Cinematography is one of the more confusing categories that are granted awards. It's not always clear who shot what or why an image looks good. Images look good for a variety of reasons, and most of those reasons have to do with production design, costuming and blocking. It's hard to separate that out sometimes because our eyes just take in the images all at once, not in separate elements.
It's also hard to know how much the director trusts a DP, and how he lets him run with the decision making process. Sometimes striking images are captured by the second unit, like the taxi coming out of the steam at the beginning of Taxi Driver.
Also, as digital has taken over everything, it's hard to know what was captured honestly and what was digitally altered by different post teams. What did Claudio Miranda actually capture in Life of Pi? I have no idea. Almost every frame was touched digitally, either by adding water, animals, waves or the transitions and overlapping footage throughout the film.
What did Robert Richardson actually capture in Django? I have a better idea. Very little was overtly touched by digital tools outside of color timing and correction. But the heavily touched-up style works well for Pi, just as the mostly in-camera style works for Django. Visually, Pi is a breathtaking film. I just don't know who did what.
The outlier of the group is Seamus McGarvey for Anna Karenina. It was nominated for few other awards and was the least successful film financially of the bunch. But what a look. The film eschews the stodgy, leaden text with a fresh, hyper stylistic take, immersing the story in a theatrical world full of artificial sets and a behind the scenes of a play look. It's a startling departure from what you might expect the film to be (something more like the Doctor Zhivago adaptation that Keira Knightley was in earlier), but my God does it work.
Again though, it's about filtering out the production design, costumes and blocking for Anne Karenina. With Anna Karenina it's the costumes that cause the most distraction, with Anna wearing heavy duty diamonds that sparkle through the film like a Liz Taylor perfume ad. It's a nice classical touch to the radical departure, tying the film back to a more classic time when Vincente Minnelli might have made a film like this.
Seamus McGarvey -- "Anna Karenina"
Robert Richardson -- "Django Unchained"
Claudio Miranda -- "Life of Pi"
Janusz Kaminski -- "Lincoln"
Roger Deakins -- "Skyfall"
Seamus McGarvey for Anna Karenina. One of the more surprising things about doing this every year is finding you end up really liking films that you never wanted to see in the first place. When it comes to books, the word "slog" was invented for the novels of Leo Tolstoy, chiefly War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Anna Karenina, with its 118 page digression about Levin's wheat harvest, was such a hard read for me to get through that I've never even attempted War and Peace. Joe Wright, Seamus McGarvey and their team cut through all of the bullshit though and created this really stunning work, and a lot of it is based on the quality of the light and the darkness. You have to adjust to the theatrical artifice and the Parisian street music, but once you do it's a deeply rewarding rendering that makes the tough density of Tolstoy's words (as translated by Constance Garnett anyway) soar.