I always find myself worried that people no longer believe that more is more. These days, and this is applicable to all aspects of filmmaking, people seem to be sticking with the familiar, rather than trying something new or challenging. Every time I went to the movies this year, I asked myself if the cinematographer merely went with whatever worked, or searched until finding whatever shot worked best. More often than not, I was largely disappointed. However, I am pleased with how many films decided to push things. Shutter Island, Let Me in, and Black Swan had a lot of help from the striking and disturbing imagery they were told to frame, but they were breathtaking nonetheless. The cinematography that impressed me the most this year was a lot more natural, and didn't rely too much on visual symbols or supernatural elements to make its point.
Wally Pfister has worked with Christopher Nolan on all his films, and over the years they have definitely grown through this partnership in terms of honing their respective skills. Nolan and Pfister have peaked in quality, starting two years ago with The Dark Knight, and continuing now with Inception. It's unclear how long this peak will last, or if they could do even better. For the time being, I'm just enjoying what they're placing onscreen. For a film that's largely based in the world of dreams, Pfister keeps the cinematography firmly grounded in some sort of reality. The lensing of most scenes have an over-lit yellow or slight gray tint to them, and the dream world is lit much lighter than the real world, giving an eerie sense of seduction to extended dream sequence. It's ultimately effective, and occasionally iconic, from the perfect first shot of the relentless ocean, to the foreboding and mysterious final shot of the film.
2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
If this series hasn't always been a critical or emotional darling, the aspect that has always prevailed in the Potter saga is the production department. I wouldn't be surprised if the latest installment got several nods in technical categories this year, most especially for the lensing of the film. David Yates has had a habit of choosing more skilled and textured cinematographers than the first four films, and Eduardo Serra definitely brings something unique to the table. A lot of what makes the cinematography of this latest film work is the landscapes that the trio (or duo) are staying at. It's a nice way of keeping track of where the characters are emotionally. From the unfamiliar woods, to the barren and desolate mountains, every location has some sort of link to what the characters are feeling at that moment, and Eduardo keeps the camera perfectly focused throughout. There's a balance between the safe distances and the odd shakes in the camera, and it's clear that so much work went into making each frame emotionally impactful.
1. True Grit
I was truly worried that my top pick in this category wouldn't make it into the cinematography category at all, and then True Grit came around the corner and changed everything. I thought that Roger Deakins' Oscar hype for his work here was a bit overblown until I saw it. I was captivated by the meticulous first shot, starting with a strange yellowish fade in, and then focusing into this wonderful portrait of a man lying dead as the snow fell upon him. This attention to detail and quality composition never once wavered for the rest of the film. There wasn't a moment in this film in which I felt that they could've chosen a better shot. The black outline of Tom Cheney riding away and escaping remains a powerful one, and even more powerful is the final shot that leads into the end credits. It's not truly symbolic of anything, but it's simply beautiful to look at. Roger Deakins deserves to win the Oscar for cinematography this year, because he has no equal in this race. This year, he is the best.