Released: Oct. 20

Distributor: Fox Searchlight

Critics have praised Alexander Payne’s film not only as one of the best American pics of the year, but as a sign of something far bigger. “Alexander Payne has single-handedly restored humanism as a force in American films,” writes Variety’s Todd McCarthy. With the deftness of such ’60s and ’70s Oscar faves as “The Graduate” and “The Last Picture Show,” Payne’s fourth feature film, written with screenwriting partner Jim Taylor, is a rarity among Hollywood’s formulaic romantic comedies. It’s as unsentimental as it is poignant.

Oscar nominees for their screenplay adaptation of “Election” (1999), Payne and Taylor mine Rex Pickett’s novel “Sideways” for its humorous account of two buddies on the road in wine country during midlife crises. The script’s skillful balance of wacky comedy and moving drama could get the duo acknowledged yet again.

“Sideways” also reaffirms Payne’s knack for drawing fabulous performances from his talent. While Payne’s 2002 entry “About Schmidt” drew acting noms for Academy favorites Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates, the cast of lesser-known stars in “Sideways” achieves an even greater potency, lacking the condescension for which Payne has been criticized in the past. Virginia Madsen and Thomas Hayden Church, two of the most inspired but obscure choices, are both earning early plaudits for their turns.

While not typical leading man material, Paul Giamatti brings a compassionate everyman reality to the role of lovable grouch Miles Raymond, a recently divorced failed novelist and occasional drunk. Like the film, his performance lacks the bombast and swagger of Oscar winners past, but Giamatti’s subtlety and deeply felt vulnerability could place him in the hotly contested best actor category this year. Giamatti was overlooked last year for his pitch-perfect role as Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor” — something Acad voters may want to make up for this time around.

If “Sideways” continues to build on its popular support — which, at this stage, seems even more enthusiastic than that behind last autumn’s indie darling “Lost in Translation” — a picture nom could be in the cards as well.

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