Before the Gold: Best Cinematography

This month we’re taking a look at this year’s Oscar nominees and digging into their past work to find hidden gems that you may have overlooked, or specific credits that may have influenced their Oscar-nominated work this year.

This year’s Best Achievement in Cinematography nominees are a relatively new group, with only one boasting a previous nomination and another who is nominated for his very first feature film. 

Sean Bobbitt

Nominated for: Judas and the Black Messiah

Previous nominations: None

Hidden gem: Hunger (2008)

Bobbitt’s most notable collaborations have been with director Steve McQueen, having shot all four of McQueen’s feature films, including the 2013 Best Picture winner, 12 Years A Slave. But it is in McQueen’s 2008 debut, Hunger, where you can see the roots of Bobbitt’s skill for photographing stories of political and social activism. 

Starring Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, the IRA soldier who died in a British prison in 1981 following a hunger strike to protest British occupation of Northern Ireland, Hunger is a visceral and unflinching look at both passionate and committed action for a cause as well as the brutal authoritarian structure designed to keep such movements down. Like Sands, Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader at the center of Judas and the Black Messiah, was a revolutionary, and, like Hunger, Judas and the Black Messiah are incendiary looks at the tremendous cost that is paid by those who have the courage to fight the corrupt and stand up for what they believe in. Both films are staggering in their raw power, and Bobbitt’s photography is an essential element.

Erik Messerschmidt (our interview with him is here)

Nominated for: Mank

Previous nominations: None

Hidden gem: Legion on FX

If you find it hard to believe that Mank is Messerschmidt’s first feature film, once you notice some of the prestige television he has worked on, including Mindhunter, Fargo and Raised by Wolves, you might not be as surprised to see the exquisite black-and-white, almost transcendental artistry he paints on the canvas for David Fincher’s nostalgic look at classic Hollywood. But it is in his work on the critically-acclaimed FX series Legion that you really spot the talent that Fincher was counting on to deliver his most personal film yet.

Messerschmidt served as the director of photography for 3 episodes of the fantasy series, based on the Marvel Comics character David Haller/Legion. Created by Noah Hawley and starring Dan Stevens, Legion is a vibrant, mind-bending, mind-blowing, psychedelic trip through the mindscape of a person who comes to realize that all the voices in his head are real and he has powers beyond his own belief or understanding. The show’s visuals are truly what stand out, and, for Messerschmidt, the move to movies was inevitable. The fact that his first feature film is Mank, a film as contrary in look and style to Legion as is humanly possible, is almost as mind-blowing as Legion itself, and a testament to Messerschmidt’s obvious talent.

Dariusz Wolski

Nominated for: News of the World

Previous nominations: None

Hidden gem: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Although Wolski has worked on two Alien films, as well as two in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, I believe it’s his work on Tim Burton’s underappreciated adaptation of the classic Stephen Sondheim horror musical that is the true hidden gem of Wolski’s extensive filmography. It’s up to the cinematographer to set the mood and tone and Wolski navigates Burton’s complex threading of fantasy, nightmare, musical and heartache into an atmospheric cinematic marvel. Wolski worked with Burton again three years later on Alice in Wonderland, another stunningly shot film, but Sweeney Todd stands as Burton’s most intense, most serious and most un-childlike film to date, and much credit goes to Wolski for carrying his vision through.

Joshua James Richards

Nominated for: Nomadland

Previous nominations: None

Hidden gem: God’s Own Country (2017)

The only feature film Richards has worked on that wasn’t directed by Chloé Zhao, Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country is, like Nomadland, a deeply personal film with a sprawling, scenic backdrop. Richards finds the quiet and the natural beauty in landscapes, letting nature set the tone for both exquisite films. The wide vistas and wildness of the land are the key backdrop to the story of repression and loneliness in God’s Own Country, the unromanticized rural setting a gritty and gripping counterpart to the character’s own journey. 

Phedon Papamichael (our interview with him is here)

Nominated for: The Trial of the Chicago 7

Previous nominations: Nebraska (2014)

Hidden gem: The Ides of March (2011)

George Clooney’s fourth film as a director was stacked with a cast of heavyweights, a high-energy pace and a ripped-from-the-headlines plot that was equal parts socio-political commentary and character-driven drama. If ever there was a film that could prepare Papamichael for the challenge he was given with Aaron Sorkin’s large-scale The Trial of the Chicago 7, it was The Ides of March

Starring Ryan Gosling as a young and idealistic campaign staffer to a presidential candidate, played by George Clooney, The Ides of March is a film about the perils of political ambition. Much like life on a campaign trail, the film is fast-moving, fast-talking and constantly shifting analysis of what one is willing to sacrifice for their ideals. Although Papamichael was previously nominated for Nebraska in 2014, it’s likely that The Ides of March provided the muscle memory for Papamichael to deliver Sorkin the high-stakes, high-energy historical and political epic that he envisioned for his directorial debut.


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