As R. Kurt Osenlund pointed out yesterday, there are plenty of categories more flashily controversial this year, but none have become as big a flash point among cinephiles as the cinematography prize. No demographic is more certain that one of Oscar’s longest-running contemporary injustices is its failure to coronate Emmanuel Lubezki, whose lucidly expressive images have now earned him six nominations and a near-fanatic cult devotion. Having to cope with the losses he’s suffered his last three times at bat—with The New World, Children of Men, and The Tree of Life respectively falling to Memoirs of a Geisha, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Hugo—are, for acolytes, like living in an alternate universe where John Alcott’s work on Barry Lyndon lost to Robert L. Surtees’s The Hindenburg, or Sven Nykvist’s lensing of Cries & Whispers lost to Surtees’s The Sting, or Néstor Almendros’s Days of Heaven lost to Robert Surtees’s Same Time, Next Year. Adding insult to injury last time around was the fact that Lubezki’s richly textured analog work in The Tree of Life was chewed up and spit out by the Academy’s now-insatiable sweet tooth for CGI-heavy 3D toy boxes, a trend that’s held for the last four years running.
And so the irony is lost on no one that Lubezki is, finally, all but assured a win for performing precisely the sort of digital cartwheels that have come to represent the downfall of this category in the eyes of the cinephiles in question. Especially in light of the critical attention rightly lavished this year on Bruno Delbonnel’s uncompromisingly bleak lo-fi reflection of the cyclical depression suffered deep inside Inside Llewyn Davis. Especially given that the branch has, yet again, come up with one of the most defensible and independent-minded lineups of the year, right up there with their legendary 2006 roundup. Especially now that Harris Savides (The Bling Ring) has gone to his grave without a single nomination to his name. And, if you want to define the conversation by pointing out who’s most clearly overdue, Lubezki’s six nominations are no match for the still-winless 11 racked up by Roger Deakins, whose dank, lugubrious images single-handedly supplied the otherwise silly Prisoners with its, ahem, gravity. But charge Lubezki’s work on Gravity with being nothing more than an elongated video-game cutscene if it makes you feel better. As suggested by Kevin B. Lee, there’s a level of elegance and seamless choreography evident in Gravity’s sustained magnificence that sets it apart from the likes of Avatar and Hugo. So push the backlash back until next year, when Deakins steps up his game and lenses the 3D IMAX adaptation of Goat Simulator 1st Alpha Gameplay.
Will Win: Gravity
Could Win: Alone Yet Not Alone
Should Win: Inside Llewyn Davis