Friday, July 18, 2014

OVP: Cinematography (2013)

OVP: Best Cinematography (2013)

The Nominees Were...

Philippe le Sourd, The Grandmaster
Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity
Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis
Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska
Roger Deakins, Prisoners

My Thoughts: Sometimes there are Oscar nominations that I love.  They remind me of why I started the OVP in the first place.  They come out of nowhere and they swoop in and make their mark.  Then there are nominations I get, or tolerate, because there is some aspect of the nomination that makes it inevitable (like if you happen to be named John Williams and you wrote a score).  And then there are nominations that make me grit my teeth in a fit of rage because they are so lazy and are a horrible waste of a slot that could have gone to something more worthy.  That is what happened when Nebraska got its nomination for Best Cinematography.

This is our first encounter with this film which I did not like, and gets worse the further you get from it, but the cinematography angle easily is the nomination that bugs me the most.  All of the others I can find some reason to give the film a nomination, but not here.  The shots are boring and uninteresting; when I was searching through the other nominated films, I found several to dozens of shots that I thought would be a good photo for up-top, but Nebraska I could find no truly interesting shots (Bruce Dern is an interesting actor, so at least that worked for the picture).  The only reason a film like this got nominated is that it had the good sense to be in black-and-white in a year with no other high profile black-and-white films.  Put this movie in color, shot-for-shot, and it would be a yawn in the cinematography department.  Black-and-white does not a greatly shot film make, and this is not only the worst nominee in this category, but it's arguably the worst nomination of the year (give or take Dallas Buyers Club in Best Makeup).

The other nominees all look good by comparison, but some of them are actually quite marvelous.  Emmanuel Lubezki is a genius behind-the-camera, and has the good fortune to consistently work with two of the more visually arresting directors working (Malick and Cuaron).  There is something to be said for the fact that he's being aided by the visual effects department here, but I feel like this transcends that in a way that, say, Wally Pfister's Inception isn't able to get toward.  The views of space are not only gorgeous, but also the timing of the shots are beautiful.  Think of that initial 12-minute take, all without one stop, and how well Lubezki moves and lights the screen to make us feel the constancy of space for these characters.  It's an incredible feeling and one few cinematographers could so gracefully push.  Gravity is a brilliant, visual feast, and Lubezki a master painter.

Roger Deakins also knows something about light, or in his case, frequently the dark.  I love that this was the nomination that happened in Prisoners rather than something unforgivable like Hugh Jackman for Best Actor.  Deakins has made a career out of taking long dark roads and making them seem ominous and mesmerizing.  I cannot stop thinking in this film of the way that he used middle-of-the-day cloud cover in a way most cinematographers would have just used night.  It added to the fear in those opening scenes-this is an ordinary day in an ordinary neighborhood.  There's also the terrific rainy glow that comes in the scenes at the gas station (there's a reason I pick most of the above stills), where he balances the visual unease of rain with the harsh fluorescent of a gas station, something momentary in our lives.  This movie is filled with these sorts of brilliant shots, and while it may seem a little like this nomination happened for AMPAS just because Deakins' name was attached, it was still worth the nepotism.

Deakins, of course, has made a career out of working with the Coen Brothers (five of his eleven nominations were for their films), so it's so weird to see his name on this list, but not next to Inside Llewyn Davis (Deakins has lost the Oscar eleven times, so it would have been the biggest slap in the face to him if ILD had won this past year).  Bruno Delbonnel, though, is no slouch and creates a wonderfully lit aura out of Inside Llewyn Davis.  I love the way that everything feels as if it's trapped in Llewyn's album cover-the film has a constant blue-green aura surrounding it, and some of the scenes are just wonders of light and dust (like when Llewyn plays his music for Bud Grossman).  Delbonnel isn't just borrowing from Deakins here though-the color schemes and come-from-below camera work is much more in-line with him.  A surprise nominee a few years back for Harry Potter, you get the sense that the Academy is trying to tell us that this is someone they're going to be latching onto hard.

The final nomination was, for me, the biggest surprise of the bunch.  The Grandmaster is the sort of film that looks great.  Wong Kar Wai is rarely without some incredible sequences, and the scenes in the snow and at the beginning of the film especially (when the film almost looks black-and-white in the rain) are top drawer.  I will say, however, that unlike his other three legit competitors, le Sourd doesn't make his non-highlight scenes pop quite as much.  I felt like there was too reliance on the heavy candlelight and the film lacks the sort of consistency in lighting that something like Prisoners ends up doing.  There are moments of greatness, but not persistent ones, and so it can't quite compete with some really wonderful nominated work...but it's WAY better than Nebraska.

Other Precursor Contenders: The ASC is usually one of the classiest precursor awards, so I was a bit surprised to see them be a bit tacky and not stick to their usual five nominations and instead go with seven.  All of the Oscar nominees were therefore accounted for,, with 12 Years a Slave and Captain Phillips both also making the cut (Gravity won).  BAFTA went for a near carbon copy of AMPAS's list as well, with only 12 Years a Slave (the clear sixth place) being put in while The Grandmaster got booted (Gravity won).
Films I Would Have Nominated: Obviously I'd cut at least one nomination, and in reality I'd skip two of them.  12 Years a Slave is really excellent work (there are some great shots, and few cinematographers in recent memory have so well-lit the outdoors on a sunny day without becoming blase about it), but I probably would have included the late Harris Savides for his wonderfully lit closets and bedrooms in The Bling Ring and especially Emmanuel Lubezki's luminous work in To the Wonder, which got forgetten (usually Malick films score here), but he does things with a Sonic drive-in and a herd of bison that almost no one else could do.
Oscar's Choice: After losing many times before, Lubezki finally got his Oscar for Gravity, and I don't even want to think what might have been in second place here (hint: it's the name of a state).
My Choice: Had To the Wonder been nominated, I may have been tempted to go with it.  There's no denying that Lubezki is getting help from his visual effects team in a way that Deakins and Delbonnel are not.  That said, I think there's clearly enough artistic vision from the cinematographer himself here to warrant Gravity winning this, with Inside Llewyn Davis, Prisoners, The Grandmaster, and Nebraska coming behind.

Those are my thoughts-what are yours?  Do you agree with myself and AMPAS (and pretty much every other precursor) that this was Lubezki's time (to be fair, I've given him another OVP trophy already), or was there someone else that deserved the nomination?  Anyone want to come to Nebraska's defense?  How did Sean Bobbitt miss for a nomination when his film won Best Picture and he had multiple precursors?  And, of course, what was the best lensed film of 2013?  Share in the comments!

Past Best Cinematography Contests: 2009201020112012

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