Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011

Best Cinematography

Black Swan, Matthew Libatique
Inception, Wally Pfister (WINNER)
The King's Speech, Danny Cohen
The Social Network, Jeff Cronenweth
True Grit, Roger Deakins

This begins a series of categories whose nominees are true artists of the medium but don't get their names on the Oscar ballot; in the "craft" categories, only the film title is mentioned. Cinematography is one facet of moviemaking that has changed radically in the past decade. Camera mavens no longer feel obliged to shoot on the traditional 35mm film. Black Swan was shot on Super 16, rendering the images grainier; The Social Network, shot digitally, didn't use film at all. Do these technological wrinkles matter to Academy members? Probably not: the voters are looking for a great-looking picture — which is not the same as Best Picture. In the eight Oscar ceremonies from 2000 to 2007, the film that earned the cinematography award did not once take Best Picture. In five of those years, the final top Oscar winner had not even been nominated in the cinematography category.

Many Oscar schmoozers are forecasting a win for True Grit's Roger Deakins, because this revered cinematographer and two-time American Society of Cinematographers laureate (for The Shawshank Redemption and The Man Who Wasn't There) has been nominated for an Oscar nine times and has never won. The received wisdom is that, for Deakins, it's time. But if the Academy voters could ignore him over and over — even when No Country for Old Men, which he shot, took Best Picture — they can do it again. They don't give lifetime-achievement awards in the guise of Best Cinematography Oscars. And remember, while we've provided it here, Deakins' name is not on the actual Academy ballot.

Inception won this year's guild citation from the American Society of Cinematographers. That's not a strong harbinger of Oscar success; only four times in the past decade have the awards coincided. (Last year the ASC prize went to the black-and-white German film The White Ribbon — over Avatar!) Nor do we discount the steamroller effect that may bring The King's Speech a handful of Oscars in the craft categories. Still, we suspect that the Academy will be looking to give Inception a door prize or two and that Pfister, who's been nominated three times previously for shooting Christopher Nolan movies (Batman Begins, The Prestige and The Dark Knight), will be the beneficiary of that dismissive largesse.