In the last three years, the race for the Cinematography Oscar has come down to a bout between two kinds of candidates: the oft-overlooked veteran who has somehow never won an Oscar, and the previously-lauded cinematographer who shot a visual effects-infused extravaganza. In all three years, the winner proved to be of the second category: Wally Pfister's work on "Inception" beat out Matthew Libatique's on "Black Swan," Robert Richardson's efforts on "Hugo" defeated Emmanuel Lubezki and "The Tree Of Life," and this year, Claudio Miranda's 3D work on "Life Of Pi" was victorious over long-time bridesmaid Roger Deakins who lit up "Skyfall."
This year, Lubezki — who has 5 Oscar nominations, but no wins — has quickly jumped into the mix for shooting Alfonso Cuaron's 3D visual effects extravaganza "Gravity," and he's by far the runaway frontrunner in the category. Frankly, Lubezki picking up this trophy has been pretty certain since "Gravity" first started screening back in August, and any other outcome would be hugely surprising.
But that's not to say that there isn't fierce competition in the category: who'll be nominated alongside Lubezki is much more up for grabs. Probably Lubezki's closest competition is Sean Bobbitt, whose work in "12 Years A Slave" is just as strong, if less obviously showy. He's a relative newcomer as far as the Academy members are concerned, and this would be his first nomination, so he's in less of a position to win the statue, but the film's awards strength elsewhere, and the quality of Bobbitt's work, will surely see him among the final five here.
Beyond that, things are less certain. Surprisingly, Ken Loach veteran, and regular Paul Greengrass collaborator, Barry Ackroyd only has a single nomination, for "The Hurt Locker" in 2010, but he's got a fair chance of another for "Captain Phillips," though it remains to be seen if the film's strength will carry him through. Also lensed with a visceral, exciting quality was Ron Howard's "Rush," in that case by Lars Von Trier vet Anthony Dod Mantle, who won in 2009 for "Slumdog Millionaire." The film's early heat has faded, but this matters less when it comes to a cinematography nomination, which tend to be landed on merit rather than politics, so it's possible it could work out here.
Roger Deakins, having lost for "Skyfall," could yet again be in the running for another nomination (this would be his eleventh, without a win) for "Prisoners." Again, the work is top-notch — though perhaps not as immediately dazzling as work like "Skyfall" or "The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford" — and while the pulpiness of the movie might hurt it elsewhere, Jeff Cronenweth's nomination for "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" two years back demonstrates that it's not a huge problem here. That said, with the category still in flux, don't be surprised if Deakins has to wait for Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken" in 2014 for his next nod.
Meanwhile, Bruno Delbonnel has three nominations for his work on Jean-Pierre Jeunet's films, and the "Harry Potter" franchise, and does cracking work on his first team-up with the Coen Brothers on "Inside Llewyn Davis" (their regular collaborator, Deakins, was too busy with "Skyfall" to work with them here). It's some of the most distinctive work in the category this year, so we reckon it'll be safe, but that does depend on the work in some of the as-yet-unseen films: Linus Sandgren's photography on "American Hustle," or Rodrigo Prieto's on "The Wolf Of Wall Street" don't immediately look like locks, but the final result will bear that out.
Also kicking around in the upper reaches of the contenders are: Robbie Ryan, who's long been deserving of a nomination, but probably isn't getting it for "Philomena"; Simon Duggan, who might have filled the 3D slot with "The Great Gatsby" had "Gravity" not existed; rising star Hoyte Van Hoytema, who hasn't been nominated before, and may miss out again for Spike Jonze's "Her" (Van Hoytema's working with Christopher Nolan next on "Interstellar," so expect him to be in the running next year); Frank G. DeMarco, who does sturdy work on "All Is Lost"; and Phedon Papamichael for "Nebraska" (although Sam Ryan's similarly two-toned work on "Frances Ha" would be much more deserving).
Other possibilities are fainter: John Schwartzman's fine, if never transcendent with "Saving Mr. Banks"; Rob Hardy does a good job on "The Invisible Woman" but the film has little traction; the Weinsteins are pushing Philippe Le Sourd for "The Grandmaster" but we'd be surprised if it worked out, and "August Osage County" is more of an actor's film, so unfortunately won't lead to a first nod for the very deserving Adriano Goldman. Similarly, Bradford Young's doing some of the best work in his field, but neither "Mother Of George" or "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" will penetrate the Academy.
And elsewhere, the likes of "The Book Thief," "The Counselor," "The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug," "Labor Day," "Lee Daniels' The Butler," "Lone Survivor," "Out Of The Furnace," "Oz The Great & Powerful" and "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" are all theoretically possible, but are on the outside looking in. Expect this category to be in a fair amount of flux over the next few months, but we're expecting the end result to be the same, with Lubezki finally taking home his well-deserved statue.
Best Cinematography Predictions - Wed November 6th
Barry Ackroyd - "Captain Phillips"
Sean Bobbitt - "12 Years A Slave"
Bruno Delbonnel - "Inside Llewyn Davis"
Emmanuel Lubezki - "Gravity"
Phedon Papamichael - "Nebraska"
Best Picture Chart - Wed November 6th
1. "12 Years A Slave" (2)
Our concerns at a subdued box office start appear to have been overly-worrisome: the film's performed nicely as it's expanded, cracking the top ten on only 100 screens, suggesting there's a real appetite for the film. It's hard to imagine voters watching it and not feeling it's deserving on some level: but it's getting them to watch it that still has to be the main hurdle here.
2. "Gravity" (1)
Closing on $450 million worldwide, and looks to meet our prediction that it'll make at least the $600 million that "Life Of Pi" did last year (China, Japan and the UK, three of the bigger world markets, are still to open). But let's not forget that it's ten years since the Academy last gave Best Picture to an effects-driven blockbuster, and while Cuaron's achievement is extraordinary, is it as significant as "Lord of the Rings?"
3. "The Wolf Of Wall Street" (6)
Now firmly back in the race, and with that riotous second trailer fresh in the memory. Looks more comedically-inclined than many were assuming, which could work against it (the Academy are not massive fans of comedy, as we all know) or for it ("Argo's mix of light comic touch and more serious fare won it the prize, and the film will be competing as a Comedy/Musical at the Golden Globes, with little serious competition.
4. "American Hustle" (4)
As we've discussed before: an astonishing cast, and Russell's due for a win at this point. But is it hurt by the reemergence of 'Wolf?' Will it look like a pale Scorsese imitation, or will it outdo the master at his own game? Either way, with "Gravity" and "12 Years A Slave" duking it out since August, fresh blood will be welcomed when these start screening at the end of the month.
5. "Captain Phillips" (=)
"Saving Mr Banks" came and went (see below), and this is still the Tom Hanks film that people are talking about. At a very healthy $82 million, it's managed to survive the "Gravity" onslaught. That said, this still feels like people's second or third favorite movie of the year, rather than their absolute fave.
6. "Inside Llewyn Davis" (7)
Too good not to be nominated. Sorry. If "A Serious Man" can manage it, this can too.
7. "Nebraska" (8)
It'll puzzle me til the day I die, but the Academy really seem to like this one. Feels even less like a potential winner than "Sideways" and "The Descendants" did, but likely to be in the mix.
8. "Saving Mr Banks" (3)
I liked it, but reaction from others has been a little more muted outside the festival bubble. I still maintain it'll play well at AFI for an inside-the-business crowd, but it's not an "Argo"-sized homerun, so likely won't challenge for the win.
9. "Blue Jasmine" (11)
This finally made it to my part of the world, and it is indeed Woody Allen's best film since "Sweet & Lowdown." Without the period trappings and ensemble feel of "Midnight In Paris," I do still wonder if this makes the cut, but it's certainly in with a good shout.
10. "Philomena" (9)
In the U.K, this opened to almost twice what "The Queen" did seven years ago, and that was a film about, you know, the Queen. We can't get enough of the Queen over here. As such, that seems to back up what we've suspected along: that this is The Weinstein Company's best bet at a Best Picture nomination. But the company's attention remains divided: will they all miss out as a result?
11. "Her" (12)
Really quite the critical darling, but can it beat out "Gravity" and "12 Years A Slave" to some of the critical awards? And even if it can, will it matter? Will Academy voters be able to identify with a man falling in love with an operating system when most of them think of an operating system as the procedure their surgeon follows to remove a kidney stone?
12. "Dallas Buyers Club" (14)
On the one hand, this opened nicely, with $260,000 from only 9 theaters. On the other, it's being put out by Focus Features, which is essentially a ghost ship for the moment. We'll see how this does in the next few weeks: this could get right back in the game if it's clear that what remains of Focus is fighting for it, or it could end up even missing out on the Best Actor nomination that McConaughey was once the frontrunner for.
13. "All Is Lost" (=)
Correctly, Roadside Attractions have course-corrected a little after the movie opened too close to "Gravity" and "Captain Phillips" and got buried: it was meant to have gone wider by now, but the distributors are rolling out more cautiously. Hopefully, it'll mean that this deserving film gets more attention. Worth remembering: it likely plays better on a screener than some of the other survival dramas it's up against.
14. "August Osage County" (10)
Still in the mix, but I haven't really talked to anyone that really loves it. With the current system, can it win first choice votes against more obviously crowd-pleasing or critically-lauded fare?
15. "Lone Survivor" (16)
Screened to select press in L.A. last week, and went down reasonably well, with most believing it's Peter Berg's best film. But word is mixed about the Academy prospects, and while this might've had a chance in a weaker year, this doesn't seem to have the same zeitgeist factor of "Zero Dark Thirty," for instance.
16. "Lee Daniels' The Butler" (17)
Some swear that of all the movies, this is one that Academy members are responding to the most. I'd suggest that many voters don't start watching the films until after Thanksgiving (and that's when it's most crucial...). Still, being an early favorite has proved beneficial in the past, so it's far from done.
17. "The Book Thief" (-)
We dismissed this, prematurely, a few weeks ago, after a botched launch. But it is quietly gathering buzz, and word is that Fox are positioning their resources behind this rather than their other potential contender (see below...)
18. "The Invisible Woman" (-)
This seemed to slip out of the conversation almost as soon as it arrived in Telluride, but I just caught up with it and thought it was very pleasantly surprising. Felicity Jones and Joanna Scanlan in particular give two of the best performances of the year. It likely won't recover at this stage, but it's absolutely worth a look if you'd dismissed it before.
19. "Rush" (18)
Still clinging on in there, but fading by the day. If it had landed later (the "Lone Survivor" slot, perhaps), this could have ridden the warm reception to a nod, but U.S. audiences passed it by, so even the hotly-tipped Daniel Bruhl is likely to miss out here.
20. "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" (15)
Underwhelmingly received at NYFF, and slipping further and further from the mind ever since: it seems like it's more "Family Man" than "Forrest Gump." Has its supporters, but Fox seem to be realizing that it's best served as a purely commercial proposition.
Bubbling Under: "Enough Said," "Mud," "Prisoners," "Fruitvale Station," "Out Of The Furnace," "Labor Day," "Before Midnight," "The Past."