In the most shockingly funny moment of Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” Miles Raymond, the desperate English teacher and wine aficionado (that is, alcoholic with good taste) played by Paul Giamatti, has just learned that his book was turned down by the publisher he had his hopes pinned on. It’s more than a rejection; it’s the death of his dream. Miles is in the middle a chi-chi Napa Valley wine tasting, and suddenly he’s in dire need of a drink. He asks the bartender for a glass of red, but all the man will pour him is a “taste.” Miles offers to pay for a full glass, but no go: That would be breaking the rules. 

It’s like the side-order-of-toast scene in “Five Easy Pieces,” only what happens here is three times as explosive. Miles grabs the bottle on the bar and pours himself a drink, and he and the bartender wind up wrestling over it. At which point, in a rage of desolation, Miles seizes the wine-tasting bucket — the one that everyone has been spitting into — and pours the contents down his throat and all over his face.

If I had to sum up what the spirit of filmmaking in the 1970s was about, I would say, “That moment.” “Sideways” came out in 2004, but even then it hearkened back to a lost era of American cinema. Giamatti’s Miles was a dweeb, a loser, a man enmeshed in the gears of self-hatred. Yet he had an inner lawlessness about him. You never knew what he was going to blurt out next. He was a schlub looking for redemption, but he was also an addict at the end of his tether, boiling over with a barely repressed fury.

I wish I could say the same of Paul Hunham, the disgruntled history teacher Giamatti plays in Payne’s “The Holdovers.” Hunham, who teaches at a rural New England prep school, is the kind of haughty curmudgeon who holds his students to “standards” that none of them will ever live up to. We can see that he’s got problems, and big ones; he spends his life pushing life out of the way. “The Holdovers,” like “Sideways,” is a journey of redemption. Yet Paul Hunham, in his mournfully witty and gnarled misanthropic way, is such a controlled, hemmed-in character that it’s hard to feel the force, however buried, of anything wild in him. On some level we always know what he’s going to blurt out next.  

I’m not saying that “The Holdovers” and “Sideways” need to be the same. The earlier film had a tone that was brash, intimate, yearning. It made Miles, in the monumental quality of his flaws, a stand-in for the audience — for our own dashed dreams and hidden self-hatred — and that’s what gave it a cathartic quality. “The Holdovers” is a much tidier film, with a shaggy-dog teenage hero (the very good Dominic Sessa), and it flirts with assorted formulas. It’s a hangout movie that turns into a road movie that turns into a Christmas movie that turns into a stake-your-claim-and-take-a-stand movie that turns into a Movie With An Officially Unresolved Ending. (You’ve rarely seen “ambiguity” so meticulously delineated.) Yet it all fits together, if rather too neatly. “Sideways” was a great film. “The Holdovers” is a pretty good one: funny, touching, impeccably crafted, nicely performed. What it isn’t is a 1970s movie. It’s just pretending to be one.

When you hear the phrase “a ’70s movie,” it now means two different things. One is the sort of mainstream drama that comes out all too rarely these days (usually during awards season), a movie with full-bodied characters, supple dialogue, unpredictable and unhyped situations, and a general aura of humanity. On that level, “The Holdovers” qualifies. But all that good stuff doesn’t ultimately define what made the movies of the New American Cinema, half a century ago, so resonant and indelible. The great ones — “American Graffiti,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Blume in Love,” “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” “Shampoo,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “A Woman Under the Influence,” and on and on — had an astonishing quality of realism. It’s not so much that they were “dark.” It’s that they had currents of everyday melancholy and anger and confusion rippling through them. They had the daring to let scenes unfold with the spontaneity of life.