Wednesday, February 1, 2012

2011 Year in Review: Ensemble Cast

I think the concept of an Ensemble award is a good one. Often times with great ensemble work, it is hard to pick out a performance or two that is above and beyond the rest – because everyone is so good. In addition to my 10 favorites, I could easily have mentioned the following ensembles – The Artist, Beginners, Carnage, Contagion, A Dangerous Method, Hanna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Meek’s Cutoff, Melancholia, Moneyball, Of Gods and Men, Shame, Submarine, Take Shelter, Terri, 13 Assassins, Warrior, Win Win. But I only had room for 10, so these were my favorites:

10. The Ides of March - Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Max Minghella, Jennifer Ehle, Gregory Itzin, Michael Mantell.
I don’t think The Ides of March was as great of a movie as director/co-star George Clooney thought it would be, mainly because he seems to think that his story of a political fixer losing his ideals should shock us – and he’s a few decades too late for that. But it is an intelligently written and wonderfully directed movie – and the uniformly excellent cast raises the level of the whole film. Ryan Gosling is great as the fixer at the heart of the movie, who believes in his candidate with everything he has, until he’s given reason not to. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti add meat to their smaller roles as opposite campaign managers, Evan Rachel Wood wins our sympathy as a young intern over her head and Jeffrey Wright and Marisa Tomei, in little more than cameos, deliver in a big way. Best of all may well be Clooney himself, who is perfectly suited to play the “perfect” candidate, who begins to show his dark side as the movie progresses. With a cast this good, it’s hard to complain that the movie itself would have been more effective had it been made in the 1970s.

9. A Separation - Peyman Moaadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini, Sarina Farhadi, Merila Zare'i, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, Babak Karimi, Kimia Hosseini.
The cast in this terrific Iranian film are all just about perfect. They have difficult roles, as the film resembles in some ways Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, so people come across quite different from one scene to the next – the more we find out about what happened, the more complicated their roles get. The film is anchored by a terrific performance by Peyman Moaadi as the husband, who may or may not have known what he was doing. The supporting cast is excellent – Leila Hatami as his wife, who doesn’t know what to think, Sarah Bayat, as the quietly religious woman who loses her baby, Shabab Hosseini, as her possibly violent husband. Even the kids are great here. A terrific ensemble.

8. Margin Call - Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Mary McDonnell, Aasif Mandvi.
Everything comes crashing down on a Wall Street Investment bank over the course of one long day and night. It all starts with people being fired, including Stanley Tucci, who gives an underling a flash drive, and tells him to look at the numbers. What he finds is that the risks the firm are taking are about to come back and burn them. As the numbers work higher and higher up the chain of command, it becomes clear no one knew what the hell was going on. Debut writer/director JC Chandor has assembled a top notch cast for his “Mamet on Wall Street” type movie. None of the characters in the movie are at all likable – they are greedy, self centered assholes, who are looking only to cover their own asses, but the cast is uniformly excellent. Best of all is probably Kevin Spacey, as a long time trader who knows what they are doing is wrong, and does it anyway, and Jeremy Irons, as the bottom line CEO. Although a case could be made for Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto or even Demi Moore as well. In short, these people really do seem like co-workers, facing a long night’s journey into oblivion, unless they screw everyone else over.

7. Coriolanus – Ralph Fiennes, Gerald Butler, Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Paul Jesson, James Nesbitt, Lubna Azabal, Ashraf Barhom, John Kani, Dragan Micanovic, Harry Fenn.
Casting people to do a Shakespeare movie can be a difficult task – as one wrong performance, and the whole endeavor suddenly starts to feel off as they break the rhythm of the dialogue. But Ralph Fiennes cast his Coriolanus just about perfectly. He towers over everyone himself with his wild eyed performance, and Vanessa Redgrave outdoes even him as his subtly manipulative mother. But the rest of the cast is fine as well – from Brian Cox as the only decent character in the movie, to Jessica Chastain as Coriolanus’ scared wife to Gerald Butler as his rival who becomes something like a spurned lover, to Paul Jesson and James Nesbitt as two clueless tribunes and even Lubna Azabal and Ashraf Barhom, as two civilians, whose hatred of Coriolanus is palatable. Casting Shakespeare in tricky – but this movie gets it right.

6. The Tree of Life - Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw.
I think that the acting in Terrence Malick films is almost always underrated – consider the fact that no one has ever been nominated for an Oscar for any of his films as proof. And it is true that not all actors like working with Malick (both Colin Farrell and Christopher Plummer has whined about their experience of The New World for example). Yet, the performances are key to all of Malick’s films – and even if actors don’t always like the experience, they do tend to deliver some great performances. In The Tree of Life, more than any of Malick’s other films; the acting is delicate, sensitive and subtle. Watch Brad Pitt’s body language when dealing with his kids, even the way he touches them and they stiffen, especially his interactions with Hunter McCracken, who is brilliant as well. They feel like a father and son. And Jessica Chastain is equally good as the delicate, beautiful, idealized mother. And all the smaller roles that circle in and out of the movie that Malick handles perfectly – that helps him set the tone for the film. Sean Penn may have said he had no idea why the hell he was wandering around, but it worked. Yes, they all serve Malick’s grand scheme – but the film would be nowhere near as good without them.

5. Hugo - Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Ray Winstone, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law.
No one performance stands out in Martin Scorsese’s epic, visual feast Hugo (which is why none of them made my individual lists), but together they make up one of the most wondrous ensembles of the year. From Asa Butterfield’s brave Hugo to Chloe Grace Moretz’s plucky sidekick to Ben Kinsgley’s stern Papa Georges to Sacha Baron Cohen’s physical antics as the station master, and on through the smaller roles – Emily Mortimer as a flower girl, Christopher Lee as a kindly bookstore owner, Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour as would be lovers kept apart by a yipping dog, Helen McCrory as the kindly grandma, Michael Stuhlbarg as the film professor who hasn’t lost his sense of wonder (do they exist anymore?) to Ray Winstone as a drunken uncle and Jude Law as a kindly father, every role in Hugo is filled perfectly. No one stands out above the others – they are all just perfect as parts of the whole, and that’s what a great ensemble truly is.

4. Midnight in Paris - Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy, Michael Sheen, Nina Arianda, Carla Bruni, Yves Heck, Alison Pill, Corey Stoll, Tom Hiddleston, Sonia Rolland, Daniel Lundh, Thérèse Bourou-Rubinsztein, Kathy Bates, Marcial Di Fonzo Bo, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux, Emmanuelle Uzan, Adrien Brody, Tom Cordier, Adrien de Van, David Lowe, Yves-Antoine Spoto, Laurent Claret, Vincent Menjou Cortes, Olivier Rabourdin, François Rostain.
The year’s biggest ensemble cast is also one of the very best. From Wilson, who thankfully lacks the cynicism that is in so many of Allen’s movie (even when he’s calling the Tea Party crypto fascists, he’s saying it nicely) to Marion Cottillard as the muse of 1920s Paris, to Corey Stoll as a raging Hemingway to Kathy Bates as the supportive Gertrud Stein to Adrian Brody as a rhinoceros obsessed Dali to Michael Sheen as that pedantic fellow to Adrien de Van as a confused Luis Bunuel (“I don’t get it. Why can’t they leave the room?”) Even the smallest roles in Allen’s movie are just about perfectly cast. Allen has a way with actors – apparently it’s ignoring them – that allows them to do some great work.

3. The Descendants - George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Rob Huebel, Mary Birdsong, Amara Miller, Nick Krause.
Alexander Payne has a way with actors that brings out the best in them. When you consider how many actors have delivered career best performances in his films it is quite astonishing. Not only does he write great roles, he knows precisely who to cast. Clooney is the center of the film, and he is pretty much perfect, and I’ve already sang the praises of Greer and Woodley as well in the supporting actress section. But who would have guessed that Matthew Lillard could be as good as he is here, as the other man, or that Beau Bridges would be so good as a greedy hippie, or Robert Forster would be so downright hilarious as Clooney’s angry father in law? He even got a great performance out of a child actor like Amara Miller. Payne just gets the most out of his actors.

2. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, David Dencik, Ciarán Hinds, Kathy Burke, Stephen Graham, Simon McBurney, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Svetlana Khodchenkova.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy truly is an ensemble piece, and there is not a performance in it that seems out of place. Gary Oldman has the plum role of George Smiley, and he delivers a masterful performance, and I’ve already sung the praises of Tom Hardy’s Brando-esque wounded spy and Benedict Cumberbatch’s heartbreaking role. The rest of the cast though is equally good – from Colin Firth’s charming playboy to John Hurt’s aging, paranoid Control, to Mark Strong thirsting for revenge, to Toby Jones’ political maneuverings to Kathy Burke, who just wants to remember her “boys” through rose colored glasses. This is a movie where the cast is important – and this one does a remarkable job.

1. Drive - Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Kaden Leos.
Other than Albert Brooks, I don’t think the ensemble cast of Drive has gotten quite enough credit this awards season. They are all, after all, admittedly playing character types, and yet they all breathe new life into them – from Ryan Gosling’s dual transformations, to Carey Mulligan’s wounded fragility, to Bryan Cranston’s broken down “friend” the Oscar Issacs’ suspicious eyes, to Christina Hendricks brief but unforgettable turn, to Ron Perlman’s paranoia. And yes, Albert Brooks is mesmerizing as the villain. The whole cast plays off each other wonderfully, and although the film is a virtuoso directorial effort by Nicholas Winding Refn, they refuse to be shunted to the background. If they had, I would probably agree with the critics who think Drive is nothing more than pastiche. But they elevate the movie. The best ensemble of the year by far.

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