Is it the year of ‘Power of the Dog?’ Or is an Oscar upset coming?

Oscar predictions

*Editor’s Note: The “Views from NAU” blog series highlights the thoughts of different people affiliated with NAU, including faculty members sharing opinions or research in their areas of expertise. The views expressed reflect the authors’ own personal perspectives.

Paul Helford in theaterBy Paul Helford

Principal lecturer in Creative Media and Film

Helford teaches screenwriting, video production and audiovisual storytelling and has spent years working on screenplays and with industry professionals. I love teaching, writing and movies. He is the faculty advisor for UTV62, student-run television station and production studio, and since 2003 has been co-director of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences/College of Arts and Letters Film Series at NAU.

The Oscars tell us something about the state of the movies, and movies, both directly and indirectly, tell us something about ourselves.

The biggest Oscar controversy this year has been the decision to not present eight of the 23 Oscar categories live on the March 27 broadcast in an attempt to shorten the program and boost the television ratings.

This seems a far cry from the 2015-2016 #OscarsSoWhite controversy, which brought attention to the lack of Oscar and industry diversity. Since then, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has added more women and minorities to its ranks, which has long been dominated by older white men, and while there is still a long way to go, some progress has been made, which can be seen not only in the major Oscar acting categories, but behind the scenes as well.

The Best Documentary Oscar this year will go to “Summer of Soul,” shot way back in 1969, just weeks before and about 100 miles south of the iconic Woodstock concert, during the six-week Harlem Cultural Festival, featuring some of the greatest jazz, R&B and soul talent of the day. While Woodstock became a cultural touchstone, in no small part due to the success of the Oscar-winning documentary, no TV network or movie studio showed any interest in producing a film about the Harlem festival at the time. Credit Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, musician, songwriter, disc jockey and now film director with sifting through 40 hours of footage to put together this exuberant and joyful celebration of African American music and culture. If you haven’t seen it or, like me, want to see it again, the SBS/CAL Film Series presents a free showing of “Summer of Soul” at 7 p.m. April 26 on the Cline Library Assembly Hall big screen.

“Drive My Car” will win Best International Feature. Also nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, it is a 3-hour movie with a lot of talk, based on a short story about a theater director who, after suffering a devastating loss, directs a multilingual version of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” I know … it sounds like an artsy bore, but it is a remarkable and captivating film, a road picture of sorts, in which the director and his young chauffeur show us something about how we communicate and live our lives in the face of inevitable suffering and relentless guilt.

If there is an upset in either Documentary or International, it will be the Danish animated documentary “Flee,’ also nominated as Best Animated Feature.

In the Original Song category, Lin Manuel Miranda could complete his EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) cycle for “Dos Orugitas” from “Encanto,” but the competition is intense, with songs by Beyoncé, Van Morrison and 13-time Best Song nominee but never winner Diane Warren. I think the Best Song winner will be Billie Eilish for “No Time to Die,” becoming the third James Bond Oscar-winning song.

Ariana DeBose, Afro-Latina and openly queer, will win Best Supporting Actress for her role as Anita in “West Side Story.” Rita Moreno, DeBose’s co-star in this year’s film, won for the same role in 1961’s “West Side Story.” No upset in this category.

The Best Supporting Actor will be Troy Kotsur, nominated for his life-affirming and downright funny portrayal as the father in “CODA” (Children of Deaf Adults). Kotsur is the first deaf man ever nominated for an Oscar and first deaf actor since his “CODA” co-star Marlee Matlin won the Best Actress Oscar for 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God.” If there’s an upset, it will be Kodi Smit-McPhee for “Power of the Dog”

The Original Screenplay Oscar is a tough one to call. Paul Thomas Anderson, with three nominations this year for “Licorice Pizza,” now has eleven nominations with no wins yet, which could make him the favorite. But then there’s Kenneth Branagh, the first to be nominated in seven different categories without a win, including this year Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay for his personal and heartwarming “Belfast.” Yet “Don’t Look Up,” despite having by far the lowest Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic ratings of all this year’s major nominees, pushes a lot of Hollywood’s favorite buttons with its “Dr. Strangelove”-like comic doomsday parable, making it not only an unlikely Best Picture contender, but perhaps more likely Original Screenplay winner. I’d love to see Branagh’s “Belfast,” one of my favorites this year, win one, but I’m playing it safe and predicting Sunday’s Writers Guild Award winner “Don’t Look Up” will give Adam McKay his second Oscar.

The Best Actress Oscar is a race between two. Olivia Colman, one of our greatest living actresses, won the Best Actress Oscar in 2019 for “The Favorite.” She is nominated for “The Lost Daughter.” Jessica Chastain has two previous nominations without a win and is nominated for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” Oscar is partial to actors who through their art, makeup and hair styling lose themselves in their roles. That fits Chastain. Besides she already bested Coleman in the Screen Actors Guild, so the prediction is Jessica Chastain’s Oscar year.

The Best Actor Oscar is one of the easiest predictions. This is Will Smith’s third Best Actor nomination. Back in 2002, Smith’s “Ali” lost to Denzel Washington’s “Training Day.” This year, they face off again—Smith for “King Richard” and Washington for “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” my favorite performance of the year. Smith has won all the pre-Oscar awards. This is his year. No upset for Best Actor.

Which finally leads to Jane Campion, the first woman to have earned two Best Director nominations. This year, Campion is nominated for Adapted Screenplay, Director and Best Picture for “Power of the Dog,” which had been the frontrunner since before the nominations were announced. The film has gotten some pushback since then for its homoeroticism, for some comments Campion made and apologized for during the Critics’ Choice Awards and for making her New Zealand birthplace stand in for 1925 Montana.

Credit must be given to Campion for adapting Thomas Savage’s 1968 novel, which Hollywood had been trying to adapt for over 50 years. However, I’m going with Writer’s Guild Award winner Siân Heder for “CODA.”  

Campion will become the third woman to win the Best Director Oscar, making it two years in a row, following Chloe Zhao’s win for “Nomadland” last year, and her cinematographer, Ari Wegner, will become the first woman to win for Best Cinematography.

Which finally leads us to Best Picture, which had looked like “Power of the Dog” for months.  But then “CODA” won SAG’s Outstanding Cast Performance and last weekend won the Producers Guild Award, perhaps giving it the inside track for Best Picture. This one is too close to call, and even as I write this, I’m looking at the menu and making a last-minute prediction before my order is taken and believe “Power of the Dog” should win, but hesitantly predict “CODA” will be 2022’s Best Picture.

NAU Communications