CODA (c) Apple TV+
My Initial Reactions to the Best Picture Win of "CODA" at the 94th Academy Awards
Congratulations to “CODA” for its historic and record-breaking Oscar win for Best Picture. It tied as the nominee with the least number of nominations and eventually won all three. The odd thing is that if the Oscars still had its five nominees for Best Picture, I am almost sure CODA would not have made the cut in February. So, good job, “CODA.”
Here are my gut reactions to its win from Sunday night. To talk about it, I do have to talk about things that happen toward the end of the movie. So, if you haven’t seen “CODA” yet, stop now. Also, I will not be mentioning, except right here, the abhorrent, inexcusable display of toxic masculinity that occurred an hour before and dampen the joy for the producers and cast of “CODA” when they won Best Picture.
A lot of people will be comparing this win as the Academy aversion to any movie messing around with the American Western. Like “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Power of the Dog” dealt with toxic masculinity in a milieu of the American West, and like “Brokeback Mountain,” older male celebrities made it known they disliked the movie and wouldn’t even watch it. Give Sam Elliott credit: He at least watched “The Power of the Dog.” So, is “CODA” the “Crash” of this award year? I don’t think so. The “Crash” of this year would have been “Don’t Look Up,” which, like “Crash” had a very important social message, but also like “Crash” was so heavy-handed about it that it was almost laughable.
Ordinary People (c) Paramount Pictures
No, “CODA”’s win is most comparable to the 1980’s Oscars in which “Ordinary People” wins over “Raging Bull.” Oscar snobs at the time couldn’t believe a little movie directed by an actor could win over the visionary masterpiece directed by Martin Scorsese. Now, I’m not saying “The Power of the Dog” is on the same level as “Raging Bull,” but “CODA” is on the same level as “Ordinary People.” It is the rare Oscar movie about, well, ordinary people like you and me. In “Ordinary People,” it was about how a family deals with a horrible tragedy (a tragedy that is not out of the realm of possibility for any of us). “CODA” can be seen as a movie about a family being discriminated against, in this case because of their deafness, but it could have been because of racism or social inequities. We can see ourselves in this family as well.
My problem with “CODA” is that there are so many moments in the movie that are as pat and cringeworthy as the better moments are transcendent and emotionally fulfilling. I do think having the whole town be unsympathetic to the deaf family is a bit unrealistic. Yes, I know it’s a small town, but to not have any allies at all seems like dramatic artifice. And why has it taken the water police so long to realize that there was a boat run by deaf people that might be in danger in case of an emergency? How long has the family had this operation?
And the one moment in the film that really felt forced and manipulative is the audition scene. That the Berklee College of Music would allow Ruby to sing “Both Sides Now” as her major audition number is ludicrous to me. The scene felt like an almost shot for shot recreation of the audition scene from “Flashdance,” including the false start. And then add to that the truly magical moment when Ruby signs the song because she sees her family has snuck in to watch (also crazy that would happen). The problem is that moment should have happened earlier in the movie during the talent show. When it didn’t happen there, I knew the movie was going to play that Ace in the audition. Why not have it happen in the talent show, and have Ruby be so inspired by the memory of that during her audition that she signs the song even though no one deaf is in the room? And “Both Sides Now?” We talk about on-the-nose needle drops in films, how about on-the-nose audition songs.
Am I nitpicking? No. These were the reasons why “CODA” wasn’t even in my top twenty movies of 2021. It’s a perfectly fine and emotionally satisfying movie, and as a consensus choice, the academy could have done a lot worse. But I believe by having “CODA” win Best Picture, it will have to defend itself from future Oscar pundits who can’t believe a little Lifetime…I mean, Apple TV+, movie won an Oscar. “Green Book” is already having to deal with its Best Picture win. “CODA” is a better movie than “Green Book,” but can it survive the scrutiny and judgements of the future, when all we can say is (as a defense) is that the Academy members finally caught up with the movie (if they really liked it from the start, it would have gotten more than just three nominations) and it peaked at the right time? Peaking at the right time is just not an adequate reason to award a movie “Best Picture.”
And if the Academy wanted to reward a really outstanding film about the deaf community, last year’s nominee, “Sound of Metal” (my favorite movie of 2020), was much better and more artistically interesting.
CODA (c) Apple TV+
CODA is a fine B, maybe even B+, film. It’s just not as cinematic or ambitious in scope as other nominees this year. As a sign of our COVID times, it’s perfect that a movie so suited for TV wins Best Picture. I hope history is kind to this little movie that could. Congrats again to the producers and especially the cast of “CODA.” I hope this Oscar win does inspire other producers and film companies to create more movies about unrepresented communities.
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