Friday, February 4, 2011

The 5 Best: Roger Deakins

Roger Deakins has been nominated for 9 Oscars ... and he never won. When you look back at his remarkably long list of credits, it's impossible not to realize that this man is long overdue. Who is he, you ask? He's only one of the very best cinematographers in the business. He's up for the Oscar this month for his work on True Grit and he's the odds-on favorite. It's about time!

I thought this would be a good opportunity to take a look at some of my favorite works from Roger Deakins. I'm not judging the films themselves; I'm only judging the look of the film. Here are my 5 best:

1) Barton Fink
2) The Man Who Wasn't There
3) The Shawshank Redemption
4) Fargo
5) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

He's done well over 50 movies and I've seen about 30 of them. It wasn't easy picking out just 5. You'll note that most of my picks are Joel and Ethan Coen films. Every Coen brothers film has a unique, distinctive look and a lot of that credit goes to Roger Deakins. He uses very specific angles and tints that makes you aware that you are clearly watching a Coen brothers film. Take Barton Fink, for example. There was something special, even a little bizarre, about that hotel they were in. You can get a sense of how hot it was in that room. The heat came right through the lens. Even before the hallways were lit up by fire, there was this glorious, orange hue to the place. It was ugly yet pleasing at the same time.

In extreme contrast to the sweaty, humid Barton Fink, there's the bleak, stark and cold look of Fargo. Sad, lonely characters populate this movie and Deakins films them from afar, using wide angles where the background almost swallows them whole. Frances McDormand, who won a well-deserved Oscar here, is the warmest character in the film and the camera just loves her. It's a great film and beautifully framed.

The Man Who Wasn't There was the Coens's most crisp-looking movie of their career. Deakins's gorgeous wide-screen, black and white transfer made Billy Bob Thornton and James Gandolfini look like models. The film is not among my favorites of the brothers, but it's easily one of their best-looking movies. That's saying a lot because all of the Coens movies look great (thanks to Deakins, of course).

The other two films are not from the Coens but they are still distinctively the work of Roger Deakins. The Shawshank Redemption is a masterpiece of the highest order and the framework clearly contributed to the film's greatness. The isolation of a jail cell -- or prison as a whole, for that matter -- is crucial to the telling of this story. The film has a lot of vivid, visual moments, but who can forget the scenes when Andy finally breaks out? Never has there been a distinctive sense of place. You can almost smell the salt water from the beach.

And finally, my eyes were glued to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It's not a great movie (the length wasn't justified), but every frame, every shot, looked like a piece of art. It was like a visual poem, a love letter to the old mid-west. The camera was easily the film's strongest suit.

Other Roger Deakins films that looks damned good:

O Brother, Where Art Thou
The Big Lebowski
A Beautiful Mind
The Village
The Reader
Intolerable Cruelty

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