Thursday, September 01, 2016

OVP: Cinematography (2007)

OVP: Best Cinematography (2007)

The Nominees Were...

Roger Deakins, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Seamus McGarvey, Atonement
Janusz Kaminski, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Roger Deakins, No Country for Old Men
Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood

My Thoughts: Whenever I am done viewing one of the OVP films, I always make a little mark in a couple of spreadsheets on my computer, filled with reviews for the films, and giving a star rating next to each of the nominees.  I tend to be on the harsh side-after all, we're judging on an Oscar-curve here, comparing a nominee to fellow nominees, and not just to any category out there.  However, the 2007 Cinematography race stands out in a strong way in these notes, as so far it's the only category we've encountered where every single one of the nominees earned a five-star rating in my book.  Yes, in terms of quality, I'd say that this year's nominees may be the strongest lineup we've yet to encounter as a collective, and so I'm thrilled to be able to get to write about them (though less enthused about ultimately making a decision about who should win).

Let's start with the showiest, but also the trickiest, of these films, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.  The film is certainly my least favorite of the five in terms of the actual movie, but arguing with the film's cinematography is a difficult chore.  It starts out claustrophobic and I was worried initially that it would appear gimmicky.  Even with someone like Kaminski, long a favorite of Steven Spielberg's, behind the camera it was questionable whether he could sustain the trick of an alternating and limited worldview, but as Bauby's view of his life expands, so does the camera in a gorgeous bit of symmetry.  The actual shots are all meticulously-drawn together, a wonderful backdrop for a film that strives to see the world as beautiful from every vantage, and it does that in its photography (even if the script doesn't get there).

Atonement has an equally effective gimmick (I mean both of these as a compliment, because they work), with the five-minute tracking shot across the battle at Dunkirk coming seemingly out-of-nowhere and then just towering as a triumphant midpoint in the picture.  I have long been a sucker for a tracking shot (they tend to help really strong movies, which is of course what Atonement is), and it's carried out beautifully, perfectly complimenting the oil-y light that accompanies the rest of the picture.  It's a stunt, but a stunt that works against the rest of the picture, instilling the horrors of war upon us in a ravaged way that I wouldn't have expected from a romantic drama.  All-in-all, it's the crown but there's lots of jewels (the way the "Briony" yell is shot in both closeup and extended shots, for example, is cheeky and dire all at once so you aren't quite sure where the scene is going to head).  Atonement is a film that was inevitably going to be gorgeous (hello Keira and James), but Seamus McGarvey still found ways to add to that head start.

There Will Be Blood is strange because I think it was the first time I ever really paid attention to the cinematography in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, which is odd mostly because all of his films are quite beautiful in this regard, albeit few have the advantage of desolate oil fields and bare bones churches to frame that attention-to-detail.  The film itself is marvelous, and Elswit finds ways to make even the most grotesque things (really, this is a nasty bit of country the way it is treated by Daniel Plainview) somehow gorgeous and extremely cruel.  I love the ways that he frames Day-Lewis's head, making it seem larger than it actually is and almost bigger than his body would allow, and the great angles he finds of the church and oil rig, always looking up, until the final scenes where he's looking down upon Daniel.  It's a religious movie in many ways, and it helps that Elswit is unforgiving in that regard with his camera.

Finally we come to the dual entries of one Roger Deakins, arguably my favorite cinematographer working today (give or take Lubezki), and someone who criminally doesn't have an Oscar even if he already has two OVP Awards (want to know which?-explore the links at the bottom of the page).  I have long wondered if he split his votes here as it's hard to imagine him losing for No Country for Old Men, a Best Picture winner, in a normal year.  The film itself is fantastically lit, a moving series of action sequences that feel just Coen enough to still qualify as the brothers' finest film, but very much in the vein of the hot desert of a Cormac McCarthy novel.  The movie proceeds with some really iconic shots, particularly of the desolate Texas landscape (it feels like every film from The Counselor to Hell or High Water in this region since has been borrowing from Deakins' iconography), and of the different cast members.  Remember that terrific dim lighting during the first chase sequence between Brolin and Bardem, and how it should have felt too dark, but never did, and yet retained its authenticity?  That's very tricky and almost never done well, and for that alone Deakins deserved recognition.  Considering the entire rest of the movie looks like that is staggering.

The Assassination of Jesse James is one of my favorite movies of this millennium.  At the time it didn't make the cut for my favorite films of the year, but in hindsight it should have (2007 was a treasure trove of cinematic wonder-I can't recall a year like it in my lifetime).  Assassination has some of the most beautiful shots I've seen from Deakins, particularly those long dusk sequences between Pitt and Affleck, and the way he frames Pitt so that you get why Affleck is lusting after him.  Cinematographers famously love to lens Pitt (and Oscar has shown his appreciation), but here we see him stand out from the landscape in a menacing way that I haven't witnessed before.  The use of tan, orange, and blue in this film is really exceptional-I can't say enough good things about this movie, and am glad at least with Cinematography (it should have been more) it did so well.

Other Precursor Contenders: The American Society of Cinematographers stayed close to the Academy here, choosing all five of the same as Oscar and additionally going with There Will Be Blood.  The BAFTA Awards went a bit different, skipping Jesse James and Diving Bell and instead going with the aged-look of American Gangster and the heavy blues of The Bourne Ultimatum (Deakins for No Country won).  I honestly think that this is a year where sixth place is indeterminable-I personally feel like these were the five leaders the entire time.
Films I Would Have Nominated: I am not going to argue with this list.  I'm just going to say that there were a plethora of strong choices if Oscar hadn't gotten it so right that would have felt okay, like the indigo-silvers of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix or the classy camerawork of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, or the light-drained boardrooms of Michael Clayton or especially the rain-soaked brilliance of Harris Savides in Zodiac, arguably the finest work of his illustrious career (Oscar ignoring him so consistently was a criminal offense, in my opinion).  In almost any other year I'd whine about Savides in particular getting snubbed, but AMPAS deserves a bravo for this lineup.
Oscar's Choice: In what I'm guessing was a close race between No Country and Blood, Robert Elswit duplicated his ASC trophy to finally take his Oscar (which still eludes Roger Deakins).
My Choice: I'm going to go backward, because that may be easier.  I'm giving fifth to Diving Bell and fourth to There Will Be Blood.  Atonement's tracking shot takes the bronze, and then I'm stumped.  If ties were a thing I might just give Deakins two trophies, but I do think that No Country for Old Men, while it never reaches a couple of the heights of Jesse James, is the more consistent film  (there's not a shot in the film that feels careless), and so I'd give Deakins the trophy for that (and his third OVP).

Those are my thoughts-what are yours?  Are you with me that this is one of the best lineups Oscar ever pulled together?  Are you with AMPAS on There Will Be Blood or are you with Team Deakins?  And which of Harris Savides's films most deserved that Oscar nod that always eluded him?  Share your thoughts below!

Past Best Cinematography Contests: 200820092010201120122013, 2014

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