Critics’ Conversation: ‘CODA’ Backlash, ‘Belfast’ Boredom and Other Oscar Frustrations and Fascinations

From loving ‘Drive My Car’ to hating ‘Don’t Look Up,’ THR’s chief film critic and arts & culture critic vent their hopes, fears and bafflement about this year’s Academy Awards.

DAVID ROONEY: So, here we are again, Lovia, a couple of days out from the Oscars ceremony after an awards season that feels more interminable than ever.

It’s boiling down to the backlash against CODA vs. the backlash against The Power of the Dog, and looking increasingly likely the pendulum has swung toward the former. Unlike the folks savaging CODA as barely a notch or two up from a Disney Channel movie, I like it just fine, and of course appreciate its importance in terms of representation for the deaf community. But as for scope, ambition and artistry, the two movies are in different universes.

The same applies to the masterful Drive My Car, a movie so rich in emotional complexity that for me it resonates more powerfully in this time of isolation and loss than arguably any other work of art to surface during the pandemic years.

LOVIA GYARKYE: I agree that this season has felt longer than the last. Awards season always has this unhinged frenzy around it — the rush to predict winners and losers, the hyperbolic endorsements and cruel denunciations. It’s a lot to digest.

I hit a new level of annoyance after Amy Schumer, who is co-hosting the ceremony with Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes, talked about her idea of having Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky call in to the show. (The show’s producers shut the idea down.) The idea that Zelensky should phone in to an American awards show is ridiculous and self-centered. It’s like when celebrities thought it would be a good idea to make a compilation video singing “Imagine” in the early days of the pandemic — bizarre and uncalled-for.

The conversations around the films have the same tenor as the conversations around the significance, or not, of the awards: Everything feels on edge. I was moved by CODA — I cried at the end! — but I don’t think it should win best picture because there were, quite frankly, better movies. I love Drive My Car, a film that manages to unfurl deliberately while still being rapturous. There are scenes and sequences — the opening one with Yusuke and Oto lying in bed enveloped by darkness, the initial table reading of Uncle Vanya and one of the penultimate scenes with Yusuke and Watari — that I still think about for the way they both advance the story and create intimacy with these characters.

ROONEY: I would add Sonya’s closing monologue from Uncle Vanya, about the suffering that’s part of life and the tears we cry. The overwhelming depth of feeling, the sheer beauty of Park Yu-rim’s signing, particularly in that silent conclusion — I tear up just thinking about it.

Maybe this is the year we finally have to acknowledge that the Oscars are seldom primarily about excellence? Sure, the standout film of any given year occasionally squeaks through to a best picture win, like Moonlight or Parasite. More often, the Oscars seem to reward what’s most palatable to the widest swath of voters, many of whom still believe movies have to be uplifting, not too intellectually challenging, and not in a language other than English.

That last factor would explain why three of the most accomplished and affecting screen performances of the year — Hidetoshi Nishijima in Drive My Car and Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie in The Worst Person in the World — were overlooked.

To choose one category that typifies the Oscars as a kind of Miss Congeniality contest, it makes my head explode that CODA — all due respect to writer-director Siân Heder — is the frontrunner for best adapted screenplay. The work involved in retooling a French comedy-drama for an American setting just can’t compare with the probing intelligence and vitality of Rebecca Hall’s dissection of a 1929 novel in Passing (which isn’t even nominated); with Jane Campion’s incisive grasp of character and milieu in The Power of the Dog, drawing out blisteringly modern perspectives on masculinity and sexual repression from a book published in 1967; or with director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe’s deft interweaving of themes from a Haruki Murakami short story with surging currents from Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya to investigate the mysteries of art and human connection as emotional catharses.

GYARKYE: As you said, David, maybe this will be the year more people can admit that the Oscars aren’t about excellence, but I doubt it. The Academy has rarely been who I turn to for guidance on what to watch.

Returning to the competing backlash narratives you mentioned, I’ll refrain from commenting on Jane Campion’s remark about the Williams sisters, but I will say that The Power of the Dog — like Drive My Car — is another film I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Maybe it’s because I went in with little knowledge of the Thomas Savage novel Campion was working from, but I was enthralled the entire time. What I like most about Drive My Car and Power of the Dog are the ways the films treat their source material: They are adaptations that complicate, layer and try to extract a point of view from the original texts. They are visual acts of reading.

In terms of other films that apparently have a shot at the top prize, I was not impressed with Belfast, and I think I’ll be genuinely upset if it wins. Kenneth Branagh’s film got a fair amount of praise for its personal perspective on The Troubles. I respect that Branagh needed to tell this story, but I think it’s one he should keep revisiting; I experienced the film as a draft of a promising memoir, one in which the material is there but the execution needed to be further thought through.  (I’m not going to even talk about Don’t Look Up, which was one of my least favorite films of the year. I know a lot of people who loved it, but it’s appalling to me that it’s up for best picture and best screenplay.)

ROONEY: You’ll get no disagreement from me about the sledgehammer subtlety of Don’t Look Up, a film that pummels you over the head with its pseudo-cleverness so relentlessly that clearly some of the folks dishing out Oscar noms mistook it for substance. Or they were blinded by the galaxy of overqualified stars. Yeesh.

And I can’t disagree about Belfast, either. I’m all for a feel-good crowd-pleaser if it’s done well, but as a fellow veteran arts journalist said on Twitter, it makes The Troubles look like The Inconveniences. I was already feeling the saccharine overload in the opening scenes, with about a thousand kids skipping and playing sword fights or stickball on a picture-perfect little street in the title city, as if some Northern Oirish version of Norman Rockwell World had exploded. I kept wincing, waiting for a voiceover to say something like “It was a happy time; it was an innocent time.”

Branagh isn’t that cheesy a filmmaker, but he’s not much more sophisticated either. He views the past through such rose-tinted glasses of selective nostalgia that any actual conflict is overshadowed by what a hot-damn gorgeous couple Ma and Pa were. (Also, call me a nitpicker, but Judi Dench’s Granny would have to have been close to 50 when she gave birth to Jamie Dornan, and I don’t believe reproductive medicine was quite there in 1969.) This is a movie that’s obviously very personal but also cloyingly artificial, reducing a violent sectarian clash to a cute family photo album.

I have to confess I’m so exhausted by the months of Oscar punditry and the seeming inevitability of a bunch of undeserving winners that I’m tempted to tune out. Do I really need to see Jessica Chastain be crowned best actress for a performance with all the nuance of a RuPaul’s Drag Race turn? Chastain is a terrific actor, who probably should have won for Zero Dark Thirty. But she’ll have other opportunities. Handing her an Oscar for the stunningly mediocre Eyes of Tammy Faye would be like giving Glenn Close her long-overdue Oscar for playing Ma Kettle, sorry, Mamaw, in the execrable Hillbilly Elegy.

My seriously underwhelmed feelings about so many of this year’s forecast winners have reduced me to the petty sourness of just hoping Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t win for best song. I’m as much a Hamilton fan as anyone, but the enormously talented Miranda has spent years now skirting dangerously close to the edge of overexposure, and having to hear the acronym EGOT attached to his name for the next decade would likely push him over. Besides which, I think “No Time to Die” is a kickass Bond song that perfectly mirrors the brooding tone of the movie.

GYARKYE: Let me join you in griping for a moment to say that I’m still mad about Passing getting no Oscars attention! Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson were incredible, and while I didn’t always love the direction Hall’s adaptation took, I was impressed overall. I’ve always thought Nella Larsen’s novella would be difficult to translate to the screen, but I think Hall does a wonderful job peeling back the layers of what is a pretty interior work.

On a more positive note, while King Richard wasn’t one of my favorites this year, I’m glad Aunjanue Ellis got a nomination for supporting actress. She really carried that film for me; I found myself searching for her in most scenes, totally rapt by her dynamism. I feel the same way about Ariana DeBose in West Side Story, though I didn’t enjoy the film as much as you, David (I’m still not sure why there’s a remake).

Can we talk about the (less overhyped) documentary nominees? I particularly like Summer of Soul and Attica, different but equally powerful examples of the form, and reminders of how much American history we have to both uncover and understand.

Questlove’s film stitches together archival footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival to create an ecstatic tribute to Black music history. The recovered videos of the festival, which was overshadowed by Woodstock, alone would have made the film fascinating, but I think Joshua Pearson’s editing and Paul Hsu’s sound mixing turn it into an event.

Stanley Nelson’s doc is a carefully composed portrait of the five-day rebellion at Attica Correctional Facility in 1971. The film corrects the established narratives about that week, including the police version that nine of the hostages were killed by the incarcerated individuals. It also contextualizes the abhorrent conditions in the facility that led people to riot, clearly lays out what they demanded and tries to make sense of how it all went wrong. Nelson includes powerful testimonies from survivors of the rebellion, too. The result is a disturbing and honest film about how police always act with impunity and how national narratives are designed to conceal.

ROONEY: I also loved Summer of Soul, which is such a joyous act of reclamation but also an indictment of the cultural gatekeeping that archived this incredible event in the invisible margins of music history for so long.

But I adored Flee, too, and feel anxious that after breaking out with nominations in an unprecedented combination of three categories — documentary, animation and international film — it risks going home empty-handed. With a fresh refugee crisis now gestating in Europe as Ukrainians flee their country, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s film about the search for immigrant identity is more relevant than ever. It’s also a tender story of queer self-acceptance unlike any I’d seen before.

However, the big question, of course, is who will win the inaugural Twitter’s Choice Award, and how soon after the ceremony will that monumentally dumb idea be shelved and forgotten? I understand that the Academy is desperate to get the kids involved, but seriously, folks, show some dignity.

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