Sunday, December 18, 2011

Academy Awards Best Picture Revisited: Sideways (2004)

Today I watched another film from one of the directors in contention for the Best Director prize this year.  I realized today I watched David Fincher's 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; he has The Girl  with the Dragon Tattoo this year. In 2007 Jason Reitman directed the crowd pleaser Juno and this year he has the film Young Adult. Then I watched 2006's The Departed from director Martin Scorsese; Scorsese directed Hugo this year.  Finally this weekend came the film Sideways directed by Alexander Payne, who directed The Descendants this year.

Four different, yet brilliant directors.  Only two directors have a chance this year at being nominated and winning, Martin Scorsese and the director of Sideways, Alexander Payne.  Payne's first bigger film came in 1996, Citizen Ruth.  While Ruth put Payne on the map somewhat, it was his 1999 film Election that helped add fuel to his career.  Election is the dark tale of a teacher who tries to prevent his know it all student from becoming student body President.  This film put Reese Witherspoon on the map.  Three years later Payne collaborated with one of the greatest living actors Jack Nicholson in the dark comedy About Schmidt.  Payne's films are known for their mixed tones, they blend comedy and drama well.  In 2005 Payne created one of his strongest films, Sideways (more on that in a few).  Six years later Payne released the film The Descendants, this is is weakest work, but still is a solid film.  Payne direction style is big on character and letting his written word do the talking.  Payne has written for all of these films, and the writing of these films is some of the strongest I have seen in years.

Sideways focuses on a loser high school English teacher, and failed novelist named Miles (Paul Giamatti) who is accompanying his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a brief vacation before Jack gets married.  The film centers around Miles and his love for wine, and how wine has such an interesting life.  Miles meets up with a woman he has seen before named Maya (Virginia Madsen) and they connect while Jack tries to escape his pre marital status with Stephanie (Sandra Oh). The ensemble works together flawlessly.  Together these actors provide strength and depth to Payne's strong script.  This film and the ensemble provided an interesting addition to the awards season.

Sideways was nominated for 5 Academy Awards.  Paul Giamatti who should have won the Best Actor award was snubbed of a nomination, this is the worst snub of the 2000s.  The films nominations included, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Virginia Madsen), Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Haden Church), Best Direction, and of course Best Picture.

2004's five nominees for Best Picture were The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Million Dollar Baby, Ray, and of course Sideways.  Of the actual nominees there were only three serious contenders.  Finding Neverland, the tale of JM Barrie writing Peter Pan, never had a chance.  Ray was seen as a vehicle for Jamie Foxx, and recognition for him was the recognition the film would receive.  Sideways was the critical favorite and won the ensemble award at SAG.  The Aviator was Martin Scorsese's most optimal chance to finally win, and it took home Best Drama at the Globes and the BAFTA award for Best Film. Then there was Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby.  Baby did not come out of nowhere but in a divided field came in to scoop up the honor of being named the Best Picture.  Eastwood's direction was being honored regularly by both the the Director's Guild and the Globes, and Hilary Swank was winning numerous awards, so the film came along for the ride.  Sideways peaked to early, and was not as accessible so it got the consolation prize, Best Adapted Screenplay.

What should have won Best Picture this year?  The film that should have won is the film that inspired the title for this blog, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Michel Gondry's film is one of the best films of all time, but had to settle for only a few nominations, and just one win in the Original Screenplay category.  I will not go on a rant about my favorite film, but I will say that this Best Picture category was one of the most boring in years.  Of the nominated films, the strongest film is Sideways, but there were much better films not nominated.  The Aviator was one of Scorsese's weaker films. Ray and Finding Neverland would have barely made my top 20 list.  2004's nominees should have been Before Sunset, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Incredibles, Sideways, and I go back and forth on this, but the winner Million Dollar Baby.

I hate to say it but 2004 and 2005 had a couple of my favorite films of the decade, but there were both incredibly weak years.  I am glad a small film like Sideways fought through the bloated typical Academy Award fare to make it into the race and be deemed one of the Best Picture nominees this year.

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