Digging into the cinematography field

Posted by · 6:34 pm · February 17th, 2012

This has been bugging me. I’d say the two hardest categories to predict this year are, of all things, Best Costume Design and Best Documentary Feature. Guy worked through the former today, while I worked through the latter yesterday.

But Best Cinematography is also something I keep circling back around to. I can’t figure out where the spoils will fall. I have 20 bucks on this with Anne, who is taking the same route just about everyone else is and expects ASC winner “The Tree of Life” to win.

It’s obviously the safe call. And ASC has matched up with the Oscar winner 10 out of the 26 years it has been dishing out kudos. Lately it’s been on a bit of an every-other-year pattern. Last year’s ASC winner, “Inception,” went on to take the Oscar. Not only that, of course, but Emmanuel Lubezki’s work in “The Tree of Life” has nearly run the table with precursor awards and would have turned in a perfect score if BAFTA hadn’t awarded “The Artist” and the North Texas and Utah crowds hadn’t gone their own ways with “War Horse” and “Drive” respectively (and the former tying “The Tree of Life” at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards). That’s a pretty powerful narrative that screams: This film is all about the visuals.

Then there’s the passion base for the film, which was enough to land it nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. Where else are they going to show their love? That’s a sizable chunk you can pretty much count on.

But I still don’t see it.

Let’s start here. The last time a film won Best Cinematography without being nominated in a single other craft category? “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” in 1949. That’s over 60 years ago. That’s a long friggin’ time ago. (And Best Cinematography, by the way, was that film’s only nomination, embossing another point about the hindsight of Academy decision-making, but I digress.)

Additionally, in the post-black-and-white/color category split world (the Academy initiated a split in 1939 and merged the two again in 1967), only eight films have won without being nominated for a design category (Best Art Direction or Best Costume Design): “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Ryan’s Daughter,” “The Killing Fields,” “Mississippi Burning,” “JFK,” “A River Runs Through It,” “American Beauty” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” Nominees that would benefit from that idea this year are “The Artist,” “Hugo” and “War Horse.” Why do I bring that up? Because I think it speaks to the typical voter mindset: vote for what’s pretty. And if the camera’s pointing at something pretty…

So that kind of stuff starts to give me pause when I find myself drifting over to the “safe” choice (and, in my mind, the deserving one): “The Tree of Life.”

My first instinct when the nominations were announced was “The Artist,” more as a cynical expectation of voters checking the film off in a number of fields and that black and white factor than anything. When I find myself wanting to lean that way, though, I have to remind myself that black and white isn’t the magnet here you might think.

In that post-split world mentioned earlier, black and white nominees have included “In Cold Blood,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Lenny,” “Raging Bull,” “Zelig,” “Schindler’s List,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “Good Night, and Good Luck.” and “The White Ribbon.” Five of those were Best Picture nominees. And only “Schindler’s List” won the award. (Of course, it’s also the only one of those to win Best Picture, too, which “The Artist” is expected to do.)

So that brings me around to my second instinct when the nominees were announced: “War Horse.” The film wasn’t nominated by the ASC and only twice has such a film gone on to win the Oscar (“Glory” in 1989 and “Pan’s Labyrinth” in 2006″). But I nevertheless think it’s in a better position this year than others might expect.

Anyway, with the shots column and Lubezki, etc., this has all just kind of been on my mind. Guy has already covered the cinematography category in full via the field’s Oscar Guide entry a few weeks back. He raised a few of these points, and he settled on “Hugo” early on. As of late, I’ve found myself in that camp as well, but I can’t be sure. At all. As I said in the first post-oscar nods podcast, that’s a film all about detailed interiors. “War Horse” is all about lush exteriors. Guess which kind of film tends to win.

If nothing else, though, I’m pretty sure Jeff Cronenweth can get comfortable on Oscar night. His name being called would be a huge shock.

And hey, don’t shoot the messenger here. There’s nothing I hate more than being this reductive about a category that is so very much at the heart of what cinema is. I’d like nothing more than to be discussing the merits of films like “Drive,” “Moneyball,” “Rampart” and “Shame” in this space, and the nuance involved in why this one or that could get a leg up. And in lieu of that, I’d much rather talk about the nuance of these particular contenders rather than be broad and, frankly, unfair to their various virtues. But that’s just kind of how a large group of voters tends to think: broadly.

Your thoughts?

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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