Friday, February 22, 2008

Best Cinematography

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

Will win: Yikes. And I thought adapted screenplay was tough. Ordinarily I’d go through the list and try to eliminate one nominee at a time, but that won’t work here because absolutely none of them can easily be eliminated. Assassination of Jesse James is a mythic Western with classically gorgeous sunsets and long silhouetted figures. Atonement has The Dunkirk Shot. No Country for Old Men is so elegantly made that every frame seems painstakingly composed. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has that unique style placing us in its hero’s perspective, plus that amazing scene where Bauby’s eye gets stitched up and it’s almost as if the doctor is stitching up the camera’s lens as well, plus Kaminski is Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer (major currency there). And There Will Be Blood has that flaming oil derrick, its message of greed and corruption and the loss of innocence billowing out across the night sky.

So I’m just going to say fuck it and take There Will Be Blood for two reasons. First, it won the same award from the American Society of Cinematographers, which included these exact five films on its short list, so those people seem to know what they’re talking about. And second, well, No Country for Old Men can’t win everything, right? Um, right?

Should win: In the words of George Costanza, I’m speechless – I have no speech. Look, the Academy is notoriously reliable for bungling the Best Cinematography category. It almost always leaves out one of the three most beautifully photographed films of the year. It’s a tradition up there with Manny Ramirez not running out a groundball in August and my Dad calling me and gently saying, “So, law school, on me, what do you think?”. Last year it excluded Zhang Yimou’s sumptuous Curse of the Golden Flower, as well as Michael Mann’s gorgeous Miami Vice. In 2005, Jarhead (the previous movie shot by Roger Deakins, who in case you didn’t notice is nominated twice this year) didn’t make the cut. The year before the voters thankfully included House of Flying Daggers but somehow excluded its even more colorful cousin, Hero. And in 2003, the Academy dutifully recognized the greatness of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and gave it 11 Oscars, tying with Titanic and Ben-Hur for the most of all-time … only it didn’t fucking nominate the movie for Best Cinematography.

(Honestly, I think that last one has to be the most inexplicable Oscar oversight of all-time. I guess the only other option is Hoop Dreams not making Best Documentary, but Hoop Dreams sort of annoyed me. The exclusion of Return of the King was just preposterous. It was the ultimate Oscar favorite, it dominated categories it had no business of winning like Best Original Song and Best Editing, and – and this is not a matter of opinion – it’s one of the most beautifully photographed films of all-time. I still believe the 2003 Oscars accidentally switched the envelopes for Best Cinematography and Best Editing. There is no other explanation.)

Which is why I’m so flabbergasted that this year, the Academy seems to have gotten everything right. Any of these five movies would be entirely deserving of a Best Cinematography Oscar. No matter which film wins, I will be pleased.

Think of it this way: When announcing individual awards at the Oscars, presenters used to say “And the winner is …”, only in 1989 the Academy decided that was mean and officially switched the saying to “And the Oscar goes to …”. Well, that was absolutely idiotic. You’re telling me it honestly assuages the dismal feelings of loss from the nominees who didn’t win – or should I say, to whom the Oscar didn’t go – if they don’t hear the word “winner”? Don’t they still see someone else jump up in jubilation, go on stage, and deliver something that sounds suspiciously like a victory speech?

Here’s my point: This year, I honestly think that for this particular award, whoever’s presenting it really should say “And the Oscar goes to” rather than “And the winner is”. It’s just unfair to imply that one of these five movies is more of a “winner” than the others.

(O.K. fine, I don’t really think that. In fact that’s incredibly lame, and anyone who supports the usage of “And the Oscar goes to” should either be shot, deported, or forced to share a room with Anton Chigurh for five minutes. But I was trying to make a point – they’re all really good.)

I almost want to abstain here, but I despise people who abstain from having an opinion, so I’ll force myself to pick someone and take Seamus McGarvey for Atonement. Why? Three reasons. First, I love Atonement – I want it to win as many awards, garner as much praise, and make as much money as possible. Second, I like the name “Seamus” – it reminds me of Seamus Finnigan, the Irish kid who keeps accidentally setting his eyebrows on fire in the Harry Potter movies (“It’s not like I try to blow things up exactly, it just sort of happens”). And third, Atonement is the only movie that features a single shot that will be remembered forever. I mean that literally – for all time. I don’t care if every human is wiped off the face of the earth except for Charlton Heston – The Dunkirk Shot will never fade from the consciousness of the world.

Deserving (Hey, just because the five nominees are perfect doesn’t mean I can’t highlight a few others):
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – Slawomir Idziak. Some people have argued that it’s become a cliché to discuss how each progressive installment in the Harry Potter series is progressively darker than the prior chapter. Those people are stupid. Yet another great thing about Rowling’s fantasy novels is that they expertly depict the process of maturation, both in terms of her characters’ feelings – the gradual development of romantic inclinations, the introduction of complex feelings of anger, jealousy, and resentment – and her complex, consequential plotlines. It’s only fitting, then, that each Harry Potter movie should take on a new level of cinematic darkness, not only in terms of its mood but its look.

And boy, does Order of the Phoenix ever deliver in that department. Remember the first few scenes set in Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? There was Harry, all of 11 years old, wide-eyed and innocent, staring in wonder at the moving staircases, the talking portraits, the starry ceiling of the Great Hall. It was a warm, welcoming palace, full of youthful marvels and impish delights.

That school of wizardry and witchcraft is now a mere relic. The Hogwarts we see in this film is not a friendly place. Idziak – who worked with famed Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski on a number of films – lights the school’s corridors in cold, unforgiving tones of steely blue-grey. Sometimes, the school takes on a similar appearance to the ominous Department of Mysteries, that dark labyrinth of which Harry dreams. The severe exception to this is Umbridge’s office, which is presented entirely in a garish shade of pink. But this is simply the same darkness exhibited in an alternate form, as it accentuates the harsh, unremitting cruelty of Umbridge’s persona. Even most of the exterior shots in the film, such as a snow-blanketed Hogsmeade, feel strangely foreboding.

To be fair, there are moments of bright majesty as well. The introduction to the Ministry of Magic is dazzling, with the vivid green whoosh of floo powder flashing along the edges of the frame. And the film’s final shot pulls back to a serene, well-lit afternoon sky, offering a flicker of hope in the dark and difficult times that lie ahead.

But a flicker is all it is. The cloud signifying Voldemort’s ascension to power is growing ever darker. That may be discouraging news for the characters of the Harry Potter universe, but it’s great for us. Again, Yates needs to re-watch this movie before making his next – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is so delectably dark, I can’t imagine why he would ever want to lighten things up.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – Dariusz Wolski. If the Hogwarts student body were ever to stage a musical (something more substantial than the bizarre, delightful rendition of “Something wicked this way comes” in Prisoner of Azkaban), it should import Tim Burton to direct. If Order of the Phoenix is dark, Sweeney Todd seems almost colorless, as though anything resembling light has been leeched from its world. The streets are filthy and rotting, but when Burton pulls his camera upward, even the sky seems clouded in grey ugliness. Wolski shot the classic science-fiction film Dark City, another world cloaked in darkness, and he leverages that experience here.
Flashes of color make their way into this cruel monochromatic universe, first in the form of a flamboyantly blue suit donned by Sacha Baron Cohen. Later there’s a startling dream sequence with a sky so blue it seems gaudy. But that is mere fantasy. The only real color that matters in Sweeney Todd is red, and as life leaks from the throats of Sweeney’s customers, Wolski turns up the contrast, so that the formerly drab streets of London are soon running red with rivers of blood.

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