If there's one thing that even "Skyfall" naysayers agree on, it's that the film's cinematography looks absolutely stunning. More than anything else, Sam Mendes' master-stroke may have been bringing his "Jarhead" and "Revolutionary Road" DoP (and Coen Brothers veteran) Roger Deakins along on the adventure. And the result is an action film where every frame could hang in a gallery (the Shanghai sequence and the final set-piece in particular). It's certainly one of the best looking films of 2012.
Deakins has been nominated for Best Cinematography nine times (for "The Shawshank Redemption," "Fargo," "Kundun," "O Brother Where Art Thou," "The Man Who Wasn't There," "No Country For Old Men," "The Assassination of Jesse James" — the latter two in the same year, no less — "The Reader" and "True Grit"), but never won. So, it seems a pretty good starting point for this week's Oscar category breakdown to examine if 007 will be the film to finally win Deakins his Oscar, and what competition he has to overcome.
Deakins is certainly due, and he's taken to the digital revolution in an impressive manner since switching over with last year's otherwise forgettable "In Time." But will the action-adventure nature of the work count against him? For instance, we'd floated Robert Elswit's impressive IMAX work in "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" last year as a possibility, but it never materialized. That said, the cinematographers, more than any other branch, refuse to be swayed by anything but the work, hence nominations in recent years for films like "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," "Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince," "The Dark Knight" and even "The Black Dahlia." In a strong year for the category, there's always a chance that Deakins could miss out — or make the final five, only to lose out for a tenth time. But we reckon he'll make the cut, and could finally be rewarded.
That said, there's some very stiff competition, not least from some fellow legends of the lenses. Last year's winner, Robert Richardson, one of only two men with three Oscars in the category, is once again teaming up with Quentin Tarantino for "Django Unchained." That said, with a statue for "Hugo" last year, we're not sure he'll be getting a fourth so soon, and probably remains on the line for a nomination, although we're sure the film looks glorious. Also on the threshold is two-time winner Janusz Kaminski, who again works with Steven Spielberg on "Lincoln." Their collaborations have resulted in four nods since "Schindler's List," but some have pointed to the film as the same ol' platinum-tinted look for the DoP. Then again, "War Horse" won a nod last year, so he should never be counted out.
Those two pictures are also notable for being shot on film, which increasingly few nominees and winners are (only "Inception" of the last four winners wasn't shot on digital). But if the cinematography branches really want to cast a vote for film, they could go for 2010 winner Wally Pfister's work on "The Dark Knight Rises," or, much more likely, relative newcomer Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s stunning 70mm lensing on Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master." He might not be a well-known name, and the film itself might have its Oscar chances fading for the most part, but this category is virtually a lock, and despite Deakins, the Romanian DoP might be the front-runner.
There's also a few other films hanging around as the most likely nominees. Bearing in mind that two of the last four winners were for 3D movies, one should certainly pay attention to Claudio Miranda for "Life of Pi." He picked up a nomination for his work on "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button," and with Ang Lee's seabound adventure proving such a visual spectacle, we can't foresee a scenario where Miranda doesn't get another nod here. Meanwhile, there's no denying the quality of Seamus McGarvey's work on "Anna Karenina," and he's got a very good chance at making it inside the five too, but we think a win is unlikely.
Given its likely awards behemoth status, "Les Miserables" should certainly be a consideration, and Danny Cohen did pick up a nod (and won the BAFTA) for "The King's Speech." That said, Hooper's use of close ups and fish-eye lenses seems even more overbearing than it was on the previous film, and we wonder if there might end up being a pushback against it. Still, we suspect if the film's a phenomenon, a nomination will follow. Australian DoP Greig Fraser ("Bright Star," "Let Me In") is a fast-rising star in the field, and had three nomination-worthy pictures this year, but even sight unseen, "Zero Dark Thirty" probably provides a better shot than "Snow White & The Huntsman" or "Killing Them Softly." But as a would-be first-time nominee in a field of veterans, he may struggle to get the support from his peers for a nod this time around.
In a thinner year, Ben Richardson's lensing of "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" would have a good chance, but it's likely on the outside looking in this time around, while even Rodrigo Prieto's superb work on "Argo" is likely to get overlooked, even with the film looking so promising elsewhere. It's also worth keeping an eye on Oscar Faura for "The Impossible," but the film would need to gain a lot more traction than it has thus far, while Darius Khondji's excellent work on "Amour" is likely to be overlooked because of the film's modest visual style.
Hanging around outside the fringes are possibilities like Andrew Lesnie for "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," Ron Fricke for "Samsara" and Robert Yeoman for "Moonrise Kingdom," but they're all the kind of things that would need a surprise ASC nomination to get traction, and with nominations announced after Oscar ballots have closed this year, they're unlikely. Still, a very strong field, and if we had to pick the five most likely right now, it'd look like….
Danny Cohen – "Les Miserables"
Roger Deakins – "Skyfall"
Mihai Malaimare Jr – "The Master"
Claudio Miranda – "Life Of Pi"
Seamus McGarvey – "Anna Karenina"