Thursday, January 17, 2013

2012 Year End: The Top 10 Ensembles Casts of 2012

I continue to think that the idea of an ensemble cast award at the Oscars is a good one. No, not every cast member should get an Oscar for it, but an entire cast working together at a high level can elevate an entire movie, even if no individual performance does. That’s what these films have in common.


Runners-Up: Ben Affleck filled Argo with a lot of great actors, who make the most of even small roles. Everyone in The Avengers seems to be having the time of their lives, and it helps the audience to have fun as well. Beasts of the Southern Wild has an excellent cast on non-professionals, who help to create the feeling of community that holds the movie together. The cast of Cloud Atlas all had multiple roles, yet somehow made it feel like each of their characters had their own through line – a very tricky task that they nailed. To a certain extent. Flight was the Denzel Washington show, but the entire supporting cast is excellent as well. The Grey has a cast dripping with machismo that still feels surprisingly real. The cast Haywire know they are secondary to Soderbergh’s wonderful camera work, but still throw themselves into it whole heartedly. I cannot imagine how Leos Carax got the cast of Holy Motors to buy into his extreme weirdness – but he did, and they did a wonderful job. The Hunger Games proves you can make a good movie out of hit young adult fiction, and find great actors willing to go along for the ride. Killing Them Softly may have been a disappointment, but the cast is universally excellent. Les Miserables had an excellent cast of singers and actors, who pulled off the difficult truck of singing live. Looper gets its cast to sell its complicated time travel storyline wonderfully. The entire cast of Magic Mike buys into the concept, and has fun with it, but also helps Soderbergh dig deeper than the film looked like it was going to be. The entire cast of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia makes it a fascinating case study in masculinity. The Perks of Being a Wallflower creates a believable, high school group dynamic. Savages has a few weak links among the leads, but has one of the best supporting casts of the year. Seven Psychopaths has an amazing cast of great actors all playing crazy – completely differently from each other. Silver Linings Playbook contains excellent performances by the entire cast, who make you believe they are a family. The Snowtown Murders is full of unknown faces, that convincingly create a lower class environment, and shows how a strong leader can influence everyone around him.

The Top 10
10. Cosmopolis - Robert Pattinson, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Gadon, Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, Mathieu Amalric, Jay Baruchel, Kevin Durand, Maria Juan Garcias, Emily Hampshire, Zeljko Kecojevic, Patricia McKenzie, Philip Nozuka, George Touliatos.
I can guarantee you that this is the most controversial choice for this list I made this year. Many people hated David Cronenberg’s latest film – and largely because of the dense dialogue and the way it was delivered by the cast. But that is precisely why this cast is deserving of a place on this list – because the dialogue in Cosmopolis is so tricky, so dense, so packed with hidden meanings, that it needed a cast who understood it completely to sell it. A few performances hit the wrong note (most notably Jay Baruchel who is too full of energy for this film), but for the most part, the cast absolutely nails what Cronenberg is going for. Led by Robert Pattinson, who finally has a reason for the glowering he does in every movie, the cast takes his laconic lead – and amazingly it works. Best is Samantha Morton, who talks to Pattinson about philosophy, Emily Hampshire, who has to talk to him as he’s getting a prostate exam, Kevin Durand, as Pattinson’s bodyguard, who he cannot conceive has a life of his own worth living, and of course Paul Giamatti who ends the movie with a very long scene that he plays to perfection. But the whole cast buys into the movie, and gets precisely the tone necessary to pull it off. I know a lot of people hate this film, but I’m not one of them – and the cast is one of the main reasons.

9. Compliance - Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, James McCaffrey, Matt Servitto, Ashlie Atkinson, Nikiya Mathis, Ralph Rodriguez, Stephen Payne, Amelia Fowler.
There are four main roles in Compliance – all of which are brilliantly played. Dreama Walker has a complex role as the woman who gets abused and assaulted throughout the film, but she somehow makes her actions seem logical. Ann Dowd, who delivers one of the very best performances of the year, as the woman who allows everything to happen, and whose motivations are much more complex than they seem. Pat Healy as the pervert on the telephone, posing as a police officer, has perhaps the most memorable voice of the year. And Bill Camp, as the dumb guy, who goes along with everything, because he wants it to happen. All four are brilliant. But the rest of the cast deserves credit as well – as they really do make this fast food restaurant seem like a real place, where these characters live out their lives. They are small, thankless roles that in a few short minutes they imbue with meaning. The principal cast is small and brilliant – the rest of the cast helps greatly.

8. The Dark Knight Rises - Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Matthew Modine, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Ben Mendelsohn, Juno Temple.
More so than the previous two films in this series, The Dark Knight Rises was a true ensemble piece. Batman Begins was really about Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman, The Dark Knight was the Heath Ledger as The Joker show. But The Dark Knight rises expands the cast, and really does bring everything together. Christian Bale is great as the aging, lonely Bruce Wayne who comes out of “retirement” as Batman. Tom Hardy had the unenviable task of filling Heath Ledger’s shoes as the main villain – and makes Bane into a great villain. Anne Hathaway was my favorite of anyone in the movie – pretty much a perfect Catwoman, who injects some much needed levity into the proceedings. And yet what makes this the best ensemble the series has had (even if it is least of the three movies) is the more “human” characters – Gary Oldman, wonderful as Gordon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt bringing Bruce Wayne back to his roots, and Michael Caine who breaks your heart as Alfred. And Christopher Nolan fills in the gaps around them with wonderful, small scale performances. A wonderful ensemble cast for the final chapter in one of the great film series ever.

7. Killer Joe - Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon.
A very small ensemble cast to be sure, but one that completely buys into their dumb, violent characters. Before Tracey Letts won a Pulitzer for the brilliant August, Osage County (please don’t fuck it up John Wells!), he wrote this dirty, dark, violent and darkly comedic play about the worst family of trailer trash imaginable, and the heartless, perverted hit man they invite into their lives. This is the title character, and he’s brilliantly played by Matthew McConaughey, as a vile, violent man who is sick of the idiocy that surrounds him, even if he himself isn’t that smart. Emile Hirsch is also good as the trailer trash son who thinks himself a criminal mastermind, but has no clue what he’s doing. Thomas Haden plays the dumbest character in a movie of dumb characters to perfection. Gina Gershon is absolutely fearless – especially when she has to fellate a piece of fried chicken. And Juno Temple is wonderful as the slow, daughter who family pimps her out – who just may be the smartest of the bunch. William Friedkin’s film is dirty, vile, violent and repugnant – but also brilliant. I suspect many will hate the movie – they won’t ever make it through the film, but to a certain type of viewer this is a great film – and the cast makes all the difference.

6. Zero Dark Thirty - Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Stephen Dillane, John Schwab, Édgar Ramírez, Reda Kateb, Harold Perrineau, Fares Fares, Yoav Levi, Fredric Lehne, Tushaar Mehra, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Taylor Kinney, Callan Mulvey, Siaosi Fonua, Phil Somerville, Nash Edgerton, Mike Colter.
To a certain extent, everyone in Zero Dark Thirty is subservient to Jessica Chastain’s Maya – she towers over nearly every scene in the movie, and when a character leaves her orbit, they are out of the movie. And yet, Chastain is utterly brilliant – truly one of the great performances of 2012 – and the entire supporting cast leave an impression, even if they are only there for a scene or two. Jason Clarke is clearly the star of the supporting cast – making Dan and his “enhanced interrogation” truly frightening. But Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Stephen Dillane, Edgar Ramirez, Chris Pratt and the Edgerton boys all get their moment to shine. This was an intricately structured and directed movie – but the cast more than carries their weight.

5. Skyfall - Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, Ola Rapace, Helen McCrory.
While I think there is a legitimate debate to be made as to whether or not Skyfall is the greatest Bond film ever made, I don’t think you can really debate that it is clearly the best acted Bond film ever made. As Bond, Daniel Craig has a real role to play – a wounded, betrayed man, who comes back even though he is lacking confidence, and hell, the movie even him some real backstory. Javier Bardem is one of the best Bond villains ever – a cackling nutcase, with a creepy smile and voice, who doesn’t want to rule the world – he just wants revenge so he can work out his mommy issues. Naomie Harris is so far the best classic Bond girl in the Daniel Craig era – her sexual chemistry with Craig is electric. Ben Whishaw is hilarious as a young Q. Ralph Fiennes is better than he has any right to be, given the small nature of his role. And Albert Finney shows up to add some gravitas in the final act. Best of all is Judi Dench, who makes M into a complete and total bitch AND the film’s most sympathetic character. This is some of the best acting Dench has ever done, although she won’t get the credit she deserves for it. Skyfall is a great movie, a great Bond movie, and one of the best acted films of the year.

4. Moonrise Kingdom - Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Kara Hayward, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Jared Gilman, Bob Balaban, L.J. Foley, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Jake Ryan, Charlie Kilgore, Neal Huff, Gabriel Rush, Lucas Hedges, Chandler Frantz, Tommy Nelson.
Moonrise Kingdom is the very definition of a great ensemble cast. I cannot point to a single performance that stands out for the rest, and yet taken as a whole, few casts this made left such an impact on me. It starts with Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, perfectly cast as two young, teenage outcasts, who try and run from the hypocrisy of the adult world, but can never quite get away. They are like the heroes in the children’s book Hayward carries around with her with everywhere. The adults that surround them are all screwed up in their own ways – Edward Norton as the Scout Leader, who just wants everything to be ok, Bill Murray as the cuckolded husband and father, Frances McDormand as the mother who reaches out for some passion, Bruce Willis as the cop, who almost fits the Bruce Willis mold, but not quite, Tilda Swinton as Children’s Services, who dresses the part to perfection and on and on and on. There is not an actor who doesn’t get on Wes Anderson’s strange wavelength. While no one performance stands out from the rest, the movie is unthinkable without any single of those performances. This is what great ensemble casts are supposed to look like.

3. The Master - Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek, Laura Dern, Madisen Beaty, Amy Ferguson, Christopher Evan Welch.
I read one review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master who claimed that what the film was really about was acting. Pitting Joaquin Phoenix’s Brando-esque intensity against Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Welles-ian authority. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but I do think the results were brilliant – Phoenix and Hoffman deliver far and away the two best performances of the year. But lost in all the praise for these two was just how great the rest of the ensemble cast was – Amy Adams, quiet, but always watching, and knowing when to assert her authority, Laura Dern as one of the loopier of Hoffman’s devotees, Jesse Plemons as Hoffman’s son, who sees through him like so few other characters, Ambyr Childers as Hoffman’s daughter, who may or not be drawn to Phoenix’s raging id, Christopher Evan Welch in a brilliant one scene as someone questioning Hoffman’s supremacy – and the rest of the cast as well. To a certain extent, The Master really was the Phoenix and Hoffman show – but the rest of the cast is also great, and deserving of praise.

2.  Lincoln - Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Joseph Cross, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, Gulliver McGrath, Gloria Reuben, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Costabile, Walton Goggins, Colman Domingo, David Oyelowo, Lukas Haas, Dane DeHaan, S. Epatha Merkerson.
While it is certainly true that Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Abraham Lincoln towers over everyone else in the movie – somehow giving us the Lincoln of legend, and making him more human – it would be unfair to characterize Lincoln as only the Daniel Day-Lewis show. For one thing, Tommy Lee Jones pretty much steals every scene he is in as one of the hardliners for equality in the Congress, and for another, Sally Field makes a fiercely determined and supportive, while still slightly crazed, Mary Todd Lincoln. But those three performances are all getting their due. How about the rest of the great supporting cast? James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson who use any means necessary to get the votes, Hal Holbrook as a party veteran trying to get his own agenda met, Jackie Earle Haley calling out Lincoln on what he sees as bullshit, Lee Pace as the most racist of the congressman, David Strathairn doing what is necessary, Walton Goggins as the somewhat dim Ohio congressman, Michael Stuhlberg rediscovering his ideals, Gloria Reuben who knows just what the stakes are – and on and on and on. Lincoln is very much an ensemble piece – and a brilliant one at that. While I do not think that Lincoln is Spielberg’s best movie (he has 8 or 9 better), I think a very real case can be made that it is the best acted of any of his films. A stirring, inspirational film – made even more so by every actor hitting the right notes.

1. Django Unchained - Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, David Steen, Dana Michelle Gourrier, Nichole Galicia, Laura Cayouette, Ato Essandoh, Don Johnson, Franco Nero, James Russo, Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill.
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is perhaps the trickiest film of the year for the actors. It is at once a comedy, a Blaxploitation film, a spaghetti western, an alternate history and violent reminder of America’s shame of slavery. The tone of the film had to be exactly right, or else the whole thing wouldn’t work. And Tarantino perfectly cast the film. From Jamie Foxx’s vengeful lead character, to Christoph Waltz as a Good German this time (who is still a psychopath), to Leonardo DiCaprio’s vicious plantation owner with front of civility to Samuel L. Jackson’s Uncle Tom to Kerry Washington’s object of desire, the main roles are perfectly played. And then the small roles are filled in perfectly as well – Walton Goggins, James Remar, Laura Cayouette, Don Johnson and in one, short, terrifying scene Bruce Dern. Django Unchained needed the best ensemble cast of the year for it to work at all – and luckily, he got it.

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