David Edelstein, in his Obligatory Oscar Commentary advises:
Give out your own private awards this year, and watch the Oscars for the spectacle of exhibitionists walking the tightrope between humility and grandiosity.
When I emailed that to a friend, he responded by having The Big Lebowski sweep his Josh Awards. I admire the sentiment but think this is playing a bit too fast and loose with the constraints.
I give the 2004 SteelR Awards for Best Picture and Director to Sideways, for several completely idiosyncratic reasons (and emphatically NOT because its banner ads have appeared on every page of the electronic NYT for months).
For one thing, the film provided a rare moment of détente in politically fractious 2004 when conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer devoted an op-ed to recommending it.
For another, it renewed my faith in the possibilities of my white-bread minivan suburb when a guy two rows in front of me guffawed when the wannabe writer protagonist in the film compares his novel to Robbe-Grillet. So there are at least a pair of us refugees from High Modernism out here on the frozen prairie.
But mostly, Sideways wins the coveted SteelR for getting Southern California exactly right. Southern California, as home to the film industry, habitually stands in for all kinds of locales. But the Southland has a distinctive look, and never quite plays other biomes convincingly. When you are familiar with Southern California (I grew up in the real Orange County, which nobody, then or now calls “The O.C.”) the differences are as glaring as they would be if all locations were shot outside of Scottsdale, with saguaro cactus cropping up everywhere from “Alabama” to “Norway”.
But Sideways gets the locales and the details right. It gets “the Beach” right (Santa Monica in the novel, San Diego in the film)—most interactions with your neighbors involve requests to move your car. It gets the freeways right—north on the San Diego has the right view of commercial jets screaming by just overhead, the Oxnard exit is the Oxford exit, Buellton is Buellton. Nobody drives the wrong way across the Bay Bridge, as in The Graduate; nobody flies over freeways that won’t exist for decades, as in The Aviator. For that matter, no one but a Southern Californian would set a film (faithfully) in San Diego. Why would you go to that trouble? Who would know?
Special mention: the Kraft® Catalina dressing on the mother’s dinner table is exactly, hilariously, right.
These careful details might be the work of the DP, or a fanatically precise art director, but I feel confident in conferring my award on the film and its director Alexander Payne. Only Payne could have decided to shoot the comic climax (the return for the wallet) in dawn’s early light. How they managed to get that sequence in a unique light that lasts maybe ten minutes is a mystery to me, and a tour de force worthy of recognition.