Monday, November 09, 2015

OVP: Cinematography (2014)

OVP: Best Cinematography (2014)

The Nominees Were...

Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Robert Yeoman, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, Ida
Dick Pope, Mr. Turner
Roger Deakins, Unbroken

My Thoughts: We now turn our attention to my favorite category at the Oscars, Best Cinematography.  Consistently one of the most impressive lineups of the ceremonies, this year's nominees ran-the-gamut between Best Picture frontrunners to the beloved grand-masters of the category that are perpetually nominated to of course the mandatory black-and-white film that almost always seems to sneak in (it seems to be the favored pet of the branch).  We'll start with that film, the tiny Polish flick that could Ida.

Ida's a strange situation in this category partially because it feels in some ways like it's only nominated for being black-and-white.  The category is famous for going for this format, and sometimes it is much to the chagrin of yours truly (such as Nebraska, which had nothing impressive in its presentation other than a lack of color).  Ida, though, moves beyond the confines of traditional black-and-white and seems very much wanting to play with the shadows that it provides.  The film's lighting and unknowable main character are reflected in the lensing-we see Ida so often in closeup, but we never really learn anything about her and what she's doing behind that veil.  The film's shots are bare and lacking in any sort of cinematic flourishes, and you feel the coldness and quiet of the movie in the camerawork.  This may have been included simply because of the black-and-white, but what a splendid decision.

This isn't to say that I don't love an occasional camera trick, of course, and that's clear from the moment Birdman starts.  Lubezki is, in my opinion, the greatest cinematographer currently working at the movies, and his work here is no exception.  We of course get the great feat of making the entire film seem as if it is shot in one gloriously long take, something you don't really catch until you start recalling past scenes while watching and realize the film never really has cut away from what's going on in front of our eyes.  The film's actual shots, though, are mesmerizing-I loved the freshness of the rooftop scenes and the way that Lubezki plays with the flickering glow of New York City lights, never making us feel like he's manufacturing the atmosphere of the city, but simply catching it behind his camera.  The extended looks at actors for a longer period of time gives us more depth and more emotions, as we see them not just when they're emoting or talking, but when they're reacting.  It's a combination of his signature charm with some older-style movie magic (seeing multiple stars at once!), and I ate up every moment.

Lubezki's work was rivaled by many commenters, including myself, in what is created by Dick Pope in Mr. Turner.  Pope's work is clearly manufactured, but it's so radiant you don't remotely care, and most of the movie you're just sort of in awe of what he's done.  His camera finds all of the light that made JMW Turner one of the truly great artists, finding us in the dewiness of his scenery and landscapes.  Each scene folds into the next with aplomb, as if you're seeing an animated film on occasion, but it's oh-so-real.  Pope looks to the costumes and the set design, and folds them all in meticulously, so that you're seeing details in the way you would in an art gallery.  This is truly landmark work, the kind that should be studied, and is in many ways taking the grandeur of someone like Frederick Young and folding it into the more effects-driven cinematography that we've come to expect in recent years in this category.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is just fine by comparison, though there are moments here that resonate as well.  The lighting on the mountains, and the reduced visibility are reminders of risking cloudiness but gaining a foggy realism.  The movie's scenes are shot as if you're staring onto a stage, as well, with the storytelling angle being quite specific and this works, though it's not so consistent as to feel like you're literally watching a taped play.  Still, the scenes aren't remotely as consistent as Mr. Turner and Birdman, and doesn't have the storytelling depth that I associate with Ida.  It's simply a pretty picture, which is great and sometimes even good enough for Oscar, but AMPAS really outdid itself this year and that just didn't cut it.

The same has to be said for my beloved Roger Deakins, the only cameraman that rivals Lubezki for my affections (click past years below for proof).  Deakins is a marvelous cinematographer, and occasionally we get that in some of the crowd shots of Unbroken, but by-and-large this isn't his best work.  He knows when to sell scenes (the dank greenness before Jack O'Connell goes to the camps you can almost feel the sweat), but too much of the film feels like simple, simple, simple, GLORIOUS, simple, simple, as if Deakins is only putting delicate care behind what will be his money-shots, and less behind simple closeups.  He's not helped by the makeup department, who is bound-and-determined to make O'Connell the most attractive prisoner you've ever seen (the dirt on his face looks like it was put there by a Revlon artist), but Deakins only really sells the great shots in this film, and doesn't do much with the more routine sequences that Lubezki and Pope both make sing.

Other Precursor Contenders: The ASC, surely the classiest precursor award, was pretty close to Oscar, skipping over only Ida (foreign films sometimes are a harder sell here) in favor of The Imitation Game (Birdman still won).  The BAFTA Awards passed over Unbroken and put Hoyte van Hoytema's Interstellar in its place (again going with Birdman, however).  As for a sixth place, I initially thought both Interstellar and Theory of Everything (which had a very singular gold palette I thought the Academy might enjoy) would be included, so one of them is probably right around the fifth place line.  Perhaps van Hoytema, who has been so close for years now to finally getting in this club.
Films I Would Have Nominated: Last year was a plethora of riches in this department, and it's so hard to say who I would put in place of the two I clearly would have skipped.  I loved what Yves Belanger did with Wild, particularly the scene where Witherspoon crosses the bridge, but I think I'd have to skip that one in favor of van Hoytema's (admittedly effects-driven but gorgeous nonetheless) Interstellar and the rich and lonely landscapes of Rodrigo Prieto's The Homesman.
Oscar's Choice: With a Best Picture that impressively-shot, it didn't take a rocket scientist to assume that Birdman would win, probably over Mr. Turner and then Grand Budapest.
My Choice: Wow-what a duel between the top two contenders.  When it gets that technical, I simply need to go for a favorite, which is Mr. Turner, but Birdman lovers get no clucks from me.  Ida follows, with Grand Budapest and Unbroken bringing up the rear.

Those are my thoughts-what are yours?  Are you with AMPAS on Birdman or do you find yourself in the camp of Mr. Turner?  What is it going to take to get Hoyte van Hoytema a nomination (or Roger Deakins a trophy, for that matter)?  And considering Grand Budapest was the only nominee shot on film, how long before we get an entirely digital lineup?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

Past Best Cinematography Contests: 200820092010201120122013

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