Best in Show: shortlists and shot lists

Cinematographer Roger Deakins in his natural environment, on the picturehouse set of his latest film, Empire of Light.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins in his natural environment, on the picturehouse set of his latest film, Empire of Light.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins drops by to chat about his journey from fishing in rural Devon to winning Oscars in Hollywood, and we get mathematical about songs and scores. 

It was the most terrifying moment when they called out my name. Then I saw so many people in the audience that I had worked with or I knew loosely, and they’re all smiling and clapping and seemed really pleased, and that really made me feel that I was amongst friends.

—⁠Roger Deakins

The first full episode of our Best in Show podcast is out, and we begin 2023 with a chat with renowned cinematographer Sir Roger Deakins, praise the New York Film Critics Circle for awarding S.S. Rajamouli Best Director, and give some mathematical context to the Oscars shortlists.

Speaking of math, our popular Awards Season 2022-2023 and Awards Season Best Film lists are back, at last. I’ve trawled through the eligible awards bodies and added up the big best film wins—you can see the relevant voting organizations in the list notes. It’s no surprise to see Everything Everywhere All at Once leading the pack, but nice to see less-talked-about films there, too—Little Nicholas, The Eight Mountains, and The Kings of the World (which has just landed on Netflix) among them. 

Before we get to our chat with the goat of cinematography, let’s turn back the clock to the olden days of 2022: when the Oscars shortlist dropped on December 21. 

Lydia Tár did not complete her personal masterpiece in time for this year’s Oscar nominations (though the film’s composer, Hildur Guðnadóttir, makes the shortlist for Women Talking). 
Lydia Tár did not complete her personal masterpiece in time for this year’s Oscar nominations (though the film’s composer, Hildur Guðnadóttir, makes the shortlist for Women Talking). 

Culling the Contenders

We discussed our favorite 95th Academy Awards shortlist inclusions in the last column but for those who, like my colleague Slim, are just coming up to speed on how it all works, I asked my other colleague—Hollywood insider Brian Formo—for a bit of context around how and why shortlists get made. Why can’t Academy voters just watch all the movies

Essentially, Brian explains, the shortlist is where various boards of the Academy convene to condense certain categories (like hair and makeup, sound and visual effects) to a more manageable size for the larger voting body of approximately 9,500 Academy members—“kind of like culling an out-of-control Letterboxd watchlist”. (I wouldn’t know anything about that.) Almost a thousand new feature films were released in 2022, and for them to be Oscar-eligible they must have had a qualifying US theatrical release in more than one city. These requirements narrow the field, but that’s still hundreds of movies to sift through.

It gets even more complex as we dive into—gulp—math, which comes into play in the original song and score categories. (If you’re curious about the history of those Oscar contenders from 1934 to now, Letterboxd member Rik Tod Johnson has the lists you need: song nominees and winners, score nominees and winners and many more awards lists besides.)  

For categories like original song, the piece must be featured in the film for a certain threshold of time, as well as be an original commission with intelligible, audible lyrics. The rules have been tweaked here and there over the years; today a maximum of two songs from a film can be nominated, and the final number of nominations depends on the number of submissions, which is why the category varies from year to year.

Stand by for even more wacky math when it comes to how the members of the nominating branch judge the songs: as Letterboxd member Noah Gittell explains in his Ringer story on Oscars song history, they receive three-minute clips that remove the songs’ context from their films. “Make it make sense, because I cannot.” You and me both, Noah. I’m still smarting from Turning Red’s ‘Nobody Like U’ being left off the Oscars shortlist, even if my beloved Mitski did make it—but the 4*Town banger is one of the five songs in contention for the 2023 Grammys in February. That’s the thing about awards season: there’s always another ceremony, another chance, just down the block. 

Meanwhile, for original scores to be Oscar-eligible, they must comprise a minimum of 60 percent of the total music in the film. “This is why Arrival’s tear-jerking score was ineligible in 2016,” says Brian, “too much Max Richter, not enough Jóhann Jóhannsson”. And it’s how a film about music like TÁR didn’t secure a shortlist spot this year (too much Gustav Mahler, not enough Hildur Guðnadóttir). 

Saoirse Ronan accepts Best Actress for Lady Bird with her director Greta Gerwig’s support at the 2018 NYFCC Awards. 
Saoirse Ronan accepts Best Actress for Lady Bird with her director Greta Gerwig’s support at the 2018 NYFCC Awards. 

New York Nods

However, our mischievous ol’ pal Lydia Tár managed to clean up at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, where TÁR won Best Film and she (or, more accurately, Cate Blanchett) scooped up Best Actress. The award for Best Director, however, went not to Todd Field but S.S. Rajamouli for his action-packed bromance RRR.

It was one of a few exhilarating surprises, including Keke Palmer nabbing Best Supporting Actress for her hilarious turn in Nope and Colin Farrell earning Best Actor not just for his work on *The* Banshees of Inisherin, but After Yang as well. Lastly, our dear friend Marcel the Shell with Shoes On racked up another Best Animated Feature win, while Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun won Best First Film—both are in the Letterboxd Top 250, at #106 and #137, respectively.

The geniuses who cast these inspired votes consist of a 42-person circle of New York-based film critics (obviously) who meet each December; you may even recognize several from Letterboxd and/or Twitter. Their choices are often harbingers of what’s to come for the rest of awards season, although the NYFCC tends to veer a bit more ahead of the curve than their peers—they correctly gave Lady Bird Best Picture in 2017. Today (January 4) is the circle’s annual banquet, where these winners will be wined and dined—and gently interrogated by our social media colleague, Flynn Slicker.

Olivia Colman is a box office attraction in Empire of Light. 
Olivia Colman is a box office attraction in Empire of Light

Sir Roger Deakins, A.S.C., G.O.A.T

In the meantime, we have an interrogation of our own, with lensman ROGER DEAKINS. His name is exclaimed because 1. It’s what he deserves and 2. There is a staggering, seemingly infinite number of Letterboxd reviews of films he’s helmed that consist simply of those two proper nouns, often in all-caps. Exhibit A: 

Rico McPato’s fulsome review of Blade Runner 2049.  
Rico McPato’s fulsome review of Blade Runner 2049.  

Most recently, Deakins reunited with fellow multi-Academy Award winner Sam Mendes on Empire of Light, a romantic 1980s drama set in a seaside English town not unlike the one Deakins himself grew up in. The cinematographer gave my Best in Show co-hosts Brian and Gemma the scoop on his journey from fishing as a boy in Devon to accepting awards in Hollywood as a knighted legend.

Our first task for Deaks (we’re buddies now) was to tell us the formative movies that left indelible impressions on him, especially considering Empire of Light is about the power of cinema. Naturally, he supplied wonderfully cinephilic answers, all seen at the local cinema in the 1960s: Alphaville, Last Year at Marienbad, The 400 Blows and Peter Watkins’ docudrama The War Game (which ended up winning the Oscar in 1967 for Best Documentary despite being banned by the BBC and British government).

When Deakins wasn’t in a theater fostering his love of movies, he was fishing. “I’d go fishing in the morning, I’d go to school, I’d go back fishing in the afternoon; sometimes I’d sleep out on the rocks all night fishing.” (He deems The Old Man and the Sea the definitive film on the subject). After he grew up and graduated college, Deakins spent about a year taking black-and-white pictures across his home county of rural Devon; these and more personal images (such as some taken on the sets of Sicario and Skyfall) are featured in his photo book Byways, published in 2021.

The hillside from Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where Deakins found his place in the world as a cinematographer. 
The hillside from Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where Deakins found his place in the world as a cinematographer. 

Before winning the Best Cinematography Oscars for Blade Runner 2049 and 1917, a different number brought him his first big break: 1984—both the year and the film. “On the set of Nineteen Eighty-Four, probably my third or fourth film I shot, we were sitting on a hillside having lunch with Richard Burton and John Hurt and they were just talking about movies, and I thought ‘My God, I really am a cinematographer’,” he recalls. “I felt I really found my place in the world. You know, [I’m] a kid from Torquay; how lucky can you be?”

And so, this kid from Torquay became the go-to cameraman for auteurs like the Coen Brothers and Denis Villeneuve, so far scooping up over 170 disparate awards for his work. The first Oscar in particular was long overdue—Deakins scored thirteen nominations before finally winning in 2018—and he recalls this moment with English humility: “It was the most terrifying moment when they called out my name,” he says. “When I walked up on stage, I didn’t have a clue what I was gonna say… I was just nervous as hell. Then I saw so many people in the audience that I had worked with or I knew loosely, and they’re all smiling and clapping and seemed really pleased, and that really made me feel that I was amongst friends. You’re a part of a community of filmmakers. That’s what it’s about. That made me feel okay, then I could talk.”

Deakins accepts his Best Cinematography Oscar for Blade Runner 2049 at the 90th Academy Awards held in 2018.
Deakins accepts his Best Cinematography Oscar for Blade Runner 2049 at the 90th Academy Awards held in 2018.

Deakins also emphasizes how supportive collaboration with this community of filmmakers is the key to making great movies, calling out the importance of groups like the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). “You really want everybody’s input and to feel everybody is working to the same end, and that’s the wonder of filmmaking, really,” he said. “It’s that collaboration… Yeah, the award is for the film, and it’s for the crew—it’s for everybody who helped create that image.”

You can listen to our full conversation with Deakins on this week’s Best in Show episode. Next week, we take a page from his book and celebrate communal collaboration with Letterboxd’s annual Year in Review (our version of an awards show). Featuring specialized insight from our own Jack Moulton, the man behind Jack’s Facts, we’ll dive deep into your picks for the best films of 2022. Collectively, we can be our own awards committee: the Letterboxd Film Enjoyers Circle (LFEC).


Empire of Light’ is in theaters now. New episodes of ‘Best in Show’ drop every Tuesday until the end of March, when ‘The Letterboxd Show: Four Favorites’ will return.

Further Reading

Tags

Share This Article