Thursday, February 17, 2011

2010: The Best Performances of the Year: Ensemble Cast

I have always thought that the concept of an award for ensemble cast is a valid one. The only major group that awards one is the Screen Actors Guild, and it is often thought of as a de facto Best Picture Prize, since they do not give one out. But I still like the concept. Every movie needs a great ensemble cast – off notes by even small characters can take you out of a film – it’s all about tone. Aside from my top 10 list, I admired the ensemble this year in Carlos who did a magnificent job of supporting Edgar Ramirez who is the heart of every scene, Easy A where everyone was on the same page for the comedy, the cast of Inception all get into the strangeness of material and makes it all believable, The Kids Are All Right which created a realistic little family unit, Life During Wartime where the cast had to step into roles previously established by others, and did a great job, the cast of Never Let Me Go nailed the films tragic, morose tone wonderfully, the huge ensemble who made up the three films in The Red Riding Trilogy deserve notice, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World where everyone was on the same loopy page, The Town filled the screen with a group of wonderful actors who nail the Blue Collar atmosphere perfectly and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps which captured the air of entitlement on the title street wonderfully. But the following 10 were my favorites.

10. The Fighter - Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Mickey O’Keefe, Jack McGee, Melissa McMeekin, Bianca Hunter, Erica McDermott, Jill Quigg, Dendrie Taylor, Kate B. O'Brien, Jenna Lamia, Frank Renzulli, Paul Campbell.
Mark Wahlberg is the calm at the center of the storm that is The Fighter’s ensemble cast. Everyone else goes somewhat over the top, but if the film is ever at risk of going too far, Wahlberg reels it back to sanity. The other main characters - Christian Bale’s crack addicted brother and trainer, Melissa Leo as the white trash mother with big hair, and cigarette dangling from her mouth and Amy Adams as the foul mouthed girlfriend, are truly brilliant. But what makes the ensemble one of the best of the year is that the smallest roles are perfectly filled - from the Wahlberg’s many loud sisters, to his father and everyone else, helps to make this working class neighborhood a character in the film. A truly great ensemble cast where every role is filled to perfection.

9. Stone - Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy.
The performances is Stone are really what make the movie as good as it is – the direction is straight forward, and I think the screenplay tries a little too hard to pull the rug out from under the audience. And yet, when the movie settles down and just lets the actors work, it is great. DeNiro brilliantly implodes as a man with barely suppressed rage simmering below the surface, who cannot take being screwed with. Frances Conroy is great as his wife – jittery and nervous, and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Milla Jovovich has never been better as the sex object being exploited – there is a naiveté about her in this role I didn’t know she was capable of. And finally Edward Norton is great as the puppet master pulling everyone’s strings. Yes, this is a small ensemble – but it is a great one – with four actors at the top of their game playing off each other wonderfully.

8. Another Year - Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Oliver Maltman, Peter Wight, David Bradley, Martin Savage, Karina Fernandez, Michele Austin, Phil Davis, Imelda Staunton
There is probably not another director who places such high demands on his cast other than Mike Leigh. He starts with a basic plot outline, and then casts the actors he wants to play the characters that fit in – spending months shaping the plot and their individual characters with them – the actors essentially becoming co-writers of the film. But Leigh seems to have a sixth sense for casting, and knows precisely who to bring in. Here, he fills the cast with some of his stock company – Jim Broadbent, as the aging geologist still happy with his wife, Ruth Sheen and their various friends. The obvious standout is Lesley Manville, who delivers a knock out performance, but the entire cast fits together just about perfectly. There is not an off note in the film, not a moment when things do seem real, not a dropped line. These actors know their characters inside and out, and Leigh allows them to inhabit them. A terrific ensemble cast.

7. Black Swan – Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder.
I have already highlighted the performances by Portman, Kunis and Cassel in their individual acting categories, so I’m not sure more needs to be said about them, so let’s concentrate on the other two. Barbara Hershey is one of the great actresses out there, and in her brief performance here, she once again proves why – playing a fierce, domineering mother, you realize that Portman’s character has been balancing on the brink for years now. And Winona Ryder, as the brittle “dying queen” gives her best performance in years, even in an even briefer role. They fulfill their roles, much like Kunis and Cassel do, as being catalysts for Portman’s downfall into insanity. Of course without Portman, none of them would have a role to play, but they all add to her performance in different ways – and make up one of the best ensembles of the year.

6. Winter’s Bone - Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Shelley Waggener, Lauren Sweetser, Ashlee Thompson, William White, Casey MacLaren, Isaiah Stone, Valerie Richards, Beth Domann, Tate Taylor, Cody Brown, Ronnie Hall.
The key to the casting of Winter’s Bone is that none of the actors stand out among the rest. Even the actors I knew going into the movies – Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes and Garret Dillahunt – fit in naturally with this cast of actors who have the type of grizzled, beaten down faces that we rarely see in a movie. The heavy lifting in the cast is done by the brilliant Lawrence, with a assists from Hawkes, and Dale Dickey. But the key here is that even the smallest role is filled with a memorable face – a memorable screen presence. More than anything else, it is this ensemble cast that helps to immerse ourselves into this world.

5. Animal Kingdom - James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton, Laura Wheelwright, Dan Wyllie.
Director David Michod assembled a great cast here – some are his longtime friends and collaborators on his short films, and some are more experienced actors. And yet what strikes me about this cast is how naturally they fit together – the actors playing brothers really do seem to have that history that only brothers do, Jacki Weaver as their mother is fiercely loyal and motherly, Guy Pearce as the lone cop with a conscience is sympathetic to an extent, yet still hard. At the center of the movie is James Frecheville, playing a teenager who has to deal with far more than he should have to – and completely internalizing it. He is out conduit into this strange world, one he doesn’t fully understand, until it takes over. This cast works effortlessly off each other, and creates one of the most dysfunctional family dynamics in years.

4. Toy Story 3 - Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Don Rickles, Michael Keaton, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Estelle Harris, John Morris, Jodi Benson, Emily Hahn, Laurie Metcalf, Blake Clark, Javier Fernandez Pena, Timothy Dalton, Jeff Garlin, Bonnie Hunt, Jeff Pidgeon, Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Kind.
Voice acting is a lot harder than I think a lot of people realize – and as such, the performances delivered in animated films are often not praised enough. Toy Story 3 brings back most of our favorites from the first two films, and they all do a good job. We know Tom Hanks’ Woody is one of the actors best creations, that Tim Allen is perfect as Buzz, and that the roles filled by Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Don Rickles and Estelle Harris fit the actors like an old shoe. What I loved is that these actors are just phoning it in – the actually go for broke here. And then there are the new additions – Michael Keaton’s clueless, metro sexual Ken, Timothy Dalton’s uptight British Mr. Pricklepants and especially Ned Beatty who may just be the year’s most terrifying villain as Hugs O’Lot. Yes, Toy Story 3 has a great ensemble cast – one of the best of the year, and they all help to make it one of the year’s biggest achievements.

3. Shutter Island - Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas.
I have already talked about the brilliant work of Leonardo DiCaprio and Michelle Williams in this film – and they truly are two of the best performances on mentally ill people you will ever see. But what elevates the ensemble cast is all those supporting players. Watch the way Ben Kingsley regards DiCaprio with a mixture of calm, doctorly resolve and pity, or Max von Sydow who confuses Teddy, Mark Ruffalo in those moments where he seems to be staring at him, Ted Levine and his seemingly uncalled hatred of him, Jackie Earle Haley and Elias Koteas as a patients much further gone, John Carroll Lynch talking to him like a stern father figure and the twin performances of Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson, which just lead Teddy further away from reality. None of these performances were truly worthy to be recognized by themselves, but added together they help to create the most unsettling, creepy atmosphere of any film this year. When Scorsese calls, actors accept the role no matter how small – because they know they will be given good work to do.

2. True Grit - Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Dakin Matthews, Jarlath Conroy, Paul Rae, Domhnall Gleeson, Roy Lee Jones, Ed Corbin, Leon Russom, Bruce Green, Candyce Hinkle, Peter Leung, Don Pirl
The heart of the ensemble cast is the trip that we spend the most time with – Hailee Steinfeld’s determined, yet naïve, teenage girl getting in way over her head, and her two new “fathers” – Jeff Bridges harsh, cruel Rooster Cogburn and Matt Damon’s moral LeBeouf, who in some ways fight for Steinfeld’s soul. And all three are terrific. What elevates this cast for me though is all the supporting work – Barry Pepper, dirty and unrecognizable, channeling Robert Duvall brilliantly, Josh Brolin’s pathetic, weakling of a bad guy, Ed Corbin’s lumbering Bear Man, Dakin Matthews exasperated horse trader, Leon Russom’s no nonsense Sheriff, Jarlath Conroy’s undertaker and the sad duo of Paul Rae and Domhnall Gleeson, who don’t know what they’re in for before their brains are scattered on the floor. This is what the Coens do better than I think any one working right now – they find interesting actors to fill even the smallest roles, turning what are normally throw away roles into memorable ones. The old saying about there being no small roles, only small actors was never more true than it is in regards to True Grit.

1. The Social Network - Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Rooney Mara, Max Minghella, Joseph Mazzello, Rashida Jones, Brenda Song, Malese Jow.
As with all the films on this list, what makes The Social Network’s ensemble cast worthy of this award is not just the main actors, but all those supporting players who are pretty much perfect. Yes, Jessie Eisenberg delivers one of the best performances of the year, making the dialogue sing like no one else could, and Andrew Garfield is charming and likable – which is a rarity in this film – as his best friend turned adversary, and Justin Timberlake proves once and for all that he can act. But the rest of the cast is excellent as well – Armie Hamer as the hulking Winklevii, assholes to a certain extent sure, but charming ones, Rooney Mara as the woman who sets Zuckerberg off on his journey by calling him an asshole, Rashida Jones as the lawyer trying to figure Zuckerberg out and Brenda Song as Garfield’s crazed girlfriend. Each of these actors plays their role, no matter how small it seems, with feeling and skill – and that goes for the rest of the actors I didn’t name. With dialogue like Sorkin’s, one bad performance can throw the entire movie off – and there is not one bad performance from anyone in the cast.

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