Monday, January 13, 2014

2013 Year in Review: Top 10 Ensemble Casts

I continue to believe that an Ensemble Cast Oscar is warranted rewarding casting directors for the work they do to find great actors in roles both large and small. There is a movement ongoing to make this a reality – with no success so far. These films would get my vote for ensemble casts this year.

Runners-Up: August: Osage County is a mixed bag – with some amazing work, and some that miss the mark by a wide margin, but the ones that work make up for the ones that don’t. Before Midnight contains more than just Hawke and Delphy this time – and the supporting cast helps a great deal. Beyond the Hills has a large cast of nuns, who act perfectly, and a great performance for the Priest, in support of the two brilliant leading ladies. The Bling Ring is mainly made up of newcomers, who do excellent work as very shallow teenagers. Blue Jasmine is much more than just the Cate Blanchatt show – as Woody Allen surrounds her with an excellent supporting cast – especially Sally Hawkins and Andrew Dice Clay. The Conjuring has a great horror movie cast – one wrong performance, and the atmosphere is ruined – but the cast doesn’t hit one. Enough Said has perhaps too many cast members, but all of them are enjoyable. Her is mainly the Joaquin/Scarlett show – but the whole cast is excellent. Much Ado About Nothing has a large cast that plays off each other wonderfully – you can tell most of them know each other. The cast of Pain & Gain all hit Michael Bay’s high octane pace, and then gleefully keep going. The Place Beyond the Pines contains a lot of great work in addition to Gosling’s standout performance – particularly by Dane DeHaan. The Spectacular Now perfectly casts not only its two leads, but their friends and parents. Stoker relies on its cast to build atmosphere and suspense – even tiny roles are filled by wonderful actresses like Phyllis Sommerville and Jacki Weaver. This is the End casts a bunch of movie stars playing themselves, and gets the best results you could imagine. The World’s End is led by an excellent Simon Pegg, but has three other excellent performances in perhaps the year’s best portrait of male camaraderie. You’re Next has many mumblecore regulars in horror film about a dysfunctional family, that feels more real than it really should.

10. American Hustle – Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Rohm, Paul Herman, Said Taghmaoui, Robert DeNiro.
I wasn’t nearly of big of a fan of American Hustle as many were – I thought it was an entertaining mess of film that doesn’t really add up to that much – and yet I cannot think of a bad performance in the movie – the acting really is the reason to see the film. The main characters hit the right notes – Bale as a pathetic looking, yet smart conman, Amy Adams as a woman who may well be the smartest person in the film, Cooper as a FBI agent whose ego grows much too large, Jeremy Renner as Mayor who may be corrupt, but has his heart in the right place and especially Jennifer Lawrence, who blows into the movie as Bale`s boozy wife and kicks up the movie to another level. The rest of the supporting cast is also great – especially Louis C.K. as Cooper`s meek, put upon boss and in a cameo appearance, Robert DeNiro as a slightly different gangster than we expect. I still don’t think the movie is anything more than an entertaining con movie – in the vein of The Sting, but less successful – but the acting is superb by everyone.

9. Short Term 12 - Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Stephanie Beatriz, Rami Malek, Alex Calloway, Kevin Hernandez, Lydia Du Veaux, Keith Stanfield, Frantz Turner.
Brie Larson deserves all the praise and awards she has received for her brilliant performance in Short Term 12 – it really is one of the best of the year, and elevates the entire movie. But the rest of the cast – from John Gallagher Jr. as her almost too perfect boyfriend to Kaitlyn Dever as the girl who reminds Larson of herself to Keith Stanfield as a mostly quiet young man who delivers a devastating honest rap that breaks your heart and everyone else in the film are all equally great. This is what a true ensemble looks like.

8. Prisoners -  Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, Len Cariou, David Dastmalchian.
The ensemble cast in Denis Villeneuve’s tightly wound thriller help to elevate the entire film well above that of a typical Hollywood thriller. Hugh Jackman has never been better as a father who we immediately feel sympathy for – until he takes things too far. Jake Gyllenhaal is even better as cop with a bundle of nervous ticks, and few manners. The supporting cast is filled with great actors – even in small roles – who leave their mark on the film. The best thing about the ensemble performance is how the actors play off each other – feed into each other’s fear and neurosis. This is the type of ensemble where it becomes hard to single out a performance or two for praise – because everyone in the cast is good, and they work so effortlessly well together. Without this cast, all working at the top of their game, I don’t think Prisoners is anywhere near as good as it is.

7. Spring Breakers - Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, James Franco, Gucci Mane.
James Franco has reaped by of the acclaim for Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers – and all of it is deserved, as it truly is one of the very best performances of the year. But in doing so, many ignored just how good the four young women in the movie are – and what a great cohesive unit they are, until they start to break apart. Selena Gomez is excellent as Faith – the most innocent of the four girls – as she narrates letters back home to Grandma and is really just a good girl playing “bad girl” for a while, until things get too real. Her final scene with Franco – where he tells her that when he’s with her friends, he’ll be thinking about her – is a marvelous piece of silent acting by Gomez. Rachel Korine – Harmony’s wife – goes a bit wilder than Gomez, and she’s willing to push herself further – as in a creepy scene where we feel she’s on the verge of being raped. Then there is the duo of Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson, who share that strange sex scene with Franco and his guns – and follow the movie right to its nihilistic end point – they go for broke, and do crazy things, but are just about perfect at showing their complete boredom with everything. Throw in a few scenes of Gucci Mane, being scary, and you have a great – largely unsung – ensemble.

6. The Counselor -  Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Rosie Pérez, Richard Cabral, Natalie Dormer, Édgar Ramírez, Bruno Ganz, Rubén Blades, Goran Višnjić, Toby Kebbell, Emma Rigby, John Leguizamo, Dean Norris, Fernando Cayo.
It could not have been easy for the actors in this thriller to wrap their head and mouths around all the dialogue that writer Cormac McCarthy gives them. This is a film full of long monologues, and strange two handed scenes where the characters talk and talk about good and evil – often in code. There isn’t a performance here though that I think truly misses the mark – not even the mostly reviled turn by Cameron Diaz, who plays the most heartless, ruthless character in the film. Best of all could be some of the actors who only have one scene – Bruno Ganz as a diamond dealer, Rosie Perez as a convict, Ruben Blades as a drug kingpin, Toby Kebbell as a pissed off client, and especially John Leguizamo and Dean Norris, who conversation reveals everything you need to know about the movie in just one scene. That isn’t to say that Fassbender, Pitt, Bardem, Diaz and Cruz – you know, the main actors – aren’t wonderful, because they are. But much of the best work here is around the edges.

5. Mud -  Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks, Joe Don Baker, Johnny Cheek, Bonnie Sturdivant, Stuart Greer, Clayton Carson.
There is not a bad performance in Mud – which has a large ensemble of mainly character actors who work together effortlessly. At the heart of the movie is Tye Sheridan as a young on the cusp of being a teenager, and he – as well as young Jacob Lofland as his best friend – get that tricky part of childhood perfectly. Matthew McConaughey is perfect as the title character that is both a romantic and scary figure. Reese Witherspoon does some of her best work as the woman Mud loves, even though he shouldn’t. Throw in some great work in smaller roles by Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepherd, Sarah Paulson, Michael Shannon and Joe Don Baker (nice to see him again), and you have a terrific ensemble cast that fits perfectly into the Southern milieu the movie takes place in.

4. The Wolf of Wall Street - Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Milioti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham,  Katarina Cas, P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Ethan Suplee, Barry Rothbart, Jake Hoffman, Mackenzie Meehan, Spike Jonze.
The great thing about being Martin Scorsese is that you can get pretty much any actor you want for any role you want – no matter how small. That is evident in The Wolf of Wall Street – which gets great actors like Matthew McConaughey and Spike Jonze to deliver one scene wonders – or the likes of Rob Reiner (when was the last time he acted) and recent Oscar winner Jean Dujardin in the slightly supporting roles. Perhaps even better than that though is the actors who make up a cohesive unit around DiCaprio’s lead character – who have an almost cult leader like reverence for him. None of this even mentions the films larger roles – Kyle Chandler as a FBI agent who wins, but still has to ride the subway, Margot Robbie who makes no secret that she wants to be a trophy wife, and nothing else who manipulates her way into DiCaprio’s life and Jonah Hill who plays the biggest asshole in a film that contains nothing but assholes. Above them all is DiCaprio going balls to the wall crazy, and knocking it out of the park. Scorsese almost always has great ensemble casts – and The Wolf of Wall Street is one of his best in that regard.

3.Inside Llewyn Davis - Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Jerry Grayson, Jeanine Serralles, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Alex Karpovsky, Helen Hong, Bradley Mott, F. Murray Abraham, Nancy Blake, Stephen Payne, Stan Carp.
The Coens, like Scorsese, seem to be able to get anyone they want to be in their film – but they never seem star struck, and cast the perfect actor in even the smallest roles. There was no better one scene performance this year than F. Murray Abraham here – who amazingly, goes subtle in his performance, which he never does. And who great were actors like Stark Sands as the overly happy army folk singer, Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett as the Gorfeins, Jerry Grayson as Mel the agent or Adam Driver as Al Cody – who probably could have a had an interesting Coen movie made around his character. In slightly bigger roles, Coen regular John Goodman delivers another of his larger than life performances for the brothers, Justin Timberlake brilliantly plays against type as the ever chipper Jim, and Carey Mulligan brings more depth than she has been given credit for as Jean. Oscar Isaac may just deliver the best performance ever in a Coen movie – and that’s saying something, but the whole cast deserves praise.

2.12 Years a Slave - Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Dwight Henry, Bryan Batt, Kelsey Scott, Quvenzhané Wallis, Cameron Zeigler, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Chris Chalk, Adepero Oduye, Michael K. Williams, Liza J. Bennett, Andy Dylan, Garret Dillahunt.
The strength of the ensemble cast in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave cannot be overstated. Chiwetel Ejiofor lays out the standard with his lead performance – and every other cast member lives up to him, no matter how small their roles. Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o have also received many awards for their roles – and deserve them – Fassbender for making his cruel slave master into a human being, and Nyong'o for bringing tragedy and heartbreak to her role as an abused slave. But what of Sarah Paulson – perhaps even more cruel than her husband – Paul Dano – who doesn’t shy away from the ugly language he uses, Paul Giamatti, who does the same thing, but in a quiet, more subtle way, Alfre Woodard, who tells you everything you need to know about her character in one scene, Garret Dillahunt who seems so nice until he isn’t, Adepero Oduye as a woman who loses her children and many, many others. For the most part, McQueen’s earlier films had small casts – here he has a large one, and proves he can handle it. Every performance in the movie hits just the right notes.

1. Nebraska - Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray, Angela McEwan, Gelndora Stitt, Elizabeth Moore, Kevin Kunkel, Dennis McCoig, Ronald Vosta, Missy Doty, John Reynolds.
To me a great ensemble is more than just throwing together a group of movie stars (I seem to be in the minority on this, since August: Osage County and American Hustle have dominated this category this year, but I digress). It is about having a large cast that work effortlessly well together – and having even the smallest roles feel like part of the larger tapestry. This is what Alexander Payne’s cast achieves in Nebraska. Yes, the stars of the movie – Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach and Bob Odenkirk – are all wonderful – you can feel their history together. But then Payne goes ahead and adds a colorful supporting cast who add to the atmosphere of the movie – from Angela McEwan’s wonderful turn as an old newspaper woman with surprising information on Woody, to Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray as Forte’s smirking, idiot cousins to John Reynolds, memorable in an essentially walk on role (“A million here, a million there…”) – and then all the Uncles and Aunts who simply fit together. Payne has often been compared to the Coen Brothers – with good reason – and what he accomplishes in Nebraska is what the Coens have often done in their career (including this year in Inside Llewyn Davis) – and fills his cast with memorable faces and voices all of which add up to a brilliant portrait of small town life. Its wonderful work – and the best ensemble of the year, which in this year is really saying something.

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