Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Oscars Predictions 2014: Best Cinematography

Note: This is my personal ranking, listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite. Prediction for the actual winner is in orange.



Emmanuel Lubezki

Phedon Papamichael

Bruno Delbonnel

Roger A. Deakins

Philippe Le Sourd

Should have been here: 12 Years a Slave

Talk about locked up. There is actually no question of the winner here, but for form’s sake, let’s review the nominees.

There was so much improvising on Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, a kind of biopic of legendary martial artist Ip Man (best known for having trained Bruce Lee), that DP Philippe Le Sourd was forced to keep a journal for two years just to remember what colors went where. This could be why the film looks and feels so repetitive: The first few fights feel fresh and even romantic, but the similar views grow tiresome after awhile.

Everyone loves Roger Deakins, especially the Academy, which has nominated him here (and last year, and two years before that, etc.) for the eleventh time, though Prisoners is not Deakins’s most obvious work. That is to say: while actors love him because he focuses on the storytelling and not just clever camerawork, this barely-registered film about two families (headed by Hugh Jackman, Terrence Howard) searching for their abducted little girls is a dark tale with little pomp and circumstance (no lovely, distracting long shots). While there is a sense of a slightly heightened reality, Deakins keeps to unfussy angles and practicals for a monochromatic, murky look that reflects the inner lives of the tormented families. It’s smartly done, but won’t get him his first Oscar.

The cinematographer of Amélie and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is nominated for his fourth Oscar for this year’s Coen Brothers’ fare, Inside Llewyn Davis. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac, perfect) is a rather unpleasant fellow who makes his scowly way as a musician in the ’60s East Village. Delbonnell’s Manhattan is as cool and inaccessible as Llewyn; smoky, dark, bohemian. The result is a kind of beautiful melancholy that works supremely well with the character, his sadness and haughtiness.

Nebraska is full of gorgeous, black and white panoramas of midwest plains and prairie (unbelievably, some markets and outlets were given a color version — what’s even the point?). The black and white adds a kind of poetry to the otherwise plain landscape; it heightens the feelings of isolation and loneliness, allowing a better understanding of the hard (to get to know) characters, even as it distances us from them. But first-time nominee Phedon Papamichael will not be a first-time winner.

After the Academy’s epic fail in not awarding Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous work on The Tree of Life, they certainly won’t make the same mistake again. Sure, the line between cinematography and visual effects is a little blurry, but when has that harmed directors of photography who’ve mastered such effects-heavy works? Life of Pi, Hugo, Inception, Avatar: all of these visually spectacular films won their respective years. And Gravity looks better and is better than all of them. It’s a game-changer — and has already won the ASC Award —  that some are even calling one of the greatest visual achievements in cinematic history. No one can deny Lubezki’s part in that.


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