Cinematography

The analysis

Like the lead actor category this year, there was such an embarrassment of lenser riches vying for Oscar attention that high-quality work from d.p.s including Dion Beebe (“Collateral”), Ellen Kuras (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), Emmanuel Lubezki (“Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”) and Stephen Goldblatt (“Closer”) was left out of the mix.

Ever since Oscar consolidated its color and B&W categories in 1967, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has favored more opulent pictures over character-driven fare, and this year is no exception.

Robert Richardson and helmer Martin Scorsese brought visual flair to “The Aviator,” following Howard Hughes’ early career in the ’20s to his decline in the ’40s. Richardson, best known as Oliver Stone’s cinematographer during the helmer’s peak period (and whose breathtaking work was also in evidence in “Kill Bill Vol. 2” this past year), is known as a headstrong artist who will spare no technique in pushing the envelope of cinematic narrative.

“House of Flying Daggers” lenser Zhao Xiaoding, unlike many cinematographers who claim their work should take a back seat to the story, is unabashed in talking up the film’s assault of gorgeous images and splendid colors. Although this is Zhao’s first feature, the movie’s striking visuals could overcome the heavyweight competition he faces, much in the way that Peter Pau’s work did in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Caleb Deschanel, who shot “The Passion of the Christ” with an intensely cool palette and highly dramatic lighting, is another Academy fave, with this representing his fifth nom (like Richardson). Unlike Richardson, Deschanel has yet to bring home the hardware. But this year could be different, since his work represents the most accomplished aspect of the one of the year’s most profitable films.

John Mathieson, who competed against Deschanel with “Gladiator” the year Pau won, has become one of the most-sought-after d.p.s in the last decade, and Ridley Scott’s lenser of choice. His work on “The Phantom of the Opera” is another testament to his ability to elevate high concept to high art — what he and “Phantom” director Joel Schumacher call “a full-on gaudy, gothic visual trip.”

For “A Very Long Engagement,” Bruno Delbonnel went to town with the latest technology, using digital intermediate to enhance two distinct color schemes for his bittersweet WWI romance: gun-metal blue-gray for the trench warfare scenes and warm, golden hues for the pastoral vistas of Brittany. Acad members will no doubt recall Delbonnel’s equally stylized work on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie.”

The Aviator

Robert Richardson

Current kudos: ASC (nom), BAFTA (nom)

Oscar pedigree: “JFK” (win), “Snow Falling on Cedars” (nom), “Born on the Fourth of July” (nom), “Platoon” (nom)

Why he’ll win: With the film’s 11 noms far ahead of the pack, Richardson could get caught up in an “Aviator” sweep.

Why he won’t: Richardson is known as a perfectionist whose ego as big as anyone’s on the set, and Hollywood likes its d.p.s compliant.

House of Flying Daggers

Zhao Xiaoding

Current kudos: National Society of Film Critics (win), Boston Film Critics (win), BAFTA (nom)

Oscar pedigree: None

Why he’ll win: “Daggers” is the year’s most audaciously visual film and a d.p. award — the film’s sole nom — could make up for what many consider oversights in at least three other categories.

Why he won’t: With five sumptuous period films in the running, there’s no clear front-runner in this category.

The Passion of the Christ

Caleb Deschanel

Current kudos: ASC (nom)

Oscar pedigree: “The Pianist” (nom), “Fly Away Home” (nom), “The Natural” (nom), “The Right Stuff” (nom)

Why he’ll win: Deschanel has been in the pantheon of top-flight d.p. s since his highly praised work on 1979’s “The Black Stallion.” With four previous noms and no wins, the Acad might consider him long overdue.

Why he won’t: “The Passion of the Christ” has elicited highly divergent responses among industryites, which could make it difficult for many to single out Deschanel’s work on its merits.

The Phantom of the Opera

John Mathieson

Current kudos: None

Oscar pedigree: “Gladiator” (nom)

Why he’ll win: Whatever one thinks of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music, or “Phantom’s” gothic melodrama, Mathieson’s work is undeniably accomplished.

Why he won’t: “Phantom” might be considered too much style over substance.

A Very Long Engagement

Bruno Delbonnel

Current kudos: ASC (nom), Cesar (nom)

Oscar pedigree: “Amelie” (nom)

Why he’ll win: A d.p Oscar could make up for the perceived snub of “Engagement” in the foreign-lingo category.

Why he won’t: If Hollywood has indeed buckled under a newfangled, jingoistic red state climate, there’s no room for Frenchies on Oscar’s mantel.

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