Will Roger Deakins (“Unbroken”) finally win his elusive Oscar after 11 nominations? Or will Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (“Birdman”) earn two in a row? Will Dick Pope (“Mr. Turner”) grab his first Academy Award on the 10th film with Mike Leigh, or will Jeff Cronenweth (“Gone Girl”) finally strike gold with David Fincher? Can the very hot Hoyte van Hoytema (“Interstellar”) take home his first prize as the lone film practitioner (primarily using IMAX)? All of the work is extraordinary as cinematography once again signifies the most exciting of the craft races.
1. Deakins, the guru of naturalism, provides his most beautiful work for Angelina Jolie’s powerful “Unbroken,” the biopic about Olympic runner turned war hero Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell). Utilizing Oswald Morris’ work on Sidney Lumet’s 1965 “The Hill” as a searing benchmark for World War II melodrama, Deakins achieves a classical look, packing the frame with intensity. From the ethereal opening of Zamp’s B24 ascending the clouds to the bleached out claustrophobia of surviving 47 days in a raft in the Pacific, to the agonies of enduring POW torture porn in the Omori and Naoetsu camps, Deakins creates a masterful dance of light and dark that serves as the primary metaphor of miraculous survival and spiritual transcendence.
The contrast between the two camps, for instance, couldn’t be more visually striking: the wooden Omori has a warm, dustiness while Naoetsu is draped in black coal and snow. Deakins, of course, is long overdue (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “The Assassination of Jesse James”).
2. Meanwhile, Lubezki, the master of the long take, outdoes himself with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” creating the illusion of a single take to put us in the mind of Michael Keaton, who loses his grip on reality. Lubezki has already taken the LA and Boston film critics prizes (with Pope as runner-up), and has become the early frontrunner. He uses a lot of hand-held and steadicam shots with the Alexa, and opens it up almost to the max to allow Keaton and his fellow actors to roam freely in 360 and to light practically and with LEDs.
Lubezki also makes use of strong blues and reds inside the theater along with lens flare to make it more cinematic. At the same time, there’s an inherent theatricality to “Birdman” that alternates between oppressive and liberating. The opening and closing shots are purely subjective, evoking “All That Jazz” and its antecedent, “8 1/2,” in conjuring madness and creativity.
3. But you could certainly argue that “Mr. Turner” is the most opulent-looking movie in years, as Pope takes us into the visionary mind of eccentric 19th century British painter J.M.W. Turner (a career-definer for Timothy Spall). The cinematographer initially wanted to shoot on film but the budget precluded it, so he made it work digitally with the Alexa, studying Turner’s paints and recreating his rich color palette.
What’s unique is how Pope evokes the magnificent landscapes and seascapes that Turner witnessed and how he studied light like a scientist, selected and mixed his paints like a chemist, and then painted accordingly with remarkable insight and precision. The result is a digital tableaux worthy of the film that influenced Leigh and Pope the most: Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.”
4. Cronenweth is in a groove with Fincher yet he achieves more than a chilly naturalism with “Gone Girl,” conjuring a dance of love and hate in these parallel, non-linear journeys. Take the ambiguous opening shot of Rosamund Pike staring somberly at the camera while being stroked off-screen by husband Ben Affleck It’s a remarkable visual translation of the book’s description. Or the rain of sugar dust when they first meet. It’s a dangerous game these two lovers play — unsuited for anything more than superficial fun to hide the pain of unfulfilled expectations.
And weather factors in visually for Cronenweth. Manhattan is warm and romantic and the Midwest is cold and oppressive, as their relationship spirals out of control into depths of despair and murderous manipulation. Cronenweth, therefore, adjusts color palettes, lenses, and filters to infiltrate their volatile states of mind and emotional predicaments.