And now for what is probably my favorite of the non-acting categories: Best Cinematography. Back when I was a young undergrad, I briefly considered getting into cinematography as my way into the film or TV industry. Then I took a photography class and realized that I have no talent in the medium at all. Though I think more than anything, this helps me appreciate the immense talent that so many DPs possess and represent through their body of work. Film is, first and foremost, a visual medium, so of course the work of a cinematographer is paramount in representing a film’s most vital imagery in creative, resonant ways. Here, I’ll give my opinions on what the Academy considers to be 2017’s top five examples of such.
Blade Runner 2049, shot by Roger Deakins
If there was any one film to watch in a theater this year, most people would say that Blade Runner 2049 is the one. Setting aside its clout as being a surprise sequel from one of the most influential sci-fi films ever, I think the shots as represented in its first official trailer were what really got people rushing to watch this as soon as possible. I had my fair share of issue with the film (not the least of which being its appalling sexism), but there’s no denying that Deakins’s cinematography was undoubtedly the best part of it. He carefully utilizes his signature knack for sumptuous landscapes and, in the process, delivers some of the most iconic imagery of his entire career. There is such a wide range of colors on display here, but I especially love the ways that orange and yellow hues are given a chance to shine, offering an intriguing look apart from the original Blade Runner‘s blues and grays. Even as mixed as I was on the film, the least I can say was that it looked gorgeous and I was spellbound by its imagery from start to finish.
Darkest Hour, shot by Bruno Delbonnel
Of the five films nominated, this is my least favorite of the nominees – and not only because I generally disliked Darkest Hour. Bruno Delbonnel’s work is often far more interesting than this, in works such as Amélie, A Very Long Engagement, or even as recent as Inside Llewyn Davis. There is often a sense of vibrancy in his images, mostly in the form of vibrant colors but also in cases where the color scheme is toned down (such as Inside Llewyn Davis). Here, the grays and blues are prominent and the general mood is drab and cloudy, which is so very London. At the same time, though, it also feels so lifeless. There are a few cool images that pop up here and there (mostly the ones I’ve highlighted above), but for the most part there’s nothing very impressive on display here. It’s clear that Delbonnel has talent, but Darkest Hour may not be the best example of such.
Dunkirk, shot by Hoyte van Hoytema
For the most part, war films really, really, really aren’t my thing. On top of that, I can solemnly say that I’ve seen at least twenty too many films about World War II to ever be even the least bit excited for yet another one. Nonetheless, while Dunkirk falls in this camp pretty squarely, I can’t lie and say I wasn’t at least a little bit enamored by its cinematography. This is Hoytema’s second time working with Christopher Nolan, the first being with his previous film Interstellar, and while I do prefer his work on Interstellar slightly more, the fact that I was taken aback by the authenticity of the camerawork in Dunkirk really speaks volumes. The depth of field in so many of these shots – especially the aerial ones – is so immense, it seems like there are hundreds of miles separating the background from the foreground. While I think the true talent of this film lies in its sound design, there’s no denying the harrowing impact that this realistically chaotic cinematography truly brings to the table. Once again, I cannot stand war films – but I can appreciate some damn good photography.
Mudbound, shot by Rachel Morrison
In case you haven’t heard the news, Rachel Morrison’s nomination for this category makes her the first woman ever eligible for a Best Cinematography Oscar! Gentle reminder, also, that this is the 90th annual Academy Awards and the fact that it’s taken this long is grossly shameful. But anyway, I feel very fortunate that I was able to catch this film on the big screen (as opposed to Netflix, where most people are watching it), as Morrison’s images truly portray their resonance when magnified on theater screen level. This film is beautiful and so, so harrowing, and ended up being one of my favorite films from last year overall. Much of this, honestly, is due to the photography, which really helps to bring viewers to this very specific time, place, and mindset. The sepia tint to the picture really gives off a vintage feel to the picture, but less in the romanticizing nostalgia way and more in a way that highlights the darkness of these times for many people. From sprawling landscapes to breathtaking closeup portraits, there’s a whole lot to love here, and I’m so glad that Morrison is finally getting the due praise she most righteously deserves!
The Shape of Water, shot by Dan Laustsen
2017 was a pretty great year for Dan Laustsen! Apart from this, he also shot John Wick: Chapter 2, which had some pretty impressive visual moves as well. As for The Shape of Water, though, I couldn’t imagine a better look and feel to the movie than the one implemented here. He does some really interesting things with light and shadows here, with the vast majority of the film being enveloped in gloomy darkness – except for when it really matters. Blue is the dominating color in this particular palette, which deviates from the reds that he so successfully worked with in Del Toro’s previous film Crimson Peak. It highlights the aquatic themes of the narrative, while also bringing in some unexpected romantic undertones to the film as a whole. When reminiscing upon this film and remembering what I enjoyed so much about it, most of what comes to mind are very specific imagery, combining all of the above elements to certain degrees and creating something that really sticks and resonates emotionally. Judging by this and this alone, there’s no way one could state that The Shape of Water was not a successful film.
Let’s be real: Roger Deakins pretty much has this one in the bag. He has received thirteen previous Oscar nominations without a single win; since he’s one of the most obviously deserving recipients of this award for this particular year, another loss would come off as little more than a blatant disappointment for most. To be honest, I’ve little to complain about if he were to win – dude works hard! Nonetheless, my own personal pick would go for Rachel Morrison for her beautiful work in Mudbound. Not only do I feel that it would be a hugely deserved win, but it would also be a history-making one. With as many interesting turns that this nomination cycle has gotten, we may as well kill as many birds with as few stones while we’re at it! (I do not condone killing birds, though; don’t do that)