Worst Best Picture: Is CODA Better or Worse Than Crash?

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2022 winner CODA. Is it better than Crash?

I assumed this would be about The Power of the Dog, so much so that it’s been what I’ve been thinking about for the last few weeks as I watched the final nominated films I hadn’t seen yet. Every year I try to watch everything nominated for the big awards just for the heck of it, but also to be sure that no matter how big a surprise the winner is I can be ready to compare it to Crash. As we do each year, once.

I’ve been updating this list yearly since 2014, when I watched all 86 existing Best Picture winners in the same year. CODA is not the biggest surprise, but I do want to note for posterity that The Power of the Dog really seemed like the choice. Before we talk about all that, let’s talk about the Oscars themselves.

Will Smith and Chris Rock will, rightfully, I guess, dominate the discussion of the ceremony, but it’s worth noting how weird and slow this year’s event was before the one moment everyone will remember. Only three movies won more than one award all night, and even those were under unique circumstances. Dune won six technical awards, The Eyes of Tammy Faye won for makeup in addition to Jessica Chastain, and CODA took home a screenplay award in addition to the supporting award for Troy Kotsur and the big prize. There wasn’t much of a theme to the evening, beyond the Academy’s desperate, awkward attempts to get people to like them with audience polls that allowed them to show clips from movies they have absolutely no interest in discussing otherwise. This does not bode well, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Of the ten movies nominated for Best Picture this year, only three made money in theaters: Belfast (on a relatively small budget and thanks to the subject matter), Drive My Car (thanks to the smallest budget of anything nominated), and Dune. There’s really no comparing everything else to Dune, which cost as much as the cheapest five of them but made twice as much as everything else combined. There’s also no real use for metrics like this in 2022, but I mention it because it’s one of the few comparison points we have left. Critical scores are equally challenging, for similar reasons. Audiences universally loved King Richard and West Side Story, but they were mostly seen on streaming services. Almost everything lost money this year, but that’s just the way of all things, now.

I mention all this because it brings us to the state of the Oscars in 2022. The criticism has always been that “Oscar movies” aren’t what people really go see and they aren’t really representative of film in general. The discussions of superhero movies and streaming replacing theaters got extra complicated in a world where people didn’t go outside for months, and now the Oscars are left with the same old criticisms, but even more complicated reasoning behind them. I don’t know what this whole thing looks like in ten years, but it certainly does not not look promising.

I think the best movie of the year was The Worst Person in the World, which was nominated for two awards and lost both. It’s depressing and difficult, but it stuck with me and it will be what I remember from this year. I liked The Power of the Dog and expected it to win and I thought Drive My Car and even Nightmare Alley were great. I thought all ten performances in the lead acting categories were great, even if I didn’t like the movies universally. But as I look over the list of eighteen movies that got nominations in the categories for screenplay, acting, directing, and the main one, I feel like the story of this year is a much lower ceiling, though a much higher floor, than most years.

The problems with Don’t Look Up are well documented elsewhere and outside of the lead performances, I didn’t really like The Lost DaughterSpencerKing Richard, or, and maybe especially, Being the Ricardos. But even those films have charms or magic to them, in their way, and they deserve your time. There’s nothing truly, solely bad nominated this year, which sounds like a low bar, but is one the Academy does not always clear. But on the other hand, I think only a few films at the top of the list are really essential. West Side Story is fine. Most of these are fine.

That’s the year that CODA should win Best Picture. There’s nothing on the list that demands your vote, so you, as a voter, end up thinking about how everything made you feel. CODA is sweet, which helps, and it’s a story you probably haven’t heard before. It’s the story of a Child Of Deaf Adults, or CODA, named Ruby, whose parents and brother work full-time fishing and selling what they catch. Ruby loves her family but she wants to be more than their interpreter. She wants them to be independent, but also to live as a unit. She wants to fit in, but also to find something unique that’s hers. It’s a relatable story hidden within something totally new.

Troy Kotsur won an Oscar for playing Ruby’s father and Marlee Matlin, certainly the most famous deaf actor I can name, is great as Ruby’s mother. The couple drives more of the film than Ruby does, honestly, as we see them as full human portrayals of a married couple and a working couple, rather than just as characters to show us how the deaf community engages with the world. Ruby’s brother is also deaf, but the scenes where he goes to a bar and tries to fit in but also be himself feel more like what you expect to happen in a movie like this. CODA is most effective when it’s surprising, including a loud off-screen sex scene that embarrasses Ruby and becomes an even more ridiculous discussion in front of her friend from school.

Ruby wants to learn to sing. There’s really no way to say this without being a little mean, but this is really all done poorly. Her mother asks her if she only wants to sing because her family is deaf. Her choir director tells Ruby she needs to be dedicated and decide between her family and her art. She is too shy to sing but wants to do it, just to show the world her voice. Almost all of this is said, explicitly, and sometimes more than once. Several reviews of CODA make reference to the fact that there are two separate culminating concert moments. You constantly feel as a viewer that you’ve seen this story before, which gets away from what makes CODA an interesting choice and a unique story.

Audiences and critics largely loved CODA, but it’s hard to get away from the parts that feel like a TV movie. The sum of the parts is worth it and it’s not a bad choice, given how much there is to love about the performances and the view it grants to a world unfamiliar to a lot of us, but I feel like this one will not age well. There are so many moments that are in so many movies you’ve seen, down to the moment the teens realize they are ready for adult life as they jump off a rock into water, that it feels weird to give this the award they gave The Godfather. I think some risks would have made this a way better movie, but not one as many people would have liked. Overall I think it’s a net positive to hear this story and to elevate it, even though I think I’d like to see the same thing with a little bit fewer stock story beats. They probably did the right thing here, which reflects more about the direction the Academy is headed than any number of viewer polls ever could.

The Best Part: The performances here are excellent. Matlin and Kotsur will get all the attention and probably should, but no one is bad in this. The choir teacher has a really thankless part here, just exactly what this role would be in a Hallmark movie, but Eugenio Derbez does a great job with it.

The Worst Part: I really, really do not like how much this feels like a quickly turned-out holiday classic movie, like a Netflix original or a Hallmark film. That’s overstated and it’s not that bad, but something about the cheery, plucky vibe of the whole thing just really lives in that space for me.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The family feels real. The performances feel genuine. This should feel even better to me than it does, but I have trouble getting there. I think this is a middle-of-the-pack film in the available choices this year and I think it’s probably in the bottom half of the full list of winners. That said, it’s miles better than Crash, as was everything nominated this year. Part of me was rooting for Don’t Look Up (only for this post), because at least that comparison is interesting, but I’m glad that CODA won. I think most people liked it more than me and it’s generally a fun watch. And above all else, there’s something really cool about seeing a story that’s genuinely, real-deal new, even if the beats of the hero’s journey there could use a little bit of polishing.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the NightAn American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of Africa | Schindler’s List | Gandhi | Ben-Hur | The Godfather Part II | Annie Hall | Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) | Spotlight | Moonlight | The Shape of Water | Green Book | Parasite | Nomadland | CODA

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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