This is a very good lineup. I would've wanted to make room for First Man definitely, but also would've wanted several others in the conversation: If Beale Street Could Talk, Leave No Trace, A Ciambra, The Rider, Lean on Pete, The Mule, and Shoplifters.
There are no embarrassments, and all are really within the range of what I would consider acceptable winners. Roma might be my least favorite, although it's hard to fault it on a technical level. I think it was Pauline Kael who said that in A Woman Under the Influence about Gena Rowlands that nothing she did was impressive because she did so much. I kind of feel that way about the cinematography of Roma. Cuaron is so obsessed with how everything looks that he doesn't capture anything interesting. The Favourite would be my next elimination. So much of it looks great that it makes wide-angle shots stick out even more. I'm sure there was intention behind using them so frequently, but they took me out of the movie every time they appeared.
I finally caught up with Never Look Away. I purchased it on Amazon months ago but just now got around to watching it this weekend. The movie itself is well-made, pretty gripping, and I didn't really feel the three-hour runtime. (Although I did watch it in two chunks, rather than all at once.) But at the same time, was there any reason why this had to be three hours? I didn't find anything in the story that couldn't have been done just as well in two-hours-fifteen. It's not a bad movie at all, but it's a much lesser film than The Lives of Others. Deschanel's work is very good. If the same exact movie had, say, Hans Fromm as the credited cinematographer instead of Deschanel, I don't think it ever has any real chance of being nominated, so in some ways this probably is an example of the branch nominating mostly on name recognition. But sometimes those nominations are deserved and I think this one is. Some of the shots in the early sequences, especially, are really impressive--the shot of the Allied planes flying over Dresden, for example. A good nomination. A Star is Born is probably my runner-up. It's a movie that, for me, was really impressive on the first viewing and then faded quite a lot in retrospect. I still think the first fifty minutes or so are pretty strong. Cooper isn't telling a new story, obviously, but he (as an actor and director) and his cast/crew find a lot of interesting approaches to the story; the willingness to let some scenes play out (especially that parking-lot scene with Cooper/Gaga) really goes a long way to making that first act work as well as it does. It's not something I've never seen before, but unlike too much of the last eighty minutes, it doesn't feel like something I've seen five times before. Libatique does a really good job; I don't know many other movies with concert scenes that shoot them quite this way. It's not showy work, but I really think that it's an example of a really well-photographed studio film that doesn't often get recognition.
But Cold War is an easy choice for me. I understand those who felt like it was too studied and too carefully planned, but it totally worked for me; it created a world for me in a way that very few movies manage to do. I think every scene and every shot fully contributes to creating that lost world that Pawlikowski manages to evoke. A great film, and a great nomination that should've won.