OSCAR COUNTDOWN 2015: Cinematography and Visual Effects

A quintet of largely reserved prestige picks and another filled with space travel and superheroes signify today’s Oscar Countdown, which brings us to two categories concerned with how things are represented visually. Admittedly Cinematography is a more reserved bunch than the Visual Effects crowd – I’ll get into why that need not have been the case in my Dream Oscar Ballots – but there’s some spectacular work to be etched out of both, nonetheless.

IdaBest Cinematography

I feel like the four-grand-ones-and-one-meh standard might be in fashion for more than one category this year. The Academy has a bad habit of nominating some individuals just for showing up to work. Given how he remains still not fully rewarded by the Academy, you’d expect Roger Deakins to fall out of this race. Instead, it’s another reminder of how big in the conversation Unbroken used to be, but is no longer. Deakins offers some pretty visuals in the war drama, true, but it feels more inclined to honeydew prettiness of the Sundance variety than his usually rapturous work. Consider this another reminder that Deakins is overdue, if only because we’d rather his prior nominated work to have earned him the statue.

For a while, Emmanuel Lubezki was right in the same wheelhouse, ignored for his astonishing work with a dense variety of directors – Cuaron, Malick, Burton, Mann, Nichols, to name a few members of a growing roster. Now he’s in position to take home a second consecutive trophy, for yet another bravura long-take structured spectacle. You might hear a conversation emerging soon amongst some cinephiles about how Lubezki is potentially causing damage to the long take. Both his winning works –  assuming that he takes it again – are conceivably blended together from multiple takes, though that doesn’t deflate the livewire intensity they elicit. I may one day relish in Lubezki applying himself to a work of patient slow cinema, but he’s rarely ceased to even partially enthrall in a more restless register.

You could hardly describe Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal’s work on Ida as restless. Instead there’s a sumptuous patience about this work that makes its mere inclusion here a pure delight. It’s ornately framed and beautifully lit in glistening black-and-white – I might’ve clapped giddily to see fellow gleaming B&W film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night chilling alongside it – but it’s the ordering of characters, objects and daunting emptiness in space that made it such a unique, emotionally and physically straining experience. My sentiment that the film had my neck awkwardly craned between the upper and lower half of the screen may ring similar to laments about neck cramps elicited by Les Miserables, but the strain feels like a worthy and appropriate sacrifice here.

Mr. TurnerOne nominee may be more worried than the rest about hearing his name called on Oscar night. “Dick Poop” may remain a hysterical moment of infamy for Cheryl Boone Isaacs, but Dick Pope’s glorious work on Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner need not be regarded as anything close to an embarrassment. Pope and Leigh conjure more magisterial than ever before, partly instigated by the beauty of its subject’s compositions, but it’s imbued with an equal malaise and hopeful readjustment to new technologies of artistic expression by its digital lensing. That such a textured period work can be conjured with ones and zeroes balks at the idea that digital isn’t meant for period work. Ida, too, was shot in digital, but hasn’t had close to the same conversation attached to it. Pope is, in my mind, the closest to potentially upsetting a Lubezki repeat.

Also putting up a fight for the win is Robert Yeoman, whose longtime collaboration with Wes Anderson pays off with The Grand Budapest Hotel. One may imagine Anderson’s stylistic code to be more confining than freeing, but Yeoman’s conjures incredible horizontal and vertical compositions from the mold, and imbues color, textured and careful lighting to every scene. It’s the lone nominee captured on 35mm film, and it shows in the invigorating grit and grain of the image. Like everything else in Grand Budapest Hotel it finally feels like it’s saying something with that choice.

Will Win: Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman
Should Win: Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, Ida

CinematographyDream Oscar Ballot

  • Greig Fraser, Foxcatcher
  • Darius Khondji, The Immigrant
  • Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, Ida
  • Daniel Linden, Under the Skin
  • Bradford Young, Selma

Runners-Up: A Girl Walks Home Alone at NightGoodbye to Language 3D, Listen Up Philip, A Most Violent Year, Nymphomaniac

I’ve lavished praise already for Ida and alternate A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, but a great many of my picks feel like they have alternate inclusions as well. Listen Up Philip rendered a scruffy, rough-edged portrait of New York, while Darius Khondji practically painted the city in gorgeous amber hues and classical framing. Under the Skin is a work of such visually striking ambiguity, rendering an alien gaze with tremendous intimacy. Meanwhile the experimentalism of Goodbye to Language 3D is intimate in a very different way, taking the 3D format to territories previously unexplored and deemed even unexplorable. I don’t have an apt companion for Greig Fraser’s stark, silky, brutally hazy work on Foxcatcher, which feels very much like its own distinct vision. But it’s Bradford Young’s vision that feels the most ignored this season. Already emerging as auteur of a D.P. among the ranks of Lubezki and Deakins, I felt dreadful choosing between the consuming darkness lurking around the edges of A Most Violent Year and the more hopeful balance of darkness and light in the tense, terrifying, ultimately lyrical Selma. A shame the Academy couldn’t muster up a nod for either one.

Dawn of the Planet of the ApesBest Visual Effects

“Here less lies the love of life” – Me, in a mediocre attempt at poetics, though an apt one given this discipline’s devotion to imitating life, and often failing to tonally imitate death. Needless to say this category isn’t always as chocked full of exciting content as I’d hope. A banner moment for that equation was The Tree of Life missing the mark back in 2012, but it’s no secret that indie films are an unspoken, confounding taboo in this category. It’s the big visual effects houses, struggling as they are, that make it time and again into this category, and this year shows an especial proclivity towards superhero films. I could swipe them all away with a word, but to do what they often don’t, I’m going to strive to make a distinction between them.

If Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the most distinct superhero entry of this year, its effects aren’t among its subversive qualities. The pop of its visuals is oddly diluted by the gray, workmanlike palette chosen for this entry, though three airships self-destructing and plummeting into the water is quite a grand sight. The sights of fellow Marvel studios entry, Guardians of the Galaxy, may be more out of this world, but they feel so far removed from reality that it almost feels wantonly like a coloring book, splotching colors where they’re not supposed to be for the kick of it. Groot and Rocket Raccoon are nicely ludicrous creations, though, even if I wish they’d stretched further towards Joe Dante in their inspiration.

It’s interesting that I’d consider X-Men: Days of Future Past to have the most complex, detailed, imaginative effects of the Marvel trio, given it’s the most narratively incoherent of the three. Narrative aside, though, Bryan Singer brings some lurid spectacle back to the franchise, and it shows in set-pieces as lively-yet-patient as Quicksilver’s slow-mo breakout, and as dazzling as the final siege on the temple at the film’s climax. If only the pace and story could’ve been as streamlined and exciting as its visuals.

InterstellarSpeaking of dazzle, Interstellar makes a case for the category’s most ambitious feat of big-screen wonderment. In respects to the extraterrestrial landscapes, I do wish Nolan had let his imagination take him further with conceiving the all too desolate planets they travel to, but the wormhole at the film’s center is both an achievement of surreal effects and applicable, boundary pushing science.

Interstellar may just be audacious enough to take this, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes manages both technical innovation – motion capture technology has captured the fiercest and subtlest emotions of the actors’ faces like never before – and dynamic, brutal set-pieces. The siege on the human compound is excitingly chaotic, and the visual effects nearly obliterate the dividing line between what’s real and what’s fabricated.

Will Win: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Should Win: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Visual EffectsDream Oscar Ballot

  • Bird People
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • Godzilla
  • The LEGO Movie
  • Under the Skin

Runners-Up: Edge of Tomorrow, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Interstellar, Mood Indigo, Wetlands

You won’t see a superhero close to my ballot, unless they’re in LEGO form, of course. Rebuking how animated films are often unduly forgotten in this category, no film was as technically alive and ambitiously innovative as The LEGO Movie, practically fabricating a whole new way of seeing. Godzilla and the aforementioned Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are working in well versed visual terms, but with awe-inspiring majesty and sobering violence, respectively. I just wish they could have managed to commend effects work on the indie turf. I can get Wetlands being automatically discounting, its grimy effects certainly a stylistic provocation, but a bewildering one at that. Less easy to discount is the work in Bird People, the other 2014 film about people turning to birds and flying across the city. It’s a particularly immersive delight, even if it exists as little more. Under the Skin, in the meantime, is a truly unignorable astonishment, its surreal effects recalling 2001: A Space Odyssey, but crafting that influence in a unique symbolic register. If it’s tough to fathom how they managed those effects on the budget they did, it’s even more unfathomable that the Academy would refuse to recognize it.

What are your dream nominees, and who do you hope/think will win?

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