I'm kind of a biased observer. If you asked me to choose between saving the last surviving print of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or saving the last surviving print of every other movie released in North America in the year 2004 except for Eternal Sunshine, I will -- after a two-second close-up wherein I furrow my brow in an expression of deep anguish -- choose to save the former. That might give you an inkling of how much I treasure Eternal Sunshine -- I happen to think it's the most brilliant American film ever made about romantic relationships, about the exhilaration, perils, and banalities experienced by two people trying to make love work.
Of course, not everyone feels the way I do, which is understandable. In fact, if you look at the critical consensus, there are three -- and soon, four -- major releases that have garnered near unanimous acclaim. Besides Eternal Sunshine, they are: Before Sunset, Sideways, and soon, Million Dollar Baby (the rumored heavyweight Oscar favorite). Now awards season is upon us, and you'd expect that given a year with three or four acclaimed releases, you'd see a split among critics groups. Last year, for example, the major critics' groups (LAFCA, NYFCC, and the Nat'l Society of Film Critics) split between American Splendor and Return of the King, with the respected regional critics groups (Chicago, SF, Boston, Southwestern) spreading the wealth further by annointing Lost in Translation or Mystic River the year's best. That pattern should hold, right?
Well, it's not shaping up that way. In unison, the critics have declared Sideways, the American Splendor of 2004, to be tops of the year. In fact, the New York Film Critics Circle vote is reportedly not even close. This is the kind of critical consensus that happens maybe twice a decade. In the 90s, two pictures swept the critics' awards in their respective years, Schindler's List in '93 and LA Confidential in '97. Though I personally favor other films in those years (The Age of Innocence and Short Cuts in '93 and The Sweet Hereafter and Kundun in '97), it's hard to really gripe about the accolades received by the superb, ambitious movies that ended up winning the awards.
Can't hold my tongue here. Granted, I think Sideways is a nice little film, funny in a broad, obvious way, with very good performances. But it's not, by any stretch, a great film. Miles is a self-pitying idealist who needs to overcome his insecurities to take a step forward; Jack is good-natured, selfish, oversexed oaf who will get into trouble time and again. Once those tracks are laid, the movie goes exactly where you expect it to go. Sure, most of the scenes are nicely written and directed, but what I sensed was something like Kabuki theater -- actors going through the preordained paces of "growing" rather than convincing that they've learned from the experience of dealing with one another. So the epiphanies, once they arrive, feel predetermined...a writer's device. In a small-scale miracle like You Can Count On Me, the control freak Laura Linney and flakey Mark Ruffalo wrestle hard with one another and themselves. Like Miles, they take tentative little steps forward. But unlike Miles, those steps feel earned -- Linney and Ruffalo get under each other's skin but learn to grow up a little and accomodate one another, the way anyone grows in a relationship. There are no real relationships in Sideways, just a lot of funny character-based comedy. Wouldn't have griped about it, but when everyone is lauding this unremarkable movie as the best of the year, in a year that saw the release of something as astonishingly creative and moving as Eternal Sunshine, it's hard to resist knocking it down a peg.