The Sixth Annual Empty Balcony Awards for Movies I Saw from Last Year

It’s that time of the year again, when stars and dignitaries from the film industry gather in Hollywood to celebrate another year of being famous. The Academy Awards. It really is an exercise in stroking the egos of people who don’t need any further encouragement, but more importantly it gives us rankings. And if there’s anything we like in this country, it’s knowing who the winners and losers are. It’s not enough to just let a film be; to let it speak for itself. Nope. It must be judged. I’m on board with that. Welcome to the Empty Balcony Awards!

It’s impossible to see every movie that comes out in a year. We movie viewers have a glut of options that would be the envy of audiences from the early days of cinema. Choices have to be made. I made mine this past year, and did not see many of the films that have been nominated for Academy Awards. Thusly, my list of eligible films is much shorter than the Academy’s, or those of awards issued by other professional organizations. But, at least I won’t pretend to have an opinion about a film I’ve never seen. The list of films eligible for an Empty Balcony Award are:

That’s a list of 22 films, which is more than enough for an amateur critic to cobble together an awards column. There are some glaring absences, though. There’s no Lady Bird, no Shape of Water, no Three Billboards. Someday I will probably see these films, but it’s too late for today. Sorry, Greta.

Also, to keep this to a reasonable word count, there are only six categories. I don’t have a best director award this year because it just would have gone to the best movie winner. On to the awards!

Best Supporting Actress

Catherine Keener — Get out. Keener has always been a talented actress. Whatever role it is, she has performed it well and reliably. Some of her career was spent typecast as the 30-something, super-motivated, bitch of a career woman, and she owned those roles. She has an ability to deliver cutting insults and snappy dialogue that made her perfect for roles such as the type she played in the much-maligned Death to Smoochy. In this film, she plays her character as sly and manipulative. It is she who provides the driving force for the actions of the Armitage family and their friends. Her Missy Armitage is the very picture of welcoming warmth. It’s a disarming set of characteristics, and essential to the plot. Get Out is a wild movie with outlandish ideas, and her performance is one of the things that keeps the picture grounded.

Best Supporting Actor

Steve Zahn and Weta Digital — War for the Planet of the Apes. Steve Zahn provided the voice and the motion capture, and Weta Digital brought the character of Bad Ape to life. I didn’t like this film all that much. I felt that it was heavy on familiar and overused narratives, and viewers were supposed to ignore all of that because the apes were rendered with good CGI. That’s ridiculous. An overused trope is an overused trope no matter how many machines are chugging along in the render farm. The CGI is just about all this film has. Everyone and everything else in it is as two-dimensional as a sheet of paper. With the exception of Bad Ape. The character is meant to provide comic relief, but he has a backstory as compelling as Caesar, aka, the main character. Bad Ape is confused, damaged, and really the only innocent in this picture. In this one character, Zahn sucks up all the empathy we’re supposed to feel for the apes at large. While Hollywood heaps its praise on Andy Serkis’s endless scowling in this film, I prefer to save my laurels for a performance that actually had some depth.

Best Actor

Daniel Kaluuya — Get Out. I considered Nikolaj Coster-Waldau for his starring role in Shot Caller for this award, but while he did a good job, the development of his character was a little rushed by that film’s director, Ric Roman Waugh. I can believe that someone can undergo the transformation that Coster-Waldau’s Jacob Harlan underwent, but there’s just too many blank spaces in the story for the journey to feel complete.

Kaluuya, on the other hand, had better material to work with. He does a fantastic job playing the ever-understanding boyfriend who meets the eager and seemingly clueless parents of his girlfriend. The great magic trick of the role was calling out Caucasians for silly behavior without being accusatory. Of course, all the normalcy blows up in the end.

Once the film gets serious, Kaluuya becomes the proxy for the audience’s fear. We are watching a horror film and a great injustice being carried out all at once, and if we weren’t able to develop empathy for Kaluuya’s character, the film would have failed. Race is the central theme of this film, and that bitter pill is soothed going down by a fantastic story from Jordan Peele and an award-winning performance from the lead.

Best Actress

Garance Marillier — Raw. Writer/director Julia Ducournau didn’t make things easy on her star. Her film demanded, and got, a tough, physical performance out of its lead. Marillier had yet to reach her 18th birthday when Raw was being filmed. Usually, roles featuring characters of this age are played by performers who are in their early or mid-20s. Why? Mostly because they’re out of school and therefore child labor laws no longer apply to them. But it’s also about experience. A little bit of experience goes a long way in an actor. But that didn’t seem to matter with Marillier.

Her character of Justine is angry, and a bit of a spoiled brat. Much of her peers’ reactions to her are based less on repellant behavior, I think, than being intimidated by her. Marillier has a look that can melt glass. There are times in this film when Marillier smiles and friendliness is the last thing conveyed about the character. Justine’s world is changing every day, and it’s creating a bizarre, disturbing woman. Marillier owned this role.

Best Cinematography

Hoyte van Hoytema — Dunkirk. This was a pretty easy choice to make, despite some other very gorgeous films in the running. What sealed the deal for me were the aerial dogfight scenes. I’ve seen more World War II films than I can count, but this was the first one where the planes didn’t feel like props. Hoytema’s greatest trick in these sequences is bringing the viewer close. The sky is a big place, and we’re not used to seeing films do away with the natural distance the sky encompasses. Other films with similar material treat a skyscape like a canvas, with the planes tracing frantic brushstrokes across the surface. In Dunkirk the sky isn’t something flat, but the true medium that it is in real life. The planes in this film feel like real machines pushing to the edge of their performances. Oh, and everything else looks great, too.

The Award for Best Movie I Saw from Last Year

A Ghost Story. Dunkirk and Get Out were the other contenders for this award. All three have their flaws, so bear with me while I mention what I didn’t like about these otherwise excellent films.

Get Out lives and dies on its social message, and some very clever writing. Its weaknesses stem from Jordan Peele’s long career in comedy. There are moments in the film that feel like a sketch from Mad TV. In these moments Get Out loses both its social consciousness and its absurdist edges. It’s hard to be objective about a movie like this, because there’s an incipient threat that any criticism is tantamount to racism. I’m comfortable with my bona fides, so I can write with confidence that while this is a hell of a film, it’s also the work of a director who doesn’t have much experience filming something that isn’t a joke.

Dunkirk doesn’t win because I feel the non-linear editing and storytelling employed by writer/director Christopher Nolan was a mistake. It’s fine for a film to jump around in time, but in Dunkirk these jumps sometimes occur from shot to shot. Other stories use jumps like this to confuse the audience. That’s useful in a good mindfuck, but this is a war drama. The story doesn’t have any hidden truths or mysteries to be revealed to a main protagonist and the audience. The entire world knows how this movie ends. It’s taught in classrooms. Tightening up the editing and making it more conventional would have served this movie better, I think.

A Ghost Story, the melancholic film from writer/director David Lowery, is a little overindulgent. There are moments of deadly slow plodding that a viewer must endure. But, this film is masterful in the way it stays with a viewer. Get Out deals with the issues of our time, but A Ghost Story deals with death. That’s a timeless subject. Lowery twists it around and turns death into a tragedy after the fact for the deceased, not just for those they leave behind. We see a loving couple (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) torn apart when Affleck’s unnamed protagonist dies in a car wreck. As he lies under a sheet in a hospital morgue his spirit awakens and he spends the rest of the film as a ghost under a literal white sheet with holes for eyes.

At first blush this feels like aesthetic whimsy on the part of Lowery, but actually the costuming of the ghost creates a gulf between the world of the living and the dead. Affleck’s character is a ghost, and the costume, combined with a totally silent performance, makes us question how much of Affleck is left under the sheet. Is it his soul that’s in there? His consciousness? Are there only bits and pieces, and what’s under the sheet is just an echo of the man who was lost? What did he do to deserve walking the earth as a ghost? These are only some of the questions the film raises in the viewer.

Lowery provokes a deep sense of sadness in this film. That makes it as unpleasant an experience at times as watching something like Eraserhead, which evokes deep dread and anxiety. Maybe this film has less of an emotional punch to those who have yet to lose their sense of immortality, but for viewers who have dealt with death before, this film becomes an experience that doesn’t end with the credits. Of all the films I saw this year, A Ghost Story was the most profound, and the most lovingly crafted. It might not be the best film of the year, but it’s the best that I saw.