Thursday, January 30, 2014

One Category at a Time: Cinematography

There are just 22 business days left until the Oscars, and yet it still feels like they're an eternity away. Part of that may have to do with the fact that the Winter Olympics (the only arena in which my home country can even come close to claiming world-power status, so I'll be watching them intently) has pushed the awards ceremony, and consequently the voting period, back a week.
That's an awful long wait, during which an awful lot can happen to affect the race. Gravity stands as the frontrunner at this moment, but we may have plenty of reason to believe otherwise by the time Oscar night is upon us. Heck: we have plenty of reason to believe otherwise right now! But I'll get to that category in due course. Obviously, I tend to start these prediction columns with the categories that are easiest to call, and one of the easiest calls this year is Best Cinematography.

Two of the craftsmen near the top of my list of people who are way overdue for an Oscar are nominated this year. While that does mean I am forced to go through the pain of seeing one of them lose yet again, there's a silver lining for once, as the other one is all but assured to take home the gold at long last. The two gentlemen I refer to, of course, are Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki, both of whom should have multiple Oscars by now.

Deakins has shown a recent knack for elevating pulpy source material with prestige-calibre photography, as evidenced by last year's nod for Skyfall and this year's nod for Prisoners. It's rich, evocative work throughout, but naturally, a victory is not in the cards. This being the film's only nomination makes it clear that the commercial thriller is not exceedingly well loved, and would make an atypical Oscar winner.
But while I'll be half drowning my sorrows of another Deakins loss with copious amounts of alcohol, at the same time I'll be half celebrating Lubezki's long-coming triumph, and he honestly deserves it more than any of his competition. His cinematography (and his innovations to accomplish it) is so very much the story of Gravity, standing well above any of the other nominees both in terms of technical merit and sheer visual potency. Since the Academy equates this category with Best Visual Effects anyway, it's hard to imagine him losing. He might have faced some competition from ASC nominee Sean Bobbit in the form of a 12 Years a Slave sweep, but since that distinguished contender was ultimately edged out of this race, there's now nothing standing in Lubezki's way.

The theoretical runner-up -- although such speculation is pointless in this foregone a contest -- may be Phedon Papamichael for his bleak black-and-white lensing of Nebraska. This is the only one of the five that I myself did not chalk up for my own Best Cinematography honour, but that doesn't mean I'm at all bothered by its inclusion here. The work is very subtle yet effective, nicely capturing the tone of the piece. That said, I can't help but wonder if its Best Picture status gave it more than a wee boost at the nomination stage. It seems that Best Picture nominees in black-and-white get nominated for Best Cinematography regardless of how accomplished the work is.

One of my favourite nominations of the year, albeit one I should have seen coming after its surprise ASC nod, is for The Grandmaster. I did not care for the film when I saw it last summer, but I knew right away that Phillipe Le Sourd's lush compositions would be among my very favourite of the year. If it were more widely seen, a la Pan's Labyrinth or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it may actually have been in decent spoiler position, but it seems decidedly unlikely that enough Academy members have seen it.
Rounding out the five is Bruno Delbonnel's gorgeous work on Inside Llewyn Davis, one of only two nominations that film received. That is something of a minor tragedy, given how excellent the film reveals itself to be after one has had the chance to let it sit and marinate for a while. At least the cinematographers clued in faster than the rest of the Academy did by recognizing it here, but there is just not enough support for it at large to give Delbonnel a chance. Pretty soon he's going to be added to my list of craftsmen who are overdue for an Oscar; There's going to be a spot opening up real soon when Lubezki wins his.

Will win: Gravity
Runner-up: Nebraska

Should win: Gravity
Should've been nominated: Rush

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