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‘CODA’ vs. ’The Power of the Dog’: A Messy Oscar Season Gets a Messy Homestretch

With a week to go, suddenly the Oscar race has turned into a real dogfight

AWARDS BEAT

This year’s awards season started out with cautious in-person screenings in the fall and seemed to be getting back to a semblance of normalcy. Then Omicron hit, events got canceled or delayed and normalcy gave way to a big, prolonged mess as the season careened toward a socially-distanced, masked and COVID-tested Oscars on March 27.

And now, in the final week of the season and the final two days of voting, we have a Best Picture race just as messy as the season that preceded it.

It’s “The Power of the Dog” vs. “CODA.” A critics favorite that might not be likable enough to prevail vs. a tearjerker that’s thoroughly likable but not exactly a candidate for the Criterion Collection.

It’s Netflix vs. Apple in the battle of streaming giant vs. tech giant, and nary a traditional theatrical release in sight.  

And it’s a race that waited until its final days to get thoroughly confusing and pretty exciting.

A week after “The Power of the Dog” had a very good weekend with wins at the Directors Guild, BAFTA and Critics Choice Awards, “CODA” seized momentum in the Oscar race by winning Saturday’s Producers Guild Award, the one major award that uses the same ranked-choice or preferential system as the Oscars Best Picture count. And Sian Heder’s heartwarming drama about a deaf family and their hearing daughter followed that on Sunday with an expected win at the Writers Guild Awards, although that one was less consequential because its main Oscar rival, “The Power of the Dog,” wasn’t eligible under strict WGA rules.

In less than 24 hours, Apple’s “CODA” has managed to at worst pull neck-and-neck with Netflix’s “Power of the Dog” in the Oscar race, and maybe to nudge slightly ahead. Because when it comes to major guilds, the scorecard is suddenly lopsided: “Power” has the DGA, while “CODA” has PGA, the SAG ensemble award and WGA (the last of which you can’t hold against “Power”).  

But there are still lots of reasons why “CODA” shouldn’t be able to win. It isn’t nominated for Best Director or Best Film Editing, whereas every winner since the latter category was created in 1934 has been nominated for at least one of those awards – and the vast majority has been nominated for both of them. It only has three total nominations, which would be the least of any winner since “Grand Hotel” won with only a single nomination in 1932, when the Oscars only had 12 categories.

You can use plenty of other stats against it, but really, fancy Oscar statistics don’t mean squat anymore. “Birdman” shouldn’t have won because it didn’t have an editing nomination, “The Shape of Water” shouldn’t have won because it didn’t have SAG ensemble, “Green Book” shouldn’t have won because it didn’t have a Best Director nom and “Parasite” shouldn’t have won because it wasn’t in English. But they all did win – and as the Academy has gotten much bigger and far more international because of its post-#OscarsSoWhite membership push, there’s less value in the typical markers and less overlap with the American guilds on which we used to rely for a reading of what the voters were thinking.  

And in this new atmosphere, a film with only three nominations and no visible support from the Academy’s below-the-line branches can actually win Best Picture, and the biggest corporation in the world, Apple, can successfully sell its $25 million Sundance acquisition as a scrappy underdog (which it was, in a way, before it landed that record-breaking deal from Apple on Park City).

The key thing about the Producers Guild win is that in the 12 years since the Academy and the PGA expanded to 10 best-film nominees and introduced the preferential system, the PGA has predicted the Oscar winner all but three times. And in those three cases, the movie that won the guild award was a bigger-budget production than the one that won the Oscar: “1917” over “Parasite,” “The Big Short” over “Spotlight,” “La La Land” over “Moonlight.”

Meanwhile, in tight races where the Producers Guild went with a smaller movie, that film has invariably gone on to win the Oscar: “The Hurt Locker” over “Avatar,” “The King’s Speech” over “The Social Network.” In the preferential era, there’s no precedent for a smaller movie winning with the producers and then losing with the Academy.

Still, “The Power of the Dog” has an ace in the hole as Oscar voters cast their final ballots, which are due on Tuesday. That edge comes with the number of international voters – because the same overseas members who are increasingly making the precursor awards less meaningful also seem likelier to go for “The Power of the Dog” than “CODA.”

Sure, the latter film is based on a 2014 French film, “La Famille Bélier.” But the New Zealand-based Campion is an iconic international filmmaker, and her film (which won at BAFTA in London) figures to carry significantly more clout with non-American voters than “CODA” (which wasn’t even nominated for best film at BAFTA).

The question is whether the international voters will be enough to counter the two significant things that happened at the Producers Guild: The guild’s preferential count exposed a “Power of the Dog” vulnerability that many Oscar-watchers had been expecting to see eventually, and “CODA” managed to position itself as the one alternative over “Belfast,” “King Richard” or “West Side Story.”  

So will the more likable movie prevail under a system that looks for consensus, or will the international voters preserve the power of “Power?”

It feels like a toss-up with the narrowest of edges to “CODA” – and if you think it would make a strange, unexpected Best Picture champ, it might also be an altogether fitting winner for this strange year.

The March 27 show, after all, has stirred up a fuss by announcing plans to hand out awards in eight categories before the telecast begins, and then edit those presentations into the broadcast to save time.

And while “The Power of the Dog” has four nominations in those exiled categories, “CODA” doesn’t have any. It’s a movie made for 2022, when people are desperate for good news and the Academy has bowed to pressure and agreed that film editing, production design, original score, makeup and sound aren’t quite ready for center stage, at least not without some trims.

“CODA” has nothing to do with those categories; it’s completely ready for prime time, as the Academy defines that term.

“Drive My Car” and “Licorice Pizza” are in the same boat, but neither is likely to win; all the other Best Picture nominees have at least one nomination in the targeted categories.

“The Power of the Dog,” meanwhile, has nominations for editing, production design, score and sound; it might win a couple of Oscars before anybody from “CODA” even gets inside the Dolby Theatre.

What a mess. And how appropriate.

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