Saturday, December 9, 2023

Will The Academy Make History Or Lean Into Their History With Best Cinematography This Year?

At the 37th American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Awards, Australian cinematographer Mandy Walker celebrated a historic win for her work on Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis.” She became the first woman to win the award and dedicated it to all the women who would win after her. ASC is not the only place Walker made history with “Elvis.” This past December, her cinematography win at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Industry Awards (AACTA) was the first time a woman has ever won the category there as well. “Elvis” is Walker’s first-ever Oscar nomination, which makes her the third woman in the Academy’s 95-year history to be nominated for Best Cinematography. She follows Ari Wegner (for 2021’s “The Power of the Dog“) and Rachel Morrison (for 2017’s “Mudbound“). Could Mandy Walker become the first to win? It’s a topic of discussion that had been on the periphery of hopeful award season chatter and, following the ASC win, has re-entered the chat with another layer of support. 

When early favorite Claudio Miranda missed the Oscar nomination for his work on “Top Gun: Maverick,” the cinematography race opened up for a new contender to find strength. Oscar nominees Roger Deakins (“Empire of Light“) and Darius Khondji (“Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths“) are both heavy hitters in the cinematography world, Deakins, in particular, a major Academy favorite. But when both ended up as the sole nominees for their respective films, this gave the opportunity for Best Picture nominees to rise. Edward Berger’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” a stunning organic discovery that received a strong push later in the season, emerged as a new and current favorite. Cinematographer James Friend won the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC) award for best work in a feature film. Plus, he won the BAFTA for Best Cinematography, notably over fellow Oscar nominees in the category, including “Elvis,” as well as Florian Hoffmeister’s work on “Tár.” 

All Quiet on the Western Front” missed a nomination at ASC, where “Elvis” won, which puts a few things into perspective. Firstly, the ASC is the sole Oscar precursor win “Elvis” has received for Best Cinematography. Second, “Elvis” won without going up against “All Quiet on the Western Front.” In the scenarios where both films were up for an award in the same place, “All Quiet on the Western Front” was the winner. Thirdly, the absence of “All Quiet on the Western Front” at ASC gives space for momentum to build around Walker. With the ASC win, “Elvis” has more wiggle room in the race, plus a continuation of the path towards an even bigger history-making win for Walker. While “Elvis” lost at BAFTA and BSC, there is a precedent in place for the film to triumph, even if the ASCs historically haven’t always been the most reliable factor. Over the last 12 years, ASC winners have overlapped at the Oscars a total of eight times, particularly the last three years in a row (“Dune,” “Mank,” and “1917“). The BAFTAs remain to be a stronger overall precursor; of those eight overlapping wins between ASC and the Oscars, six of them also won at BAFTA. But there are exceptions — 2010’s “Inception” and 2020’s “Mank” — that won the ASC and Oscar without a BAFTA win.

The momentum around “All Quiet on the Western Front” post-BAFTAs, where it won a record-breaking seven awards out of 14 nominations, still reverberates. While it’s unlikely that most of the film’s BAFTA wins will carry over to the Oscars, the Academy’s spread-out recognition of “All Quiet on the Western Front” gives the film an edge regarding where it is likeliest to win. The film has key nominations in both Best Production Design and Best Visual Effects, two categories that can be closely tied to cinematography when it comes to the Oscars, acknowledging the look of a film. In particular, the recognition of visual effects has become a fairly strong boost when awarding Best Cinematography. Over the past twelve years, eight of the cinematography Oscar winners received a nomination for visual effects. 

Considering the titanic dominance of “Avatar: The Way of Water,” plus the emergence of “Babylon” as an Oscar frontrunner in Best Production Design, the cinematography is where “All Quiet on the Western Front” has the chance to win for one of its most consistently praised technical achievements. James Friend’s vivid work adds a deeply immersive quality to the storytelling that lingers long after the credits. “All Quiet on the Western Front” features some of the most memorable imagery of the past year. With an exquisite balance between vast landscapes, action-fueled sequences, and up-close character-driven spaces, Friend brings the epic scope of the novel to the screen. Another feather in this film’s cap is camera operator Daniel Bishop’s win at the Society of Camera Operators (SOC) Awards. He was awarded operator of the year in film over Jason Ellson’s work for “Elvis.” 

The majority of Oscar nominations for “Elvis” are closely attuned to world-building, from the cinematography and makeup & hairstyling to the costumes and production design. “Elvis” is poised as a likely winner in at least two of these categories (Best Makeup & Hairstyling and Best Costume Design), both of which recall and are brilliantly accentuated by Walker’s camerawork. Her cinematography conveys everything from Austin Butler’s movements to the highs and lows of Elvis’ Las Vegas residency, caught in a trap of glitz and glamor. She also interspersed a great deal of scale, emotion, and inspired lens choices that complement the various decades of Elvis’ life, from the uncanny recreations of iconic concert footage and the integration of period and modern lighting to the dazzling camera angles that capture the pure frenzy of a performance. The cinematography sets a visceral tone and perfectly matches the film’s energy. 

Following decades of richly detailed work, from 1996’s “The Well” to 2008’s “Australia” (her first feature collaboration with Luhrmann), Mandy Walker is at the top of her game with “Elvis.” With Oscar voting over, the love and appreciation for her work feel more robust than ever before. The question of whether this enthusiasm and the film’s FYC support for Walker has re-emerged too late in the game is a fair one. Between the BSCs, the BAFTAs, and the SOC Awards, “All Quiet on the Western Front” picked up one precursor after another in February. The ASCs, the final piece of the precursor puzzle here, took place with two days of Oscar voting left. 

Walker’s chances of becoming the first woman to win Best Cinematography at the Oscars gained momentum just as final ballots were being cast, which could work well for those who have waited until the last minute to make a decision. Given the narrative building around her breaking the glass ceiling, “Elvis” seems to be in a better position in the mad dash of Oscar week than it was a month ago. One key piece to remember is that an ASC win for “Elvis” was always in the realm of possibility. The moment “Elvis” received 8 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, a case was to be made then. The recent success of “All Quiet on the Western Front” and the stunning work among all of this year’s Best Cinematography nominees will make the category an incredibly exciting and hopeful one to watch.

Who do you think is winning Best Cinematography this Sunday at the Oscars? Many Walker for Elvis?” Or James Friend for All Quiet on the Western Front?” Please let us know in the comments below or on our Twitter account, and check out our latest Oscar predictions here.

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Nadia Dalimonte
Nadia Dalimonte
Editor In Chief for Earth to Films. Film Independent, IFS Critics, NA Film Critic & Cherry Pick member.

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