NEW YORK – The awards keep pouring in for "Sideways," which the New York Film Critics Circle named the best picture of 2004. Part comedy, part drama, the film about middle-aged best friends who go on a wine-tasting road trip outside Santa Barbara also earned honors for two of its four stars, Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen, and for its screenplay, which director Alexander Payne co-wrote with Jim Taylor.
Giamatti, who gives a poignant portrayal of a miserable, divorced wine snob, was named best actor, and Madsen won the supporting-actress award for playing a waitress and fellow wine lover with whom he hesitantly forges a romance.
Thelma Adams, a critic for Us Weekly and the group's chairwoman, explained the appeal of "Sideways" as "a generational thing." Besides winning four awards from the New York critics on Monday, the film got the most Golden Globe nominations with seven, including best picture in the musical or comedy category.
"I don't think this is a twentysomething movie. I think it's a movie that works for the over-30 crowd," Adams said after the winners were announced. "It's a great movie, great script, great actors. I think now we understand Alexander Payne, after `Election' and `About Schmidt.' We know who he is, we know what he's trying to do.
"This is an indie movie. It has Virginia Madsen — it doesn't have Julia Roberts. It has Sandra Oh — it doesn't have Natalie Portman," she added, referring to the movie "Closer." "It hinges on Paul who? Giamatti, a guy with hair on his shoulders — and a great, great actor. And these are the people who are overlooked."
But the group spread the honors around by naming Clint Eastwood as best director for "Million Dollar Baby," in which he also co-stars as a boxing manager who reluctantly agrees to train a determined female fighter, played by Hilary Swank.
Imelda Staunton, who has been raking in the awards from critics' groups coast to coast in recent days, took the best-actress category for "Vera Drake." Staunton, who stars in the title role as a housekeeper who secretly performs abortions in 1950s Britain, also has been honored by Los Angeles reviewers and New York's online critics.
In the supporting-actor category, Clive Owen won for "Closer," director Mike Nichols' searing drama about two couples who fall in love with each other and tear each other apart. Owen plays a doctor whose wife (Julia Roberts) cheats on him with another man (Jude Law).
Michael Moore's scorching indictment of the Bush administration, "Fahrenheit 9/11," was named best nonfiction film.
The group gave the foreign-language film award to Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education," about two men who fell in love as Catholic schoolboys in Franco-era Madrid, but were torn apart by a jealous priest. The Spanish director was the subject of a retrospective during the New York Film Festival in October.
Christopher Doyle, who shot Chinese director Zhang Yimou's sumptuous martial-arts epic "Hero," was named best cinematographer.
"The Incredibles," the latest Pixar extravaganza about a family of superheroes, won the animated film category.
And the award for best first film went to "Maria Full of Grace," writer-director Joshua Marston's story of a 17-year-old Colombian girl who becomes a drug mule.
Earlier in the day, Giamatti, Staunton, Owen and Madsen also were nominated for Golden Globe Awards.
"Sideways" also has taken top honors from Los Angeles' critics and the New York Film Critics Online, and the American Film Institute and the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures both have listed it among the year's 10 best. Adams predicted that with such universal praise, the film is "a slam dunk" to receive a best-picture Oscar nomination.
The New York Film Critics Circle is composed of 34 reviewers who write for the city's daily newspapers and for New York-based weekly publications.