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How "CODA" will send "The Power of the Dog" to the kennel at the Oscars

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

This year’s Academy Awards seemed so simple just two short weeks ago: the Dog’s tail was going to wag all night long.

Jane Campion’s gothic western “The Power of the Dog” leads the Oscars hunt with 12 nominations and a kennel full of kudos from critics and industry guilds. Over the March 12-13 weekend, Campion took film and/or directing honours at three major Oscar precursor events: the Critics Choice Awards, the BAFTAs and the Directors Guild of America.

Then came the Producers Guild of America Awards last weekend and a surprise win for Sian Heder’s “CODA,” the little Sundance movie about a young singer and her family of deaf fishers. A PGA win often presages a Best Picture victory at the Oscars — both use a preferential ballot — and “CODA” had earlier received the Best Ensemble Cast prize from the Screen Actors Guild, another important indicator.

“CODA” has seized momentum and it’s now the film to beat for Best Picture at Sunday’s Oscar telecast, as well as Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur) and Best Adapted Screenplay. In fact, it may well go three for three for its nominations, while “The Power of the Dog” now seems likely to clutch gold for only a fraction of its dozen nominations.

There’s a lot more happening at the 94th Academy Awards, which have the slogan “Movie lovers, unite!” and which will include an online fan favourite poll and tributes to “The Godfather” and James Bond franchises.

Here’s my annual rundown, predicting and assessing the winners and the also-rans in the 23 categories:

Best Picture

Will: “CODA”

Could: “The Power of the Dog”

Should: “The Power of the Dog”

Why: If the Oscars were based strictly on merit, “The Power of the Dog” would win this prize in a walk. Campion’s sinewy adaptation of Thomas Savage’s stealth novel of cowboy identity is a triumph of form and content, a fact recognized by numerous pre-Oscar awards and nominations that include Campion’s writing and directing and the performances of all four of the film’s major cast members. But there’s no denying the power of a great underdog story and Sian Heder’s “CODA” has that in spades. The Sundance 2021 opener (and multiple prize winner) is the heartfelt tale of a family of deaf fishers, whose sole hearing member is torn between providing essential assistance to her family and leaving home to pursue her dreams of a singing career. Moviegoers seem to have a clear preference for “CODA” over “The Power of the Dog.” I’ve heard many complaints about the slow pace and subtle narrative of “Dog” and many unabashed raves for “CODA,” whose fans include Joni Mitchell, who tweeted out her love of co-star Emilia Jones’ screen performance of her classic tune “Both Sides Now.” The other eight Best Picture nominees — “Belfast,” “Don’t Look Up,” “Drive My Car,” “Dune,” “King Richard,” “Licorice Pizza,” “Nightmare Alley” and “West Side Story” — all have their supporters and strengths, especially Kenneth Branagh’s memory piece “Belfast,” an early Oscar favourite that faded in the stretch during months of awards campaigning. Their pairing of “The Power of the Dog” and “CODA” as main rivals for Best Picture marks the first time in Oscar history that two films directed by women are deemed the top combatants for the academy’s top prize.

Best Director

Will: Jane Campion, “The Power of the Dog”

Could: Paul Thomas Anderson, “Licorice Pizza” or Kenneth Branagh, “Belfast”

Should: Jane Campion

Why: Campion has been the clear favourite to win this prize since “The Power of the Dog” debuted on the festival circuit last fall. Her first feature film in 12 years is also her finest, a story exceedingly well told that relies on her sharp eye for detail. She’s the first woman in Oscar history to be twice nominated for this male-dominated category, a distinction that also works in her favour. Her competition includes “West Side Story” director Steven Spielberg, whom she last squared off against at the 66th Academy Awards in 1994, when her film “The Piano” was among the four competitors of Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” Spielberg won that year, but he’s not Campion’s main threat this time, despite his fine work updating a classic musical. Anderson (“Licorice Pizza”) or Branagh (“Belfast”) might steal the crown from Campion; both are long due for Oscar love, and a win by Japan’s Ryusuke Hamaguchi (“Drive My Car”) would be positively seismic. But Campion, already a multiple winner along the campaign trail, is going to win the big one on Sunday.

Best Actress

Will: Jessica Chastain, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”

Could: Kristen Stewart, “Spencer,” or Olivia Colman, “The Lost Daughter,” or Penélope Cruz, “Parallel Mothers,” or Nicole Kidman, “Being the Ricardos”

Should: Kristen Stewart

Why: This is the biggest horse race at this year’s Oscars. Put all five names into a box and select one and you’d have almost as much luck as guessing the favourite of academy voters. Chastain, who won this category at the SAG and Critics Choice awards, may have pulled ahead of the pack with her magical transformation into controversial TV evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, and she’s deserving. But I’ve heard plenty of support for Colman and Cruz, who both play conflicted mothers in their respective films, and many people (I’m not among them) enjoyed Kidman’s portrayal of Lucille Ball in “Being the Ricardos.” Stewart’s portrayal of Princess Diana in the bio-fable “Spencer” seems to divide audiences, but to me it’s the most authentic and affecting performance of the lot, a devastating and compassionate depiction of a woman experiencing a mental breakdown.

Best Actor

Will: Will Smith, “King Richard”

Could: Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Power of the Dog” or Andrew Garfield, “tick, tick… BOOM!”

Should: Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Power of the Dog”

Why: Likable Hollywood superstar Smith managed to turn a biopic of tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams into a story about their dad, a feat that has already won him gold at the SAG, BAFTA and Critics Choice awards. He’s deserving, but too bad for Benedict Cumberbatch, whose depiction of the inner turmoil of a toxic cowboy in 1920s Montana is by far the more impressive performance. Cumberbatch will win an Oscar one day; he’s too good to be denied forever. This is pretty much a two-man contest, but there’s the chance of an upset by Garfield, who captures the desperation and raw talent of “Rent” stage musical composer Jonathan Larson in the unfortunately titled “tick, tick… BOOM!” As for the estimable Denzel Washington (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”) and Javier Bardem (“Being the Ricardos”), both previous Oscar winners, this just isn’t their year to add more academy gold to their shelves.

Best Supporting Actress

Will: Ariana DeBose, “West Side Story”

Could: Judi Dench, “Belfast”

Should: Ariana DeBose

Why: DeBose for the win, and let’s reflect for a moment on the cruel fates of awards season. Steven Spielberg’s superlative revisiting of the classic stage and screen story of warring New York gangs looked like a major Oscar challenger upon its release last December, but tepid box office cooled its chances. The new “West Side Story” is almost a forgotten film, despite its seven Oscar nominees, but DeBose’s turn as the feisty Anita, the role that won an Oscar for Rita Moreno in the 1961 original, is the performance that people are still talking about — and she’s got BAFTA, Critics Choice and SAG awards pushing her forward. If there’s an upset, look to Dench, much loved as the sage grandma in “Belfast.” Better luck next year for Kirsten Dunst (“The Power of the Dog”), Aunjanue Ellis (“King Richard”) and Jessie Buckley (“The Lost Daughter”), all of whom might have won in less competitive years.

Best Supporting Actor

Will: Troy Kotsur, “CODA”

Could: Kodi Smit-McPhee, “The Power of the Dog,” or Ciarán Hinds, “Belfast”

Should: Kodi Smit-McPhee

Why: Mark this one on your play-at-home Oscars ballot in ink. Troy Kotsur is the surest of sure things at this year’s Academy Awards. He’s going to grab the gold for his delightful turn as the patriarch of a fishing family in “CODA” as he has at many precursor events. He also has an irresistible personal story as the first deaf actor to be nominated in this category. It’s OK by me, but if I were an Oscar voter, my pick would be Smit-McPhee for “The Power of the Dog,” whose character Peter is a marvel of sublimated intent. There’s also chance of an upset win by Hinds, whose charming grandpa character in “Belfast” is arguably the main reason why so many people love Branagh’s memory piece about a kid growing up during “The Troubles” in Ireland. Rounding out the category are Jesse Plemons (“The Power of the Dog”) and J.K. Simmons (“Being the Ricardos”), who are seriously happy just to have been nominated.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will: “CODA”

Could: “The Power of the Dog” or “Drive My Car”

Should: “The Power of the Dog”

Why: The screenplay categories are among the hardest to call at the Oscars. Precursor awards are inconclusive and recent years have seen academy voters honour the writing of films they aren’t also honouring for Best Picture. But the fast-rising “CODA,” an American remake of a 2014 French film, stands to be the first film since “Moonlight” in 2016 to win Best Adapted Screenplay as well as Best Picture. There’s major competition from “The Power of the Dog” and from “Drive My Car,” the latter of which impressively transformed a Haruki Murakami short story into a three-hour movie drama. Ditto for the superlative adaptations of “Dune” and “The Lost Daughter.” But my vote would go to Campion’s brilliant work adapting novelist Savage’s “The Power of the Dog,” a happy circumstance of an excellent read becoming a superlative watch.

Best Original Screenplay

Will: “Belfast”

Could: “Licorice Pizza”

Should: “Licorice Pizza”

Why: Too many people love “Belfast” for it to go home empty-handed and this is the category where voters often reward films they like a lot but don’t necessarily pick for Best Picture. My vote, though, would go for another nostalgic charmer, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” an unlikely romance set in the California of 1973 that was the most fun I’ve had at the movies in the past year. “King Richard” and “The Worst Person in the World” are worthy also-rans, but thumbs down from me to “Don’t Look Up,” a satire about a killer comet that pounds a single joke about public apathy into the ground.

And the Rest …

⭑ Besides winning Best Director, “The Power of the Dog” also has a good chance of taking Best Cinematography for the evocative lensing of Ari Wegner, who is only the second woman to be nominated in this category and will be a historic first female winner if she succeeds.

⭑ Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s eye-popping adaptation of “Dune,” Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel of interplanetary colonization, is likely to be the single most awarded movie at the Oscars this year, even though it likely won’t win any of the major prizes. I see it taking at least five golden statues: Best Production Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing and Best Sound.

⭑ Another Canadian might well win an Oscar in the Best Documentary Short Subject category for telling an American tale. Halifax-born director Ben Proudfoot is a strong competitor with “The Queen of Basketball,” the largely unknown story of Lusia “Lucy” Harris, who died earlier this year, a phenomenal player who scored the first basket in women’s Olympics history and who is also the only woman to be officially drafted into the NBA, an honour she declined.

⭑ Attempting to predict the academy’s preferences in the other two short film categories is often doomed to failure. But in a year of generally grim Oscar shorts, I like the digital-age romantic satire “The Windshield Wiper” for Best Animated Short Film and the all-too-believable racial dystopia of “The Long Goodbye” for Best Live Action Short Film. The latter stars Riz Ahmed, who also co-wrote the film and contributed to the soundtrack.

Best Documentary Feature is sure to go to Questlove’s “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” his found-footage chronicle of a 1969 “Black Woodstock” event. This musical marvel started winning prizes at its Sundance debut in January 2021 and it has stayed in the awards groove since then.

⭑ “Drive My Car” has been winning many precursor awards for Best International Feature, a category it’s likely to take at the Oscars, too. Academy voters really want to honour this inspiring film of rediscovering life after experiencing grief.

⭑ Disney is frequently a contender for Best Animated Feature Film and its popular “Encanto,” about a magical Colombian family, will likely go the distance. Don’t rule out the multi-nominated “Flee,” a refugee story like no other and yet another Sundance ’21 star that made it to the Oscars.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling will likely gain another trophy for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” I’ve met the real Tammy Faye Bakker, who died in 2007, and I was amazed how well Jessica Chastain embodied her in every way.

Best Costume Design seems like a gimme for Disney’s “Cruella,” which is basically a battle between artful costume designers, a.k.a. fashionistas. But “Dune” might have its own designs on a win here.

⭑ As usual, Best Original Song comes down to a popularity contest for the artist rather than the tune, so I think Billie Eilish’s title number from the 007 actioner “No Time to Die” will prevail. “Dos Oruguitas” from “Encanto” stands a chance; it’s weird how the film’s most popular number, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” wasn’t even nominated — although it will be performed live on the Oscar show. We don’t talk about Oscar for logic or consistency. 🌓

(This column originally ran in the Toronto Star.)



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