Oscar Blitz 2023 – Cinematography

This is, in all honesty, one of the most surprising categories of the entire set this year, not because of who got nominated, but because of who didn’t. There are at four films nominated for Best Picture, two of which are also up for Best Director, that were left out here, leaving the astute viewer to reasonably stand there and say, “What the fuck? Really?”

I did this with the video breakdown of Production Design as well, but it truly is baffling that there were so many high quality films from the perspective of the Cinematography that somehow aren’t up for this award, to the point that given who we do have, my vote will become apparent fairly quickly, because it’ll be the only one I think even deserves a nomination.

So let’s take a moment and ponder how badly the Academy fucked this one up. First and foremost, we’re missing The Fabelmans. Literally half that movie (or more) is about Steven Spielberg’s stand-in learning how to USE A CAMERA TO FILM MOVIES! Sam has to learn how to position props and actors, truck the camera, use different sizes of film, figure out lighting and sound, and plan out entire sequences long before he even starts rolling. The movie is an actual lesson in cinematography, one where Spielberg entered Awards Season as the clear favorite to win Best Director (though his momentum may have faltered; I’ll get to that in a second), and yet the camera work wasn’t worthy of consideration here? Seriously? I’m not saying it necessarily should have won, but in not even nominating it, you’re basically undercutting Spielberg’s case in his own category.

Second is the reason Spielberg’s campaign may have run out of steam, Everything Everywhere All at Once. Like one of the films that did get nominated here, part of the creative vision relies on a combination of the camera and the editing operating in tandem. The camera work sets up each bonkers action sequence, particularly Waymond with the fanny pack or Jobu revealing herself in the hallway, and the editing completes the equation. It’s an almost symbiotic relationship, which the Directors Guild just rewarded by giving its Feature Film prize to the Daniels instead of Spielberg. It truly then begs the question of what the Cinematographers Branch was a) looking for, and b) thinking.

Then there’s Avatar: The Way of Water. I’m not much for CGI filmmaking, but James Cameron and his team have gone above and beyond in demonstrating how they still used proper filming tactics when creating this picture. The actors had to wear small cameras strapped to their heads in their motion capture suits, traditional cameras filmed full body movements, and equipment was adapted to shoot underwater, with several extended sequences recorded in a giant tank. That’s an insane undertaking for what eventually becomes drawn over and rendered by computers. If there was going to be a pity nomination, why not this?

Finally, the fact that Top Gun: Maverick is on the outside looking in on this one is goddamn mind-boggling. The crew had to literally invent new types of cameras, ones that could shoot traditionally and in IMAX frame rates, and then mount them inside the cockpits of the fighter jets as well as on the wings. And then, just for good measure, the cast had to be trained to control these cameras and essentially film themselves in mid-air. Principal photography took months longer than it normally would have because the photography team was that committed to creating as immersive an experience as possible with the cameras. And yet, it was completely ignored. When I saw the nominee list, I was flabbergasted.

All four of these films were hard done by the Cinematographers Branch. It’s one thing for one superlative entry to get snubbed, but for four? That’s messed up. It’s especially egregious when you see what we were left with as far as actual contenders for the prize. Well, let’s get this unpleasantness over with, shall we?

This year’s nominees for Cinematography are…

All Quiet on the Western Front – James Friend

I’m just going to come right out and say it. I’m calling shenanigans on this one. There are exactly two aspects of the camera work in this film that distinguish it from being ever other war movie ever. One is the series of extreme close-ups on Felix Kammerer as Paul. They’re brilliant shots, but that’s because of Kammerer’s piercing eyes. And as nice as they are, these thousand-yard stares via the lens substitute for his actual character development, so I can’t really endorse it.

The second is the opening sequence, which is a one-shot take showing the horrors of trench warfare. And that would be truly awesome if not for the fact that Roger Deakins already did that in 1917, and DEAKINS IS NOMINATED THIS YEAR! YOU CAN’T WIN AN OSCAR WHEN YOU’RE RIPPING OFF YOUR COMPETITION! Seriously, I know that the Academy and BAFTA have fallen over themselves to artificially inflate the profile of this standard-issue flick, but this is a bridge too far.


Bardo, False Chronicles of a Handful of Truths – Darius Khondji

I brought up Bardo in my video breakdown of Production Design as well, because even though I didn’t particularly like the film, I feel it should have been nominated there more than anything else. And if it was going to be nominated here, it should also be up for Film Editing, because like Everything Everywhere, all three elements feed into each other to work their best.

The production design was the strongest of the three, because in order for a lot of the stream of consciousness elements to work, you need fantastical sets and scenery. But standing on its own, the cinematography does have its moments. Not enough to truly warrant an Oscar, but let’s be honest here, this nomination is an apology to Alejandro G. Iñárritu for not nominating the overall film for International Feature to clear the way for All Quiet to get the basically uncontested victory.

The shots that stand out the most to me happen very early and very late in the movie. On the opening end, the film begins with the main character, Silverio, running in the desert, with only his shadow showing up in frame, until he jumps so high up in the sky that the shadows disappear entirely until he comes back down to the ground. That’s a superb mix of Steadicam and drone work to create the illusion. Towards the end, there’s a moment where Silverio climbs a mountain of what looks like dead bodies to recreate a scene from his experimental documentary where he interviews historical figures, in this case Hernán Cortés. Once he’s at the top and has his confrontational “interview” with the conquistador, one of the background actors that forms the hill breaks character, burned by Silverio’s discarded cigarette, and the shot pans around to reveal an active film set.

I really enjoyed both of those moments independent of the rest of the story, but that’s about it. Everything else visually is wholly reliant on the combination of the three elements rather than the photography by itself. Again, it’s good, but not nearly good enough to edge out the four omitted films that should be here in its place.

Elvis – Mandy Walker

No. Nope. Nuh-uh. No-siree-BOB! This is a 100% fraudulent nomination. There is no specialized camera work anywhere in Elvis. The film’s presentation is completely down to the editing, which in itself is terrible because of Baz Luhrmann’s hyperactive and compulsive need to throw everything at the screen. But that’s a gripe for when I tackle Film Editing next week.

As for the actual filming, this movie does not pass the smell test. Seriously, tell me, what were the distinct and memorable shots in this? I’m not talking about sequences and montages, because again, that’s the editing. I mean what single, isolated shot can you truly note in the entirety of this project that is just good camera work, framing, and/or lighting? It doesn’t exist. The camera almost never stays in one place long enough for anything to register, and the few times it does, it’s for a relatively pedestrian scene where Elvis and another character talk for 30 seconds before jumping to the next extended series of star wipes. This gets in but Top Gun doesn’t after they LITERALLY INVENTED NEW CAMERAS! Fuck entirely off on this one.

Empire of Light – Roger Deakins

If nothing else, Deakins knows how to execute whatever creative vision Sam Mendes has, as this is the fifth film they’ve worked on together. That said, the visual portfolio here is decidedly slight. Everything is given a “cinematic” look because this is yet another movie about the power of movies (and again, The Fabelmans is absent in this category for some reason), so you get a good deal of lens flare, glamor shots where lights reflect off of glass windows, and low angles facing upward. But for someone like Deakins who’s been leading this artform for the last four decades, it feels weirdly basic. This is the same feeling I had for John Williams’ nominated score for The Fabelmans. Can we switch nominations, please? I’d much rather talk about Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score and Janusz Kamiński’s photography.

Such as it is, the standout moments more relate to the Production Design, but I can imagine Deakins had a hand in the decision-making process here. As I’ve mentioned before, I like the fact that the Empire Cinema has a disused second house adjoining the first, which is where Michael Ward and Olivia Colman spend their private time during their romantic tryst. Really, it’s the exact same set as the main theatre, just in a dilapidated, almost unfinished state, as if it’s either still being built or being struck depending on the shooting schedule. Whatever the logistics, Deakins treats both versions of the set with the same reverence, giving the neglected side equal attention to the polished one, to the point where you can put identical shots side by side to compare. It’s a nice touch.

Tár – Florian Hoffmeister

This will hopefully be a major career boost for Hoffmeister, who hasn’t done that many high profile films before now. Looking at his credits, the most recognizable films are Johnny English Strikes Again, A Quiet Passion, and Mortdecai. Wow. That is a trifecta of crap. Still, Todd Field obviously saw something in him to give him the job, and Hoffmeister has definitely made the most of the opportunity.

Of all the nominees, this is the only one I’d argue actually belongs here. It’s the only one with truly memorable, unique camera work that’s germane to the story… and wasn’t ripped off from Roger Deakins while he was standing right there.

Like Field’s screenplay, the photography hitches itself to Lydia Tár as a character and conforms to her story arc. In terms of dialogue, this is seen by the gradual reduction in her speeches as the film wears on, from the opening New Yorker lecture where she goes on for minutes at a time to her eventual fall from grace where some of her lines are practically monosyllabic.

The same holds true for the cinematography. That first sequence has very few cuts, with Hoffmeister figuratively and literally giving Cate Blanchett all the space she needs to command the room. She’s a conductor in both profession and carriage, as she controls the pace and direction of an interview she herself is giving. While this is going on, the camera is at something of a remove, basically providing her with an omnipresent theatrical environment in which to ply her trade. In the next major sequence, the absolutely perfect Juilliard scene, things are slightly more intimate, but Hoffmeister still makes sure that there’s an almost cavernous degree of real estate on screen while still directing total attention to Lydia because she’s the one dictating the tempo.

As things continue, the frame begins to shrink, and the focus becomes more direct, a superb visual representation of Lydia’s spiral. It all culminates at the concert that is supposed to be her triumph but is instead the final nail in the coffin of her façade. As she prepares to walk out to conduct, the camera is extremely tight on her, mere inches from her face, as she quickly saunters onto the stage and decks Mark Strong, the philistine who has replaced her, completely unseen until she assaults him because she fills the frame completely. The shot itself only takes a few seconds, but it encapsulates just how far she’s fallen.

So yeah, my vote here is obvious.

My Rankings:
1) Tár
2) Bardo, False Chronicles of a Handful of Truths
3) Empire of Light
4) All Quiet on the Western Front
5) Elvis

Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!

Up Next, we move from a category with an inexplicable set of nominees to one where the nominees basically don’t matter, because we all know the blue jungle kitty cats are going to win again. Sorry for any premature disappointment. It’s Visual Effects!

Join the conversation in the comments below! What films would you have nominated here? How important is the camera work independent of the edit? How exactly is Roger Deakins not suing James Friend? Let me know!

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