The Grandmaster (Philippe Le Sound). How do you translate Terrence Malick into Chinese? Bingo. Every shot here is painstakingly precious — the super-slow-mo kung fu gang warfare in a downpour is an explosive but choppy opening. Impressive that the cameras didn’t get waterlogged. This movie does play like an epic poem. Eventually, though, the effort to make every frame a piece of framable art (or velvet painting, in some cases) gets cumbersome. Cinematography should be the medium, not the entire masterpiece. Solly, Chalrie, too indulgent for my tastes. The trailer deceives you into thinking there is more story there — the movie feels more like a brochure for a martial arts school than a history lesson. Could it be the language barrier?
Gravity (Emmanuel Lubezki). Contrast the choppy opening of The Grandmaster with Lubezki’s 12- to 20-minute continuous opening shot (depending on your source). OK, now that’s just showing off. Academy voters are likely to vote for this because the vista of space tickles their fancies — even though it was all done with wires and “mirrors,” i.e. the Light Box that I’m sure you’ve read about. Great invention, this 3-D projection chamber with 4,096 programmable twinkly lights. I simply can’t vote for robotic cameras and puppetry in this category. For visual effects, sure, hands-down, it wins the Oscar, but give me humans operating a camera any day.
Inside Llewyn Davis (Bruno Delbonnel). Now we’re talking cinematography. Delbonnel did Amélie — he has a magic touch. This movie was like a painting, so lyrical … mostly blue hues, with spots of brown marking Llewyn and the cat, little splashes of red opportunities and life flashing by. It’s the kind of film you can watch with the sound off and it will still hold your interest. The cinematography supplies half of its character. Perfection.
Nebraska (Phedon Papamichael). I’m really torn between the previous nominee and this one, a rare black-and-white entry. Papamichael also shot 2011’s The Descendants — he’s a master at narrative photography. And that’s what he calls it, “photography,” so in that respect I feel the images were a bit static. Sometimes I got the sense I was looking at a storyboard not a finished film. But the black-and-white wasn’t flat at all —it somehow helped bring the bleakness of these folks’ lives to life. There was one shot that made me disgruntled, though —one weird rack focus moment in which Will Forte and Bruce Dern switch places in their vehicle, and the camera lens changes shape then rights itself — I tsk-tsked that, was it intentional? Made me dizzy. But overall this is a true contender. Stacy Keach! That was Stacy Keach. At 72, he’s only five years younger than Bruce Dern, but man, he looked 20 years younger.
Prisoners (Roger A. Deakins). I may be the only one who saw this movie showcasing Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo and Viola Davis. I know, right? The cinematography was so suspenseful it pulsated like a horror movie, even though it’s your basic twisty crime detective story —expertly crafted. Sadly, because no one saw it, it can’t possibly win.
My prediction: “Gravity”
My pick: “Nebraska”
(Ultimately, because these are American awards, Nebraska should win over the foreign-feeling Inside Llewyn Davis — also probably too many words in the title for folks to remember, as this is The Year of One-Word Titles. Nebraska is like an American Gothic, or Wizard of Oz without the color fantasy section … but I wouldn’t be sad if Inside Llewyn Davis took home an Oscar.)