The Empty Balcony Awards

The Academy Awards were held last night. I hadn’t been paying much attention to the lead-up, but the past week it’s been unavoidable. Every time I turned on ABC they were pimping the show, whether it be during commercials or during the evening news. I was absorbing pop culture by osmosis. It wasn’t until yesterday morning, however, when George Will of all people gave his Oscar pick on This Week, that I realized my cinematic experience was a bit different than most folks. Of the fourteen films nominated in the top categories, best picture, director, screenplay, and acting, I have seen none of them. Not one.

I wasn’t sitting on my hands last year. I saw twenty-six films that were released in 2012. Some of them were even good. But, part of the fun of watching the Oscars is picking apart the winners and losers, and I couldn’t do that. I don’t think there’s ever been a year when I saw all the Best Picture nominees, say, but this is the first time I can recall being totally shut out of all knowledge of the big titles. With that in mind, I present The Empty Balcony Awards, where I hand out awards to a slate of nominees culled from the films released in 2012 that I actually saw.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had a list of eligible films that numbered 282. My ambitions were much more modest. Below is a list of all the films I have seen that were released in 2012, and from which I will draw nominees:

  • Contraband
  • Haywire
  • The Grey
  • Safe House
  • Rampart
  • Jiro Dreams of Sushi
  • 21 Jump Street
  • The Hunger Games
  • Goon
  • The Cabin in the Woods
  • The Avengers
  • Battleship
  • Chernobyl Diaries
  • Men in Black 3
  • Piranha 3DD
  • Prometheus
  • Ted
  • The Amazing Spider-Man
  • Savages
  • The Dark Knight Rises
  • The Bourne Legacy
  • Resident Evil: Retribution
  • Dredd
  • End of Watch
  • Looper
  • Skyfall

There are some epically bad films on this list, but a few gems. What’s missing is a sampling of films that a person is supposed to see. Films that raise a viewer’s cultural knowledge, say, or make it easier to talk about movies at a dinner party. Horror is over-represented, but that’s because getting reviews ready for the October Horrowshow is a yearlong affair. Other than missing out on the Lincolns and Django Unchaineds of the year, there is a dearth of small-bore independent films on the list. Mostly that’s because independent films, while they can be great, are usually a slog to get through. I really have to be in the mood to watch a film that takes work. I’m not supposed to admit that, and I fully understand that I missed out on a lot of good films this past year because of my lack of patience, but that’s how it is.

To keep things simple, and under 3,000 words, The Empty Balcony Awards consist of six categories only. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Actress, and Best Supporting Actor and Actress.

Without further ado, the awards.

In the category of Best Supporting Actress, the nominees are:
  • Marion Cotillard – The Dark Knight Rises
  • Salma Hayek – Savages
  • Lena Headey – Dredd
  • Vera Farmiga – Safe House
  • Rihanna – Battleship

Rihanna snags the surprise nomination in this category. I’m sure I could have found another female supporting cast member in my eligible list that had a better performance. Hell, that’s a guarantee. Battleship was a putrid mess, and the only reason Rihanna stands out among that dreck was that she fit in so damn well with the film’s lousy pop culture mentality. She was truly at home in that film. More importantly, I flat out refuse to either nominate or hand the award to Blake Lively for Savages. She can act. She proved that in The Town. But her flaky pothead princess from Savages was infuriating. I wished her character pain. I wished just about every character in that film pain, with the exception of Salma Hayek. She was ruthless and refined all at the same time, just what you’d expect from a Mexican drug empress, I guess. But neither she, nor Rihanna, gets the award. That leaves Cotillard, Headey, and Farmiga.

Cotillard and Farmiga are close in my thinking. It comes down to Marion Cotillard’s smooth execution in a nonsensical, overwrought shitstorm versus Farmiga’s overwhelmed CIA middle manager in Safe House. For maintaining a sense of believability, Farmiga comes out ahead of Cotillard, but comes up short against Lena Headey.

The more work I see from Headey, the more I’m convinced she’s a hell of an actress hiding in plain sight in sci-fi/fantasy. She does menacing quite well, as any viewer of Game of Thrones can attest. Her Ma-Ma from Dredd, a sadistic drug empress in her own right that would eat Salma Hayek alive, is the right combination of sociopathy, drug addiction, and world weary ruthlessness that the part required. She conveys fear effectively. You just know someone is going to die whenever she walks into a room. She doesn’t just hold her own in a film that’s strictly for the boys. She dominates it.

In the category of Best Supporting Actor, the nominees are:
  • Paul Dano – Looper
  • Dermot Mulroney – The Grey
  • Liev Schreiber – Goon
  • Javier Bardem – Skyfall
  • Edward Norton – The Bourne Legacy

This was the category with easily the most potential nominees, but I had to cut it down. Missing the cut just barely was David Hasselhoff in Piranha 3DD. I do not need to go into the circumstances that led me to seeing that movie, but the Hoff was the only light in a very dark cinematic experience. Piranha 3DD is on my short list of worst movies I’ve ever seen, but the Hoff, playing a self-deprecating version of himself, is literally the only thing I remember from this dog. I cannot remember the names or faces of anyone else in this film, making the Hoff a standout performer by default. Alas, it wasn’t enough to grab a nomination.

Edward Norton was typical Edward Norton in The Bourne Legacy, acting circles around everyone else in the film, but it felt automatic, like we were watching an Edward Norton robot turn in another reliable performance in a rather anonymous film. Not this year, Ed.

Liev Schreiber goes home empty-handed, as well. He was funny in Goon, a criminally unseen low-budget comedy from north of the border, and his accent was great, but the remaining nominees were just simply better.

Javier Bardem waited for over half the film to show up in Skyfall, and when he did, he made the audience question James Bonds’ sexuality. He was nominated for that scene alone.

The most surprising performance from the nominees was Dermot Mulroney in The Grey. He inhabited his character to such an extent that I didn’t realize that was him hiding behind the glasses and facial hair until the credits rolled. The Grey was a film full of good performances top to bottom, a real ensemble effort disguised as a Liam Neeson vehicle, and Mulroney was the standout.

Finally, there’s Paul Dano. I have yet to see him be anything less than good in a film. He is an instinctually natural actor combined with a superior craftsman. He came damn close to upstaging Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Who in all creation would have thought that was possible? He didn’t spend a lot time in Looper, but he chewed up every scene he was in. I flipped back and forth between Bardem and Dano for this award, but finally settled on Paul Dano, because while he was onscreen in Looper, I was rapt. Hollywood, find more work for Mr. Dano.

In the category of Best Actor, the nominees are:
  • Liam Neeson – The Grey
  • Woody Harrelson – Rampart
  • Sean William Scott – Goon
  • Josh Brolin – Men in Black 3
  • Jake Gyllenhaal – End of Watch

“What the hell is Rampart?” my dozens of readers are asking themselves. Well, it’s a movie about a corrupt Los Angeles cop in the Rampart Division whose life is falling apart. It’s a disturbing film, middling in its quality, but Woody Harrelson’s starring performance as Dave Brown makes it worth a watch. He’s exactly the cop in all a viewer’s LAPD nightmares, and he nails it.

Josh Brolin sneaks in solely on his ability to do an impression of Tommy Lee Jones. Well, that being the case, why not nominate Joseph Gordon-Levitt for Looper? Did he not do a serviceable impression of Bruce Willis? No, he did not. He went for serious, and wandered into caricature. I don’t remember Bruce Willis having that much of a squinty sneer at the same age. Go back and watch Die Hard, you’ll see what I mean. Brolin, meanwhile, went for caricature from the start. MIB 3 was a comedy, after all. His comic timing was excellent, and it couldn’t have been easy to maintain that level of consistency in his performance. In a forgettable popcorn diversion, he was memorable.

Jake Gyllenhaal is not the type of actor that veers far from one performance to the next. That’s not for lack of trying. In 2005, he played both a sexually repressed gay cowboy and a Marine, two diametrically opposite characters, but both very recognizably Gyllenhaal. He’s good in everything he does, almost (The Day After Tomorrow), but he doesn’t inhabit characters to the extent that Paul Dano does. So in End of Watch, I didn’t see patrolman Bryan Taylor driving that LAPD cruiser around and kicking down doors. I saw Jake Gyllenhaal. The good news for him, that film keeps getting better in hindsight.

The Grey was a surprisingly good film with an outrageous premise: survivors of a plane crash in Alaska are stalked by a pack of wolves. How does this work? Well, it helps to hire Liam Neeson in the midst of the ass-kicking phase of his career. The man has always been physically imposing, but it’s only fairly recently that he’s been cast as an action hero. His John Ottway in The Grey walks a fine line between believability and ridiculousness, probably helped by the lack of a budget to produce too many eye-rolling CGI moments.

And then there’s Sean William Scott in Goon. He plays a dumbass who is so good at fighting he finds himself on a minor league hockey squad. He’s so slow I’m not totally sure his character can even read, but he’s a standup dude who can take a punch. Who wouldn’t want to have a friend like that? Scott is a veteran comedic actor who is on no one’s list as a potential award winner, except mine. Doug the Thug is a great character in a weird homage to hockey fights, and I found myself rooting for him like other film junkies would root for Rocky or Rudy. That’s all due to Scott. We have ourselves a winner.

In the category of Best Actress, the nominees are…no one.

Of the twenty-six films on my eligible list, only one has a true female lead, and that is Resident Evil: Retribution. The other films with female stars are all ensemble flicks, with no one, actor or actress, who could be called the lead. That’s my fault. I don’t go for musicals or chick flicks, and I’m single, so that leaves a big hole in the variety of films I see on a regular basis. Sorry, ladies. My review for Resident Evil: Retribution is coming in October, but suffice it to say, that flick sucks, and I will not be handing out any awards to anyone associated with that film.

In the category of Best Director, the nominees are:
  • Joe Carnahan – The Grey
  • David Gelb – Jiro Dreams of Sushi
  • Pete Travis – Dredd
  • Sam Mendes – Skyfall
  • Rian Johnson – Looper

I recently reviewed Skyfall, and I didn’t give it the most glowing of reviews. But I did point out that Sam Mendes handled a mess of a script with aplomb. It was ridiculous, and the least amount of thought renders it totally nonsensical. But that’s the point. Mendes managed to hold that mess together in an almost coherent fashion. And it looks great, too. Here in the Empty Balcony, helming a great looking film that’s about to fly apart at the seams is enough for a nomination. Hell, if Apocalypse Now were eligible, that would be enough for a win.

Looper is one of those films that sticks with a viewer after leaving the theater. Time travel sci-fi can do that. Sprung directly from the mind of writer/director Rian Johnson, Looper alternately falls apart and then coalesces in a viewer’s thoughts, never completely revealing itself in full. The straightforward ending belies a fair amount of depth. The film is not that much of a mind-fuck, but it’s one of the more creative sci-fi films to hit theaters in years.

The Grey, as I mentioned above, was not supposed to be this good. Joe Carnahan’s direction led to a dark, ominous film. In the vast wilds of Alaska, he manages to close in on the characters, creating claustrophobia by firelight. It’s no mean feet to maintain tension in a film where the characters would be so obviously dead in real life, but Carnahan pulls it off.

There was apparently a lot of conflict during post-production of Dredd. At one point, it was reported that director Pete Travis had been barred from the editing process, and that screenwriter Alex Garland was seeking a co-director credit. How this type of atmosphere produced a good film is a mark of how well Travis did in actually shooting the damn thing. Travis and his team, especially cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, summoned a bleak future for Judge Dredd and company, and combined it with haunting cinematic techniques to craft a deeply complex film with simple presentation. There’s a lot of stuff going on under the surface in this one.

But, the Empty Balcony Award for Best Director goes to David Gelb for Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It’s a documentary, which over at the Academy has its own category, but these are my awards, and I say Jiro is eligible. David Gelb took a hands-off approach to presentation in this film, providing no narration and letting the subjects completely speak for themselves. The visuals are haunting, the film as meticulous and ordered as its subjects. It tells a story with seemingly no help from Gelb, but that’s deceptive. Footage just doesn’t assemble itself into coherence. In Jiro, Gelb weaved it into a masterpiece.

Finally, we reach the end of The Empty Balcony Awards, where I present the Award for the Best Film I Saw Last Year. The nominees are:
  • The Grey
  • Jiro Dreams of Sushi
  • Dredd
  • Looper
  • Goon

My award for Best Director should have given this one away. After all, I called it a masterpiece. Goon had a fighter’s chance, and showed up strong at the awards, but while it is an underrated film, I have a feeling that had I seen any of the nine films the Academy put up, it would have bumped Goon off my list. Looper is here more by default than anything else. It’s one of the best films I saw this year, but it’s not that hard to rise above the likes of Chernobyl Diaries and The Hunger Games. (That’s right, people. I hated The Hunger Games)

The Grey was right there. I love films that feel complete from start to finish, with little wasted time. I also love films with strong ensemble performances, preferring them over straight star vehicles. I also love films that are unrelentingly masculine, and The Grey is certainly that. I don’t think I’ve ever dated anyone that would like this film, nestling it in nicely with films such as The Thing, Master and Commander, and Full Metal Jacket. That’s four films, and the only women in all four were a dead wife, a hooker, and a North Vietnamese sniper. In The Grey, Liam Neeson takes on wolves, for crying out loud. So The Grey is something to watch when I’m feeling particularly full of testosterone, but it’s not the best film I saw last year.

You know, I could easily add Dredd to the above testosterone list, but that’s not why I love it. It may be the best comic book film I’ve ever seen. It’s a worthy adaptation of the source material, great to look at, and has a small, comprehensible story, something most big comic book films lack. The graphic violence could be overwhelming for a viewer, but the blood and gore is merely sideshow to a very effective film.

But, of course, the award goes to Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It was hands down the best film I saw last year. Jiro Ono and his son make for a fascinating pair of subjects for a documentary. David Gelb does a wonderful job transporting the viewer to a world that was more foreign than I was anticipating. Sure, it takes place in Tokyo, literally the other side of the world from where I sit, but I’ve been a fan of Japanese cinema for over twenty years. I was not expecting things to be so unfamiliar. Jiro Ono’s dedication to his craft and the way he approaches it from a philosophical standpoint are very Japanese. It becomes easily understandable and it’s quite sincere. The strange poetics of it all is engrossing. It being a documentary, I was prepared for a bit of restlessness while viewing it, but it just flew by. I couldn’t be happier for having seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Thus concludes The Empty Balcony Awards. Stay tuned for next year, when I try to hand out awards from a small segment of films consisting entirely of Mark Walhberg flicks.