Monday, February 9, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Cinematography

Timothy Spall stars as JMW turner in the gorgeous Best Cinematography nominee Mr. Turner.

Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.

Best Cinematography

The nominees are:

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Mr. Turner

This is my favorite category. What distinguishes film as a storytelling medium from others such as radio or literature or even television in many cases is its ability to tell stories visually. We take it for granted. With Facebook and Instagram, we are all essentially telling our life stories through images, but if you stop for a second and really think about it, it should become clear what a revolutionary idea that is.

Nothing connects the world like moving images. We cannot all read the same books or listen to the same speeches, but we all understand that shadows are scary, chases are thrilling, and pratfalls are funny. All it takes is the right image, and a filmmaker can speak to the whole world. The cinematographers are the artists who craft those images, and the best of their work serves as a masterclass in why films are important.

This year’s nominees run the gamut from war stories to chamber dramas, color to black and white, and statue still to ever-moving. What they share, however, is impeccable craftsmanship and a dedication to visual storytelling. Only one nominee this year is a previous winner, and he is the most likely and deserving winner as well, so that is where we will begin our analysis.

Birdman – There is not another film this year that blends the innovation and integration of director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki’s work on this picture. A lot has been written about the work, and I have written about it a number of times, but to see it is to know you are witnessing greatness. The basic trick of the film is that it looks like one unbroken take. The camera darts and dives, swoops and spins, but never looks away. Save for couple moments at the beginning and end, the film’s few edits are hidden within the structure of the camerawork.

The style is the logical result of the direction Lubezki has been heading his entire career, particularly in his collaborations with director Alfonso Cuarón, who is good friends with Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Cuarón has always favored long takes, and Lubezki has proven his aptitude with such shooting conditions time and again. He won the Oscar for his work last year on Cuarón’s Gravity and should probably have another two for his lensing of Cuarón’s Children of Men and Terrence Malick’s gorgeous The Tree of Life. No matter. He will most likely win his second award in a row this year.

Except for a short segment in the omnibus film To Each His Own Cinema, this is Lubezki’s first collaboration with Iñárritu, but the two are already hard at work shooting another film together – The Revenant, starring Leonardo Dicaprio, which is due out at the end of this year. If the results of Birdman are any indication, we should all be very excited about the next collaboration from these two unique artists.

Mr. Turner – If it were not for the brilliant, boundary-pushing work of Lubezki, cinematographer Dick Pope’s painterly lensing of Mike Leigh’s JMW Turner biopic would be this year’s hands-down winner. It is just as deserving, and in many ways, it is the more classical nominee, a throwback to the old style of shooting a film. While Lubezki’s camera flies in and out of scenes like it is on a mission, Pope carefully crafts each moment, each frame for maximum impact.

The film is about a painter who is famous for his impressionist landscapes, and Pope steps up to the challenge of matching the story of England’s greatest artist with some of the most beautiful compositions you are ever likely to see. While several sequences are set up to recreate the look and feel of a Turner painting in real life, the work in between these bravura scenes is just as stark and just as rewarding.

If you are a voter, you could flip a coin to choose between these two pictures and come up with a deserving winner every time. The best part of both pieces is how the cinematography is integrated into the storytelling. These are not self-conscious gimmicks. Lubezki’s unbroken take is indicative of the maelstrom of activity constantly swirling around the characters in Birdman, while Pope’s picture-perfect frames are a window into the world as an artist might see it. When it comes to picking a winner, you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

Ida – One of the best things about the cinematographers’ branch is that its members are willing to look outside the box for nominees. From Poland, Ida is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film this year, in addition to this cinematography nod. It is highly deserving of the recognition in both cases. Shot in black and white by the team of Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, Ida tells the story of a Catholic nun who spends a few nights with a less-than-virtuous aunt before taking her final vows.

Similar to Pope’s work on Mr. Turner, Zal and Lenczewski let the framing do the work for them, and some of their choices are so brilliant as to boggle the mind. These are two characters trapped by circumstance and convention, and in nearly every scene, Zal and Lenczewski place objects in the frame to trap them further. From car trunks to lamp posts to electrical wires, these two women are constantly placed in boxes inside boxes, a stunning evocation of the characters’ mindsets and their place within the context of society as a whole.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Robert Yeoman is probably the least assuming of the nominees this year, having shot mostly either independent or studio comedies throughout his career. He has been the director of photography on every one of director Wes Anderson’s live-action films, which makes a certain amount of sense. Anderson has such a unique and specific visual style that his films could almost only be shot by one person, someone who understands exactly what the director is going for.

As in each of their previous collaborations, Yeoman does a great job of balancing Anderson’s usual hyperactivity with an unfailing precision of movement and framing. Yeoman and Anderson favor symmetrical setups and proscenium staging, allowing for the maximum amount of action to take place within the dollhouse like structure of a film in which characters move in packs from room to room and set to set.

My only real problem with this nomination is how much the work feels of a piece with what Yeoman and Anderson have done before. They are not stretching their visual style so much as fine tuning it, but perhaps that is okay when the style itself is so striking. As I have mentioned, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the first of Anderson’s films to catch on with the Academy in a big way, and that success has swept up a lot of Anderson’s below-the-line collaborators, Yeoman among them.

Unbroken – Roger Deakins is a god among cinematographers and rightly so. His work with the Coen brothers alone is enough to place him in the pantheon of the greatest of all time (Fargo, No Country for Old Men, True Grit, The Man Who Wasn’t There, etc.), not to mention his incomparable work on films such as The Shawshank Redemption, Skyfall, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. A living legend, this is his 12th nomination in this category. He has never won, and this will not be the year that streak ends.

As good as Deakins is, Unbroken stands as the least impressive among these nominees, primarily because it falls into the trap of so many recent war films – desaturated colors, poorly integrated effects, and an overreliance on grand vistas that mean little in context. Deakins never gives less than 100 percent, and he has been highly deserving of all his previous nominations, but this seems like one case in which name recognition alone was enough to get him onto the shortlist.

The final analysis

As I said, you cannot go wrong with either Birdman or Mr. Turner, but now that Lubezki already has the gold seal of approval from the Academy, there seems to be little in the way of a repeat win in this category.

Will win: Birdman
Should win: Birdman
Wish it had been here: Goodbye to Language

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