Sizing Up the Best Cinematography Field

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Continuing with our look at the crafts categories is the favorite of many an Oscarphile, and it’s easy to see why.  After all, aren’t the specific lighting and camera choices made by a DP what distinguishes cinema as, well, cinematic?  As with Best Art Direction, the Academy historically tends to nominate the “most” of this category rather than necessarily the most unique, aesthetically striking or groundbreaking uses of camera work in a given film.  The “prettiest” films showcasing picturesque locales and dramatic lighting usually have the advantage here, as well as just plain being an Academy darling.  However, in recent years this category has yielded some winners outside the usual Oscar beltway; certainly a CGI-heavy blockbuster and a stark sci-fi heist thriller don’t usually come to mind when thinking of noticeable cinematography.

With that said, this category seems to be the most “locked” of all the crafts races.  Nothing is completely set in stone, but the same five – maybe six – films so far are way ahead of the pack here, but first, let’s take a look at what is not getting in:

Wishful Thinking

  • The Adventures of Tintin
  • Carnage
  • Contagion
  • Kaboom!
  • Margaret
  • One Day
  • Red State
  • Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Now, granted, some of these titles are only wishful thinking to some.  I personally am more than happy to bid sayonara to films like Red State and Contagion, which were presented decently but hardly worthy of any awards.  Some, like Kaboom!, were just plain atrocious and only listed here for how attention-grabbing their gaudy photography was.  Either way, there’s an effectively zero percent chance that any of these films will show up on nomination morning.

Dark Horse/Long Shots

Films with slightly better luck include:

  • Beginners
  • The Help
  • The Ides of March
  • Immortals
  • The Iron Lady
  • J. Edgar
  • Like Crazy
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Meek’s Cutoff
  • Super 8
  • Take Shelter

These are the films that might have better odds in the other categories, but not here.  The reasons depend on the individual film in question, but it can usually be boiled down to either unremarkable visuals (The Help, The Ides of March), a collapsed Oscar run (Super 8, Martha Marcy May Marlene), or the film’s profile is just too small despite excellent lensing (Meek’s Cutoff).  The DOA J. Edgar does not have the advantage here that I cited for Best Art Direction.  Even if it was a major Oscar contender, Clint Eastwood’s films don’t do that well in this category; only two have ever been nominated from his entire filmography. Others, like The Iron Lady and Immortals call far more attention to other elements of their production than the lighting and camera work.  Beginners and Like Crazy use very specific lighting choices – though Kasper Tuxen’s are more effective than John Guleserian’s – but indie romances also face an uphill climb here.  Amélie is the only nominee from the last ten years that I would lump in the same genre as those two.  The presence of any of these would be a huge surprise.

Second Tier Contenders

Here are films that might – might – be nominated.

  • The Descendants
  • Drive
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
  • Melancholia
  • Midnight in Paris
  • Moneyball
  • My Week with Marilyn
  • Shame
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The hell if I know why The Descendants’ spurious photography would even be considered a long shot contender for this prize, but there ya go.  As even a cursory look through history can tell you, sometimes the Academy simply votes for their favorite movie in the crafts categories even if the craft in question is amateur at best.  This is also the biggest advantage going for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Moneyball, with better results, of course.  Much more justifiable are the surprisingly decent chances of difficult, transgressive films like Shame and Melancholia.  They’ve been gaining far more than anticipated awards traction and with enough unexpected love could sneak their way in.  After all, did anyone think that The White Ribbon would make it in early 2009 or The Illusionist in 2006?  Then again, I could be overestimating Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic drama.  If the great Robby Müller couldn’t even score a nod for his groundbreaking video techniques in Dancer in the Dark, what luck would any von Trier lenser have?  Drive’s sickly fluorescent urban trance superbly conveyed Refn’s chilly, methodical approach, and with its critical accolades may succeed here where other genre pastiches have failed.  My Week with Marilyn and Midnight in Paris are arguably the most likely nominees from this batch, and would be shoo-ins in most other years.  Academy voters love glossy, nostalgic cinematography and these two will most likely find themselves to the podium through other wins…why not an upset here?

Pole Position Contenders

But whatever “upsets” their way here has to edge past one of these juggernauts:

  • The Artist
  • The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
  • Hugo
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
  • The Tree of Life
  • War Horse

These, take just one contender, are increasingly looking like the Oscar nominees for Best Cinematography.  Despite its reputation for insularity, the Cinematography field is actually quite generous with welcoming newcomers, and with its Best Picture-frontrunner status and crisp, old-fashioned black-and-white lighting evoking exactly the nostalgic mood that Hazanavicius intends, Guillaume Schiffman should be shopping for a good suit right now for his work on The ArtistWar Horse has all the makings of a winner; battle scenes, scenic shots, a prestige period epic from Steven Spielberg, and it’s all from the beloved Janusz Kaminski, whose previous two Oscars were also from Spielberg pics.  Hugo has its own share of vibrant panoramas lensed by a legendary cinematographer (Robert Richardson), and with it nipping at the heels of The Artist for Best Picture, it is solidly in.  Many are griping about the lowered stock of Harry Potter – are you really that surprised? – but a beloved fantasy blockbuster can usually find consolation in the crafts categories, and Eduardo Serra clearly went all-out here and stands a good chance of being recognized for it.  The weakest link here is probably The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and even then Jeff Cronenweth’s gloomy, foreboding work could easily see him return here for the second consecutive time.  And then there’s The Tree of Life.  Oh, Emmanuel Lubezki, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways: A Little Princess, Y tu mamá también, The New World, Children of Men – he is my favorite living cinematographer, and though it’s tough to gauge the love for The Tree of Life from AMPAS right now, even the film’s detractors acknowledge that its photography is some of the most breathtaking of the year…or any year, for that matter.  If The Tree of Life only makes it in one category (heaven forbid), it’ll make it in Best Cinematography.

There you have it, ladies and gentleman.  Let us know what your favorite lensing of the year was, and stay tuned for Best Editing!