The Academy Award for Best Cinematography is one of the oldest awards, dating back to the very first ceremony, for films released 1927-28. Between the years of 1939 and 1967, two awards were given out for cinematography–one award for black-and-white cinematography, one for color. In 1968 the two awards became one since very few black-and-white films were made anymore, and the only black-and-white film to win since the merger was Schindler’s List in 1993. The award is given to the best person that basically brings the most out of the images in the camera. A director generally frames a shot, where a cinematographer essentially brings out the life in said shot. In 2007, the award went to Guillermo Navarro for Pan’s Labyrinth. Two men have won the award four times: Joseph Ruttenberg (whose most notable film is Gigi, 1958) and Leon Shamroy (Cleopatra, 1963). The most recent three-time winner of the award is Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969; American Beauty, 1999; Road to Perdition, 2002).

oscar-cine1.jpgRoger Deakins, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Why Is It Nominated?: Deakins is a well-established cinematographer most notably known for the work he’s done with the Coen Brothers over the past decade and a half. This year, along with being nominated for No Country for Old Men, seems to be the year Deakins could bring home his first statue in seven attempts. Jesse James is not the best movie nominated, but no one can deny Deakins’ work here. The way he frames shadows is second to none and those that have seen Jesse James know that virtually the entire film is shot in shadows. When we step into the light, however, Deakins employs his golden-rich gels, which give the picture a brutal, harsh tone, and is a tactic he used when photographing O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000. This contrast of mysterious shadow and brutal reality helps tell the story.

Why It Might Win: It might win for the reasons listed above. Deakins’ cinematography does as good a job telling the story as the screenplay does (and some, including the Fat Guys at the Movies that hated this film, would say a better job). A Deakins-framed shot says more than any amount words ever can.

Why It Might Not Win: Jesse James is not getting very much love elsewhere, and since Deakins is also nominated this year for No Country (and that is tied with There Will Be Blood for most nominations) the Academy will probably pull for the more highly touted film. Plus, if Deakins were to win, it only makes sense that he win for yet another stellar collaboration with the Coen Brothers.

oscar-cine2.jpgSeamus McGarvey, Atonement

Why Is It Nominated?: Atonement is a beautiful movie. McGarvey is nominated because he manages to put as much beauty and detail into a vast English estate as he did into a war-torn Irish beach. The fact that he was able to photograph such extremes with the same precision and passion is worthy of a nomination.

Why It Might Win: The 5-minute shot of war-torn Dunkirk is by far the best and most visually detailed tracking shot of the year. It’s also nice the way he films the subtle differences in the beginning of the film in how Briony interprets a situation and how it actually happens. Sweeping epics also have a good track record recently (The English Patient, Legends of the Fall, Dances with Wolves, Memoirs of a Geisha) when it comes to cinematography.

Why It Might Not Win: McGarvey is (I believe) a first-time nominee and is only a few years removed from shooting music videos Coldplay and U2. Although there’s nothing wrong with that, I believe the best is still to come from this photographer. Additionally, some of the framing choices are suspect, and although I’m sure it was Joe Wright who decided to put a red curtain in a wartime hospital as a symbol, I bet it will be McGarvey who pays for that mistake.

oscar-cine3.jpgJanusz Kaminski, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Why Is It Nominated?: Long-time Steven Speilberg collaborator is already a two-time winner (for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan). Of the five films nominated, Diving Bell is probably the film that best utilized its cinematography. The viewpoint of the movie is told mostly from the eyes of a paralyzed man as we see often see the world through his eyes. That’s all Kaminski.

Why It Might Win: The premise is strong and fits Kaminski’s skill-set very well. In fact, if you see the trailer for Diving Bell they mentioned the cinematographer by name, and that NEVER happens. Few movies come along where a cinematographer really gets to showcase his/her talent like this does.

Why It Might Not Win: The only way I can see this not winning is because the film failed to pick up several other important nominations, including Best Foreign Film. It could be overshadowed, because unlike Pan’s Labyrinth (which was nominated for Best Foreign Film), the hype of Diving Bell has settled down a lot where Pan’s hype kept building right up through the awards process.

oscar-cine4.jpgRoger Deakins, No Country for Old Men

Why Is It Nominated?: Deakins showcased once again why the Coens absolutely love working with him. Deakins can bring out the light in darkness better than any photographer working today. Anton Chigurh would not be nearly as frightening if we couldn’t see the details of his face set against a dark background. There are some difficult shots in No Country that wouldn’t have worked without a solid cinematographer.

Why It Might Win: Deakins has earned it. This year he took in his seventh nomination and has yet to win this award. Being the only person to ever receive two nominations in one year for cinematography can help. Just ask Steven Soderbergh (nominated Best Director in 2001 for both Erin Brockovich and won for Traffic).

Why It Might Not Win: Ask Julianne Moore. Having two nominations in one year can sometimes ruin your chances of winning either. If Deakins splits the vote between No Country and Jesse James I can’t imagine he’ll win, especially considering how competitive this year’s race is. Besides, No Country is more of a director’s movie about telling the story and developing the characters, it’s not all that concerned with photography.

oscar-cine5.jpgRobert Elswit, There Will Be Blood

Why Is It Nominated?: There Will Be Blood is dark and harrowing, and only 1/3 of the can be attributed to Daniel Day Lewis’s stirring performance. The other 2/3 is attributed to Paul Thomas Anderson’s amazing direction and the atmosphere that Robert Elswit helps create with his haunting cinematography.

Why It Might Win: There are several images from this film that will never leave my brain. The scene where the well catches fire is one of the most beautifully and disturbingly filmed sequences I’ve ever seen. It’s rich with detail even though it’s so dark. Throughout the movie, he does a great job of making sure you see every detail of DDL’s face, but maybe that’s more of a testament to the actor.

Why It Might Not Win: It might not win because it is so dark. Even though Pan’s Labyrinth was definitely as dark as There Will Be Blood, it’s also much more vibrant. Blood doesn’t have the benefit of being richly detailed, because at its core it’s more of a character-driven film, not a visually-driven one.

Who will win?

Janusz Kaminski, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

It’s going to be hard to top a cinematographer who has the experience and undeniable expertise of Speilberg’s favorite photographer.

Who should win?

Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood

I know people have been making the case that There Will Be Blood could take home many awards that aren’t technical, but Elswit’s work will stay with the collective movie-going public for some time.

Who got overlooked?

I think Harris Savides’ work this year got overlooked by many. Savides was the cinematographer on American Gangster, Zodiac, and Margot at the Wedding. Each film is stylistically different and all were well shot. From the gritty streets of Gangster‘s New York to the backwoods of Margot, I think the Academy did a disservice by overlooking this eclectic photographer.


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