Chloé Zhao and the gorgeous ‘Nomadland’ lead Oscar races for director and cinematography

Frances McDormand and filmmaker Chloé Zhao on the set of "Nomadland."
Frances McDormand and filmmaker Chloé Zhao on the set of “Nomadland.”
(Joshua Richards / Searchlight Pictures)

It wasn’t that long ago when you could watch the Oscars, see what movie won the award for cinematography and think, “OK. That might be the best picture winner too.” In the ‘90s, the two awards went hand in hand six times. “Dances With Wolves,” “Schindler’s List,” “Braveheart,” “The English Patient,” “Titanic” and “American Beauty” all pulled off the feat. In the ensuing two decades, it has happened just twice — “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Birdman.”

Instead, the correlation now comes between director and cinematographer. Alfonso Cuarón won both Oscars for “Roma.” Two years before that, “La La Land” swept the two honors. “The Revenant,” “Birdman,” “Gravity” and “Life of Pi” also won both.

This year, it’s possible we’ll again see the director-cinematography connection. “Nomadland” filmmaker Chloé Zhao has been piling up critics honors, winning director honors from the Los Angeles and New York groups among many, many others. And since Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards shot much of the movie during the “magic hour” of dusk, when the sun hits the horizon, making everything glow just right, “Nomadland” could well win the cinematography Oscar too. This is an unbelievably gorgeous movie, and it lets its audience just bathe in that imagery.


So ... given recent history, does that mean “Nomadland” won’t win best picture? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Oscars are still three months away! In the meantime, we’re here to take an early look at the races for director and cinematography.


Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland”
Aaron Sorkin, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
Spike Lee, “Da 5 Bloods”
David Fincher, “Mank”
Regina King, “One Night in Miami”

Next up: Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari”; Paul Greengrass, “News of the World”; Florian Zeller, “The Father”; Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman”; George C. Wolfe, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”; Shaka King, “Judas and the Black Messiah”; Kelly Reichardt, “First Cow”

You may remember that in the 92-year history of the Academy Awards, only five women — Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow and Greta Gerwig — have been nominated for the director honor. I wrote a lot about this imbalance last year, and nothing changed. Women were again shut out. But let’s not dwell on the past ... unless somehow that number remains fixed again this year.

It won’t. It can’t. Zhao, as I mentioned, is the front-runner to win the director Oscar, which would make her just the second woman to take the honor. (Bigelow won in 2010 for “The Hurt Locker.”) “Nomadland,” her third film after the excellent “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “The Rider,” centers on community and compassion, following a widow (a sublime Frances McDormand) searching for her place in the world after her factory town is erased from the map.

Then there’s King, who should also be nominated for her feature debut, “One Night in Miami,” a movie that makes a conversation between four men — Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay and Jim Brown — into a thrilling, fluctuating exchange of ideas. I’ve seen it three times and have discovered something new during each viewing.


Put those two women in, add the three name-brand filmmakers — Fincher, Sorkin and Lee — and you have a nice class that won’t provoke outrage on the morning that nominations are announced.

Kenneth Branagh walks away unscathed in "Tenet."
(Melinda Sue Gordon / Warner Bros.)


“Nomadland,” Joshua James Richards
“News of the World,” Dariusz Wolski
“Mank,” Erik Messerschmidt
“Judas and the Black Messiah,” Sean Bobbitt
“Da 5 Bloods,” Newton Thomas Sigel

Next up: “One Night in Miami,” Tami Reiker; “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Phedon Papamichael; “Tenet,” Hoyte van Hoytema; “Minari,” Lachlan Milne; “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” Łukasz Żal; “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Tobias A. Schliessler; “Malcolm & Marie,” Marcell Rév; “The Midnight Sky,” Martin Ruhe; “The Prom,” Matthew Libatique

“Tenet” is in a weird place. It’s the only studio movie that risked a big release during the pandemic, and even though filmmaker Christopher Nolan says he’s “thrilled” with the $350 million-plus worldwide box office, the challenging sci-fi film is perceived as something of a careful-Icarus cautionary tale. Warner Bros. isn’t mounting a vigorous awards campaign for the film. Nolan doesn’t want one, I’m told. But cinematographers branch voters might still reward the great Van Hoytema, particularly if they were somehow able (willing?) to see the movie in an Imax theater.

Wolski has never been nominated, perhaps because his résumé has leaned more toward commercial films. He should catch his break with “News of the World” for the way he conveyed all those hauntingly beautiful widescreen images.


Another never-nominated contender is Bobbitt, who has worked with Steve McQueen on the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave,” “Widows,” “Hunger” and “Shame.” Bobbitt gives the historical drama “Judas and the Black Messiah” a visual vibrancy that elevates its portrait of the tumultuous life of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. It premieres at Sundance on Feb. 1, landing on HBO Max and theaters Feb. 12, making it fresh in voters’ minds.