I like a sense of inflated self-importance. It’s one of the reasons I maintain a website that has never managed to garner more than a few thousand hits in a month. (Except for that one time the site was hacked by someone in Russia and the increase in traffic crashed the servers. Sorry about that, Dreamhost.) Does anyone out there really care what I have to say, on any topic whatsoever? I’m sure there are a few people who do, here and there. But I’m only pretending that anything that appears in this space is more than just tiny words muttered into the vast information ether. I read somewhere, once, that we, here in the Information Age, are generating data at a per day rate that eclipses the accumulated data of the entirety of human history from before the internet. That’s a lot of noise, and no matter how relevant one’s contribution, that contribution still consists mostly of noise.
Speaking of noise and inflated self-importance, the Oscars were last week. Like in years past, I have not seen all the movies and performances that were nominated, but I have seen some. So, welcome to the Third Annual Empty Balcony Awards for Movies I Saw From Last Year. I saw 31 films that were released last year. They are:
- 3 Days to Kill
- As Above, So Below
- The Babadook
- Blue Ruin
- Brick Mansions
- The Equalizer
- Gone Girl
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- I, Frankenstein
- The Interview
- John Wick
- The One I Love
- The Rover
- The Taking of Deborah Logan
- The Town That Dreaded Sundown
- A Walk Among the Tombstones
- Willow Creek
There are some stinkers in there, but overall, my movie viewing experience was one of generally good quality. Although, it took a run of about four or five good movies in a row to wash the taste of I, Frankenstein from my mouth, and I only watched about 45 minutes of that dog before I gave up. Disgusting.
On to the awards!
Best Supporting Actor
Ethan Hawke — Boyhood. Hawke’s character, Mason Evans Sr., was a bit of a deadbeat dad in Richard Linklater’s coming of age epic. And he was the most positive male role model in young Mason Jr.’s life. But, he ended up being a decent guy. Hawke did a very good job portraying a man holding on to his youth for dear life, unready and unwilling to take on the responsibilities of fatherhood. We viewers see him grow as a character along with the rest of the characters in the film, showing maturity he should have developed earlier. He’s a good guy, but his absences from his children’s lives, especially in moments when he is needed the most, are jarring. In that, Mason Evans Sr. is like so many real men. Flawed, imperfect, sometimes overwhelmed by circumstances; doing his best, but sometimes seeming to mail it in. And when he finally matures and has another child with another woman, he sticks with it, unfortunately displaying to his older children the fatherhood skills on which they missed out. Hawke’s performance was easy and flawless. He was a man-child who found his way. But, he doesn’t win the award.
Edward Norton — Birdman. Where the hell has Edward Norton been for the last decade? Once upon a time, any movie in which he had a role was a must-see film. He took a mediocre, otherwise anonymous Hollywood star vehicle, Primal Fear, and elevated it with his performance as a disturbed young man on trial for murder. He nailed a role as a compulsive gambler with a self-destructive streak in Rounders. As the narrator in Fight Club, he showed, again, that he could go toe to toe with a Hollywood heavyweight and win. In Death to Smoochy, a film almost universally loathed, his urgent innocence and eventual loss of naiveté was something to behold. And after that? Nothing, and I mean nothing, stands out. He would show up in films regularly, and while he was always good, always dependable, he no longer seized roles like he did before. And then along came Birdman.
I don’t think the filmmakers of Birdman could have chosen a better foil for Michael Keaton than Edward Norton. He’s a better actor, brings more energy, and is endlessly antagonistic. The entire film was stuffed with good performances from beginning to end, but it was Norton, killing it in every scene he was in, that I’ll remember about that film. But, he doesn’t win the award, either.
Noah Wiseman — The Babadook. Any of my Loyal Seven readers will be familiar with the fact that I, as a general rule, do not like child actors. They lack experience. This lack of experience means that, most of the time, child actors are the weakest spots in a cast. Just about all I hope for from a child actor is that they don’t ruin a film; that they remain just competent enough not to ruin my suspension of disbelief. In a film like The Babadook, where child actor Noah Wiseman’s Samuel was a central point around whom the plot revolved, the degree of difficulty for actor and filmmakers was very high. Young Master Wiseman nailed it.
His screeching, spoiled, borderline insane, terror of a performance made me want to call my mother and apologize. In The Babadook, all the warmth and good feeling of Boyhood is excised, and being a single mother is shown as a true nightmare. Much of that is due to Wiseman. Being so young (he was only 6 or 7 during filming), how much of his performance was a conscious effort and how much was the result of Jennifer Kent’s outstanding direction is debatable. All I know is, of the three performances up for this award, Wiseman’s was the most natural. He wins the award.
Best Supporting Actress
Katee Sackhoff — Oculus. What a weird little film. The horror genre is packed full of schlock made with the sole intention of making a quick buck. So it has always been, so it shall always be. Oculus was supposed to be one of those films. One of its production companies was WWE Studios for crying out loud, which brought us such classics as The Marine, Leprechaun: Origins, and Jingle All the Way 2 (supplanting Arnold Schwarzenegger with Larry the Cable Guy). Sometimes low-budget horror flicks can land some real talent in the cast. Think Insidious, with Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson. But mostly, they grab some pretty faces more at home on the WB than on the big screen.
But, while Oculus may supposed to have been just a quick buck, the filmmakers had other ideas, and made themselves one of the best mind-fuck horror flicks in years. The two leads in the film, Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites, were terrible. They were exactly what a viewer could expect. But then there were Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff, who played their parents. Cochrane didn’t do enough to earn a nod, but Sackhoff did.
She played a mother who, being slowly possessed by an evil demon that lives in a mirror, loses her mind. Once her senses have left her, Sackhoff’s performance becomes physical. The hurt and pain she causes herself is palpable in her expressions. By the end, no more words are needed. However, she doesn’t win the award.
Kim Dickens — Gone Girl. David Fincher gets an ‘A’ for effort for Gone Girl. As if we viewers needed any further confirmation, he can make a movie. But, this film felt a little paint-by-numbers. It was antiseptic. It was an emotionless recreation of the type of film a younger Fincher could create. But I digress. This is supposed to be about Kim Dickens.
Dickens plays the detective investigating Rosamund Pike’s disappearance. She plays a typical no-nonsense female cop, straight from the Law & Order handbook. While she doesn’t break any new ground, she’s reliable. She’s also the grounding presence in the film; the character whose life isn’t spinning out of control. Yet, even her Detective Rhonda Boney gets mixed up in the lies. Her steadiness was needed in all those scenes where she was paired with an overmatched Ben Affleck. Dickens was good, but not outstanding, so she doesn’t get the award.
Emma Stone — Birdman. I dithered some on where to place Stone in this list. She had the best role of her career in Birdman. The entire film is an actor’s paradise. But that’s where the problems lay. This film was so much about acting that it was impossible to ignore the acting. Suspension of disbelief was impossible in this film. Every time a character broke out into a long soliloquy about the movie business or the theater it felt like a manufactured moment. Stone could deliver these Sorkin-esque lines with the best of them. But I have to deny her the award. She gets second place, not because of any failings on her part, but because no one, anywhere, strings together sentences in conversation like the characters in this film do. That’s right. It’s the script’s fault that Emma Stone doesn’t get an award that only about 50 people have ever heard of.
Rene Russo — Nightcrawler. Russo’s Nina Romina is bitterness personified. In Nightcrawler, she plays a late night news director for a local television station in Los Angeles. She is barely hanging onto her job. As such, she is not interested in the journalistic aspects of TV news. She wants to see blood. And she gets it. She enters into a very uneasy partnership with a freelance stringer who brings her the nasty footage she needs to keep ratings high. Nina’s soul is for sale on a nightly basis, for the simple fact she has bills to pay.
I don’t know what goes through the minds of TV news directors, but I do know what I see on TV every day. Car crashes. Murders. Assaults. Small tragedies writ large for the masses to see. There has to be a force behind all this chaos that’s parceled out to the general public three times a day, like sustaining meals. Nina Romina represents that force. Her character is so important to Nightcrawler that there could be an entire movie just about her. Rene Russo wins the award for best supporting actress.
What an embarrassment of riches. The first year that I did these awards, there were no nominees for best actress. There were 26 eligible films that year, and only one of them had a true female lead. And there was no way I was giving an acting award to Milla Jovovich. It may not matter in the big scheme of things, but I do have integrity. This year, I had no problem finding female leads. In fact, every single one of these women gave better performances than every male lead in all of this year’s eligible films.
Elisabeth Moss — The One I Love. I can’t believe I’m putting Elisabeth Moss in last place. That’s how stacked this category is. The One I Love is a quirky little romance/sci-fi flick about a couple undergoing serious counseling. They head to a retreat on the advice of their therapist, and while there, discover that doubles have been taking their places as the couple interact with each other. Moss’s character, Sophie, decides that the doppelganger version of her husband is preferable to the real thing, and proceeds to have an affair with him. It’s really bizarre to watch a marriage fall apart and get stronger at the same time, until the mystery of the doubles is revealed.
Moss does well playing the frustrated wife. It’s not that her husband has committed any high crimes. Their marriage just appears to be victim of the slow death that consumes many relationships. Sophie is a bit flighty, but honestly, her decisions are understandable, if irrational. It’s actually kind of frustrating watching her character make the decisions she does. But not once did I question their genuineness. She nailed the part. But, no award for Moss.
Rosamund Pike — Gone Girl. There has been some debate about whether Gone Girl is feminist or misogynistic. I’ll make it easy on everyone. No matter how stifling a marriage is, faking your own disappearance and trying to pin the murder on your husband is no way to respond. I have no problem whatsoever calling Amazing Amy a crazy bitch. Ben Affleck didn’t make her that way, no matter how shitty of a husband he was. Now that that’s out of the way...
Pike plays crazy as well as any femme fatale that’s ever been on screen. She’s manipulative and blonde. As we all know, that combo is irresistible to men. As noted above, I wasn’t all that impressed with this film, but I was impressed with the cold precision of Pike’s performance. A viewer can almost get into her head; can almost see the world through Amy’s eyes. It’s quite the skewed perspective. Then one remembers just how batshit insane she is. Pike was wonderful, but she gets no award.
Jill Larson — The Taking of Deborah Logan. Who the hell is Jill Larson, and what the hell is The Taking of Deborah Logan? Well, the Loyal Seven will know that every October I spend the entire month reviewing horror flicks. There are only so many hours in the day, so that means that by the end of the year, a plurality of films I have seen are horror. This was one of those small ones I mentioned earlier that managed to find some real talent for the cast.
Jill Larson is a veteran television actress who spent the majority of her career in soap operas. Freed from those shackles, she has graced the production of The Taking of Deborah Logan, playing a retiree who is descending into the throes of Alzheimer’s. Or is it demonic possession?
Larson whipsaws back and forth between lucid and demented. Early on, it’s a disturbing performance for anyone familiar with Alzheimer’s. As the film progresses, the performance reaches new extremes, in both the character’s behavior and in its physicality. I don’t think this film saw a theatrical release, but it was on Netflix. It’s funny, but without modern streaming services, this film would have gone mostly unseen, and Larson’s performance unnoted. Well, not in this day and age. She was great, but does not win the award.
Patricia Arquette — Boyhood. This was a tough one. Boyhood was a fantastic film. As much as it explored what it is like to be a generic boy growing up in America, it’s also about his mother. Circumstances and decisions have made Olivia Evans’s life a struggle. But the main focus of her life remains raising her two kids.
Arquette’s performance was great because she conveyed the cloud that was always hanging over her head. It was there in her scowls and the lines on her face. Her children did fall prey, at times, to the chaos, but mostly had the kind of carefree childhood we all deserve. It was Olivia who bore the burdens. There was never any moment on screen where her stress wasn’t palpable. And at the end of the film, when her last child leaves home and the laser focus her children provided leaves as well, she breaks down. Two decades of parenthood evaporate, leaving her directionless for the first time in the entire film. Her performance was so striking because it mirrors real life. Hollywood doesn’t do that all that often. In any other year, she would have won the award. But...
Essie Davis — The Babadook. ...Olivia has got nothing on Essie Davis’s Amelia. Not only is Amelia a single mother, but her child might be insane. He ruins her life. Oh, and that’s not all. Their small family unit is being stalked by a demon. All the normal stress of parenting is compounded by the horror stalking young Samuel. Davis plays a woman both struggling and also fed up. She is caring but lashes out at her son. It’s a symptom of how overwhelmed her character is. Throughout the entire film, I wanted someone, a relative, a friend, to show up and take Samuel off her hands for a week or two so Amelia could go on vacation. She never gets a chance to decompress.
Davis is ragged and frantic. Her Amelia loses control at times, and near the end, comes close to losing her soul. I never doubted any of it. In my opinion, Davis gave the performance of the year. She wins the award.
This category is a little thin this year. That’s not because of a lack of male leads. Of the 31 eligible films, 26 had male leads. But look at that list up there again. There is a lot of shit on that list. There are also a couple of good films, like Nightcrawler, where I don’t feel the male lead was great. Jake Gyllenhaal was good in that film, sure, but the flaws were too big to ignore for me. So, this year there are only three male leads among the films I saw that I feel are deserving of recognition.
Guy Pearce — The Rover. Post-apocalyptic stories are all the rage right now. Hell, they’re so popular that I even wrote a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel (available for Kindle, and thus ends my shameless plug). I, and countless other people, love the idea of our carefully constructed society collapsing due to natural disaster or otherworldly calamity. It’s BDSM elevated to a civilizational level. In The Rover, Guy Pearce’s Eric is living in a society with only a rump government. He’s wound very tightly, and it’s a mystery if he still has morals. His character recognizes this. More than anyone else in the film, he laments the loss of the rule of law. That’s surprising, considering how easily he dishes out the violence. But, deep down, he wants to be stopped. He wants the police to arrest him, the courts to try and sentence him. He wants, more than anything else, to be held accountable for his actions, but no one cares. This is the only post-apocalyptic movie I’ve seen explore the theme of hopelessness in this particular way. The main reason it’s so effective is because of Pearce. However, he doesn’t win the award.
Michael Keaton — Birdman. What a comeback. There’s a pop culture theory that holds there are always two people vying for a single slot in Hollywood. That is, two interchangeable people with similar career paths are in competition for riches and fame that are available to only one of them. Once upon a time, about 30 years ago, Michael Keaton and Tom Hanks were one of those pairs. Mr. Mom, Splash, Gung-ho, Dragnet, Johnny Dangerously. All these films, and more, could have starred one or the other. But then Tom Hanks was in Philadelphia, and Hollywood declared him the winner over Keaton. Keaton never stopped working, but his career had peaked, while Hanks became Hollywood royalty.
His pedigree made Keaton the perfect choice to play the lead in Birdman, and he gave the performance of his life. He did a fantastic job playing the washed-up star struggling for relevance on Broadway. It may have been the performance of his life, but it wasn’t even the best performance in the film, much less among the male leads in 2014. Don’t take that as a harsh assessment. Watch his performance. Revel in it. But recognize the film was greater than the performance.
Brendan Gleeson — Calvary. I think Ireland has a strained relationship with the Catholic Church. In this film, Gleeson plays a man who entered the priesthood in middle age. He works in rural Ireland, and his congregation seems to consist of nothing but cynics. He has to navigate a minefield every day with his flock. And one of them wants to kill him. There’s a lot of weight pressing down on Father James, and his journey through the film is also an exploration of the meaning of life. It’s never stated so bluntly, but the parishioners’ struggles with purposelessness pervade every frame of the film. They look to James to make sense of it all, but he has no answers. James never seems to doubt his chosen vocation, but he never shies away from its contradictions. James is not a destroyed man, but his life, and everyone else’s, feels like coda. Gleeson wins the award because he encapsulates the angst of an entire nation, unsure of the future relationship it has with the Church.
Best Director and The Award for Best Film I Saw From Last Year
I’m going to combine these award, as, this year anyway, it seems redundant to keep them separate. Also, I’m going to keep it short, as this column is approaching 4,000 words. So, here are the films that did not win the award: The Babadook, Birdman, and Calvary. Of these three, I thought Birdman was the best, but also the most flawed. It was an exercise in masterful filmmaking (and showed that off a little too much), but it was also an endless lecture. It was so stylish and ticked off so many of the Best Picture boxes that it actually put me off. It seemed designed to be a winner. Whether that’s accurate or not, I don’t know. But this reviewer, who is quite distanced from both Hollywood and Broadway, found the film to be too masturbatory. That leaves Boyhood.
It took Richard Linklater and his cast twelve years to film Boyhood. Some people I know have criticized the film as being slow and devoid of much happening. As for me, it felt like scene after scene was relatable to my own childhood. Childhood was something I left behind with relish, finding it to be an experience mostly to be endured before becoming an adult. This film turns that outlook on its head, showing childhood not as something past, but as something inseparable from our character as adults. This film was so moving to me, that for the first time in my adult life, it made me want to be young again.
The journey of Mason Evans from first-grader to college student does not mirror every childhood in America. It’s far different from the experiences of inner city youths, minorities, or immigrants. But the story it does tell will be familiar to tens of millions of people. It’s eminently relatable, and not just from the perspective of the boy. Those who are raising, or who have raised, children will see the film much differently, I imagine. Their focus will be on the parents, not on Mason. Other viewers will see themselves in Mason’s sister, Samantha. It’s a multidimensional story of staggering complexity made simple by keeping its focus on regular life. More than once, I was waiting for tragedy, that crutch of drama, to introduce itself into Mason’s life, but it never did. Mason’s life was so normal that some viewers see it as a drag. As for me, I think it’s amazing that such normalcy, aided by the way the film rips through time, could be put to film at all. Boyhood is more than just a film. It is youth.