I think 1999 is one of the greatest years for cinematography ever. I can come up with so many top-tier alts that could have easily been in the discussion -- Eyes Wide Shut, The Straight Story, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Bringing Out the Dead, Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, Three Kings, Magnolia. You could have had two or three full lineups and still left off good work.
And the five actually chosen by the Academy make for a very high-quality lineup as it is.
I remember being surprised by the nomination for The End of the Affair, but not because it's unworthy -- there's a lovely elegance to the images, from the swoony romanticism of the beach scenes to the war-torn gloom of the central bombing sequence. It's certainly a more traditional nominee, with a classical look similar to that of many period lit adaptations (and even within that genre, I'd rank Ripley's achievement higher), but it's strong work.
I find Snow Falling Cedars to be basically the epitome of failed Oscar-bait (and I just revisited it a few weeks ago, so my reaction is fresh). I think it suffers severely from a protagonist who is more of an observer rather than a participant in the central story, as well as a mystery plot that isn't especially compelling. But there is one element of the movie that is unquestionably impressive, and that's the photography, with its hauntingly beautiful, picturesque winterscapes. From a distance, this nomination could seem like one of those random throw-ins for glossy period pictures (like The Lover), but on actual merit, Richardson's gracefully lit images stand out as the one thing rescuing this film from utter dullness.
Sleepy Hollow is a visually dazzling work in all three of its nominated categories, with Lubezki's photography giving the film a gleefully spooky kick through the use of fog, shadows, and lightning. The movie it's attached to is certainly trivial -- though I'd admit I thought it had a decently clever plot, that was at least engaging on popcorn movie terms -- but the visual imagination certainly elevates it. And while I'd agree it's an example of Burton's typical fantasy look, I think it's one of the best-looking efforts in his filmography. But of course, there are substantially more notable opportunities to pick Lubezki up ahead.
The sleek blues and grays of The Insider are thoroughly memorable -- I think the cinematography is one of that film's key elements. This easily could have been a more performance/script-driven film, but Spinotti gives the images a cold beauty that only enhances the film's detailed portrait of its corporate, legal, and media environs. And I think the electric energy of the camera movements really helps buoy the movie's dense storyline along. Another strong nominee, though I did just give Spinotti the prize two years prior, for work I admire even more.
I'm a bit surprised American Beauty has run away with this poll -- this is one of the first years in a while where I wasn't sure what winner we'd select, and I thought votes might have been more split. Because Beauty isn't the kind of movie that screams cinematography prizes, like The Thin Red Line or The English Patient. And yet, that's also what I admire most about it -- while films with gorgeous vistas often cannot be denied here, it's also worth acknowledging work in this category that takes fairly mundane, mostly indoor environments, and finds the visual beauty in them. (Not surprisingly, a theme of the movie.) And American Beauty has all kinds of memorable images -- the rose-infused fantasies are the most obvious, but moments like the Burnhams sitting down to dinner, the red door in the rain, and Spacey's final shot have an elegant but effective simplicity to them that exemplifies the achievement of Hall's work. (Even the low-fi quality of the film's most lasting image -- the bag in the wind -- probably has to be cited too, just because it's so perfectly captured). I'll vote to keep the Oscar with American Beauty.