Monday, February 26, 2018

Who Will Win the Oscar for Best Cinematography?

This article ran as part of this year’s LAMB Devours the Oscars series.

In a rare change of pace for Oscar discussion, a technical award is one of the most talked about races this year. When the Oscar nominations were announced last month, people were ecstatic when cinematographer Rachel Morrison became the first woman ever nominated for Best Cinematography. Morrison has some very strong competition, as nearly every nominee has an honest chance of winning. Let’s dive into each nominee by discussing their chances this year, their past work, and how Oscar politics could play a part in who wins.

Roger Deakins – Blade Runner 2049
Roger Deakins is a legend. He’s one of the best cinematographers in the game, and has been for decades. Shockingly, Deakins has yet to win an Oscar, despite being nominated for this award 14 times. He should have a few Oscars already (his work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford reinvented what cinematography can do), but if there’s one thing I loathe about the Oscars, it is awarding someone simply because it is their time. I firmly believe that Oscars should be awarded for the current work, not a career of work. And, thankfully, with that noted, if Deakins wins this year, it will absolutely be justified, as Blade Runner 2049 looks astounding. Blade Runner 2049 was as audacious a studio film that was released in 2017, and Deakins helped create (and maintain) the film’s massive scope. If I voted, Deakins would get my vote.

Bruno Delbonnel – Darkest Hour
I love Bruno Delbonnel, but he’s the one nominee that I wouldn’t have nominated here. Regardless, he is nominated, and he has an underdog’s shot at winning. Similar to Deakins, the Academy loves to nominate Delbonnel, but not award him. Delbonnel has five career nominations, including one for Amélie, which is one of the best looking films ever lensed. Gary Oldman is presumably a lock for Best Actor for Darkest Hour, but I’m not sure that helps Delbonnel’s chances much. Unfortunately for Delbonnel, I think he’ll have to accept his nomination as his award.

Hoyte Van Hoytema – Dunkrik
Hoyte Van Hoytema is relatively new to lensing major movies, beginning with Let the Right One In in 2008. But since then, his career has excelled, shooting films like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Her, Spectre and more. Surprisingly, this is Hoytema’s first Oscar nomination (he should’ve been nominated in 2014 for shooting Interstellar), and, moreover, he is some of Deakins’ biggest competition. Say what you will about Dunkirk, but the movie looked great. Shot largely on IMAX 65mm film, the cinematography of Dunkirk was a character itself. But I’m not sure Christopher Nolan’s film has the overall award’s buzz to take home any major prizes, if any at all.

Rachel Morrison – Mudbound
This is the nominee everyone is talking about, and that, in today’s culture, is enough to get you a major award. Best to be clear here: Morrison deserves to be nominated in this category, but I do not think Mudbound is a better shot film than Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk, or The Shape of Water. Still, if Morrison were to win, you wouldn’t hear me complaining. The Oscars are heavily influenced by culture politics. This is fact. And it has became more apparent in the last decade. It is baffling that it took the Academy this long to nominate a woman in this category, but her nomination is well earned, and is being buzzed about constantly. Beyond that, Netflix is going to campaign very hard for Morrison here, as they should. Ultimately, I don’t believe Morrison will win, but if she did, it should surprise no one.

Dan Laustsen – The Shape of Water
This is veteran cinematographer, Dan Laustsen’s first Oscar nomination, and he has the benefit of potentially riding the Shape of Water train all the way to the winner’s podium. We see this all the time at the Oscars: a technically brilliant film racks up the most nominations, and instead of spreading the wealth, Oscar voters simply vote for that film in most every category. Basically, I could easily see The Shape of Water winning all the technical awards, cinematography included, if for no other reason than voter laziness. That isn’t to say Laustsen shouldn’t be here. His work in the film is gorgeous, and his win would be justified. 

Phantom Thread
For my money, Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), Thimios Bakatakis (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Darius Khondji (The Lost City of Z), Matthew Libatique (mother!), Philippe Le Sourd (The Beguiled), Sean Price Williams (Good Time), and Alexis Zabe (The Florida Project) all deserve to be here over Delbonnel. And that’s just naming a few. If I handpicked the Best Cinematography category, I would’ve nominated Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), Thimios Bakatakis (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049), Hoyte Van Hoytema (Dunkrik), and Matthew Libatique (mother!), with Deakins winning out. But that’s just me.

Who Will Win?
Roger Deakins
Any year where Roger Deakins is nominated makes for a very difficult year to call. My instinct is that Oscar voters will wise up and finally award Deakins, but I’m fully aware that is wishful thinking on my part. Roger Deakins won the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) award on February 17, but that winner doesn’t always help predict the eventual Oscar winner (Greig Fraser won the ASC award last year for Lion, but lost the Oscar to Linus Sandgren for La La Land).

Last year, sound mixer Kevin O’Connell finally won an Oscar (for mixing Hacksaw Ridge) after 21 nominations and zero previous wins. The amount of times O’Connell lost helped him gain a sort of Oscar infamy, and voters finally paid attention. I’m wondering, hopefully, if that is Deakins’ fate this year. Sadly, my gut tells me Dan Laustsen has a very good chance of winning for The Shape of Water. I’ll give the edge to Deakins. He needs all the positive reinforcement he can get.

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  1. While I think Dunkirk is the better film, Deakins' work in Blade Runner 2049 is just incredible in many ways. He NEEDS to win this. I wouldn't mind if Dan Laustsen or Hoyte van Hoytema win the Oscar but it wouldn't feel right. I haven't seen what Rachel Morrison has done for Mudbound but her work for Ryan Coogler's films definitely will give her another Oscar nod in the future. I love Bruno Delbonnel but I have no interest in The Darkest Hour.

    1. I agree with every word of this comment. Many of the nominees deserve to win for this *(and may...) but come on, give it to Deakins!

  2. This really has to be Roger Deakins' year. Blade Runner 2049 was absolutely stunning. I'll also be happy if Hoyte Van Hoytema or Dan Laustsen wins, but Roger Deakins definitely has my vote. One that i really felt got snubbed this year though was Ben Richardson for Wind River. That movie didn't get any nomination this year, but i feel like it definitely deserved one for both it's cinematography and score. The movie just made me feel like i was freezing my ass off with the characters. It was beautiful and bleak at the same time.

    1. Fully agree about Deakins (and Van Hoytema and Laustsen - could be any of them). Great call on Wind River, that movie did feel absolutely freezing. It's a shame that film didn't make the cut for the Oscars. It was such a fearless movie.

  3. I just want to let you know that your Breaking Down Kevin O’Connell’s Oscar Nominations link is broken. I just get a bad request error when i click it.

  4. Dunkirk looks fantastic but I want Deakins to win this.

  5. I don’t like the fact of mixing politics with talent. I have even wondered sometimes why not stop having female/male categories for the performers and just mix them. It would be fun to see if Meryl “can beat” Day-Lewis or the other way around. They did it this year at the MTV Movie Awards. Emma Watson won the award because I guess the audience just liked her more than the other people nominated. Some might say women would be forgotten or something like that but I’ve always wondered why not give it a try one year to see what happens. In all the other categories it works that way... One might say there are more men working in all the other categories but on the performers categories it makes no sense at all to me. Well, that might be just something I'm curious about. With all that said, I think in this case in particular I’d give it to Deakins too and hope politics don’t get in the middle of who deserves it more this year. I haven’t seen the Blade Runner sequel yet but from the clips/images I’ve seen it looks wonderful and I love his previous work, the man is really talented and I think it would make sense if he wins the award. If Morrison is that good she might be winning one soon too.

    From your great analysis of the other nominees I have to say I loved Laustsen’s work on Le Pacte des Loups a lot, and I think he's the perfect DP for del Toro. Even though I would love to see a collaboration of Del Toro with Chivo Lubezki. He did great with Sleepy Hollow I think he'll be good for Del Toro's vision too. From Delbonnel it’s almost a tie with Amélie but I think Across the Universe gotta be my favorite film from him, the visuals were stunning. I have to watch Dunkirk asap, Interstellar was amazing and I also loved what Hoytema did in Her, the whole film looked like some kind of tech dream, if that makes any sense…

    Haven’t seen anything Morrison has done before. So, talking about female directors of photography I wonder if they could have nominated a women who really deserved it before: Maryse Alberti. She could have been nominated for Velvet Goldmine (brilliant) or The Wrestler. She actually won the Spirit award for both films. There are a couple of others DP whose work is quite good too like Reed Morano, who caught my eye thanks to For Ellen, or Mandy Walker who has worked in several good films but I specially loved what she did in Lantana. And there is Autumn Durald, who hasn’t been working for long, she’s young, but I loved what she did in Palo Alto.

    Let's see what happens... A friend has send me a picture of people posting on twitter: "If Roger Deakins doesn’t win tonight, we riot". Might be his night, finally!

    1. del Toro did work with Chivo back in the 80s with Alfonso Cuaron for a horror show they did as it was part of their training in film.

    2. Oh yeah, I know about their friendship but I meant that they haven't work together in a 'current' project.

    3. Great comment! Really appreciate your insight on politics vs. talent and all of the nominees. Whew, I was so so so happy when Deakins won. Easily my favorite award of the night. I'm eager for YouTube to upload his speech because I missed most of it from freaking out haha.

      A fresh del Toro/Chivo collab would be amazing!