role) and a Lebanese surgeon-turned-cook (Simon Abkarian) aims for deep pensées about God and cultural differences in a post-9/11 world; it also aims for academic extra credit with a script written entirely in rhyme. But it’s the hubba-hubba we remember.