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From Shawshank to Blade Runner — Is It Finally a Win for Roger Deakins?

It seems like every time Roger Deakins is nominated for a cinematography Oscar we write one of these pieces. Indeed, no one can believe he hasn’t won one yet. His superb work throughout his career is the stuff that awards were made for and yet every single time there is someone else who wins instead. This is usually because the film that wins also has a Best Picture nomination, as so few of Deakins’ nominations have had. I’ve been doing this long enough to remember when Deakins was supposed to win for The Man Who Wasn’t There. He won so many awards heading into the race, but when it came time to lay it down The Fellowship of the Ring, with a Best Picture nomination, won that year. You see, the entire Academy membership votes on the winners. Usually a win for cinematography is considered prestigious enough that it can be given to a film voters really like but not necessarily one that will win Best Picture.

This year, many Oscar pundits have Deakins down for the win for his breathtaking, undeniable work in Blade Runner 2049. It seems plausible that, even without a Best Picture nomination, it can do what others have not. There is a slight problem, however. The expanded Oscar ballot makes it even harder than ever to win for cinematography without a Best Picture nomination because voters tend to like to spread the wealth among the Best Pic nominees.

The last time a film won for cinematography that didn’t have a Best Picture nomination was all the way back in 2006 with Pan’s Labyrinth. Since 2009 with the expanded ballot, all of the cinematography winners were for BP nominees. That would make the odds for Deakins seem slim. Moreover, if the Academy is down with the whole “the year of the woman” thing, many voters might be tempted to give the win to Rachel Morrison who made history for her work on Mudbound, if they’re going to award a film not nominated for Best Picture. But the odds are higher that a film with a Best Picture nomination will win. Here are the nominees:

Blade Runner 2049
The Shape of Water
Mudbound
Dunkirk
Darkest Hour

Only two don’t have Best Picture nominations, but the other three could split up the vote, especially The Shape of Water vs. Dunkirk. If it isn’t going to be Deakins, and there isn’t a push to give women the wins in every category they’re nominated in (they might do just that) then it has to be Dunkirk for the win, I’d think, along with, at the very least, both sound categories, editing, maybe score.

Let’s look at the Deakins signature. It has to be the silhouette — a figure in black against a dramatic canvas, almost always perfectly composed like a painting.

         

You could take almost every shot from The Man Who Wasn’t There or The Assassination of Jesse James and find a framable print. No Country for Old Men (which has to be among the best films ever made and one of my personal favorites) has magnificent cinematography throughout, though Deakins lost that year to There Will Be Blood. Why — because the Academy clearly liked both films and wanted to give There Will Be Blood a prestigious award. Many believe that Robert Elswit deserved it but I have trouble finding anyone who deserved it against Roger Deakins in any year. He is the best. He has always been the best in all of the years he’s been nominated. Everyone knows this. But everyone also knows how the Academy works when it comes to voting for films they all like and spreading the wealth among those films.

Next, the emphasis of character. One shot to tell us who this person is. Deakins does this so well (along with the directors he works with, specifically the Coen brothers):

Roger Deakins shot two Best Picture winners (A Beautiful Mind and No Country for Old Men) and five films that were nominated for Best Picture. It does not seem like the stars are going to align to give him a win for a Best Picture nominee or winner, but voters have a chance this year to give him the Oscar for a film that isn’t nominated but would be well deserved win without a doubt.