Cinephiles everywhere (well, at least the ones who waste time and wishes on the Academy Awards) have been conjuring up the spirits of Sven Nyqvist, John Alcott, Gregg Toland, and James Wong Howe in an attempt to see to an alarmingly overdue Emmanuel Lubezki finally win this category. One would think they wouldn't need to resort to such desperate measures, since not only do The Tree of Life's detractors have to admit the film at its worst still acts as the world's greatest sizzle reel for Lubezki's talents, but there's scarcely a precursor award that hasn't gone his way this year. But so what? Lubezki, now on his fifth Oscar nomination, had every reason in the world to collect in 2006 for Children of Men, but the disappointing, if not unpredictable, win for Guillermo Navarro's work on Pan's Labyrinth made a clear statement: Overall momentum is all that matters in the tech categories.
Even though Lubezki is backed, for the first time ever, by a Best Picture nominee, he's also almost entirely surrounded by nominees that can boast the same, each with more nominations, more heat. Sometimes, sheer quality sneaks through, as it did when Malick's own Days of Heaven nudged past The Deer Hunter and Heaven Can Wait. But the way of grace will probably fall victim to voters' nature—to not give tech trophies to movies that earned an anemic $13 million (except costume design, where they prefer their winners to have grossed no more than $13,000). Not that there isn't a clear path.
For one, there's no reason to think that Jeff Cronenweth's ever more yellowed, jaundiced-highlighter look for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will achieve what The Social Network couldn't last year. Nor is Janusz Kaminski likely to be rewarded for, in part, enabling what some saw as an ultimate regression from Steven Spielberg. Those Scarlett O'Hara skies didn't paint themselves red. And even though there's a sense of inevitability surrounding The Artist's chances (putting that Slumdog glaze across the eyes of any number of Oscar bloggers), we're pretty confident the Academy can resist Guillaume Schiffman's flip-the-switch approach to shooting black and white. (If we're wrong, we'll buy Christian Berger and Robert Elswit the first drink.) No, for voters to dishonor Lubezki's visionary images, they're going to once again endorse 3D. Are those glasses or blinders?
Will Win: Robert Richardson, Hugo
Could Win: Emmanuel Lubezki, The Tree of Life
Should Win: Emmanuel Lubezki, The Tree of Life