Thursday, January 22, 2015

One Category at a Time: Cinematography

Twenty-two business days to go until the Oscars; Essentially New Year's Eve for film lovers and award obsessives, both camps into which I fall. How will I ever pass the time?

Why, by continuing my annual tradition of analyzing the various Oscar races in 'One Category at a Time', the very first article series I began back in 2008 when 'The Awards Nazi' (nee 'The Oscar Nazi') was just a baby blog. I suppose six years old still seems kinda babyish, but relative to the age of the Internet, I guess that makes this site now more of a disrespectful teenager that wishes it could be more like the grownup websites. That's an appropriate description, I think.
Anyway, back to this year's series, which I will be kicking off (as I did last year) with my favourite category Best Cinematography. This year's race feels eerily similar to last year's, with one inarguable frontrunner soaring well above its competition... and it's the same person too!

Thanks to his ground-breaking innovations in Gravity, Emmanuel Lubezki finally won the Academy Award he was owed for such a long time. But guess what: He's not done yet! His dazzling "one-take" shot of Birdman (albeit enabled by some invisible editing, just like Gravity was last year) is allowing him to sweep through the season untouched... just like last year. His only possible competition is another Best Picture nominee with photography that is indeed distinguished, but not nearly as showy... just like last year. Chivo will become the first DP to go back-to-back since John Toll won consecutive Oscars for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart in 95/96. It may have annoyed me if it were happening to anyone but him, who should already have three of these things!

Well, there is one other person it could happen to that wouldn't annoy me...

Anybody who visits this space regularly knows that I'm a huge fan of Roger Deakins. Like, a HUGE fan. I was rooting for him last year, I'm rooting for him this year, and I'll be rooting for him every year in the future, even though no, he will never win an Academy Award. That said, even if he were to pull off a miraculous win for Unbroken at the last minute, it would be like Al Pacino winning for Scent of a Woman. Unbroken may have a bunch of painterly compositions littered throughout, but most of the work in the film seems a tad more utilitarian than we're used to seeing for Deakins. Don't get me wrong: Seeing him win would make my night/month/year/life, but this is far from his best work, and doesn't feel like a threat to upset Birdman.
But does anything feel like a threat to upset Birdman? The only nominee for which you could maybe make a case is the only other nominee that's also up for Best Picture; The Grand Budapest Hotel. Robert Yeoman's lighting in the film is warm and evocative and just plain beautiful, really. But what most voters are likely to remember about it are the singular framing decisions: Square aspect ratio, symmetrical compositions, 90-degree pans, straight tracking shots... It might be worth noting that any Academy member who really digs Wes Anderson's unique shooting style has never had an opportunity to vote for one of his films in this category. That coupled with general love for the movie might make it the default runner-up.

Anderson's quirky comedy isn't the only contender here to make interesting use of square framing. One of the more inspired nominations to come out of last Thursday's announcement was the inclusion of the Polish drama Ida in this category. Directors of photography Łukasz Źal and Ryszard Lenczewski certainly deserve it for the stark black-and-white beauty they brought to the project. There's a lot of precedent for the cinematography branch digging deep and finding a worthy foreign film to recognize, but wins are harder to come by unless it's really widely seen, with many nominations to go with it. Granted, the fact that the Academy now sends screeners of all the Best Foreign Language Film nominees to the membership will help attract more eyeballs, but a win is still unlikely.
Rounding out the field is Dick Pope (hilariously mispronounced by Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs as "Dick Poop") for his jaw-dropping imagery in Mr. Turner. Pope has been a longtime collaborator with Mike Leigh, so it's nice to see him earn a tip of the hat for Leigh's passion project about the life of J.M.W. Turner. Even those who don't love the film (guilty) are impressed with the spectrum of colour and range of light that Pope was able to capture digitally, often emulating the Romantic landscape painter's work itself. But in a category which often goes to a Best Picture nominee, I can't envision it winning.

Will win: Birdman
Runner-up: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Should win: Birdman
Should have been nominated: Nightcrawler


  1. I definitely agree, there's no way Lubezki could lose this year. I might argue that Dick Pope could be the runner-up. Even though it was less prevalent in the race, it has shown up in most major bodies and is a favorite. It definitely has the beauty on its side...

    But all that to say, Birdman locks this one for sure.

  2. I'm afraid I didn't care much for Ida's banal compositions. But it did get me thinking. Has there been a black-and-white movie made this century, with some mainstream or critical attention, to NOT receive a cinematography nod? I'm a fan of using black-and-white but it makes me wonder how many voters assume that B/W = automatically good.

    1. To a degree, I must agree. I really didn't think there was anything special in 'Ida''s photography. I think the Academy is nostalgic; they like to remember "the good old days" and nominate a black and white film because it makes them feel good.