While last year's award felt like a procession for Chloe Zhao and Nomadland, the latest Oscar for Best Picture could go to either one of two very worthy films. That means the conclusion of this year's ceremony is likely to be a nail-biter, though it seems unlikely to replicate the sheer awkwardness of last year's horrendous running order misstep, which saw the show culminate in a damp squib of a finale.
What are the contenders?
For a long time, Jane Campion's stunning western The Power of the Dog was in pole position, carried along by an array of acting nominations, Campion's status as likely Best Director winner and Netflix's bottomless pit of campaign dollars.
The movie is a fascinating character study, focusing on the fragile masculinity of Benedict Cumberbatch's loathsome rancher and his toxic impact on those around him, including his brother (Jesse Plemons) and the wife and child of Plemons' character, played by Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee respectively. All four actors are nominated for awards in their own right, with Cumberbatch set to run clear frontrunner Will Smith very close in the Best Actor race.
In recent weeks, however, there has been an underdog contender making a run around the outside for Best Picture – the sweet Sundance drama CODA.
Watch: Trailer for Apple TV+ drama CODA
While The Power of the Dog has Netflix in its corner, CODA has been available to audiences for months as part of Apple TV+'s movie offering. The streamer acquired the film for a Sundance record fee in the region of $25m (£19m) and released it in August, outside of the traditional awards season window.
The titular acronym stands for Child of Deaf Adults and the story focuses on Emilia Jones (daughter of Walking In The Air singer Aled Jones) as she tries to pursue her own aptitude for singing while serving as a crucial translator, helping her deaf family members navigate the world. It's a heart-warming movie with obvious crowd-pleasing appeal. It's certainly a far better and more positive example of that sort of film than 2019 winner Green Book, which also seemed to earn fans in the voting body with its feel-good conclusion even as it drew criticism for its racial politics.
What does Oscar history tell us?
On the basis of Oscar history, it seems likely that The Power of the Dog will triumph. With 12 nominations, it has the most support across the board at this year's ceremony and seems likely to pick up awards in several technical categories, as well as Campion being a near-cert for Best Director.
Historically, that sort of wide-ranging support is a big boon in your favour when it comes to Best Picture. Think of the enormous nomination counts secured by the likes of The King's Speech, Titanic and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. However, there's evidence that something has changed in that respect in recent years. In the last 10 Oscar ceremonies, there have been only two in which the Best Picture winner also secured the most nominations – with The Shape of Water and Birdman benefiting in those years.
Read more: The Power of the Dog wins big at the Baftas
But when it comes to weight of history, CODA has a big mountain to climb. It only has three nominations in total. Troy Kotsur is the likely Best Supporting Actor winner and the movie will again clash with The Power of the Dog in Best Adapted Screenplay. The latter race could provide an early indicator on the evening as to which film the Academy prefers.
It's very rare for a movie with so few nominations to win Best Picture. In fact, the only film to ever win Best Picture with fewer than four noms is Grand Hotel from way back at the 5th Academy Awards in 1932, where the big prize was in fact its only nomination. So for CODA to win, it just has to overturn 90 years of Oscars history. No biggie.
What about the other awards ceremonies?
When it comes to looking at precursor awards in the battle between CODA and The Power of the Dog, it's a much closer race. In fact, there's barely a cigarette paper between them. Let's take a look at the seven main pre-Oscar awards shows. We've included the Golden Globes, though the relevance of that ceremony is even more dubious than it has been in the past.
As you can see, it's tight. Power of the Dog triumphed at the Globes, the Critics Choice Awards and at the Baftas, which didn't even nominate CODA. Campion also won the top prize at the DGA Awards, while CODA director Sian Heder didn't make the shortlist for that prize. Heder is also not nominated for Best Director at the Oscars, of course.
Meanwhile, CODA emerged victorious at the PGA Awards, the SAGs and the WGAs, with the caveat that the script for The Power of the Dog was not deemed eligible for the Best Adapted Screenplay prize at the latter ceremony.
Read more: Snubs and surprises from the Oscars 2022
When you look at the history, it's often the missing nominations that matter more. For instance, CODA's lack of a DGA nomination would make it the first movie to win Best Picture without recognition from that body since Driving Miss Daisy at the 1990 ceremony. Even Argo and Green Book – the most recent Best Picture winners to miss out on a Best Director nomination at the Oscars – were shortlisted by the DGA.
The Power of the Dog's snub for the SAG ensemble prize – a shock given its array of individual acting noms – would once have been considered similarly damning. But the tide has turned of late, with three of the last four Best Picture winners ignored in the main SAG category. SAG, however, did provide one of the only clear indicators that 2020 winner Parasite was on course for the Best Picture crown.
The big shift in CODA's favour, though, comes with its genuinely surprising win at the PGA Awards. That ceremony has been a fairly reliable Oscar predictor since it first took place in 1990. At its 32 ceremonies since then – before this year, of course – it matched the Best Picture Oscar on 22 occasions.
So who's gonna win?
It's super close. As well as all of the historical and mathematical things mentioned in this article, momentum has to play a part. Power of the Dog's awards came in the early part of the season, while CODA has gained significant momentum with wins in recent ceremonies leading up to the final round of Oscars voting this week. The success of CODA will have been fresh in the minds of Academy voters when they submitted their votes, which could have made a difference in its favour.
It's also worth considering the fact that Best Picture is the only Oscar awarded by a preferential ballot, in which voters rank the nominees in their desired order, with the least popular number one film eliminated after the first round and their fans' second choices added to the pile. Films are then eliminated one by one until a movie gains more than 50% of first-place votes. It is then the winner.
This theoretically counts in favour of a film like CODA, which most people broadly like and could clock up lots of second and third place choices, as opposed to something ponderous and divisive like The Power of the Dog. It's certainly not going to be high on Sam Elliott's list, for example.
With all of this in mind, CODA looks likely to overcome the apparent odds and emerge victorious when the lights go down at the end of the Oscars telecast. Maybe, despite years of aggressive campaigning, Netflix will never win Best Picture.
Certainly it'll be bizarre if Apple gets there first.
Watch: Trailer for The Power of the Dog