10 Great Film Ensembles

by - Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Inspired by my recent viewing of Glengarry Glen Ross, Resevoir Dogs, and 12 Angry Men, I have been thinking a lot about the power of the ensemble, and how dynamics in group performances can make or break a movie. Who doesn't love a perfectly cast movie where everyone gets something interesting to do? I am avoiding films that just have super loaded casts but never interact (Love, Actually and Magnolia come to mind. Both fantastic movies with kickass casts, but it's a different kind of ensemble)These are some of my favorites.

10. Wet Hot American Summer- Everytime I see this movie, even when it is just a chunk on tv, I have to marvel that like every single famous person ever is in it. Funny and gives the performers a lot of fun things to do.A great parody with a cast of future stars who, at the time, certainly had nothing to lose.
9. The Lord of the Rings Original Trilogy- After watching what I thought was a decidedly lesser ensemble in the Hobbit, it is clear The Fellowship of the Ring works partially because the relationships between them really land. No matter what you think about the movie as a whole, you have to admit the cast is dynamic and bonded. By the time the ensemble splits at the end of the first movie, you are really rooting for all of them. Some of the relationships, like between Gimli and Legolas, end up having a bunch of comedic juice behind them that pay off later. Others start as comedic but have a lot of depth by the end. It all works.
7. All About Eve- The film is supposed to be all about the big star, but form follows the narrative because every member in this cast is awesome and subtle. All of the dialogue is so sharp, and the cast pulls it off brilliantly. The film shows you shouldn't trust the seemingly everyday person, because they might be performing, and likewise the supporting players all get shining moments. Bette Davis is just perfect, but Thelma Ritter and Celeste Holm also give great performances. Nice to see an ensemble dominated by spectacular female performances.
6.  Sleepy Hollow- Say what you want about Tim Burton, but that director can work an ensemble. Because he has such a heart for strange and unusual detail, his bit performers are given great, rich material. No one is just standing to fill space, everyone has a real character and life to them. This is true for all of them, but I chose Sleepy Hollow because the isolated small town gives everyone a chance to shine, and for having a kickass double villian.
5. The Royal Tenenbaums- The movie is so funny and sad at once, and I think it may be my favorite Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow performances ever. The movie is perfectly cast (I mean, who could you opt in? No one!) and they all perform with that Wes Anderson tone, so they mesh together really well. I can remember seeing this moving in high school and it absolutely blowing my mind. I thought about putting in the Life Aquatic too, because that movie also has a great cast, but that seemed like overkill. We get it, Anderson can work his ensembles.
4. Hannah and her Sisters- Most Woody Allen films have great ensembles where lots of people get plenty to do, but my favorite is Hannah and her Sisters, because the actors get to portray the long, deep, super complicated bonds that characterize family. Plus, almost everyone is a giant asshole, but you kind of like them, which I guess is the Woody Allen charm. So even you really aren't sure who the star is, and a very sweet performance from Dianne Wiest, who is one of my favorites ever and plays off Woody Allen's performance in a way that feels fresh.
3. Rio Bravo- Much like Oceans 11, this movie is really just about watching a bunch of guys hang out. Unlike Oceans 11 (and this is why it makes the list), it has a great musical number and Stumpy. You just can't beat Walter Brennan, and his performance in this is hilarious. The dynamic between Wayne and Martin is also more interesting and equal than the "little John Wayne's" he usually hangs with. Plus, Angie Dickinson. Doesn't get better.
2. 12 Angry Men- All but three minutes of this film are set in the same room and the plot is simple- a jury debates the innocence or guilt of a young man. This movie shouldn't be nearly as good as it is, but it is freaking fantastic because the performances are fantastic from all 12 members of the ensemble. They all craft distinct characters with deep motivations with nearly no narrative backstories. How they react to the situation shows who they are. It shows the joys of great character acting and the ways film can accomodate performance that theater can't. The intimacy and growing claustrophobia in how the film is shot intensifies the performances, but the movie wouldn't be anything if those performances weren't so on-point.
1. The Goonies- I am pretty sure the actual joy of this movie is watching the kids interact with each other. It has to be a special kind of challenge to cast a bunch of kids, but they really all give great, fun performances. I know this isn't usually considered a piece of cinematic genius, but I think a key to its long-term popularity is the balance and playfulness of the cast.

Almost made it- A Fish Called Wanda, Breakfast Club, Bridesmaids, Anchorman, Reservoir Dogs, the Bandwagon, and Best in Show

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