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(The Oscar Guide will be your chaperone through the Academy's 24 categories awarding excellence in film. A new installment will hit every weekday in the run-up to the Oscars on February 26, with the Best Picture finale on Saturday, February 25.)
As is often the case, the cinematographers' branch didn't exactly search far and wide for contenders in this category, settling instead on a quartet of high-profile Best Picture nominees, plus one major December release (and guild nomination hog) that surely came close to cracking the top race. Four of the men selected, moreover, are previous nominees, in keeping with this year's unofficial theme of sticking with the familiar.
The scramble for the fifth slot on the ballot was, presumably, a tight one: moodily lensed by Hoyte van Hoytema, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" was a surprise ASC nominee that seemed to be building late momentum in the final stages of voting, but wound up ceding its spot to more postcard-pretty work from a two-time Oscar champ who had been frozen out of the guild list. Oh, well.
The nominees are...
"The Artist" (Guillaume Schiffman)
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (Jeff Cronenweth)
"Hugo" (Robert Richardson)
"The Tree of Life" (Emmanuel Lubezki)
"War Horse" (Janusz Kaminski)
On balance, it's a sightly enough group of films, though I can't help wishing the branch had shown a little more ingenuity in their choices: this would have been a lovely place to recognize some visually astonishing arthouse items too modest or too tricky to get a foothold in major categories: "Jane Eyre," "Melancholia," "Meek's Cutoff"... take your pick. Meanwhile, "Drive" would have been a more arresting contemporary pick than they one they went with. But no matter -- we still have an exciting race.
No predominantly black-and-white film has won this award since "Schindler's List" in 1993, despite "The Man Who Wasn't There" and "The White Ribbon" both taking top honors with the ASC since then. So even if Frenchman and lone first-time nominee Guillaume Schiffman (who shot both Michel Hazanavicius's "OSS 117" pastiche comedies) winds up taking that peer-voted precursor for "The Artist," there's still no guarantee the general Academy will favor the beloved retro exercise over its more colorful competition. In his favor, of course, is that the film is a Best Picture frontrunner, and an attractive one at that: Schiffman's silky, silver-toned lensing deftly replicates not just the palette of vintage silent cinema, but the soft textures of its stock too.
After 20-odd years of collaborating with director David Fincher on both films and music videos, Jeff Cronenweth was rewarded last year with his first Oscar nomination for "The Social Network." Their partnership has now yielded a second consecutive nod for the icy Nordic atmospherics of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," and while it's certainly a handsome film, I can't help thinking there's an idle sense of afterglow voting at work here. The film's crisp, stately compositions at least make it a refreshingly neoteric choice from the branch, though it's probably a couple of unnecessary, incongruously vertiginous trick shots that netted the nomination -- which will have to remain Cronenweth's reward this year.
The most established name in the field, Robert Richardson netted his seventh career nomination -- and his second for a Martin Scorsese picture -- for venturing into the realm of 3D on "Hugo." His on-off collaboration with the master brought the DP his second Oscar for "The Aviator" seven years ago, and the Paris-set children's adventure is a similarly flashy period showcase for his ever-conspicuous artistry, as well as another opportunity to play with the antique finishes of past cinematic eras. Richardson hasn't won much on the circuit so far this year, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see respect for his limber adaptation to new technology -- coupled with the urge to convert at least some of the film's 11 nominations -- net him a third statuette.
The precursor monolith in the field this year has been Emmanuel Lubezki. There's scarcely an award the prodigious Mexican DP hasn't won so far for his rapturous visual poetry in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," and rightly so: at once intimately disciplined and wildly expansive, his camera reflects both individual character perspective and a more intangible, ethereal worldview, catching the subtlest shifts of woozy afternoon light like butterflies in a net. It seems unthinkable that he could lose, and yet five-time bridesmaid Lubezki has been here before: his 2006 loss for dazzling work on "Children of Men," after winning the ASC prize, still smarts, and I fear the polarizing nature of "The Tree of Life" could count against him in the general Academy vote.
The most divisive work in the field come from another five-time nominee, this one with two previous wins under his belt: Janusz Kaminski may have been Steven Spielberg's go-to DP for almost 20 years, but he hasn't been nominated for a Spielberg film since "Saving Private Ryan." Many will wish that stretch hadn't been been broken: his unashamedly old-fashioned pictorial lensing of "War Horse," with its saturated orange sunsets and inconsistent evocations of vintage studio lighting styles, crosses the line more than once into kitsch -- and was rather pointedly snubbed by the ASC. General Academy members, however, are suckers for lush landscapes, so don't write this one off -- as it happens, the last time the Oscar went for a film unnominated by the guild ("Pan's Labyrinth"), it was also at Emmanuel Lubezki's expense.
Will win: "Hugo"
Could win: "The Tree of Life"
Should win: "The Tree of Life"
Should have been here: "Meek's Cutoff"
Keep track of our current rankings in the Best Cinematography category via its Contenders page here.
What do you think deserves the Oscar for Best Cinematography? Have your say in the comments section below.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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