Roma is all the rage in this year’s controversial mess of an Oscars. And for good reason. With 10 nominations, Alfonso Cuaron’s latest is the fourth black and white film and the fifth foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture in the 21st century. And it’s only the 11th foreign film to make the leap from the Best Foreign Language Film category to Best Picture in the history of America’s most celebrated awards ceremony.
Having garnered all of the popular buzz and critical acclaim required to be considered a frontrunner in the race for Best Picture and Best Director, Roma is deep into their campaign to snag the more peripheral awards, like Best Sound Editing and Best Cinematography. And having shot his own film, Cuaron has a chance to become the first director/cinematographer ever awarded the cinematography prize. But after Cold War‘s win last weekend, his historic moment is under threat.
This year’s awards will go down in Oscar history as the battle between the black and white photographed films with Roma and Cold War. The 100th anniversary of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) was celebrated in splendid fashion during the 33rd annual ASC Awards, where Cold War DP Lukasz Zal upset Cuaron with the win in the Theatrical Release category, the Best Picture-equivalent of the ASC. While Cuaron was certainly favored, there was a strong undercurrent of hope for the Zal upset. So the question is: was it warranted? Is this something to look out for at the Oscars? Or was it an anomalistic victory?
Polish writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski surprised everyone with his underdog Best Director nomination for Cold War. As the story goes, Pawlikowski supposedly “stole” Bradley Cooper’s assumed nomination, but of course, that’s bullshit. We awarded Bradley Cooper a Collective Social Consciousness Oscar before anything was announced. He never actually had a real Oscar nod. A Star Is Born is well-directed, but few have procured directorial mastery like Pawlikowski, and it shines in his most recent film. On the contrary, only people who live under rocks were surprised by the film’s Best Cinematography nomination.
This isn’t Zal’s first rodeo. Politics play a big role in landing Oscar nominations, and having been nominated in 2014 (alongside co-DP Ryszard Lenczewski) for his jaw-dropping work on Pawlikwoski’s last film Ida certainly helps. At the time, Zal and Lenczewski represented the sixth black and white film to be nominated for cinematography in the 21st century. Now, Zal and Cuaron fill the seventh and eighth spots. While Zal’s history must be recognized, I must stress that that is not the reason he (or Pawlikowski for that matter) are nominated.
Cold War is nominated because it is a downright masterpiece. It’s every bit as tear-inducing, all-consuming, and true as Roma, plus some. It’s a piercing tale of love that spans decades as it tackles the marriage between art and state, the divide between the Eastern and Western countries of Europe, the romance between a pianist and a singer, and the soul-invading power of cinema and song. It’s the kind of film that completely disarms you with previously unfelt insights into the human condition—and it achieves all of its brilliance in 89 minutes.
Among its three Oscar nominations are the two previously mentioned and a third Best Foreign Film nod. If the Academy wasn’t so averse to films across the globe, it would surely be nominated for Best Picture, too (over dumpster fires like Bohemian Rhapsody at the very least). From those who have seen the film, there is hardly a dissenting opinion against the marvelous Joanna Kulig belonging atop the Best Actress category. And it’s far from a stretch to imagine Kulig’s onscreen partner Tomasz Kot up for a Best Actor prize in a world-cinema-surveying parallel Oscar universe.
So does Cold War’s black and white radiance actually stand a chance at the Oscars? Does its victory at the ASC Awards guarantee Zal a little gold man? The correlation between the Oscars and the ASC Awards throughout history is hit or miss. The two cinematography awards have only matched up nine times in the 21st century. Which means Zal and Cuaron are still in a hot race. And, as far as cinephiles are concerned, it’s a win-win situation.
Whether you love it or find its slow cinema narrative cloying, Roma was photographed gorgeously by Cuaron. That 65mm grain is mouthwatering, the comprehensive perspectives are engrossing, and we can’t forget that Cuaron also wrote, directed, produced, and edited the film. That’s got to count for something. On the other side, Zal’s odd yet apt 1.37:1 aspect ratio, breathtaking 35mm grain, and unparalleled blend of patience and urgency with the camera is arresting. Neither win would be unjust. But more importantly, don’t count Cold War out just because you don’t pay attention to Polish film.
Unfortunately, no matter who wins, we won’t see it announced live. The Fucking Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has decided to cut the presentation of the award from the telecast, along with Best Editing, Best Live Action Short, and Best Makeup/Hairstyling. The Academy says they’ll splice the winners back in at some point, but if you want to know who wins when they actually win, you’ll have to clue into your Twitter feed. Or maybe as a hint they’ll wave condescendingly at the winner after we watch a commercial we’ve seen 739 times instead. Whatever the case, it’s a major oversight by the Academy and they should be genuinely ashamed. I mean, they’re cutting out the award for the person who helms the goddamn camera. Did they forget how movies are made?
I digress. The last thing worth mentioning here is the most obviously overlooked so far, which is that the Best Cinematography category is not literally a head to head between Zal and Cuaron. In fact, the other three nominees are incredibly accomplished, if not legends, in their field. Veteran Robbie Ryan is up for The Favourite, Caleb Deschanel achieved his sixth nomination for Never Look Away, and the aforementioned Libatique got a nod for A Star Is Born. While all are terrific choices, Zal has my vote of hope and confidence. But we’ll see what happens in less than two weeks. And don’t sleep on Cold War for Director or Foreign Film either. In the meantime, go watch Ida and Cold War and feel the fury of shoehorned underdogs who should be favorites.