The Oscar for Best Picture, which for months had seemed entirely locked up, was suddenly, surprisingly, up for grabs. For most of awards season, a starry, revisionist Western—a searing exploration of masculinity on horseback—seemed a shoo-in. It received more nominations than any other movie; it was the recipient of critical acclaim and touted by its distributor as a surprise box-office hit; and its beloved director, previously Oscar-nominated, was overdue for the big prize. A win would be a testament to the Academy’s ability to recognize a movie whose artistic aims were lofty and which still managed to hit every one of its targets.
But as the Western rode tall in the saddle, a competitor waited in ambush. Toward the end of campaign season, an independently-produced character drama suddenly picked up a number of surprising guild awards. Though it, too, explored issues of identity and discrimination, the movie had once seemed like old news: It had premiered over a year ago at a film festival, and was released well before Oscar season to modest acclaim. But Academy audiences seemed to love it, and as it gained momentum, observers whispered: Surely Crash couldn’t defeat Brokeback Mountain, right?
That was 2006, and this is 2022, but the questions the Oscars ask about the struggle of art and commerce are perennial. (“Oscar organizers worried that television viewership might be down again this year because so few people had seen the five best picture nominees,” the Los Angeles Times wrote, 16 years ago.) For observers, every Oscar ceremony serves as the next installment in a 94-year-old, ongoing saga: the story of how Hollywood wants to think of itself. If the past few beats of that epic tale have been about the Academy transforming its membership, moving away from “Oscar bait” and recognizing the value of ambitious movies about the way real people live their lives, how does CODA’s Best Picture win advance (or complicate) that narrative? In selecting the inspirational crowd-pleaser, is the Academy breaking the pattern it laid down when it chose Parasite and Nomadland, reminding us—as Green Book did just three years ago—that the Academy, for all its changes, is still a sucker for a certain kind of easy feel-good experience?
CODA, released by Apple TV+ in August after a record-breaking Sundance acquisition, won by making the most of its underdog role. Where The Power of the Dog rode its early front-runner status from Venice to rave reviews to Netflix success to a flurry of critics’ awards, CODA seems to have served, for many Oscar voters, as a late-in-the-game surprise, and a pleasant one. Whether you watched it because a friend told you it made her cry, or because you wanted to know more about critical darling Troy Kotsur, or because you finally got around to it when it made the Best Picture shortlist, you probably loved CODA, in part because after the bombast of awards season, it seemed fresh and fulfilling: a movie that told its story with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of heart. A movie that wanted only to move you. In the past few weeks, CODA has won the top awards from the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild (where Power of the Dog wasn’t eligible), and the Producers Guild, bringing its slow-simmering Oscar campaign to a boil at the perfect moment.
What I’m struck by, in rewatching both films, is how different their visions are of what movies can do, yet how successful each is in advancing its argument. The Power of the Dog insists that even in the age of second screens, a film can move at its own pace, can capture great beauty and great ugliness, and can tell its story elliptically—through what is unspoken and unseen. It’s an argument for art film, albeit one with Hollywood stars, released on the world’s biggest streaming service. And it succeeds completely, interrogating and challenging its audience even as it moves inexorably toward its dark conclusion.
CODA, meanwhile, is a full-blown catharsis machine, a reminder that movies can expertly elicit a huge emotional response. It’s a film unafraid of sensation, of bringing verve and spirit to every moment: Its scale may be small (one family, one high school, one village) but its characters have big personalities, its jokes are big and loud, its heartbreak is big and wrenching, its resolution is nearly overwhelming. CODA recognizes the power movies have to inspire, to send an audience out on a high, and happily pushes every single one of those buttons.
For decades the Academy has toggled back and forth between the heart film and the art film in its Best Picture selections. The 1970s gave us The Deer Hunter but also gave us Rocky. The 1980s followed Out of Africa with Platoon; the 1990s followed Dances With Wolves with The Silence of the Lambs. It’s easy to think of each year’s win as a rebuttal to the last. What was the choice of the blandly sentimental The King’s Speech but a response to the tactical brutality of The Hurt Locker?
But the truth is that Oscar voters, when they actually vote, are weighing a set of concerns, grudges, and opinions so far removed from the sweep of Hollywood history—so far removed, it sometimes seems, from reality—that to view each year’s Best Picture award as a mandate on anything can be a mistake. It might be better to think of Best Picture as simply a chance the Academy gets, each and every year, to reward one movie that showcases one of the many things that great movies can do. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they really, really don’t.
That’s why, as the Oscars approached, I found myself delighted at the idea of either Power of the Dog or CODA winning Best Picture. After all, what good is it to give Best Picture to a big hit if that big hit doesn’t actually show off Hollywood at its best? What good is it to reward a blockbuster if the blockbuster sucks? The Academy, like Hollywood in general, is frightened that no one cares about movies any more. Well, the good news is that this year, at least, Best Picture came down to two movies that people cared about quite a lot, even if most of the viewership took place at home. They both deliver profound experiences, even if those experiences have very little to do with each other. It would have been great if Power of the Dog won. I’m still pretty delighted that CODA won.
The analogy I made at the beginning of this essay isn’t exactly apropos, by the way. If either of these movies is truly reminiscent of Brokeback Mountain it’s CODA, an old-fashioned weepie with its heart on its sleeve. More than that, CODA reminds me of Terms of Endearment: It’s funny, it’s sharp-tongued, it elicits emotion but doesn’t stoop to cheap sentimentality. The Power of the Dog is more of a No Country for Old Men or a Platoon: a canny subversion that reveals an entirely modern darkness through the mechanism of a classic movie form. What’s most gratifying, in an age when Hollywood is struggling to convince everyone that movies still matter, is that neither of these terrific pictures is a Crash.