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

The Oscars were last week. The Academy Awards are Hollywood pageantry at its most narcissistic, really. Perhaps there was a time when the awards show was good entertainment, or maybe, as the years go by, I’ve just become less interested in celebrities patting each other on the back for a job well done.

The greatest fallacy our film stars live under is that they matter. They spend their professional lives pretending to be other people, and when given the opportunity, sometimes use the bully pulpit to lecture citizens and politicians alike on the proper way to run a civilization. One can’t blame them. We all have opinions, and many of us would be glad to share them when presented with a microphone (or a personal website). But that’s not what I look for from the film industry. I don’t look for guidance on morality. I look for art and entertainment. Somehow film has been drawn into our battles over identity politics. I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise, considering film is a big part of how Americans spend their free time. It would be too much to ask that film exist in a sphere separate from our experiences — a soothing, escapist balm completely segregated from our troubles.

The good news, for me, is that this website is my platform. It belongs to me and no one else. I’m not beholden to any sense of either fairness or injustice. I don’t have to make up for past grievances with fresh injuries. These are my awards for films released in 2016. There will be no mix-up between La La Land and Moonlight for my best picture award, because I’ve seen neither of those films. Only films that I’ve actually seen are eligible. Here’s the list of eligible films:

  • 10 Cloverfield Lane
  • Arrival
  • The Autopsy of Jane Doe
  • Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
  • Captain America: Civil War
  • The Conjuring 2
  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Don’t Breathe
  • Everybody Wants Some!!
  • The Finest Hours
  • Gimme Danger
  • The Good Neighbor
  • Green Room
  • Hail, Caesar!
  • Hell or High Water
  • High-Rise
  • Hush
  • I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House
  • Independence Day: Resurgence
  • Inferno
  • Into the Forest
  • Kill Command
  • Lights Out
  • The Lobster
  • London Has Fallen
  • The Magnificent Seven
  • Meet the Blacks
  • Ouija: Origin of Evil
  • Rats
  • Sausage Party
  • Spectral
  • Star Trek Beyond
  • Suicide Squad
  • Train to Busan
  • The Wailing
  • The Witch

That’s 36 eligible films — more than enough of a crop from which to harvest this article. Some are good, and some are bad. Some one would expect from a viewer, like myself, who is very much into horror films. Some one would not expect. Remember, though, that an important part of experiencing art is finding art that is not tailored to your sensibilities or personality. It keeps us from being cloistered in our own belief systems. Cast one’s net wide, and one will find their experience of film enriched. And never, ever, let anyone tell you what to watch. To the awards!

Best Supporting Actor

Jeff Bridges — Hell or High Water. Jeff Bridges has turned into quite the elder statesman in Hollywood. If a filmmaker needs an actor to play a gruff, manly, and mature authority figure, they can’t go wrong with Bridges. He’s getting the roles that Tommy Lee Jones used to get. Good for him.

Bridges’ performance in Hell or High Water walks a very fine line between excellent and exaggerated. His Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton is the personification of an old tradition of mealy-mouthed toughness in Texas that I’m not sure exists. Certainly it would be hard to find an analogue for Hamilton out here in the real world, where our police officers aren’t engaged in old west blood feuds, but who knows? I definitely wouldn’t want someone like Hamilton after me. But, as enjoyable as Bridges was, he doesn’t get the award.

 

James Caan — The Good Neighbor. This little flick was a bit of a surprise. By that, I mean it was actually watchable. So many unknown horror flicks are unknown for a reason, to be frank. This film will never find its way out of obscurity, I think, but the filmmakers did manage to bag an old Hollywood star in James Caan. He plays a crusty old man who might or might not be hiding a body in his basement.

Caan is not one for emotional range. He operates in two extremes — anger and tension — with nothing in between. That serves his character well in this film. When he’s not pissed off, his character is deeply troubled, weighed down by apocalyptic amounts of stress. He makes what would be an otherwise unknown film worth watching. But, no award for James Caan.
 

Luke Evans — High-Rise. In High-Rise, Evans plays womanizer and party animal Richard Wilder. He’s the film’s main source of masculine tension and sexuality, and plays it up. This film is a bit of a dreamlike dance, with characters showing mysterious behavior with equally mysterious origins. Wilder is no less a cypher, willing to be carried along by the strange events in the film. Evans was good, but not good enough to win.

 

Harvey Scrimshaw — The Witch. When I wrote my review of The Witch for the last Horrorshow, I praised another young performer in the film, Ellie Granger, for her performance as the annoying child Mercy. But young Master Scrimshaw gave a better performance. His death scene where he orgasmically describes being embraced by the Lord was enough for me to consider him for my award. It’s a disturbing scene, and he nailed it. But, the award has to go to one of his co-stars.

 

Ralph Ineson — The Witch. We’re no strangers to religious fundamentalism here in the States, making Ineson’s patriarch in The Witch a disturbingly familiar character. His William thinks he has the word of God all figured out. When things begin to go wrong, he blames his own vanity rather than God or the devil that actually plagues them, for putting he and his family in such an untenable position. Ineson is a frightening yet loving authority figure to his family. Living in the colonial American wilderness as they do requires toughness in spades. The hard life of a pioneer would have been enough to try the family without a witch in the woods pestering them. For most of the film, William is a rock, but his steadfastness gives way to confusion and, finally, violence. Ineson wins the award.

Best Supporting Actress

Evan Rachel Wood — Into the Forest. I had a quick debate as I was putting this list together about whether or not Evan Rachel Wood was a supporting or a main character in Patricia Rozema’s very interesting film. Her character is an involved counterpoint to Ellen Page, but Page’s character felt indispensable to the plot, while if Wood’s character had died, say, it would have marked just another challenge for Page’s to overcome.

That being said, Wood was the standout performer of the film. Her performance felt authentic in a way all the other cast members, including Page, weren’t able to match. I want to make clear that no one in the film was bad, but it was only Wood who inhabited the character to the extent that it was the character I saw before the performer. Still, when it came to easy naturalism, Wood was beat out by this category’s winner.
 

Kate Dickie — The Witch. In a film packed with stressful emotion, none carried more of it than Kate Dickie’s embattled matriarch. Dickie made sure her character showed every single one of her hard years. The life these pioneers lived was only slightly less hard than a wild animal’s. In the words of Hobbes, the lives of the characters in this film are solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Dickie’s character was, at times, in competition for least sympathetic with the audience, but she can be looked upon as the most unfortunate member of the family. She didn’t ask for the life they have, but her pious devotion to duty means it is also fulfilling to her, and then it is all taken away. Dickie was integral to making sure the difference in gender roles between today and the 17th century wasn’t something off-putting to today’s hypersensitivities. Of all the performances I saw this past year, hers was the most tragic.

Best Actress

Anya Taylor-Joy — The Witch. Here we go again. The Witch, and everyone in it, is just that good. Taylor-Joy pretty much came out of nowhere, her most extensive work prior to The Witch being on a second-rate BBC science fiction series. With this film, she showed she’s too talented and too capable for nonsense like that. She’ll be on to much bigger projects in the UK, like moody detective shows or maybe even a supporting role on Game of Thrones.

Joy was energetic and, most importantly, young and innocent in The Witch. Purity was demanded of her character in this film. Her parents and the Lord would accept nothing else. Shame, then, that her Thomasin insisted on being a normal person. Despite her, and her religion’s, wishes, Thomasin was maturing into that most wretched of creatures — woman. Did I write above that it was her mother that was the tragic character of the year? That was stupid talk. Taylor-Joy doesn’t win, though.
 

Ruth Wilson — I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. Ruth Wilson takes home the prize. I’m sure she’d be thrilled if she knew. Her portrayal as a live-in nurse in a haunted house was among the creepiest performances I’ve seen in some time. Lily may or may not be a sociopath. It’s hard to tell. One thing she is, is a dispassionate student of the world. She sees all that’s around her and makes note of it. Her outlook on the world is far beyond melancholy. It resides in the futile. All that is bad is inevitable, but don’t be afraid to search it out. Her strange longings end up being her undoing.

Wilson’s job was made harder by the deliberate pace of the film, and by society’s larger problems with decreasing attention spans. She also spent the majority of the film onscreen alone, tasked with carrying most of the weight in any given scene. This couldn’t have been an easy role to perform, and all Wilson did was nail it. For the degree of difficulty alone she made the list of nominations. She wins it because of the final outcome.

Best Actor

2016 was a thin year for leading male performers among the movies I saw. There were a lot of them, sure. Of the 32 films listed above, about a third centered around female characters, so it’s not as if there was a dearth of male roles. The problem is that most of them were just average performances, or worse. We don’t hand out participation trophies at the Empty Balcony Awards, so there are only two names worth listing.
 

Stephen Lang — Don’t Breathe. Don’t Breathe had major film festival buzz months before it was released, and that had everything to do with Lang. He always plays a tough guy, and this film is no different. He’s like Dale Dye, R. Lee Ermey, or Dennis Farina. Only, his tough guy persona isn’t the result of real armed service or employ as a police officer. Lang is a lifelong performer. Maybe the sense of aggression one gets from him is natural. Either way, Lang was excellent as a blind man who terrorizes three people stupid enough to break into his house. He almost won the award by default, but there was one performance I saw from a male lead that was better.

 

John Goodman — 10 Cloverfield Lane. John Goodman was unhinged in 10 Cloverfield Lane. His character, a survivalist and conspiracy theorist who built himself an underground bunker, is also paranoid. It doesn’t take much time spent in his company for one to begin looking for the door. The problems for the other people in the bunker with Goodman’s character is that the door is locked, and the only key lives with the delusional paranoiac who somehow, in some way, was right to prepare for the apocalypse.

Spending the film with Goodman is an exercise in unease. In other films where he’s intimidating it is his physical stature that does most of the work. Here, it is his character’s demeanor. I love it when performers can stress out an audience. That’s not easy to do. Goodman wins the award.

Best Cinematography

Bradford Young — Arrival. Of all the films in this category, Arrival had the weakest photography. Picking from among this list is like deciding which of Michael Jordan’s championship teams was the worst. They still all won. Alas, only one of these pretty films can win, and Arrival wasn’t it.
 

Laurie Rose — High-Rise. Rose shot another gorgeous film, but fell victim to the same things that keeps this award out of Bradford Young’s hands — gorgeous photography that just wasn’t as innovative as the remaining two films.

 

Jarin Blaschke — The Witch. There are parts of this film that are very dark. That may be a good thing, considering what’s happening in those scenes. There probably aren’t that many cinematographers that are comfortable working in such low light. The Witch takes place in a time before electricity, when people were used to wandering about in the feeble illumination of lamp or candle. It’s a claustrophobic place. How Blaschke shot the menace of the night, and also the unsettled nature of the day in this film, is why he is on this list. But, he was outdone in use of lighting by this category’s winner.

 

James Kniest — I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. During a few shots, I’ve never had more trouble in a film making out what is being shown onscreen. That may sound like an immediate disqualifier for an award for cinematography, but the darkness and blurriness of many shots in this film was intentional. They were meant to depict brief glimpses into the spirit world, slowly coming into focus.

Like in The Witch, darkness could be considered a theme of Pretty Thing. The house where the action takes place is very underlit. When Lily wanders the house, the camera follows her into and out of the shadows. Oftentimes the camera’s eye feels like the eye of whatever might or might not be stalking Lily. The camera work in Ruth Wilson’s long solo scenes makes these scenes intimate even though Wilson is isolated and alone. Close, and yet far. It’s almost funereal. No other photography that I saw this year was as successful as Kniest’s in enhancing the mood of a film. That’s why he wins.

The Award for Best Movie I Saw From Last Year

High-Rise. There was plot to this film. It just had a maddening jump in time that served to confuse things. That’s fine if the story is able to circle back and wrap things up, like in a Philip K. Dick novel. His novels aren’t exactly known for satisfying resolutions, but he has nothing on this film. It’s a very pretty and a somewhat ambitious film, but it suffers from an incoherent narrative. It’s good enough to make this list, but not to win.
 

The Wailing. There have been some very good films coming out of South Korea of late, and The Wailing is among the best I’ve seen. It’s a brave film that didn’t feel the need to comfort its audience. The story is complex and enthralling, and writer/director Na Hong-jin made sure that at no point during it’s long length could a viewer’s attention lapse. I was impressed with its scope and its pace, and the challenging end.

 

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. Writer/director Osgood Perkins didn’t see his film get more than a token release in theaters, and I think that’s a disservice. This movie is unlike most horror films that audiences see, and that must have been a turn-off for any potential distributors. It’s dark, slow as molasses, practically devoid of jump scares, and takes a long time to pay off. But despite the slow pace, this film doesn’t feel like the chore that other films with a deliberate pace can be. It moves along. From technical aspects, storytelling, pacing, and direction, this film was far better than the obscurity in which it seems destined to reside. I look forward to more films from Osgood Perkins.

 

10 Cloverfield Lane. This film is a study in paranoia. Other viewers may see it as a terrifying exploration of female victimhood. Both interpretations work. No matter how one feels the stress inherent in this film, the important thing is that it’s there. Perhaps the biggest mysteries in this film are the unknown events taking place outside the bunker, but by the time Mary Elizabeth Winstead wakes up in chains, it’s clear the film’s focus will stay indoors, and John Goodman will blow his stack. It’s only a matter of time. That tension, that surety that something bad will happen, never lets up. Tying this film to 2008’s Cloverfield turned out to be a cheap bit of branding, but it increased the audience for a film that may have been missed.

 

The Witch. This film is the big winner. What a surprise, after all the praise I heaped upon The Witch above. But, Robert Eggers’ film was the best film that I saw from 2016. It had the best directing, the best acting, and the best story. It’s a brutal film, and not one that leaves a pleasant feeling after the credits roll, but it is a powerful film. It evokes more emotion from a viewer than any other film on my list. The fact that it’s a horror film prevented it from getting consideration for an Oscar, but that hasn’t stopped it from winning a pile of other awards, including this one.

Eggers takes a viewer deep into Colonial America. It’s a wildly different experience than what modern life has to offer, but, at least to this American, it was familiar. The religious pronouncements, the conflicting desire and pride at being humble — it’s all very American, and speaks to the turbulence below the surface of life in this country. At times the supernatural stuff fades into the background as the homesteading family in The Witch descends into accusations and violence. Even though it takes place in the past, these aspects of the film make it relevant to today’s American experience, even though there’s nary a Yank to be seen in the cast. I couldn’t have been more impressed with Eggers’ debut film. It’s a great film, and I look forward to more.