Many a critic agree that cinematography is experiencing a new golden age, and this year's Oscar lineup is strangely both indicative, and yet not indicative of that truth. One the one hand, the enormous spectrum of tools and technologies lensers have these days to craft breathtaking images is well represented in the potpourri of formats nominated for Best Cinematography, ranging from 16mm to 70mm celluloid to digital and even thermal imaging.
But on the other hand, the equally wide array of fresh and invigorating voices behind the cameras (think Masanobu Takeyanagi, Maryse Alberti, Hoyte van Hoytema, etc.) remains steadfastly locked out of this branch's insular preferences. Perhaps that's why this was one of two categories I anticipated with perfect accuracy pre-nominations; They have their favourites. All five men have been nominated before, three of them have won before, two of those three have won multiple times, and one of them is on the verge of making Oscar history.
When he collects the trophy for The Revenant, Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki will become the first person to win Best Cinematography three years in a row. For anybody else that would be an embarrassment of riches, but it's hard to begrudge a genius of his calibre that distinction (he should have four of these things already!). Even if you don't agree that his fluent, naturally-lit photography enhances Inarritu's storytelling all that much, you must agree that the work is stunning.
If a spoiler lurks it's likely John Seale for Mad Max: Fury Road, the only fellow Best Picture nominee competing alongside The Revenant in this -- and almost every other -- category. They will be going head-to-bloody-head for craft category dominance, and the possibility of this potential upset should not be underestimated. What Fury Road lacks in Malick-esque beauty it makes up for in energetic spectacle. Remember that for years the Academy had an unhealthy preoccupation with lumping Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects together, interrupted by Chivo's Birdman victory only last year, but that doesn't mean we've left those days yet. Fury Road stands more than a decent shot at winning that VFX prize, and I suspect many a voter will automatically chalk it up here too, and that'd be far from a bad call. Arguably, Seale deserves it more.
As for the remaining three contenders, take a wild guess at what order you think they'd fall. It's a shame that this isn't more of a five-horse race, because all of them are uniquely deserving in their own way. The refined beauty and narrative consideration Ed Lachman's compositions in Carol are a lesson in what visual storytelling really means; Roger Deakins sets a dark, moody, brilliantly oppressive tone for Sicario that scarcely lets you up for air; And the sheer technical challenge Robert Richardson faced in resurrecting ancient technology to shoot The Hateful Eight in Panvision is enough to make you overlook just how precisely designed his shots are.
Will win: The Revenant
Runner-up: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should win: Carol
Should be nominated: Son of Saul