There are so many ace cinematographers, and so many who have been justly awarded by the Oscars, that it’s not always immediately apparent that Best Cinematography is a category with its own history of stylistic biases (apart from the gender and racial bias that affects so many other Oscar fields). For a time in the ’80s and ’90s, voters favored stereotypically Oscar-friendly sweep, often honoring beautiful vistas and greenery. This culminated in back-to-back mid-’90s wins for John Toll, a talented DP whose work on movies like The Thin Red Line, Almost Famous, and Jupiter Ascending is arguably more interesting, varied, and impressive than his trophy-winning Legends Of The Fall and Braveheart. More recently, the Academy has embraced camerawork featuring long, complicated takes, resulting in a stunning three wins in a row for Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman, The Revenant) and a second award for the once-overlooked Roger Deakins, recognizing the one-shot fudge of 1917. AMPAS has also given props to the few movies that have made great use of 3D: Avatar, Hugo, Life Of Pi, and the aforementioned Gravity.
As with all Oscar categories, a certain showiness will probably always win the day in Best Cinematography. But voters might at least consider different types of showiness—especially in a year without an obvious one-long-take behemoth to distract everyone with its invisible edits. Straight Up, an underseen romantic comedy from early in 2020, has no shortage of attention-grabbing compositions and camera movements. It’s shot in the old, squarish Academy ratio of 1.33:1. It places its characters within the frame carefully, often favoring symmetrical, Wes Andersonian images and lots of headspace. It occasionally uses split-screens and split-diopter shots. For that matter, it has some some extended takes, too, though they’re executed with fixed shots and pans, rather than wild floating-camera mobility.
These smaller, more fastidious visual quirks might sound like indie-movie affectations. But the movie’s cinematography—courtesy of Greg Cotten, who’s far from a brand-name DP, having shot a lot of shorts and only a handful of features—is more than a compendium of sweet moves. Together with writer/director James Sweeney, Cotten synthesizes the ostentatiousness into the film’s story.
That story is a romantic comedy about Todd (Sweeney), a young man living with some form of OCD, who’s always accepted society’s stereotypical assumption that his fussiness and precision must be evidence that he’s gay. When he meets Rory (Katie Findlay), they have such immediate compatibility that he wonders if maybe his sexuality is more fluid; after all, he hasn’t really been in a healthy romantic relationship with anyone, male or female. Rory’s own personal circumstances have made her open to the idea of a relationship less rooted in sex, so the sorta-couple takes things slow—except in their conversations, which proceed at the tireless pace of screwball banter.
The dialogue-heavy screenplay means that Cotten’s camerawork involves capturing a lot of conversation, something that doesn’t often get much awards attention. Yet it’s vitally important to Straight Up, which needs to portray lead characters who are both remarkably in sync while also meeting each other at odd angles of incompatibility. The film pulls out a lot of stops in a bravura sequence compressing about 18 hours’ worth of first-date riffing, opinion-sharing, and soul-baring into about 10 minutes. It includes the aforementioned split-diopter shot keeping Sweeney and Findlay both in focus even as they maintain physical distance, with the rest of their background blurred; and, toward the end of the sequence, one-shots of Sweeney and Findlay each lying on a floor that manage to conceal, until the exact right moment, how close together they actually are. These shots, like the characters’ love, aren’t exactly an illusion. But they are more complicated than they seem at first.
The type of boxy frame containing all of these shots is often presumed, in modern movies, to indicate some kind of claustrophobia or constraint. (It’s also the opposite of the widescreen-epic look that still looms large in voters’ imaginations, the even-boxier frame of 2019 nominee The Lighthouse being a rare exception.) But Straight Up makes that compositional style a part of the neatness and symmetry its characters value—or, in Rory’s case, what she attempts to value, as her life experience differs vastly from Todd’s but has brought her to a similar mindset, however briefly. When the two leading actors share their frame’s limited space, limited further by extra room at the top of the frame, there’s an unusual sense of intimacy, even if they aren’t touching. The stylizations create a little world for them, and shows how their closeness can be dizzying—when the camera whips back and forth between Todd and Rory during an argument—and even suffocating, as when the movie makes a foray into mostly traditional shot/reverse-shot composition and the characters block out a noticeable portion of each other’s faces.
Granted, some of the movie’s flow must be attributed to Keith Funkhouser’s crisp editing, and Sweeney’s expert blocking blurs the line between cinematography and direction even more than usual. But part of the problem with Best Cinematography (and, really, most Oscar categories) is that it seems so determined to honor technical achievement that’s perceived as going above and beyond the rest of the film. Cotten’s work here meets Academy sensibilities halfway; it’s far from invisible, yet it does ultimately serve the movie’s characters and emotions more than the audience’s sense of awe, blending into an assured overall production.
Most rom-coms are not this visually ambitious or well-executed. An unfortunate side effect is that romantic comedies with nuance, wit, and filmmaking chops often fall between the cracks: They’re not necessarily canonized as cable-rewatch comfort food, and they certainly don’t get Oscar nominations. Other genres are better-positioned to keep racking up awards attention: If the scenic battlefields of Braveheart fall out of fashion, why not try the gritty sensory overload of Saving Private Ryan or the show-off gimmickry of 1917? After last year saw yet another wartime epic triumph in this category, it’s long past time for love to have another turn.