By Paul Popiel

On set, the cinematographer is the most important person right after the film’s star (if any), the producer, and the director. Since film is a visual medium, like painting, sculpture, or theater, it is not surprising that this role is so highly valued. Especially if you consider that unlike a painting or sculpture a film consists of moving images and, unlike theater, once it’s finished, it does not change (unless it’s the original Star Wars films after George Lucas has had his CGI way with them).

Best Cinematography Oscar winners usually fall into two categories. Sometimes, cinematographers are rewarded for capturing major spectacle, often technically difficult to pull off. Notable cases include Titanic, Gladiator or Saving Private Ryan. Though rarer, the Academy occasionally awards smaller films for the sheer artistry of the cinematography. Examples include Road to Perdition, American Beauty or the very beautiful Cries and Whispers.

This year we’ve got, unsurprisingly, Mauro Fiore for Avatar , Christian Berger for The White Ribbon , Bruno Belbonnel for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince , Robert Richardson for The Inglourious Basterds and Barry Ackroyd for The Hurt Locker .

First, there is the 3-dimensional, awe-inspiring, record-breaking, and gleefully racist Avatar. Now, I like Avatar as much as the next man, unless the next man happens to be one of the millions of Avatar fanatics who believe that watching the film is equivalent to a religious experience, but I don’t see the correlation between making the most money in the world and being the best film in the world.

It is tempting to see Avatar as the front-runner in this category. It’s got beautiful visuals, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Further, it’s got them in crystal sharp, near-groundbreaking 3D which makes the movie-watching experience seem as if Cameron were literally holding the film in front of the viewer.

But these worlds are completely fake. They are entirely, unabashedly computer-generated. The actors, on occasion, are the only real thing about the film. So stunning visuals fall under the visual effects category, in which it would be stupid to not award Avatar.

A lot has been made of the 3D camera technology Cameron developed for the film, but that too should fall either under Best Visual Effects, or in its own category (Best 3D Cinematography?). Essentially, when special effects become so closely entwined with cinematography in achieving the visual look of a film, the difficulty lies in determining which is more responsible for the success of a film’s visual storytelling. And yet, it is hard to deny the visual power of Avatar. Precisely because it presents a massive, expensive, and original spectacle fueled by new technology, it will win.

On the other side of the spectrum, however, is my other favorite for this award. Unlike Avatar, it represents a completely different aesthetic; simple, subtle, with an unadorned and steadfast commitment to realism is Barry Ackroyd’s work on The Hurt Locker. Not to fuel the media-crafted feud between Bigs and Cams, but The Hurt Locker is a great nominee. Just look at the explosion that rattles the opening of the film, sending us into the depths of its narrative:

Ackroyd applies the same sensibility and dedication to realism he employed in Paul Greengrass’s United 93 and, under Bigelow’s meticulous eye, puts us, the audience, right in the middle of the tense experience of a bomb squad in Iraq. The camera shakes, shivers and rattles, but this is more than artless handheld. Ackroyd constructs a claustrophobic point of view, to which we are prisoner until the end. The camera literally becomes a storytelling weapon in The Hurt Locker. The Oscar should go to Ackroyd for the cinematic deconstruction of a detonating bomb alone.

I’m happy to see Christian Berger nominated for his stunning, naturalistic work on Haneke’s The White Ribbon. The black and white photography artfully evokes the distant world of pre-WWI Germany and makes it come alive. The compositions are beautiful, the movements deliberate and refined, and every single shot contributes to the overall narrative.

As for Inglourious Basterds and Harry Potter, I’m not even sure why they were even nominated in this category. If the Academy chose to increase the number of Best Picture nominees to ten, it surely could have spared us these two Best Cinematography nominees. Basterds is, for the most part, visually boring, despite the fact that it goes out of its way to seem stylized. It certainly does not approach the aforementioned three nominees in innovativeness. In general, it’s a bland entry.

The same could be said for the latest Harry Potter installment. In terms of special-effects-oriented cinematography District 9 would’ve been a much worthier nomination. A Serious Man had some very creative cinematography, as well as A Single Man (despite feeling like a two-hour Calvin Klein commercial). And what about Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus ? Another visionary film. Instead, Harry Potter 6.

Not that any of it matters anyway; Avatar is taking this one.

Road to the Oscars series:

Podcasts – Kit Bowen, Nate Freiberg, Adam Spunberg, and Phil Wallace

February 4: Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

February 5: Animated Short – Kit Bowen

February 8: Documentary Short Subject – Christa Youngpeter

February 9: Documentary Feature – Nate Freiberg

February 10: Foreign Language Film – Paul Popiel

February 12: Animated Film – Nate Freiberg

February 15: Sound Mixing – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Sound Editing – Jeremy Martin

February 17: Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 18: Visual Effects – Mallory Pickard

February 19: Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 22: Makeup – Christa Youngpeter

February 23: Costume – Steve Neumann

February 24: Art Direction – Christa Youngpeter

February 25: Film Editing – Steve Neumann

February 26: Cinematography – Paul Popiel

February 27: Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 28: Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

March 1: Supporting Actress – Marla Seidell

March 2: Supporting Actor – Phil Wallace

March 3: Actress – Marla Seidell

March 4: Actor – Kit Bowen

March 5: Director – Adam Spunberg

March 5: Picture – Kit Bowen

March 7: The 82nd Annual Academy Awards!