Don't count out CODA's charms: Predicting Oscar winners in a year like no other
Artful films may be championed but don't disregard crowd-pleasing gems
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the 94th Academy Awards is that they're happening at all. In a world brimming with distractions and calamities, the Oscars have flown far under the radar, much to the concern of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and ABC executives hoping to reverse years of plummeting ratings.
At various other warm-up events — the BAFTAS, the SAGS, the Critic's Choice Awards and more — the seemingly Ironman-like race for the Oscars has coalesced into a familiar narrative. The more obvious an actor's transformation, the greater their chances of winning. Artful and austere films may be championed, but don't count out those crowd-pleasing gems.
If it's drama you're looking for, it's been behind the scenes, as Oscar producer Will Packer attempts to create a broadly appealing TV show honouring a collection of films with an audience a fraction of Spider-Man: No Way Home.
While some competitions in some of the bigger categories have calcified over time, the potential for major upsets should help Oscar watchers stay tuned on Sunday. Now, lets dive into that Oscar pool.
One of my first thoughts watching The Power of the Dog was how specific and lived-in the film looked, especially for one shot in New Zealand. But the open skies and rustic charms of this Montana-set western will likely lose to Dune. One of the strength's of Denis Villeneuve's dream project is the vast sense of world building. From the brutalist architecture of the concrete fortresses to the old world touches suggesting the Atreus family's history, every object has a sense of place and history.
The chants and familiar power chords of Hans Zimmer for Dune should easily drown out the artful twang of Johnny Greenwood's compositions for The Power of the Dog.
Best makeup and hairstyling
When in doubt, remember that voters don't vote for the best, but the most. The more obvious the transformation, the better. In that respect, no one comes close to The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a film where the makeup is even part of the title.
The smart money is on Dune for this category but I'm not sure the hallucinatory visions featuring Zendaya (and Dune's nearly three-hour running time) will convince voters. For a category that's been shunted out of the live broadcast, it's a tight race. Will voters fall for Don't Look Up's pop art collages? The Power of the Dog's Terrance Malik-like snapshots of nature? My vote? Tick, Tick … Boom — the post-modern musical within a musical where the film flips between flashbacks effortlessly.
Best costume design
In a just world, the sophisticated dresses and suits filling out the film noir style of Nightmare Alley would be leading the pack. But remember: it's most, not best. So the punkish two-tone fashions of Cruella will take the golden trophy home.
Another bumped category, another close race. Leading the pack are the open vistas and lingering closeups of The Power of the Dog. But don't count out West Side Story, with Janusz Kaminski giving the classic musical a vibrant movie makeover.
Best international feature
Do yourself a favour. Wake up early one morning. Put on a strong pot of coffee and settle in to watch Drive My Car. Three hours later, you'll understand why this master class in slow-release storytelling will win.
Best documentary feature
Flee, an animated film about the plight of refugees and one man's escape from Afghanistan, becomes more timely every day. Nevertheless, Questlove's Summer of Soul concert film is overflowing with joy and moments of musical bliss, enough to charm voters aplenty.
Best animated feature
What can possibly compete with the film that unleashed We Don't Talk About Bruno? Encanto will salsa all the way to the podium, but if you haven't watched The Mitchells vs.The Machines, you're missing one of the most ridiculously original cartoons in years.
Best original screenplay
No easy win here. Will voters go for the sentimental story of Belfast? The dogged determination of tennis dad King Richard? I would love to see fans of The Worst Person in the World, a wonderful film of romantic ruin from Norway, take home the prize. But I suspect the progressive voters of the Academy will make the climate change metaphor movie Don't Look Up a winner.
Best adapted screenplay
Going out on a limb here. The easy money's on The Power of the Dog, written by the Oscar-winning auteur Jane Campion herself. But I suspect (or hope) the good will around Maggie Gyllenhaal's unflinching The Lost Daughter will cause an upset.
Best supporting actress
While West Side Story hasn't made waves this Oscar season, Ariana DeBose's spirited performance as Anita is a lock to win.
Best supporting actor
Perhaps the surest thing this season, Troy Kotsur will win for his performance as the curmudgeonly and cursing father in CODA. The fact that the longtime deaf actor was ready to retire before auditioning for the role just makes the win sweeter.
If this was the award for most courageous performance, it would be Kristen Stewart all the way for her role as Diana, Princess of Wales, in Spencer. To take such a beloved icon and fearlessly inhabit the character, in doing so giving us a real woman, vibrating with frustration, was simply remarkable. That said, the award will go to Jessica Chastian as Tammy Faye, for adding a new layer of vulnerability to the familiar TV caricature.
I think what Andrew Garfield accomplished as playwright Johnathan Larson in Tick, Tick ... Boom is nothing less than a magic trick, but he's not even in the conversation. While I'd love to see Denzel Washington cause an upset with his grounded version of Macbeth, the race seems down to Will Smith in King Richard and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog. As he often does, Cumberbatch absolutely disappears into the role of stinkin' banjo-strumming ranch hand Phil. But I suspect all of his method acting won't be able to counter Smith's charm offensive. The Academy likes Will. We like Will. As Richard Williams, Smith gave us something to root for, while stretching his acting muscles.
While there's been a lot of talk of love of Steven Spielberg the past few weeks, look to see Campion take home her first directing Oscar for The Power of the Dog. "A western where no one fires a gun" is how Canadian producer Roger Frappier describes it. Instead it's the carefully calibrated secrets that Campion expertly draws out.
For months now, it's seemed that The Power of the Dog was destined to be the best picture winner. The way Campion infused the western-set story with a new sensitivity and surprising gay subtext fits the modern Oscar formula. But something curious happened in the gallop to the podium. CODA, a heartwarming film about a singer butting heads with her deaf parents, started winning awards. A lot of awards. Could it be that The Power of the Dog peaked too early? Could Campion's remarks at the Critics Choice Awards hurt the film's chances? Or will the lingering bias against Netflix be part of the pushback? But keep in mind, as Variety's Clayton Davis told me, in the Oscar race it's not about the most-loved film. It's the most-liked. With The Power of the Dog, you either love it or you don't. But thanks to the preferential ballot, CODA could be a lot of voters' second choice. With a mushy feel-good story centred around an authentic deaf family, CODA could hold the message Oscar voters are looking to send.