Don't count out CODA's charms: Predicting Oscar winners in a year like no other

CBC's Eli Glasner runs down how the 94th Academy Awards could play out on Sunday, from the tightening races to a potential big picture upset.

Artful films may be championed but don't disregard crowd-pleasing gems

Jessica Chastian, left, Will Smith, Troy Kotsur, Ariana DeBose and Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve's Dune are all up for major awards at the 94th Academy Awards on Sunday. (The Canadian Press)

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.

Production design

From left to right, Josh Brolin as warmaster Gurney, Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides and Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir, the master of assassins, in Dune. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

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. 

Original score

Denis Villeneuve on fulfilling his childhood dream of making Dune

2 years ago
Duration 5:36
Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve tells CBC Radio's Q host Tom Power how he's dreamed of making Dune since he was a kid in small town Quebec. Opening to strong reviews, Dune is just the latest in a string of artfully constructed blockbusters that have made Villeneuve one of Hollywood's most respected and bankable directors.

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

Jessica Chastain appears in this scene from The Eyes of Tammy Faye. The biopic follows Chastain as Tammy Faye Messner and her work with husband Jim Bakker. (TIFF)

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. 

Best editing

Tick, Tick… Boom embraces the messiness of musical creation

2 years ago
Duration 6:14
The Netflix musical Tick, Tick… Boom stars Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson, the composer of Rent, and the creative crisis he went through earlier in his career. It is the directorial debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton.

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

This image released by Disney shows, from left, Paul Walter Hauser, Emma Stone and Joel Fry in a scene from Cruella. (Disney/The Associated Press)

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. 

Best cinematography

The Power of the Dog is directed by Jane Campion. (TIFF)

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

Hidetoshi Nishijima, left, and Tôko Miura appear in Drive My Car. The film is up for best picture, best international feature, best director and best adapted screenplay. (TIFF)

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

B.B. King performs at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the documentary Summer of Soul. (Searchlight Pictures)

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

Encanto's Madrigal family appears in this photo. Songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda said the film's focus on family relationships found its way into its songs. (Disney)

What can possibly compete with the film that unleashed We Don't Talk About BrunoEncanto 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

Leonardo DiCaprio, left, and Jennifer Lawrence costar in the latest film from The Big Short director Adam McKay. (Netflix)

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 

An image from Steven Spielberg's West Side Story shows Ariana DeBose as Anita, left, and David Alvarez as Bernardo. The film seeks to improve on the 1961 original's representation of Latinx characters. (Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios/The Associated Press)

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 

This image released by Apple TV+ shows Troy Kotsur, left, and Marlee Matlin in a scene from CODA. (Apple TV+/The Associated Press)

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. 

Best actress

The Eyes of Tammy Faye review: Jessica Chastain stirs up Oscar buzz

2 years ago
Duration 6:23
Jessica Chastain's big-hearted performance can't be denied in this intimate look at the life of televangelist Tammy Faye Baker, says CBC film reviewer Eli Glasner. The Eyes of Tammy Faye opened in theatres Sept. 17.

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.

Best actor 

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Will Smith in a scene from King Richard. (Warner Bros./The Associated Press)

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. 

Best director

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. 

Best picture

Emilia Jones stars in CODA as Ruby, the only hearing person in a tight-knit family of four, as she joins her school choir and sets her sights on a prestigious music college. (Apple TV+)

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. 


Eli Glasner

Senior entertainment reporter

Eli Glasner is the senior entertainment reporter and screentime columnist for CBC News. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee Ontario to the Oscars and beyond.