Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Cinematography

Andrew Garfield and Yosuke Kubozua in Silence, nominated for Best Cinematography.

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 leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Cinematography

The nominees are:

La La Land

Only one thing is for certain this year. Emmanuel Lubezki will not win his fourth consecutive Oscar. That is only because he was not invited to the party this year. Likely, the only reason he was not invited to the party is because he did not have a film released this year. Otherwise, the world’s greatest living cinematographer probably would be competing for his fourth Academy Award. There is always next year.

In addition, for the first time since 2012, legend Roger Deakins did not earn a nomination. Robert Richardson, who has been nominated in three of the previous five years, is not on this list. Neither does Bruno Delbonnel nor Janusz Kamiński appear. In fact, only Silence lenser Rodrigo Prieto has been to the Oscars as a nominee before, in 2005 with Brokeback Mountain.

That means the field is composed of Prieto and four first-time nominees, an unusual circumstance for this branch, which has its favorite cinematographers and tends to nominate them time and again. However, what these nominees lack in familiarity, they more than make up for in clear talent and wonderful execution. Every one of these films is a deserving nominee, and any would make a lasting, impressive winner.

Silence – Just because Lubezki will not be winning another Oscar this year does not mean a longtime collaborator of director Alejandro González Iñárritu will not. Prieto, in fact, shot every one of Iñárritu’s features until he was supplanted by Lubezki. It is perhaps unfair, though, to speak of Prieto only in the context of his collaborators and colleagues because he is a wonderful director of photography whose work speaks for itself in films such as Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman, and his previous collaboration with Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street.

This time around, Scorsese and Prieto pull out all the stops. From the foggy beachside vistas to the shadowy, claustrophobic prisons, there is not a frame of this film that is not picture-perfect. The film, however, is not only naturalistic but impressionistic as well. It is an odyssey of faith and inner turmoil, and Prieto is unafraid to take his camera inside the characters’ minds and give the audience the subjective experience of the story. The pains and tortures suffered by many of the characters are unimaginable, and Prieto does not shy from putting us directly in their shoes.

On sheer beauty alone, Prieto would win the award walking away for his tremendous work, but Silence did not catch on with voters. Prieto is the film’s sole nominee, alone carrying the banner for another Scorsese masterwork. Perhaps the subject matter was too difficult or the length off-putting, but for whatever reason, the Academy did not embrace one of Scorsese’s best, most human films. Prieto’s work, on the other hand, was too great to ignore, and good on the cinematographers branch for recognizing as much.

La La Land – Lovely like a postcard you want to send to all your friends and family, La La Land’s 14 nominations mean I will be talking about it a lot in this space. I will try to avoid repeating myself where possible, but I apologize here at the beginning if I make the same or similar points more than once through this series. Swedish lenser Linus Sandgren is relatively green, and this is just his ninth feature film credit, though he has filmed David O. Russell’s last two pictures – American Hustle and Joy. The effect he captures here is, in a word one hears a lot associated with this film, magical.

For a film about dreamers and their dreams, Sandgren goes to great lengths to infuse every shot with a dreamlike, stars-out-at-dusk feeling. Characters seem to float through this movie, and Sandgren evokes that weightlessness through his fluid camerawork and surreally saturated color palate. This does not reflect the real Los Angeles, or indeed the real Hollywood, as anyone who has visited will attest, and Sandgren rightly does not impose the grittiness it might be natural to capture form the city. La La Land gives us a fantastical wonderland, and Sandgren proves a more-than-capable documenter of a world we may only be able to visit in dreams.

Moonlight – The opening shot of Moonlight is virtuosic as cinematographer James Laxton loops us through a dizzying, disorienting series of 360-degree swings all in a single unbroken take, introducing to the poor Miami neighborhood that will be its own character in the film. It is a bit like the twister in The Wizard of Oz, funneling us violently but not haphazardly into an unfamiliar world. It is not the only unbroken take we will see in the film, but what could be and often is a gimmick in lesser hands becomes a statement of purpose in writer-director Barry Jenkins’ emotionally engaging and morally probing film.

The frames practically drip with authenticity, vibrantly bringing to life the Miami main character Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) experiences. From its bursts of color to the off-kilter lighting schemes, Moonlight looks like no other coming-of-age drama out there. Laxton’s use of shadows only emphasizes the differences and inequities that get brought into the light. So many of these characters are either hiding or hidden from us, but Jenkins and Laxton use all their photographic tricks and techniques to force the audience to consider what we often cannot see – or sometimes choose not to see.

LionAustralian lenser Greig Fraser’s work on director Garth Davis’ heart-wrenching drama is superb, but it will not – no matter how successful Lion becomes – be Fraser’s most widely seen work this year. That distinction, without question, goes to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, on which Fraser also served as director of photography. The stark photographic contrast between the two films is informative because it shows Fraser’s remarkable range and adaptability. Rogue One alone contains within it several distinct styles – war film, space opera, dark fantasy – and Fraser’s clever manipulations are key to making the movie’s wild tonal shifts feel of a piece.

That is not, however, the work for which he is cited here. Instead, his subtle, impressionistic touch in bringing to life the twin worlds of Lion garnered him this recognition. A moody, disorienting film about love, loss, and finding your place, Fraser’s camera takes on the weight of Saroo’s (Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel) struggle and makes us feel every moment of his displacement. He creates separate and distinct moods for the film’s India and Australia sections, contributing greatly to the film’s rich themes of true homes and real families.

Arrival – There must be a name for an occurrence that makes you want to applaud in joy while shaking your head in shame. Bradford Young is the first black American to be nominated for Cinematography by the Academy (second black director of photography ever, after Brit Remi Adefarasen). It is a wonderful, precedent-breaking achievement by Young, who is wholly deserving of the honor and probably should have been so nominated two years ago for his work on Selma or three years ago for the impossibly gorgeous Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. However, the Academy should be embarrassed at the existence of such a precedent, as well as by the still-true fact no woman ever, not one time, has been nominated for this award.

Rest assured, however, this is no token nomination. Arrival is marvelous to behold, and Young’s photography is as notable for what it withholds as what it shows. For a big-budget sci-fi film about a visit from aliens, Young remains steadfastly restrained in his approach, helping establish the film’s tone as more thoughtful than action-minded. In his patient, observant camerawork, Young ensures Arrival is like no other science-fiction epic before it. Young most likely will not become the first black cinematographer to win this award, but if the Academy is paying attention, he will have other chances.

The final analysis

I am still tempted to predict Lubezki here as a write-in candidate, perhaps for some of the photos on his wonderful Instagram account. Wouldn’t that be something? In all seriousness, though, this is shaping up like a sweep year, the likes of which we have not seen since Slumdog Millionaire in 2008. The rapturous overall love for La La Land will likely carry it all the way down the ballot. Moonlight has picked up a number of critical notices for its cinematography, and Silence is just gorgeous to look at it, but this is La La Land’s award to lose.

Will win: La La Land
Should win: Silence
Should have been here: Jackie

Tomorrow: Best Editing

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