Director Alexander Payne's bittersweet tale of a loser on a wine-sodden road trip bears similarities to his earlier effort, About Schmidt, yet is even more painfully observant and much, much funnier. The Paul Giamatti / Thomas Hayden Church combo is an on-screen pairing that works like a dream when, during an eventful week, they pair up with locals Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh) and land themselves in all manner of bacchanalian bother. The screenplay Oscar it picked up was one of the best-deserved in years.
Thomas Haden Church
So who's Paul Giamatti?
It's a fair question, since the guy's most visible role before this was as an orangutan in Tim Burton's Planet Of The Apes (his terrific performance in 2003's offbeat biopic American Splendor was seen by roughly no one).
But if there is any justice in this world (which, given the unfathomable career of Ashton Kutcher, there is not), Sideways should not only put him on the Hollywood map but mark his place with an Oscar, lit up with the words 'Hangdog Genius'.
Giamatti plays Miles, a depressive writer and wine connoisseur who hits the road for a boys' tour of California's vineyards with his soon-to-be-wed pal Jack (Haden Church).
But while Miles is there to forget about everything and experience the wonders of the grape; Jack just wants to sow his wild oats.
Laugh-out-loud episodes are punctuated with moments of genuine emotional resonance, often within the same scene.
This is a skill that Payne has honed with each successive film. The caustic humour of Election bit more deeply but realistically in About Schmidt, and here he blends light and dark with that all-important ingredient: honesty.
The director and his superb cast make every situation feel familiar, sometimes uncomfortably so: after Miles has made a drunken phone call to his ex-wife, Jack asks "Did you drink and dial?" Anyone else been there?
With humanity always to the fore, Sideways makes a heartfelt connection with the audience which makes the romance more touching, the embarrassment deeper, and the laughs so much louder.
2004 Giamatti & Payne: a vintage to be savoured.