The Second Annual Empty Balcony Awards for Movies I Saw From Last Year

When the Oscars aired last year, I was surprised to find that I had not (at the time) seen a single film that was nominated in any of the top categories. Because of that, I felt I couldn’t offer an opinion on how the awards were dished out, nor participate in Oscar night fun. But, I had seen quite a number of movies from the previous year, and I wanted to weigh in on some level. And lo, the Empty Balcony Awards were born.

I have managed to see a couple of the big films this year, but not all. So, since doing something more than once means a tradition is born, I would like to welcome my Loyal Seven to the Second Annual Empty Balcony Awards for Movies I Saw From Last Year. Readers can just call them the Rogers, for short (after Roger Ebert, whose television show, with Gene Siskel and later Richard Roeper, always ended by announcing that the balcony was closed).

This year’s nominees were culled from a longer list than the previous year, and that’s a good thing. That means that this year, I will not be forced to nominate Rihanna for anything just to fill out a category. This year’s eligible films are:

  • Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
  • All Is Lost
  • The Colony
  • The Conjuring
  • Dark Skies
  • Dead Man Down
  • Escape Plan
  • Europa Report
  • Evil Dead (2013)
  • Gravity
  • The Haunting In Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia
  • The Iceman
  • Killing Season
  • The Last Exorcism Part II
  • The Last Stand
  • Mama
  • Man of Steel
  • Mud
  • Olympus Has Fallen
  • Pacific Rim
  • Phantom
  • Prisoners
  • Riddick
  • Rush
  • Spring Breakers
  • This Is the End
  • White House Down
  • The Wolf of Wall Street
  • World War Z
  • The World’s End
  • You’re Next (from 2011, but sat on a shelf for a long time)

What’s this? No Dallas Buyers Club, no 12 Years a Slave, no Blue Jasmine? No, no, and no. But I did find time for The Haunting in Connecticut 2, which was one of the worst attempts at a cash-grab sequel I’ve ever seen. What can I say? I’m into horror flicks and shitty cinema. Indulging that passion means I don’t have a lot of time for movies that make me think.

Just like last year, because I don’t want to have to sit here all night writing, awards will be handed out in six categories only: best director, best actor and actress, best supporting actor and actress, and best film I saw from last year.

To the awards!

In the category of Best Supporting Actress, the nominees are:
  • Lili Taylor – The Conjuring
  • Winona Ryder – The Iceman
  • Mario Bello – Prisoners
  • Melissa Leo – Prisoners
  • Daniella Kertesz – World War Z

Lili Taylor is a hell of an actress, but she practically disappeared in the 2000s. Sure, she was working, but significant roles seemed to elude her. That made seeing her in James Wans’ excellent ghost flick, The Conjuring, so refreshing. She played a blue-collar mom in this one, a far cry from the types of indie roles she used to land, but she still nailed it. The hide and clap sequence is one of the most chilling scenes I’ve ever encountered in a ghost flick, and it will probably remain so for a long time. But, Taylor will have to live with the nomination only.

Winona Ryder is another actress whose days of regular notoriety seem to be behind her, but she’s wearing it well. Her turn as the deluded wife of a mafia hit man in The Iceman was believable. Maybe that’s small praise, but The Iceman wasn’t all that great of a movie. It did have a few worthy performances in it, and she gave one of them. Alas, no award for her.

Daniella Kertesz gets a nomination because she held her own against Brad Pitt and about a million CGI zombies. While I was watching World War Z, I googled her. I didn’t do that for any of the other actresses in this category. That’s good enough for a nomination, but not a win.

Maria Bello nailed her performance as an emotionally destroyed mother in Prisoners. I can only imagine what happens to a mother whose child has been abducted, but that imagining goes to some very dark places. In watching Prisoners, I found that Maria Bello was already there, loaded with sedatives and almost catatonic. But, she loses out on the award to fellow cast member Melissa Leo. She featured prominently in another film from last year, Olympus Has Fallen, where she was absolutely ridiculous. She makes up for that awful role with a chilling performance in a very hard to stomach film. Paul Dano, like always, was the top talent on display in Prisoners, but without Leo’s character, there would have been no reason for Dano’s character to be so ungodly fucked.

In the category of Best Supporting Actor, the nominees are:
  • Ron Livingston – The Conjuring
  • Ray Liotta – The Iceman
  • Ray McKinnon – Mud
  • Paul Dano – Prisoners
  • Jonah Hill – The Wolf of Wall Street

Despite what I wrote about having more films to choose from this year than last, every category in this year’s awards has a throwaway. I admit it. There is a cost in failing to see all the best films in a year, and that cost is padding the nominations with hopeless candidates, but at least there are no bad performances among the nominees. Sorry, Ron Livingston. You were good, but in this category, you are the throwaway.

Ray McKinnon had a significant role in Mud, as young Ellis’s father, and he did a fantastic job portraying a man constantly on the edge of failure. His livelihood, his home, and his family are on the verge of disappearing completely. Anyone in that position has to be carrying a fair amount of stress. Consequently, McKinnon plays his part like he is a man who could explode at any second. Very well done, but no award.

Ray Liotta probably had the least amount of screen time of any of the nominees in this category, but what little time he spent on screen completely redefined how I think of movie gangsters. His portrayal of Roy DeMeo was nothing like the stately mobsters of the Godfather films or Liotta’s own crown prince of hustling from Goodfellas. Liotta played DeMeo as a man you do not want to meet…ever. You know, like a real gangster. Were it not for the final two nominees, Liotta would have won running away.

But then he was going up against Paul Dano. What more can I say about Paul Dano? Every single thing I have seen him in, he has been at least good, and at times brilliant. How brilliant? I think he did a better job in There Will Be Blood than Daniel Day-Lewis, even coming close to upstaging the legendary performer. Dano is always intense, in everything he does, and his role as an emotionally-disturbed would-be kidnapper in Prisoners is no exception. Someone, please, get this man a starring role in a film. You will not be disappointed.

Dano won this same award last year, but this year he gets beat by Jonah Hill from The Wolf of Wall Street.

Much of the dialogue in The Wolf of Wall Street was clearly improvised. Because of that, and Jonah Hill’s acting style, the film at times can seem like a Seth Rogen project. Did Hill, then, truly stretch his legs as an actor? Hell yes, he did. This was a Scorcese flick, not some Hollywood Hills pothead vanity project, and Hill killed it. Similar to Dano, I say get this man some more serious work. He’s too good to be typecast as the bumbling fat man.

In the category of Best Actor, the nominees are:
  • Casey Affleck – Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
  • Robert Redford – All Is Lost
  • Michael Shannon – The Iceman
  • Matthew McConaughey – Mud
  • Daniel Brühl – Rush

A reader may have only lightly perused the list of eligible films above. One may have missed that one of the films on the list is Spring Breakers. That’s right. I saw Spring Breakers. Oh, God…I saw Spring Breakers. I went in expecting a movie that didn’t speak to my generation, but also went in expecting it to be absurdist fun. I was right about the first point.

I did put in some thought about whether to nominate James Franco for his role as Alien. He did a good job. I don’t think he’s ever been better in a movie. And I love performances where an actor or actress disappears into a role. But Alien ranks up there with some of the characters in film history that I would least like to spend time with. Alien, then, is every bit as abhorrent to me as Jake LaMotta in every scene he beats on Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull, Vincent Gallo in The Brown Bunny, and the baby from Eraserhead (I’m shivering just thinking about that last one). No nomination for James.

Michael Shannon has always been at home in roles where his character is deeply flawed in some way. When I first learned he was playing Richard Kuklinski, a real-life mafia hit man who also happens to be a raging psychopath, I thought the casting was perfect. Shannon met my expectations perfectly, actually managing to be more disturbing in The Iceman than Ray Liotta. Sadly, it’s not enough for a win.

Mud was an uneven film, very plodding, with an unnecessary amount of false endings. It would have been very good had it had a shorter runtime. It also would have been pointless without McConaughey in the lead. His renaissance as an actor has been a wonder to behold. No more romcoms. McConaughey seems to have made a decision to take no role that prevents him from stretching his legs as an actor. He still managed to find a reason in Mud to take his shirt off, though. No award.

Biopics and other films based on real events are never as interesting as the events themselves. There’s just too much about real life that doesn’t respond well to the plot compression required of feature films. That being said, Rush was still a decent flick, with plenty of Hollywood drama. Daniel Brühl was the standout in the film with his portrayal of real-life Formula One driver Niki Lauda. When I watched Rush, I didn’t see the actor. I saw Lauda. Trust me, I’m a racing fan. Still, no award for Brühl.

As stated above, I appreciate it when an actor or actress is lost in a role, and normally shy away from roles where I see the actor before I see the character (think Pacino in Scent of a Woman, Pacino in Any Given Sunday, Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate, etc.), but Robert Redford could have been playing himself in All Is Lost instead of an unnamed protagonist, and it still would have worked. His performance as a lone sailor in deadly distress is a beautiful study in sublime understatement. Were it not for a film hardly anyone heard of, Redford would have won. But…

How Ain’t Them Bodies Saints disappeared into the film ether I will never know. I was stunned by this movie, and I’m not sure more than fifty people have seen the thing, including the director’s mother.

Casey Affleck plays Bob Muldoon, an outlaw roustabout who busts out of prison because he has a young daughter on the outside he has never met, and he just can’t handle the idea of not seeing her grow up. I know. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. But forget all that nonsense. Affleck made every other actor in this category look like chumps. I can think of only one person who could have played this role better: Paul Dano. Still, I can’t think of another film where, after having seen it, my estimation of an actor’s skill has gone up so much. We have a winner.

In the category of Best Actress, the nominees are:
  • Rooney Mara – Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
  • Vera Farmiga – The Conjuring
  • Keri Russell – Dark Skies
  • Noomi Rapace – Dead Man Down
  • Sandra Bullock – Gravity

I’m not done praising Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. My Loyal Seven will note that in all the previous categories, I have given brief summaries of all the nominees. Not so here. It would be superfluous.

Rooney Mara’s performance opposite Casey Affleck as Ruth was astounding. I don’t need to temper that assessment with weaker language or any sort of prevarication. It is absolutely criminal that this movie, and Mara’s performance in particular, never got widespread recognition. As much praise as I lavished on Affleck, there is simply no comparison. Mara acted rings around her co-star.

I found Ain’t Them Bodies Saints because I did a google search for underrated films of 2013. I couldn’t be more pleased that I gave this film a shot.

In the category of Best Director, the nominees are:
  • David Lowery – Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
  • J.C. Chandor – All Is Lost
  • James Wan – The Conjuring
  • Alfonso Cuarón – Gravity
  • Denis Villeneuve – Prisoners

After the last two categories, it would be easy to assume I’d continue the love-fest for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. But, no. This category is just too deep, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was far more performance-driven than anything else. So, no award for David Lowery.

Denis Villeneuve really shined with Prisoners. I expected this movie to get a Best Picture nod from the Academy, but it was shut out. Villeneuve crafted an excellent film, one that was very intense and quite horrific. But, it was too long. At times the pacing was dreadful, in fact. That’s good enough for Villeneuve to get a nomination, but not a win.

The horror genre is woefully underrepresented at the Academy Awards. Sure, there is a whole lot of shit associated with horror, yet no one can claim there haven’t been some fantastic horror films throughout the years. James Wan has directed the most recent with The Conjuring. He just wrapped up a run of directing three ghost flicks in as many years. The Conjuring was the middle one, and also the best. Wan knows how to do scary, having spent his entire career in horror, but he’s never been so polished as with The Conjuring. This movie scared the daylights out of me, and I’ve seen hundreds of horror films. What keeps Wan from walking away with the award is an unfortunate reliance on genre convention. Oh, well.

That leaves only two directors standing — J.C. Chandor and Alfonso Cuarón. Gravity was my winner in the category until I saw All Is Lost. The viewer is presented with two films of very similar plot, with similar amounts of despair and denouement. But with All Is Lost, Chandor showed that head to head, he has a superior grasp of pacing and tension than Cuarón. Both films take a couple cheap shots at the audience here and there by teasing premature resolutions, but that’s to be expected in films about a lone character struggling for survival. The main reason Chandor gets the nod from me over Cuarón is because I found All Is Lost to be a more believable film, whereas paying too close attention to Gravity will readily destroy the illusion. Additionally, All Is Lost was the most beautiful film I saw from last year, which is an accomplishment considering the scenery consisted of open ocean, sky, and a boat. Chandor’s directorial vision just cannot be denied.

Finally, the moment my Loyal Seven have been waiting for…The Award for Best Film I Saw From Last Year. The nominees are:
  • Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
  • All Is Lost
  • The Conjuring
  • Gravity
  • Prisoners

Quite frankly, with such a limited amount of categories in the awards, it’s hard for me to justify naming a best film that differs from my best director pick. I think it’s hard for the Academy to do so, as well. That being said, this year’s field was very deep. And surprisingly so, considering I saw Ain’t Them Bodies Saints only a few weeks ago. I just about had all my nominations squared away until Lowery, Affleck, and Mara bowled me over. But, All Is Lost was just too strong a film compared to the competition. It’s a rare example of a complete film. Everything felt done. If J.C. Chandor had any thoughts about whether or not his film could use a few tweaks here and there, he should discount all such doubts. Whereas Apocalypse Now is an example of a great, incomplete film, All Is Lost is an example of a film that is just…finished.

Supposedly the shooting script was only around thirty-five pages long, due to the sparse dialogue. But that thirty-five pages packed a wallop. Maybe I’m just a sucker for films that take place on the sea, but the trials and travails of Robert Redford’s unnamed protagonist, trying to overcome disaster at sea, was very powerful to me. One man and the sea. Imagining a bit of background for the character, he’s probably a wealthy retiree from Connecticut or Rhode Island who spent a couple of summers sailing, and now thinks he can do a round the world trip solo. What arrogance, and what balls.

When a viewer sees Redford’s boat, it becomes clear he’s an aristocrat. Politically, I should hate this guy. But remember, this film isn’t about the big boat that had to be purchased with a big bank account. This film isn’t about class warfare, and it’s only vaguely about ego. It’s about a lone man on the sea trying to survive. The only quibble I have with the film is the ending. Without spoiling anything, there are only two ways to end the film, and Chandor chose differently than I would have. Of course, I am not a filmmaker.

So ends the Second Annual Empty Balcony Awards for Films I Saw From Last Year. Stay tuned for next year, when I present the awards in haiku form, under the mistaken belief that limiting the amount of syllables will reduce the time it takes to write this beast.