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

The Oscars were a couple of weeks ago, which means it is past time to indulge myself, to conflate this lovely little website with the likes of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and release my own film awards. Why not? It’s no more absurd for websites with readership as small as mine to issue awards than it is for Hollywood to hand out little statues to itself. But the Empty Balcony Awards arose out of no desire to pat myself on the back. Rather, it was because, three years ago, I noticed that I had not seen one of the films that had been nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards. I could not offer an opinion one way or the other on the winners and losers. But I could get an article on Missile Test out of my ignorance, and so the Empty Balcony Awards for Movies I Saw From Last Year was born. The only criteria for a film to be eligible for one of my awards is that it was released in the previous calendar year, and that I have actually seen it.

In years past, this has meant somewhere around 20 to 30 movies were eligible for awards. This year the list is…slightly shorter. When I compiled the list I was surprised at how few new releases I saw in 2015. It’s not as if I had watched any less movies in 2015 than I normally do. It’s just not very many that were actually released in 2015.

So, bear with me while I hand out awards from a list of seven movies. The eligible film’s for this year’s awards are:

  • Beasts of No Nation
  • Creed
  • Jurassic World
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Martian
  • Poltergeist
  • San Andreas

That’s…not a lot. And a couple are absolute stinkers. Oh, well. To the awards!

Best Supporting Actress

Abbey Lee — Mad Max: Fury Road. This is it. Lee is the only nominee for this category, therefore she wins. It’s not that there were no other females in supporting roles in the films I saw. Rather, it’s that as capable as Jessica Chastain was in The Martian, or Tessa Thompson in Creed, just doing your job isn’t enough to get a nod here at Missile Test, much less an award. To be nominated, I have to feel like an actor or actress is being underpaid for their work. In Chastain’s case, she was slumming it a bit in The Martian, taking a peripheral role when she is capable of starring.

I’m giving Lee the award because she was a standout in weirdness in an otherwise very weird film. She was up against leather boys and a freak who shoots fire from a guitar, and came out stranger than them all, with only about five lines in the whole film, to boot. That’s a winning performance.

Best Supporting Actor

Indominus Rex — Jurassic World. I am sorely tempted to give the award to this CGI menace from the latest film in the Jurassic Park franchise. This movie was absolute shit — the culmination of decades of Hollywood trial and error to find the blandest formula that creates the highest returns possible. It’s a movie for the middle of the public’s sensibilities, with tendrils that reach out to gather in as much of an audience as possible. This was the Applebee’s of movies.

As such, any character, real or not, that shows up on scene and kills everything it sees is my favorite performer in the film. The only way this performance could have been better is if the final shot was Indominus Rex picking its teeth with a tree limb after having eaten every single human being on the island. That would have been awesome.

Sylvester Stallone — Creed. Meanwhile, back in the world of flesh and blood actors, we have Sylvester Stallone reprising his Rocky role, but this time in a supporting capacity. Stallone is about as wooden an actor as Hollywood has ever seen. And he hasn’t always been successful in his signature role. But in Creed, Stallone inhabits the character of Rocky to an extent not seen since the first film. All those Rocky sequels (note: I have not seen Rocky Balboa, the last Rocky film) reduced Rocky to a caricature. Here, Stallone restores the character to realism. While the film still wallows in cliché, Stallone’s portrayal of an aged Rocky who is as much Mickey — as much trainer and mentor as former champ — was exactly what this film needed.

Chiwetel Ejiofor — The Martian. But then we come to an actor whose worst performances can be described as effortless, and his role in The Martian was no exception. Rocky was a far more important character to Creed than Ejiofor’s Vincent Kapoor was to The Martian. But the quality of the performances is different enough that Ejiofor wins the award. His consistently fine performances put him on a par with other actors who never seem to do, or have done, bad work — such as Philip Seymour Hoffman or Ralph Fiennes. Having Ejiofor in a cast guarantees that at least one performance will be stellar. In The Martian, the scenes on earth were the weakest; the assembled ensemble having a couple questionable casting decisions. Thank goodness Ejiofor was there to see us viewers through.

Best Actor

Michael B. Jordan — Creed. The Wire was a long time ago. Most of the gangland cast of that series has moved on to middling roles and occasional guest appearances on television. But a few have had lasting careers, and one, Idris Elba, has been on an upward trajectory since leaving The Wire that shows no signs of ceasing.

Were it not for Elba, Michael B. Jordan would be wearing the post-Wire career success crown. I guess he’ll just have to settle for starring in a blockbuster film every now and again.

Creed could not have been an easy role to perform. In fact, it could not have been an easy job to contemplate, even before cameras began rolling. Rocky is a beloved film franchise, and introducing a new character like Adonis Creed into the canon runs the risk of alienating the fanbase, especially if the film is a tawdry cash grab. But that’s not what happened with Creed. Instead, Michael B. Jordan carried the weight. Cheese and cliché aside, Creed is a wonderful underdog sports flick, and much of that is due to the solidness of Jordan’s performance.

Matt Damon — The Martian. I read the Andy Weir novel from which this adaptation was made, and there were two constants throughout. One: I wanted Mark Watney to succeed. I wanted him to survive and get back to earth. Two: I really wanted Watney to shut the hell up. I really feel for the other members of the Mars expedition of which Watney was a part. He was astoundingly annoying, a dork of the highest order. Sure, he’s a sweet guy and he knows what he’s doing, but if I were stuck in a box with the guy for two years I’m pretty sure I’d cave his head in with a pick. Thank goodness Matt Damon was there to tone down Watney’s more grating characteristics. The only flaw I had with his performance is that Watney was unusually calm about his situation. I understand that NASA hires extremely even people to send into space, but there wasn’t enough tension in Watney’s mood.

Abraham Atta — Beasts of No Nation. As a general rule, children can’t act. They haven’t been on this earth long enough to refine their craft. If there are any anthropologists or psychologists out there who are curious if talent is indeed a real thing and wish to study its distribution among the populace, a good start would be studying films with children in prominent roles. Because they haven’t had the time to practice their skills or get serious amounts of experience, those with talent will stand out.

Abraham Atta is a young actor with talent. Beasts of No Nation is a brutal movie, portraying the horrors of war in Africa. Atta was tasked with playing a character who saw his family killed because of the war, and was then forced to join a rebel army. All of this before he hit puberty. Beasts is only a glimpse into what is happening in vast swathes of Africa. We accompany Atta’s Agu as he transforms from fleeing boy, to child conscript, to cold-blooded killer, and on into weary and damaged warrior. In this country we have been witness to the damage war has done to our soldiers. Atta’s performance conveys with gravitas what happens when a child is exposed to violence that can warp the minds of men, much less children. But, while he was the focus of Beasts of No Nation, he was overshadowed by this category’s winner.

Idris Elba — Beasts of No Nation. When Idris Elba is on, he is a pleasure to behold. When I think on a standout scene in his career, it has to be from season three of The Wire. The setting is the hideout where Avon Barksdale is planning his war on Marlo Stanfield. There, Elba’s Stringer Bell tells Avon that he ordered the hit that killed Avon’s nephew, D’Angelo, in season two. The two begin wrestling and Stringer gets the edge, pinning Avon down on an injured shoulder. Stringer screams into Avon’s face, forcing him to listen to why D’Angelo had to go. It was this scene as much as any other that cemented Elba as the best performer in that show, in my opinion.

In Beasts of No Nation, Elba plays a rebel commander tasked with raising an army and conquering a large part of the country. When we picture armies here in the west we picture well-outfitted, disciplined, and organized troops who bring along a whole other army of rear echelon troops to provide aid.

Not so a rebel army.

Elba’s commander and his soldiers are on their own. What supplies they receive are captured, what villages they come across are burned and looted. There are no rules of engagement. There is only war. The commander understands the war he is fighting more than anyone under his charge. He understands that he is committing heinous, evil acts. But he is a true believer in the cause. He towers above the men and the boys that make up his army. He displays no fear and shares every danger. He is a murderer and a pedophile, and also the most dynamic character in the film. Elba plays him tough, strong, and loud, giving the commander all the aspects of a natural leader. It’s a horrifying and enthralling performance, all at the same time. For this, Elba wins the award.

Best Actress

Charlize Theron — Mad Max: Fury Road. Hmm. Maybe women have a point about the dearth of roles in Hollywood. Of the seven films I saw from last year, only Mad Max had a substantial female cast, and only one of them could be considered a lead.

Theron’s Furiosa had a curious characteristic. Here she was, born after the apocalypse in Outback Australia, yet she sports an American accent. What the hell?

Nevermind, though. She carries this film. I don’t know how much this was director George Miller’s intention, but Mad Max is not the star of his latest Mad Max movie. In fact, were Max not to have appeared on the scene at all, I’m not totally convinced Furiosa could not have carried out her scheme against Immortan Joe.

You know, someday I’m going to write a review of this flick, because there’s just so much going on that’s worth talking about — far more than I have room for here. For now, I’ll just have to settle for giving Charlize Theron the award for best actress. Like the supporting actress category, the other movies I saw just didn’t have female leads that gave more than a middling performance, at best. However, Theron was good enough in this flick that it would have taken quite a performance for me to give the award to anyone else.

Best Cinematography

This is the first year I will be giving out this award. In previous years I’ve kept things short, but this year three of the films I saw have outstanding photography, and I can’t let that slide by without mention.

Dariusz Wolski — The Martian. Wolski was given a tough task in recreating the Martian landscape. Most of the shots of the Martian landscape are, I’m sure, computer-generated, interweaved with real shots of earth, but they look great. My mark of good CGI is that it doesn’t look like CGI. I don’t want a live-action film to look like a cartoon or a video game. I want it to look real. All the sweeping and impossible shots that are typical of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films I find too annoying and burdensome. Wolski’s take on Mars is evocative of Lawrence of Arabia in its grandeur and sublime emptiness.

John Seale — Mad Max: Fury Road. Seale and his team also filmed a desert landscape, but this desert was far different from the sterile backdrop of Mars. Post-apocalyptic Australia looks as devoid of water, but it’s hard to tell because it zips by so fast.

Seale’s task wasn’t to wrap the desert in the sublime, but to turn it into an arena. It’s a place where crazed warriors battle at a hundred miles per hour. They fling each other through the air and drive their machines with reckless abandon. There are explosions and crashes and deadly dust storms. Mad Max: Fury Road has a strange poetry about it, and much of this was due to Seale’s work. But, he doesn’t get the award, either.

Maryse Alberti — Creed. There were no sweeping landscape shots or swirling dust storms in Creed. But there was a whole lot of boxing. Creed could have just presented the fights the same way with which we are all familiar: with a centered camera pointed at the ring. Alberti could have interspersed this shot with the occasional closeup. Instead, she brings the viewer into the fight, rounds stretching for long single takes as the camera rotates around, into, and back out of the fight. It’s immersive — the closest most of us have ever been to being in the ring. The choreography of the fights left something to be desired, but this isn’t an award for dancing. This is an award for cinematography, and Ms. Alberti wins it for the fight scenes alone.

The Award for Best Movie I Saw From Last Year

I won’t be handing out a director’s award this year, simply because, in my mind, the quality of a film and it’s direction are intertwined. I just can’t see myself splitting director and best picture. Even the Oscars don’t do it that often, only splitting the two awards 15 times in 88 years. And, as we’ve established, these awards are just as important. So, you seven eligible directors, if your film wins best picture, rest assured I think you are also the best director. But, there can be only one.

Mad Max: Fury Road was the best film I saw that was released last year, hands down. It was gorgeously shot, meticulously pieced together, and is sweeping in scope. All this, and the film is little more than an extended car chase.

The film is a war between an oppressive dictator and his cultish followers, against a small band fleeing from sexual slavery. It has a developed language and universe all its own, yet the audience is never burdened with having to know all this esoterica in order to follow the plot (teen sci-fi movies, take note).

It’s bombastic yet simple, hitting the viewer like the percussion section of a symphony orchestra. It’s the culmination of a vision that has been swirling in writer/director George Miller’s head for decades. I only wish we out here on the other side of the screen had not had to wait so long.

That’s it. Stay tuned for next year when George Miller’s newest flick, a Furiosa/Happy Feet/Babe mega-crossover hits theaters. There’s no way that’s not already a winner, right?