From New York to Los Angeles, Sideways is the straight-up critics' choice.

Hours after nabbing seven Golden Globe nominations Monday morning, the wine-quaffing comedy-drama added the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle's Best Picture title to its rack.

In just the last three days, Sideways has been rated best film by professional movie watchers in New York (the Critics Circle and the New York Film Critics Online), Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco. It's also been named one of the year's 10 best by the American Film Institute and the National Board of Review.

"I think the Oscar race is about momentum," said Oscar analyst and entertainment writer Pete Hammond, "and right now the momentum is with Sideways."

In all, Sideways bottled up four New York Film Critics Circle Awards, including Best Actor (Paul Giamatti), Best Supporting Actress (Virginia Madsen) and Best Screenplay (for director Alexander Payne and cowriter Jim Taylor).

If Sideways has momentum, Madsen has the mojo.

The previously unheralded 41-year-old, whose credits run the gamut from Class to Candyman, has been the pick of all the major critics groups to date, save for the Boston contingent who opted for Laura Dern (We Don't Live Here Anymore) and, in a tie, Sharon Warren (Ray). In Sideways, Madsen plays a college-aspiring waitress who knows her way around a Pinot Noir.

British actress Imelda Staunton, like Madsen and Giamatti a newly minted Globe nominee, continued to build her Stateside name with a New York critics Best Actress win for Vera Drake. She previously had been recognized by the Los Angeles critics. (Before Sunset's Julie Delpy was the choice of the San Francisco group; Million Dollar Baby's Hilary Swank, the Boston wing's favorite.)

Clive Owen, who plays Julia Roberts' inquisitive husband in Closer, was named Best Supporting Actor by the New York scribes. It's the only critics honor that Sideways' Thomas Haden Church--the pick in L.A., Boston and San Francisco--hasn't claimed. Owen and Church can settle the score at the Globes, where they're both nominated.

Other key New York Critics Circle honorees: Clint Eastwood, named Best Director for Million Dollar Baby; Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, chosen Best Nonfiction Film; and The Incredibles, hailed as Best Animated Film.

Just to be on the safe side, none of the critics awards winners should spent too much time yet on their Oscar speeches. After all, critics award are one thing; Oscar nominations and Oscar wins often another thing entirely.

To Ty Burr, movie critic for the Boston Globe, Sideways is "exactly the kind of movie--smart, independent with no special effects--that wins Best Original Screenplay, or Best Adapted Screenplay in Sideways' case."

And then... Well, maybe not much more.

Traditionally, Burr said, a low-key, relatively low-budget movie like Sideways (made for about $16 million) is lucky if it claims an acting award--and "it always misses Best Picture." (See: Lost in Translation.)

Hammond said he thinks The Aviator, the Howard Hughes biopic from director Martin Scorsese, will end up with the most nominations when the Oscar field is announced Jan. 25. On Monday, it ran second to Sidways at the Globes, with six nods. But come the Academy Awards, the lavish, $100 million production could pad its total in the technical categories that Oscar recognizes and the Globes don't, Hammond said.

And yet with conventional wisdom against it, even as the critics awards are for it, Burr wouldn't be surprised if Sideways doesn't get lost in the translation on Oscar night.

"People are so jazzed about this movie, not just the critics," Burr said. "It's more viewer friendly. It's about real people."

And a little bit of wine.

Here's a look at the 2004 New York Film Critics Circle Awards:

Best Picture: Sideways
Best Actor: Paul Giamatti, Sideways
Best Actress: Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake
Best Supporting Actor: Clive Owen, Closer
Best Supporting Actress: Virginia Madsen, Sideways
Best Director: Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby
Best Screenplay: Sideways, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
Best Cinematographer: Christopher Doyle, Hero
Best Foreign Film: Bad Education
Best Nonfiction Film: Fahrenheit 9/11
Best Animated Film: The Incredibles
Best First Film: Maria Full of Grace

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