Thursday, February 4, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Cinematography

Director of photography Roger Deakins earned his 13th nomination for Best Cinematography for Sicario.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Cinematography

The nominees are:


As I said last year, this is my favorite category, and everything I said then holds true now. I would also add cinematography might be the most democratic craft where general audiences are concerned. The average movie-goer does not necessarily know what makes for a good sound mix or whether something is well edited, but anybody can look at an image onscreen and understand its beauty. Photography is visceral. We respond to it because we feel it instinctively.

That said, it is among the most technically challenging aspects of filmmaking. Composition, depth of field, color, the interplay between light and shadow – these are intellectual, artistic pursuits. Only the masters can make it seem as easy as pointing a camera and rolling film. The audience feels the image because of the care and effort that went into creating it. Few use greater care or put forth more effort than these five nominees.

The Revenant – The images Emmanuel Lubezki captures boggle the mind. The ways his camera moves through space, frames action, and observes stillness are on a level we have never seen. I would call him the best cinematographer alive today if not for the fact I think he has a legitimate claim as the best of all time. A quick greatest hits from the man they call Chivo: Sleepy Hollow, The New World, Children of Men, The Tree of Life, Gravity, Birdman, and now The Revenant. Every frame from every one of those films could hang in a museum.

Perhaps it sounds like I am overstating his brilliance, but I promise the modern history of cinema will not be written without mentioning Lubezki. His work has always been otherworldly, but his two collaborations with director Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman and The Revenant, have changed the way we think about the art form. The Revenant is composed of a series of gorgeous gray and white tableaux that evoke the primal forces of nature in their grandeur and objectivity. Lubezki has no rival, and The Revenant has no equal this year in cinematography.

Lubezki has been nominated nine times and won twice – of course, he should have won at least twice more. His two wins have come in the last two years for Gravity and Birdman, making him only the fourth person in history to win consecutive cinematography Oscars. No one has done it three times, but this work and this artist might just break that streak. The only person standing in the way is the next nominee on our list.

Mad Max: Fury Road – John Seale retired a few years ago with a résumé that included four Oscar nominations and one win for The English Patient, as well as countless other popular and critical hits. His legacy was secure, and he could have left it at that. Instead, he let George Miller talk him back to work for the gonzo action epic Mad Max: Fury Road. Thank god he did because the 73-year-old director of photography brings to the film the energy and nihilism of someone 50 years younger but the skill of a craftsman who has been in this game forever.

When you watch Mad Max: Fury Road, the first thing you notice is the color. The hyper-saturated vistas of Miller’s post-apocalyptic wasteland are absolutely striking. Never has a desert been so orange, and at night, you never saw the earth so blue. It is audacious and bold and innovative in ways lesser filmmakers would shy away from, but Miller provides the canvas, and Seale paints the picture. Whether Seale will win the Oscar this year is an open question, but our victory as an audience is simply that he came back for one last ride – and on a war rig, no less.

Carol – Ed Lachman may not be the star the rest of the nominees in this category are this year, but his chameleon-like adaptability behind the camera has made him the perfect fit for genre-hopping director Todd Haynes. Every time they come back together, Lachman seems inspired to push his work in new, exciting directions. Beginning with the Sirkian melodrama Far From Heaven and onto the Bob Dylan biopic as experimental art film I’m Not There and cable miniseries Mildred Pierce, Lachman always seems to find new notes to play for Haynes.

So it is with their latest collaboration, Carol, a 1950s-set romance that is thematically similar to their previous work but as stylistically different as can be. Since the story is set primarily in New York City, Lachman has license to go darker and dirtier than one typically would expect for the era being depicted. This world feels lived in, and Lachman constantly obscures the frame with rain or curtains or windows or all three to suggest the hidden lives of the characters, the lives nobody sees or wants to see.

Sicario – Twelve previous nominations for Roger Deakins and no wins. This is his 13th nod, and he will not win this one either, putting him in a tie with the late George Folsey for Oscar futility in this category. To nominate him that many times, his fellow cinematographers must respect him beyond belief, and that respect is due, but the Academy as a whole simply has never been willing to go there. For actors and directors who get repeated nominations without winning, there is often a groundswell of support as members rally behind the artist and finally award him or her. That does not seem to be true for craftspeople such as Deakins.

The work itself this year, well, of course it is awesome. This is the fourth consecutive year Deakins has received a nomination, and Sicario is the best work he has done of the bunch. The night-vision sequence alone is enough to leave even accomplished filmmakers scratching their heads and wondering how it was done. Deakins uses shadows and silhouette the way musicians use silence, finding meaning in the emptiness. It is truly fine work and Deakins’ best probably since the one-two punch of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men in 2007, but it still is only the third- or fourth-best nominated work this year.

The Hateful Eight – Like Lubezki and Deakins, Robert Richardson is a giant of cinematography. His work with Oliver Stone (10 films, three nominations, one Oscar) and Martin Scorsese (four films, two nominations, two Oscars) would be enough to secure his place in the canon. Yet, his collaborations with Quentin Tarantino are likely the films for which he will be most remembered – five films, three nominations, no Oscar yet.

Richardson has proved to be the ideal director of photography to capture Tarantino’s twin loves of American westerns and martial arts films. If you ask me, Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2 constitute a crowning achievement in paying homage to a genre while establishing a unique voice outside the genre’s confines. Go figure, those are the only two films together for which Richardson was not nominated.

The Hateful Eight is a grand experiment in bringing a long-dormant film process back to life, glorious Ultra Panavision 70, as it was billed. It lives up to that billing in the movie’s opening sequences, set amid a blizzard in the mountains of Wyoming. However, when the film moves indoors for the last two hours and 20 minutes or so of its three-hour runtime, the wider frame loses some of its punch. The nomination is a nice bit of recognition from fellow cinematographers, but I doubt if the work will do much for the rest of the Academy when put up against this list of nominees.

The final analysis

Mad Max: Fury Road or The Revenant, flip a coin. The Academy likes its winners to be pretty, innovative, or both. That sounds more like The Revenant, but I have this nagging feeling that voters will be reluctant to award Lubezki for a third straight year. The work certainly deserves it, but with a viable alternative and a great story in Seale, it is just as possible members go that direction.

Carol and Lachman would be the likely beneficiary of a split vote between the top two films, and Lachman received the lion’s share of critical plaudits this season, though most of those awards came before The Revenant had screened. In the end, I am predicting Lubezki will pick up his third in a row because it is the film more Academy members are likely to have watched, and to watch it is to be in awe of it.

Will win: The Revenant
Should win: The Revenant
Should be here: The Tribe

Tomorrow: Best Editing

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