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Cinematography Race Gives “Sicario”’s Roger Deakins a Chance to Earn Lucky Nomination # 13

Cinematography is perhaps the most revered of cinematic art forms. The reason for this is simple – our films would literally not exist without the camera. From crafting mood and atmosphere to wowing us with the sheer ability to have “pulled off” a shot, cinematographers (also known as directors of photography or “D.P.s”) are the amazing talents responsible for realizing a director’s vision through command of the camera. And after the director, D.P.s are arguably the most important person on a film’s set.

The cinematographers’ branch in the Academy is a group that loves epic luscious landscapes and war films. The branch is also relatively keen on foreign-language titles. And there is usually – though by no means always – significant overlap between the Cinematography race and the Best Picture race. (An unfortunate bizarre fact – this is the only Oscar category outside of Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor that has never featured a female nominee, while every other has featured a winner. Anywho, on to the contenders…)

One likely nominee is wrapping up its first week in theatres. Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario” allowed the great Roger Deakins to create a hectic, gritty world with amazing shots (particularly those night shots!) that built the mood oh-so-well. A twelve-time nominee who was nominated for his last collaboration with Villeneuve (“Prisoners”), I suspect Deakins will once against find himself in the race.
Unfortunately, Deakins may have a difficult time finally getting that statuette on his mantle. The favorite in this category is likely back-to-back winner Emmanuel Lubezki, seeking win #3 for Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Reverent.” Fresh off wins for “Birdman” and “Gravity,” the exceptionally talented Lubezki is seeking to recreate the early 1800s American West. That sounds intriguing enough. It’s going to feature harrowing scenes and scenery, all under the watchful eyes of Lubezki and Iñárritu. And from what we’ve seen, it indeed looks like a visual feast.

Another director who is known to get the most of camerawork is, of course, Quentin Tarantino. One of the last directors insisting on using film as opposed to digital technology, “The Hateful Eight” is only going to re-emphasize his approach to filmmaking, being released in ultra-wide format. Robert Richardson earned nominations six and eight for “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” respectively (he’s won for “JFK,” “The Aviator,” and “Hugo”). This latest title will present many opportunities for epic landscapes and showy, mood-building scenes. And there’s the scope. Seems like a good bet.

Next week, Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” hits screens. Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski have a great working relationship, with Kaminski, this year’s Hollywood Film Awards honoree, earning five nominations and two wins for his collaborations with Spielberg. “Bridge of Spies” looks like it ultimately may be a more commercial venture, and viewers are still debating the extent to which Kaminski’s work will be recognized as the stand out. But it would be foolish to discount him for mood-building period work with Spielberg.

Mood-building (and homage cognizance) earned Edward Lachmann his first nomination in this category thirteen years ago for “Far From Heaven.” Now, he’s reuniting with Todd Haynes for “Carol.” The world has changed in the meantime and Haynes’s work may find itself more embraced now than it was then. If so, Lachmann could find himself with his second nod. That remains somewhat of an “if,” however, nor is the film as visually-focussed as “Far From Heaven.” (Though very few films are that visually-focussed!)
Another D.P. searching for nomination #2 is Danny Cohen. After riding the coattails of “The King’s Speech” to a first nod five years ago, he likely came very close to another for “Les Misérables.” This year, he has two different vehicles in the race. He is once again working with Tom Hooper on “The Danish Girl,” which appears to have period-building, mood-building, and closeup shots similar to those that earned the nod five years ago. “Room,” on the other hand, may seem less Oscar-like but it also may have more wondrous cinematography as its characters literally discover the world. We’ll see whether he can make the cut for both or either.

Anthony Dod Mantle, like Cohen, has managed to earn his sole nomination for a Best Picture winner. In his case, it was “Slumdog Millionaire.” He also found victory for that bright-eyed love letter to Mumbai. Still waiting for nomination #2, Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea” could be it. The title must have been moved from summer to the end of the year for a reason, and water films sometimes find a home in this category. So even though it largely remains a mystery, keep an eye on this flick.

Hoyte Van Hoytema is a talented Dutch D.P. destined to earn his first nomination one of these years, having lensed titles such as “The Fighter,” “Her, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” and “Interstellar” this decade. On “Spectre,” he has the impossible task of stepping into Roger Deakins’s shoes as Sam Mendes’s cinematographer of choice. “Skyfall” was the first Bond movie to be nominated in this category. “Spectre” looks visually interesting from what we’ve seen so far so let’s keep an eye on Van Hoytema. Mendes chose him for a reason.

With the exception of Van Hoytema, I’ve so far only discussed past nominees. But there is almost always a first-timer among the nominees in this category. So I’d look to Best Picture contenders such as “Suffragette,” with cinematography courtesy of Edward Grau, and “Steve Jobs,” lensed by Irwin H. Küchler, for their mood-building camerawork. If we’re moving further from the Best Picture race, “Youth” is a visually memorable film that could make a first-time nominee out of Luca Bigazzi. Mátyás Erdély would seem to have the best chance to get nominated for a foreign-language film for “Son of Saul.” I’d also seriously consider all these contenders, particularly Erdély.

I’ll end by citing someone who absolutely should be nominated – John Seale is a four time nominee/one-time winner (“The English Patient”) who hasn’t been invited to the dance for over a decade. “Mad Max: Fury Road” was an extraordinary visual feast that showed he has as much ingenuity, creativity, and perseverance as he has ever had. I do question somewhat whether the film could be “too much” for the Academy but I can’t help but think the cinematographers will make room for an old comrade.

Those are the top fourteen contenders as I see them. And if I had to predict the final five from this far out, I’d go with “The Hateful Eight,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Reverent,” “Sicario,” and “Son of Saul.” Though things will change over the next few months. We’ll be sure to keep an eye on this always interesting race…


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