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Newsletter: Sideways & Chef Are Apt Ease-Into-A-Year Films

This is #DoubleFeature, in which Harsh Pareek shares two recommendations for the price of none. Here: A food-and-wine pairing.

Newsletter: Sideways & Chef Are Apt Ease-Into-A-Year Films
Source image: Promotional still for Sideways
  • Rohini Nair

Last Updated: 09.02 PM, Jan 18, 2023

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This column was originally published as part of our newsletter The Daily Show on January 4, 2023. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)

***

WHAT'S THE BEST WAY to mark the end of a year or the beginning of a new one (or both)? A question that has haunted modern society for decades. Partying until one is practically dead, then regretting it over the first week of the new year, seems to be a popular choice. How does one have the greatest of all time, greater than anyone else out there? The be-all and end-all emotions mixed up with a congesting sense of fomo, all rolled into the gram burrito.

That is not to say some people don't like to have a quieter time with their anxiety. You know, suppressing panic over a nice little drink as the not-so-pleasant memories of the previous year come flooding back, and the uncertainty of the next grips one's heart.

Now, we're not here to judge anyone's methods of celebrations or coping mechanisms for dealing with existential dread. You do you. If anything, we're here to recommend even more things you could be doing at this liminal time — like watching films, followed by a bit of introspection. More so, films about the simpler, finer things in life. Like good food, and wine. Road trips and self discovery. Getting hit in the face with a helmet and being abused on social media. All the things that could make your run-of-the-mill year something truly special.

BRUT FORCE: SIDEWAYS (2004) / CHEF (2014)
Source image: Promotional still for The Chef
Source image: Promotional still for The Chef

DIRECTED BY ALEXANDER PAYNE (and adapted from Rex Pickett's novel of the same name), Sideways can perhaps simply be described as a film about life.

Starring Paul Giamatti as Miles, a middle-aged teacher, unpublished writer and wine aficionado, and Thomas Haden Church as Jack, his soon-to-be married, past-his-prime actor friend, the film follows the duo as they embark on a week-long road trip through California's wine country to celebrate the latter's bachelor party.

Both depressed and disappointed in their own way, all Miles wants is to spend the time relaxing and enjoying good food and wine, while Jack intends to have one last fling before he settles into a married life. Things begin to veer in unexpected directions as they meet Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress, and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a wine pourer.

It's worth noting here that as much as the synopsis above makes it sound somewhat like a customary romcom, it's anything but. While there are plenty of laughs, there is a certain maturity and grounded-ness, both to the story and its characters, that you don't see every day. There are no grand answers or set in stone conclusions. And Payne finds beauty in that. In his observation of flawed characters, ordinary struggles and small pleasures. And it feels real, in a reassuring way. That is to say, if you have ever felt at a loss in life (and the passing of a year does that sometimes), here you will find compassion and perhaps even reassurance.

Now, I could go on and on about the wine side of things in the film, and the implications it has had in the real world. But it would mean little if you haven't seen the film already, and there is also a real joy in watching Giamatti berate the Merlot that words would only diminish. I'd rather you savour that on your own.

***

IF SIDEWAYS BRINGS the fine wine and quiet contemplation to the road genre, Chef brings in the grilled cheese and boisterousness.

Directed, written, co-produced by, and starring Jon Favreau, the film follows his character, chef Carl Casper, as he attempts to start afresh after losing his job at a popular Los Angeles restaurant following a public altercation with a food critic.

Feeling lost the after his meltdown, and in an effort to reclaim his creative promise, Carl decides to buy a dilapidated food truck, restore it and drive it across the country. All the while, promoting this new endeavour by his side is his young son, with whom Carl desperately wishes to reconnect.

While the film can't help but fall into a few conventional traps of a comedy-drama at times, for the most part, it remains a good-hearted exploration of passion and an everyday spirit of adventure that never feels too far removed from reality. Carl's frustrations with his job are all too familiar, so is his scepticism about following his heart. And his leap of faith is just that: an uncertain attempt to reclaim lost time.

Not to mention, the food looks incredible. Favreau manages to walk the fine line between food porn and approachable rather well, while also turning his camera on local food cultures. Credit here also to real-life food truck owner and chef Roy Choi, who served as a co-producer on the film. And with a supporting cast of Sofía Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt, Bobby Cannavale, Emjay Anthony and Dustin Hoffman, the film comes off as more than the sum of its parts.

A well put together feel-good delight that, not unlike Sideways, shrugs off the profound in favour of everyday messiness, and makes you wonder what the characters must be up to, days after the credits roll.

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