OSCAR GUIDE: Best Cinematography

Posted by · 10:19 am · February 15th, 2011

The American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) dished out its annual kudos this weekend, which makes for a nice segue into a discussion of the year’s nominees for Best Cinematography. But it’s important to keep a few things in mind when it comes to guessing what the Academy at large will spring for in this field.

First and foremost, technical accomplishment doesn’t get you far with a number of people who don’t really understand what kind of a feat, say, “Children of Men” is. Or “Black Hawk Down,” for another example. It’s all about what looks like a post card, because “cinematography” so quickly translates to “prettiest movie” for a great many voters, unfortunately.

The nominees are:

“Black Swan” (Matthew Libatique)
“Inception” (Wally Pfister)
“The King’s Speech” (Danny Cohen)
“The Social Network” (Jeff Cronenweth)
“True Grit” (Roger Deakins)

Only one of these films actually showed up on my personal ballot this year.  But on the whole, it really wasn’t a great year for the form. There were a few sterling examples of creativity, but they seemed few and far between in 2010.  I’ll get into that next week when I publish my annual “top 10 shots of the year” column.

The best of the lot, in my opinion, is at the very top. Matthew Libatique has been working with Darren Aronofsky since the beginning, save for a brief departure from “The Wrestler” in 2008. The two have come together to offer unmistakably unique visions. The best partnerships — Stone/Richardson, Scorsese/Ballhaus, Spielberg/Kaminski, etc. — share a thumbprint, and the thumbprint on “Black Swan” was as bold as any of their collaborations to date. The only drawback is a creative decision to shoot on Super 16, which yielded a gritty quality that pumped up the atmospheric nature of the film. I’d have rather seen Libatique’s gorgeous compositions in a slicker fashion, but nevertheless, the work is thematically rich and full of life, whether on the stage with Natalie Portman or in the darkest reaches of the narrative.

Another partnership that has been coming along as of late, and somewhat more prolifically, is Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister. This year’s summer blockbuster “Inception” marked their sixth collaboration of the decade, and it even netted Pfister the award from his peers at the ASC. Cinematographers would no doubt revel in the technical wizardry of a film like this, much like they did “The White Ribbon,” “Children of Men” and “A Very Long Engagement” in recent years. But one wonders whether this one has enough weight as more than merely a “summer blockbuster” (which it most certainly is) in the minds of voters to yield a win from the overall membership. It would be a crowning moment for a director of photography well due after consistent output as of late, but I’m not so sure it’ll happen.

This year’s Best Picture frontrunner, if you haven’t gleaned as much by now, is “The King’s Speech,” and the film’s overall visual vocabulary is certainly unique and thematically relevant. There are stylistic flourishes here and there that also lend to the notion that this isn’t just some anonymous piece of royal theater, as much as the film’s detractors would like it to be, and Danny Cohen‘s nomination here and with the ASC showed that those who do this for a living felt it at least worth a mention. So now it’s up to the 6,000 Academy members to decide if they want to sweep the film up here with a potentially healthy tally of overall wins or spread the wealth elsewhere. It’s entirely possible the former instance pans out on Oscar night, but I would consider this instead a solid alternative.

I was personally quite happy to see Jeff Cronenweth nail down a nomination for his moody work on “The Social Network.” It was a feat of digital filmmaking (the whole thing was saved to memory cards, in fact) and a graceful feat at that. I thought perhaps his luck would stop with the more digital-friendly ASC, but the Academy’s cinematography branch offered him a tip of the hat as well. The film’s chilly narrative lends itself nicely to the cool hues employed and there is a big set-piece in the Winklevi’s rowing sequence to showcase the work beyond that.  But I doubt very much the overall membership will be drawn to this work as a winner in the field, ertainly not with a front-running period drama, a spectacle entertainment and an overdue veteran lensing a western in the mix.

Which brings me to my pick for the win. Yes, it’s true, the ballots do not contain the individual names of nominees in the below-the-line categories. And yes, it’s true, the Academy probably isn’t aware of the fact that Roger Deakins is well overdue for an Oscar win. But “True Grit” is a film right up their alley in a field like this, full of picturesque Americana and one they saw fit to grant 10 Oscar nominations on the whole. So with that in mind, while they may be ignorant to the lenser’s drought, the fact is it’s finally a good year to bet on the guy as all of the arbitrary elements have finally dovetailed in his favor: “pretty” movie, Best Picture nominee, nothing else with sweeping vistas in the mix, etc. So I’d be more inclined to look to the BAFTA rather than the ASC this year, but it could be a photo finish.

Will win: “True Grit”
Could win: “The King’s Speech”
Should win: “Black Swan”

Should have been here: “Enter the Void”

Check out my current rankings for this race at its dedicated Contenders page here.

What do you think deserves to win the award for Best Cinematography? Have your say in today’s sidebar poll!

[Photos: Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures]

→ 39 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Oscar Guide

39 responses so far

  • 1 2-15-2011 at 10:26 am

    San FranCinema said...

    I’m reminded of when Conrad Hall won the cinematography award posthumously for “The Road to Perdition.” It was an overdue (and perhaps sentimental) tribute. The fact that his name wasn’t on the ballot didn’t prevent him from getting the highest number of votes from the Academy.

    Which is a roundabout way of saying that I’m also predicting Deakins. (Not because he’s dead! But because the “story” is known even if the name isn’t on the ballot.)

  • 2 2-15-2011 at 10:27 am

    N8 said...

    Lebatique deserves it above all, but I’ll be pissed if Deakins loses this.

  • 3 2-15-2011 at 10:31 am

    Kevin K. said...

    I go back and forth between Black Swan and Inception here. I usually settle on Inception (big shock there) even though, personally, I thought The Dark Knight deserved it more (and much more over Slumdog Millionaire). But Pfister’s work in Inception is pretty stunning the way he captures the surreal with the real and manages to blend them so well.

    Though I really have to give Matty Libatique credit for Black Swan. It’s really phenomenal work, and really captures the terror quite perfectly.

    Deakins’ work in True Grit is beautiful, and painterly, but definitely not his most interesting framing ever (that, of course, would be The Assassination of Jesse James). But it’ll be great to see him finally win an Oscar, assuming he does. I think it’s actually between Deakins and Pfister, not Deakins and Cohen, but we shall see.

  • 4 2-15-2011 at 10:35 am

    Michael said...

    I could not possibly agree more with your should have been there pick. Enter the Void was a technical feat but the material was a little too transgressive for the Academy…

    I voted for Black Swan in the poll and agree with what you said about it in your write-up. I think giving the award to True Grit is a little bit uninspired but that is probably what is going to happen so I should just accept it.

  • 5 2-15-2011 at 11:02 am

    James The Greatest said...

    Agree wholeheartedly, as well, that Enter The Void should have been in the mix. If the movie got love anywhere, it should have been here. Phenomenal film.

    (Also… if there was a category for opening credit sequences…!)

  • 6 2-15-2011 at 11:20 am

    Speaking English said...

    “True Grit” baby. Gorgeous, dripping with bleached scenic beauty at day and rich midnight hues highlighted by a crisp crimson glow at night. Wonderfully immersive.

  • 7 2-15-2011 at 11:22 am

    Speaking English said...

    Should have been here: “Never Let Me Go,” “127 Hours”

  • 8 2-15-2011 at 11:33 am

    Marc R. said...

    the best cinematography i saw all year was in Shutter Island (i wish i had seen Enter the Void). I just thought it was brilliant what Richardson did w/ lighting in the movie. For the film to not get a nod was pretty strange considering its “prettiness”, especially over inferior (though still good) efforts like King speech and inception

  • 9 2-15-2011 at 11:42 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    That’s up there for me, too. Probably my #2.

  • 10 2-15-2011 at 11:57 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    The fact they were able to make Super 16 look as rich is a testament to them choosing the format in the first place.

  • 11 2-15-2011 at 12:01 pm

    Evan said...

    My point about the “Deakins’s name won’t be listed on the ballot” issue is that someone who’d vote for him because he’s overdue really doesn’t need that reminder anyway. They’re already well aware of the fact that he’s the cinematographer behind True Grit.

  • 12 2-15-2011 at 12:06 pm

    Andrej said...

    Yeah, it looks alright. In my ‘could’ I’d add Inception after the ASC, though.

    Should have been here: 127 Hours, Winter’s Bone.

  • 13 2-15-2011 at 2:00 pm

    matsunaga said...

    Will win: “True Grit”
    Could win: “The King’s Speech”
    Should win: “True Grit”

    Should have been here: “Shutter Island” or “Harry Potter 7 Part 1”

    Please Academy, give it to Mr. Roger Deakins! Thank you!

  • 14 2-15-2011 at 2:02 pm

    brian said...

    I’m surprised that it’s the Super 16 you focus on when talking about Black Swan’s drawbacks and not the sequences shot with the Canon 7D, which look like complete shit in comparison. It’s a real shame because the cinematography is a real master class that is greatly limited by its medium. I think Super 16 was absolutely the right choice for the material, but the noise of the 7D sticks out like a sore thumb against the film grain of the Super 16 and the resolution, despite all of the specs Canon likes to tout, is just not there.

  • 15 2-15-2011 at 2:08 pm

    lily said...

    Will Win: Deakins
    Should Win: Libatique

  • 16 2-15-2011 at 2:15 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    brian: Maybe it’s the digital that I’m recoiling from, then. Because it’s “noise,” as you say, more so than grain that kills me on that film. How much of it was filmed with the 7D?

  • 17 2-15-2011 at 2:44 pm

    Simon Warrasch said...

    I also think:

    Will win: True Grit
    Should win: Black Swan

  • 18 2-15-2011 at 3:25 pm

    Samuel said...

    Should’ve been here: I Am Love.

  • 19 2-15-2011 at 3:57 pm

    julian said...

    brilliant piece on one of the more exciting races this year. I tend to agree with whoever thinks Deakins will nag it. I Know his name isn’t listed on the bill, BUT people in the industry are well aware of this (they are not completely ignorant, you know). Deakins’ long overdue status has been discussed more than ever this season, in a year with no stand-out frontrunner surely he will benefit and get his lifetime achievement Oscar for TG

  • 20 2-15-2011 at 3:57 pm

    m1 said...

    Should have been here: Winter’s Bone, Let Me In

  • 21 2-15-2011 at 4:24 pm

    Filipe said...

    Should have been here, maybe even win: Never Let Me Go
    I wasn’t that much of a fan, but the cinematography wowed me!

  • 22 2-15-2011 at 4:44 pm

    Lance McCallion said...

    For the love of God, anyone but Pfister.

  • 23 2-15-2011 at 5:20 pm

    Derek 8-Track said...

    I think this is one of 2 awards The King’s Speech actually deserves to win.

  • 24 2-15-2011 at 5:42 pm

    Dignan said...

    The stuff shot on 7D was minimal. When they needed to steal shots on the subway and couldn’t discretely lug a 16mm rig onto the train without attracting attention, they used the Cannon.

  • 25 2-15-2011 at 6:27 pm

    Alex said...

    The subway scenes did always seem a bit off to me and now I know why.

  • 26 2-15-2011 at 6:50 pm

    tintin(uruguay) said...

    Should have been here: 127 hours, Harry Potter 7.

  • 27 2-15-2011 at 8:30 pm

    DarkLayers said...

    Deakins really should win and I hope he does. I love Pfister’s work, including “Inception”. It does feel like he could win in the future for work as deserving if not more, as he’s gotten 4 nods and could possibly get a 5th for “The Dark Knight Rises.” It’s interesting that this is ML’s first nod, given how great the fountain was on that score.

    I think Jeff Cronenworth’s work was awesome on “Social Network” but am on the hater side of the King’s Speech.

  • 28 2-15-2011 at 9:11 pm

    Glenn said...

    “Black Swan” and “True Grit” are the only two in my personal top five of 2010 for cinematography, so I’d be happy with either – although I think the real missed opportunity here was “I Am Love”.

  • 29 2-15-2011 at 11:20 pm

    Someone said...

    I agree that BLACK SWAN should win this. Actually it’s the only award this very bad movie deserves.

  • 30 2-16-2011 at 3:07 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’m reminded of when Conrad Hall won the cinematography award posthumously for “The Road to Perdition.” It was an overdue (and perhaps sentimental) tribute.

    It wasn’t overdue. He had already won two Oscars — the second of them only three years before his posthumous victory.

  • 31 2-16-2011 at 5:37 am

    Rashad said...

    Will – True Grit
    Should – True Grit
    doesn’t deserve to be nominated – TKS (dullest looking film I’ve seen in years) and Black Swan

    Should be there – Shutter Island (Richardson’s snub is mind boggling) and Robin Hood (Mathieson is very underrated)

  • 32 2-16-2011 at 6:18 am

    JJ1 said...

    Classiest cinematography – TG
    Wow-worthy cinematography – Inception
    Coolest cinematography – BS

    Will – TG
    Should – BS
    Could – Inception

  • 33 2-16-2011 at 6:19 am

    red_wine said...

    Will win: “True Grit”
    Could win: “Inception”
    Should win: “True Grit”
    Should have been here: “Enter the Void” (And how!)
    Also I Am Love, The American, Carlos and Wild Grass.

  • 34 2-16-2011 at 6:42 am

    Rashad said...

    Carlos is a miniseries

  • 35 2-16-2011 at 7:02 am

    red_wine said...

    Carlos is cinema

  • 36 2-16-2011 at 7:16 am

    julian said...

    carlos is a miniseries ruthlessly cut to fit cinema

  • 37 2-16-2011 at 7:22 am

    red_wine said...

    Carlos is cinema first shown on television due to pesky deals and contracts. But it remains cinema, its original and actual form and the one it is generally recognized to be

  • 38 2-16-2011 at 7:23 am

    DylanS said...

    I voted for Pfister in the poll. I do take a lot of things into account when figuring out this category, but I typically choose the film w/ the most memorable and iconic images, and boy does “Inception” dominate in that aspect. Sure, Nolan was handing him an iconic images showcase, but that doesn’t belittle his accomplishment in the least.

    My other two favorites are “Black Swan”, though while excellent, I think is becoming a bit overrated. My other favorite is the subtle work on “The Social Network”, which is distinctly underrated.

  • 39 2-16-2011 at 1:35 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    carlos is a miniseries ruthlessly cut to fit cinema

    No, the five-hour Carlos is still cinema, and has been theatrically released.