Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
As we move up the list of categories in my special event series of Best Oscar selections, we come to a category which seems to impress people in myriad different ways. In Cinematography, a word given to the art of a film’s director of photography (DP), some feel that beautiful exteriors well captured on film are deserving of recognition in this category while others feel that the technical aspects, of which lighting is only a small portion, are more worthy of inclusion. For me, I prefer a combination of the both. Having a great sense of framing is an essential part of cinematography, but so too is capturing exterior environments with aplomb.
The Best Cinematography category was among the first to be given out for the films of 1927 and 1928. The category split off to black-and-white and color in 1939, but unlike Costume Design and Production Design, there was only one year where the two categories merged (1957) before splitting off again through 1966. From 1967 on, the category was unified once again.
My final five selections employ a combination of those styles I mentioned above. They are films that look very impressive on the big screen and are also well composed as well as being well lit. However, as this category often features nominees that have an influence on future generations of filmmakers, it’s important to acknowledge that some of my selections were highly influential while others are just personal favorites. In addition, there are a number of titles I want to discuss individually outside of my final five.
Before I get to that, let’s look at some of my favorite photographed films that were acknowledged by the Academy. Among the winners are: Gone With the Wind (1939), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Cries and Whispers (1973), The English Patient (1996), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), There Will Be Blood (2007), Gravity (2013), and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014).
On the losers’ side of the equation, some of the best included All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Casablanca (1943), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Psycho (1960), The Exorcist (1973), Red (1994), Evita (1996), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005), and Black Swan (2010).
Now, let’s look at a few I wanted to discuss briefly before moving on to my final five.
Color photography didn’t emerge until the 1390s and while black-and-white films continued being made for decades after the introduction of color, it’s important to recognize those titles for their work in creating mood. Rebecca was an atmospheric mystery drama from Alfred Hitchcock whose films were always compelling to look at. This is perhaps his second most impressive achievement outside of Vertigo (which was surprisingly not nominated). Gaslight lost the Oscar in 1944 to Laura, a film that was also impressive for its trendsetting designs. Gaslight was just as atmospheric as Rebecca, but had added impressiveness in its varied use of lighting effects. Like these other two films, Oscar winner The Third Man built on what Orson Welles had done nine years before and improved upon use of lighting for creating a chilling atmosphere for the film.
While many of the best looking films in cinema history are smaller efforts, a handful of recent blockbusters have shown what artistic touches can be added to a film through use of more traditional lighting and camera effects. For The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, it was the use of forced perspective that helped give the film its unique look, but it had so much else that needed to be well highlighted that the end result was something impressive. Legendary cinematographer Roger A. Deakins helped give Skyfall a new look as the series pushed towards being more than just a blockbuster spy series. Deakins gave the film several wonderful sequences with the most impressive being a backlit fight between Bond and his enemies. The final film in this section is Mad Max: Fury Road, another Oscar loser, which had to make a post-apocalyptic environment look fresh and lived-in. The stupendous work done during the massive vehicle chase sequences deserved an Oscar on its own.
It may seem like every shot has been done before and that there’s not much in the way of potential innovation on that front, but several cinematography legends (Roger A. Deakins, Emmanuel Lubezki, etc.) have shown a prolific ability to use the lessons of the past to continue to enhance and beautify their films. Four films have exemplified how modern directors of photography can pay homage to the past while creating interesting new ventures in the present cinematic landscape. Edward Lachman is one of those latter day masters and Far from Heaven might well be his pinnacle (if not for one of the films on my final list. The film didn’t win, though it probably should have. It was a beautifully shot film that paid homage to the Sirkian melodrama in fascinating fashion. Robert Richardson did something similar with The Aviator except that he chose to use photographic styles and effects in use of the time in which the film’s scenes took place from black-and-white in early scenes to forward-thinking red-blue technicolor in the middle of the film, and finally full-fledged technicolor as the film came to its close. It was an impressive feat.
For Brokeback Mountain, Rodrigo Prieto went for a classic approach and the film looks amazing, but his shot selection was compelling even if its simplicity allowed Oscar voters to turn a blind eye towards it. Lubezki figures in the final film in this particular segment, Children of Men. Capturing the grimy post-apocalyptic world of Children of Men allowed the noted cinematographer to create a lasting impression on the audience in a simple and dignified manner. This film also lost.
While many talk about the impact Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, and their cinematographers, had on the cinematic landscape, another prolific director helped guide modern cinema in sometimes unfathomable ways. Stanley Kubrick’s films had a unique look to them, one of beauty and utilitarian principle, but also of forward-thinking and creative expression. Of his thirteen features, only two were nominated for an Oscar for cinematography, Spartacus and Barry Lyndon. Both films won the award, but neither film is at the top of the list of Kubrick’s best shot and most innovative films. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut are his best and most impressive films from a design perspective with cinematographers Geoffrey Unsworth, Gilbert Taylor, John Alcott, Alcott, and Larry Smith, respectively, given credit for the photography, but like Welles and Hitchcock before him, Kubrick was far more responsible for the look and style of his films than his directors of photography were.
Now that we’ve discussed my feelings about those that aren’t on my top five, let’s dig further into the category itself and my five selections. Of the five selections below, two are Oscar losers, but were far more impressive than anything the Academy honored that year and might be among the two most impressive works in history, with the first below being an important influence on cinematic language and the latter certain to be discussed by future film enthusiasts for its superlative work.
The Academy’s first selection for Best Cinematography is a film that has only improved in stature over time and part of that success was its forward-thinking use of photography to tell the story. From darkened landscapes that kept the tension of certain scenes feeling sinister to the bright and blinding realm of the big city. All of these scenes evoke a sense of place and time in a wonderful way.
At a time when the Academy’s selections were largely determined by the outsized presence of studio honcho Louis B. Mayer and his consensus building maneuvers, the Academy’s overall selections were a bit tepid from the Best Picture winner Wings, which gets something of a bad rap, to the strange decision to honor William Cameron Menzies for Art Direction for two films that have largely been forgotten to time while more deserving nominees Sunrise and 7th Heaven went home empty-handed. The one really good decision the Academy made that year was honoring Sunrise for its now-defunct Artistic Quality of Production trophy. While Best Picture would have been a better choice for the film, at least they acknowledged the legacy Sunrise might one day have.
Citizen Kane (1941)
While the foundational cinematic language of cinematography and editing evolved during the silent era, Orson Welles redefined that language with his seminal film, Citizen Kane. One of the reasons this film has sat atop numerous best of cinema lists is how revolutionary it was. It wasn’t the veiled references to William Randolph Hearst, but the photography and framing Welles and DP Gregg Toland used that has cemented its status as an influential work.
The best example I was ever given to show this redefining work was in a scene early in the film where Charles Foster Kane’s parents were fighting over their child’s educational future. Between these two arguing figures, the audiences glimpsed Charles playing in the snow outside the window, caught between warring factions. It is the single best example of how artistically framing a scene can define how the audience visually understands the setting without requiring dialogue to explain the situation. This and numerous other compelling cinematographical choices helped influence countless filmmakers in the intervening years. While it isn’t a surprise the film was shut out of every major category except writing, this is perhaps the biggest failure in Academy history in terms of overlooking greatness.
Schindler’s List (1993)
More than fifty years after the seminal achievement of Welles and Toland, Steven Spielberg returned to long-abandoned and seldom repurposed black-and-white photography for his historical epic Schindler’s List, which explores the work of German industrialist Oskar Schindler and his attempts to save as many Jews from the Holocaust as he could by using them as free labor in his factories. Spielberg’s longtime director of photography, collaborator Janusz Kaminski, used the old techniques to bring audiences into the harsh reality of life in Nazi Germany for millions of Jews.
While the film is book-ended by color segments, it’s a single sequence in the middle of the film as the audience follows a young Jewish girl in a pink coat as she and her parents are attempting to escape the crackdown in Krakow, Poland. That series of scenes not only carries a tremendous amount of emotional heft, but is also one of the most impressive uses of limited color in a black-and-white frame in cinema history. That single moment alongside the dark, smoky rooms and stark, pallid faces of Jews imprisoned in the Auscwhitz helped bring to frightening life the challenges faced in the most horrendous of atrocities in modern history. The cinematography, more than anything else, defined the emotional breadth of the film.
As the Academy’s long history has shown, they are seldom on the right side of it with their selections, especially in the Cinematography category. While they’ve made numerous laudable decisions, they often take too long to recognize greatness, or never recognize it all. This is the case for Todd Haynes’ films. When we talk of latter day masters of the form, Haynes/ name is sure to come up as his films have a certain look to them and that look is gloriously rendered. Haynes’ frequent collaborator, Edward Lachman, has surprisingly received only two Oscar nominations, both of which were for Haynes’ films. Far from Heaven was the first and this film is the second. It’s rather a shame that he hasn’t earned more recognition as he’s one of the best working in the industry.
Like Roger Deakins, Lachman has struggled for validation from the Academy. While Lachman’s failed recognition has been a lack of nominations, Deakins’ failures have been a lack of victories. Regardless, it’s rather stark proof that Academy voters don’t often understand or respect the broadness of the concept of cinematography. They usually go for films that look good, but not necessarily ones with great framing choices. Lachman’s failure to break through with an Oscar win is a byproduct of this Academy blindsidedness. Films like Legends of the Fall are more likely to win over smaller pieces that are just as well lit, but tell a much more intimate story. The photography in this film is also suggestive of the kind of work the Academy too often overlooks. Carol is visually stunning from beginning to end and while it would be easy to chalk that up to production design or costume design, the cinematography is most responsible for its overall feel and that’s why it should have been honored over The Revenant that year.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Speaking of Deakins in the last entry, for years, he was the most nominated cinematographer in history who didn’t also have an Oscar, having received over a dozen nominations without ever taking home the award. On this film, his fourteenth nomination, he finally won the Oscar. He then turned around and won a second prize on his fifteenth for 1917, which was shot to look like it was completed in one take, much like Birdman was before it. For Blade Runner 2049, all of Deakins’ great work was on vibrant display in this futuristic picture that featured numerous landscapes. From the light pollution of Los Angeles to the dusty, abandoned San Francisco, every shot in this film was a gorgeous composition employing beautiful lighting and well-selected shots to form a terrific whole.
Only three cinematographers have had more nominations than Deakins, Charles B. Lang Jr., Leon Shamroy, and Robert Surtees. Unfortunately, there are ten with more wins. Deakins’ work will continue to excite critics and film enthusiasts alike, but the Academy still struggles to acknowledge great artists until too late in their careers to truly extol their virtues before they shuffle off this mortal coil. Yet, 71-year-old Deakins still seems to be going strong. He has one new film coming out this year, but it’s not likely to be an Oscar contender. He’s still got a long and fruitful career ahead of him, we hope, and perhaps one day he’ll pick up the last four nominations to put him on top of the historical leaderboard and win the Oscar for three of them to take the top of the winners list as well. He would most certainly deserve the recognition.