OSCAR COUNTDOWN: Cinematography and Visual Effects

The Oscars are just three weeks away. As per usual, we haven’t left enough time to patiently predict the winners in each category. Ideally these pieces are more than just a one-stop shop for tips to advise your Oscar pool. I for one enjoy looking at what each nominated film has to offer each category, taking the good and the bad in tow. Today we start with two of the most intrinsically visual categories, offering our predictions and our decidedly left-of-center dream ballots.

The RevenantBest Cinematography

Cinematography has been the laziest category to predict for the past three years, though not for lack of multiple exciting offerings. That this year’s winner feels like it’s been carelessly decided for months feels like an apathetic dismissal of the great work populating this category. The nominee least screaming for attention is Robert Richardson’s work on The Hateful Eight. True, the film’s been talked up all across town, mostly by Quentin Tarantino himself, for its use of Ultra-Panavision 70mm, but the film itself is ironically a cloistered chamber western, its grand scope seemingly thwarted by the shabby interiors it’s encased in. Admittedly, if I were to judge from the film’s captivating, stomach-broiling opening minutes alone, I wouldn’t hesitate to hail the intense tonal precision of Tarantino’s latest. The following three hours, however, struggle to use that breadth of scope to equally nerve shaking effect.

With Alejandro G. Inarritu’s The Revenant, another snow-bound tale of bloody revenge, the issue seems to be an excess of scope with limited reserves vision. The comparisons to Malick and Tarkovsky have been made, and the film’s a gorgeous enough mock-up of those dank, chilly motifs, but I found myself most impressed when Emmanuel Lubezki was allowed to be himself, rather than emulating the look of other films, even those he’s made. The two most breathtaking moments of the film, the much talked bear assault and the less acclaimed raid that kicks off the chaos, showcase his curiosity for small, intimate moments nestled in the center of organized chaos. Again, though, the ideas continue falling to pieces, even to self-parody, over the remaining two hours.

If Lubezki and Inarritu are still locating the rhythms of their collaboration, Roger Deakins and Denis Villeneuve felt instantly like a handsomely atmospheric match for each other. Following up their sprawling, dreary work in Prisoners, Deakins’ work here isn’t quite as incendiary, but it’s thrilling in more tensely disciplined ways. His most engrossing compositions come with methodical patience akin to the film’s own, depicting the war on drugs as an amoral, sacrificial chess game, where the players evaporate willingly into darkness. It’s unnerving work even at its most tightly reserved, but I already suspect Deakins’ date with Oscar will have to wait till his next Villeneuve team-up.

CarolWhen it comes to sweltering desert chases, John Seale’s got Deakins outmatched this year, synthesizing a breathlessly suspended flurry of compositional grace under skin-grilling fire. Blazing Mad Max: Fury Road‘s orange-teal colour palette with agency and gender balancing purpose, Seale and director George Miller effectively left every blockbuster of the next decade straggling behind, their cold, artificial bodies falling to tatters. Work this miraculously fluid, yet manically chaotic, is an anomaly. It would’ve surged onto the nomination list even if the film didn’t make its way into the Picture and Director categories. In a dream world, it’d be an easy win for returning retiree who braved the elements without succumbing to sloppiness in the process.

By comparison, Edward Lachmann didn’t face quite as frigid or sweltering conditions as his fellow nominees, and yet every frame of Todd Haynes’ Carol seems to hold the power of a radical, subversive act. This is the film people have ceaselessly called cold and inaccessible, but if the script speaks most expressively in awkward pauses and silences, the cinematography foregrounds the intense atmosphere of desire that the two main characters are caught up in. The camera takes the position of their irresistibly attracted gazes, expressing with windows, walls and other barriers how this resonant love story can exist comfortably, privately nestled within even the most socially constricting of societies. Lachmann hasn’t a prayer on Oscar night, but his work belongs among the all-time greats.

Will Win: Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant
Should Win: Edward Lachmann, Carol
Should Really Win: Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, Victoria

CinematographyDream Oscar Ballot

  • Mark Lee Ping Bin, The Assassin
  • Edward Lachmann, Carol
  • Steven Soderbergh, Magic Mike XXL
  • Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, Victoria
  • Maryse Alberti, The Visit

Runners-up: The Duke of Burgundy, Futuro Beach, Jimmy’s Hall, Macbeth, Mad Max: Fury Road

As mostly exceptional a lineup as the Academy’s happened into, the only overlap I’d have with them is the inevitable commendation of Carol. It’s disappointing that a year after awarding the faux-conceived one-shot of Birdman the Academy turned a blind eye to the truly virtuoso, hyper-sensitive lensing of Victoria, a film that never lacked for casual compositional grace, in spite obvious impediments. It’s similarly impossible not to admire the ornate, yet quietly impassioned, framing of The Assassin, a film whose every image feels like it belongs in an art gallery. I’ve said the same for Steven Soderbergh’s work in Magic Mike XXL, a low-lit gallery of body positivity and refreshing sexual frankness. Another disappointing exclusion is that of Maryse Alberti, who lent a live-wire intensity to Rocky spin-off Creed, but arguably surpasses that work by bringing unexpected sensitivity and curdled terror to M. Night Shyamalan’s cornball, found footage horror film, The Visit.

Mad Max - Fury RoadBest Visual Effects

In an unusual lineup this year, only one visual effects nominee is truly dominated by its CG-effects, in spite J.J. Abrams’ promise to rely on practical effects for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Then again, when your franchise commits to depicting inter-planetary warfare – made literal by the retrofitting of a Hoth-like planet into a Death Star wannabe – massive effects sequences are unavoidable. Abrams enacts it with virtuoso, old-school grace in the first act, but the effects become colder and less thrillingly erratic as the film careens towards its climax. If the Academy is opting for the most visual effects, I can easily see this taking the prize.

Science fiction films will always hold the most sway over the Visual Effects category, but recently The Martian and Gravity have made a case for the science fact film, where the sophisticated visual effects represent what viewers cannot experience, but know is scientifically plausible. The Martian is much more reliant on physical effects and environments to capture its otherworldly environment, but Scott is just as committed to giving a lightly futurist, but tangibly fathomable sheen to the film’s intense space sequences. It’s a far cry from Gravity, but its moment of space hopping is a grandly synthesized moment of catharsis.

Carefully concealed visual effects essentially act as the glue holding together The Revenant‘s grandly conceived long-take action sequences, but they surge requisitely to the foreground in the film’s single-most talked about scene. Leonardo DiCaprio is gratuitously thrashed about by the film’s single female character, a mother bear whose protective devotion to her cubs rivals DiCaprio’s character’s. It’s as much an achievement of meticulously synthesized cinematography as of textural, naturalistic effects. Though you can hardly call The Revenant small, given its mammoth budget and bloated production history, it’s nice to see more intimate, less showy work spotlighted among this year’s nominees.

Ex MachinaWhich brings us to Ex Machina, the lowest-budgeted nominee since Ridley Scott’s Alien, and an achievement of supplementary visual effects. It’s long past time for the Academy to acknowledge micro-budget work, The Tree of Life and Under the Skin both more deserving of a slot for their incredible, mind-bending visuals, but Ex Machina is about its lightly concealed artificiality. It’s admittedly tough to tell at times how much the android Ava is shaped by Vikander’s quietly inquisitive performance and how much is the film’s coolly synthetic, subtly unnerving visual effects. That, along with its minor-key nature, keep the film from being a significant threat in the race.

It’s hard to beat Ex Machina for skillful minimalism, and though Mad Max: Fury Road is gleefully unhinged in nearly every respect, the visual effects only intrude where the laws of physics truly fall apart. Save for the toxic sand maelstrom that caps off the film’s relentless first act, a near blissful nightmare of glorious self-destruction, it’s often tough to distinguish between where digital effects end and practical effects take over. The work is meticulous in crafting a streamlined action experience that at once feels thematically elevated beyond reality, yet feels tangible, even unnervingly plausible. Part of me is tempted to say Star Wars will take this, but in nearly every year a Best Picture nominee has been nominated here, that film’s one. This year we have three, but none is quite as overtly impressive as Max.

Will and Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should Really Win: The Forbidden Room

Visual EffectsDream Oscar Ballot

  • Ex Machina
  • The Forbidden Room
  • Jupiter Ascending
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Paddington

Runners-up: Blackhat, The Good Dinosaur, Mission: Impossible – Rogue NationThe Revenant, Spectre

Not all the best visual effects come from mega-budget studio pictures, though I greatly appreciated the grandiose lunacy of both Mad Max: Fury Road and Jupiter Ascending, two major risk-takers destined for different fates critically and commercially. Neither Paddington or Ex Machina present themselves as massive effects showcase, but the former achieves that with charm and wisdom, integrating its effects neatly into the film’s cheery design. The year’s most mind-melting effects, though, come in the least commercial package possible with Guy Maddin’s celluloid-CG hybrid The Forbidden Room, its effects openly old school, yet consistently bewildering in even their most chewed-up, deteriorated form.

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