Wednesday, February 1, 2017

2016 Year-End Report: Ensemble Cast

I still that Best Ensemble Cast should be an Oscar category – in particular because the best ensembles are often ones where you cannot pick out just one or two performances for individual nominations. This year hardly lacked from great ensemble work – including the following films I didn’t have room for on the top 10: A Bigger Splash is an excellent four-hander, no matter two characters are together at any point are great – and things get better when they’re all together. Christine is anchored by a great Rebecca Hall performance, but the entire ensemble is terrific, helping to create that oppressive atmosphere that crushes her. Elle is another film built on a remarkable lead performance – this one by Isabelle Huppert – but without the strong cast of (mostly) men, who are various degrees of cruel and clueless, Huppert’s work wouldn’t have quite the same impact. Everybody Wants Some!! does not have a standout performance – but like all of Linklater’s work is pretty much perfectly cast all the way around. Indignation has a wonderful series of two handed scenes in which everyone is great – even if it’s not quite an ensemble. Jackie is anchored by Natalie Portman, but the rest of the cast effortlessly slip into their famous roles. Little Men has an excellent ensemble of adults, and children, creating a world in which everyone is understandable, even when they are at odds. Love & Friendship like all Whit Stillman films, has a wonderful ensemble, perfectly cast in his Jane Austen adaptation. Loving has two excellent leads – in Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, but the rest of the cast is excellent as well, even if they only have a scene or two. Midnight Special has a cast who ground a strange, sci-fi story in a believable, Middle America – not an easy thing to do. The Neon Demon needs a cast completely willing to do over the top and look silly – and because Winding Refn got that, the film works. Nocturnal Animals has two great leads in Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams, each anchoring a very different movie, and a standout supporting turn by Michael Shannon – but also has cast even the smallest roles with wonderful stars (like Laura Linney), which certainly prevents the film from being all style. Paterson finds such interesting people to fill the many small roles around Adam Driver. Sleeping Giant has a cast of unknowns and non-professionals, but all wonderfully natural and work well together. 20th Century Women has a cast that has a very easy chemistry – perfect for the makeshift family in the film. Wiener-Dog sees Todd Solondz return to form – and a large part of that is having a cast get on his very strange wavelength. The Witch really does feel like a hugely dysfunctional family – just one beset by a witch in the 1600s. Zootopia has the best vocal cast of the year – all of whom are providing a good spin on their characters.
10. American Honey - Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, McCaul Lombardi, Arielle Holmes, Crystal Ice, Veronica Ezell, Chad Cox, Garry Howell, Kenneth Kory Tucker, Raymond Coalson, Isaiah Stone, Dakota Powers, Shawna Rae Moseley, Chris Wright, Summer Hunsaker, Brody Hunsaker, Johnny Pierce II, Chasity Hunsaker, Michael Hunsaker, Kaylin Mally, Laura Kirk, Will Patton, Daran Shinn, Sam Williamson, Bruce Gregory.
The heart of the ensemble of American Honey is a star making performance by Sasha Lane – as the teenage girl trying to escape her economic situation by joining a travelling magazine selling operation. It’s a great performance – longing for freedom, but trading one trap for another, falling in love with a man who doesn’t love her back and making one bad decision after another. Other than her, there are two professional actors who are also brilliant – Shia LaBeouf as the man who recruits her, trains her and she falls for, despite how he behaves and Riley Keough, wonderful as the woman who runs the crew. The rest of the sprawling cast are non-professionally, who slip effortlessly into the film, and the ensemble, and make the film feel as authentic as it does. Yes, the three lead performances are great – but they aren’t the only great acting in the film (even if they may be the only ones who continue to act – apart from Arielle Holmes, following up her great debut in last year’s Heaven Knows What based on her life).
9. Green Room - Anton Yelchin, Patrick Stewart, Joe Cole
, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner, Imogen Poots, David W. Thompson, Mark Webber, Macon Blair, Eric Edelstein, Brent Werzner, Taylor Tunes, Kai Lennox, Samuel Summer, Mason Knight, Colton Ruscheinsky.
Horror movie casts (if Green Room is a horror movie – there’s been some debate) never really get that much respect – usually because it’s just a bunch of really attractive young people screaming. While there is part of that in Green Room as well – the fear that the bad (including Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat) feel while trapped in that room is real. Imogen Poots, as a girl who already there, brings an interesting, ambiguous element to the film (she’s certainly seen some shit even before she got there). But the strange humanity extends to the major neo-Nazi characters as well – Patrick Stewart seems more tired than anything, Macon Blair just wants to fit in, etc. This is a great ensemble, because while they work together brilliantly, they have subtle, individual moments that really bring the film together brilliantly.
8. Silence - Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Issei Ogata, Shin'ya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, Yôsuke Kubozuka, Ciarán Hinds, Kaoru Endô.
Andrew Garfield is exceptional in the lead role of Martin Scorsese’s latest film- morally conflicted, who ends up going from confident to destroyed throughout the film. Adam Driver and Liam Neeson – as two other priests – are also very good in the film. Yet, the reason the film is one of the list is the excellent work of the Japanese cast – Issei Ogata as the Inquisitor, wise, cruel, funny and calm – Yosuke Kubozuka as a drunken, Judas like character, who somehow keeps skirting justice, Shin’ya Tsukamoto and Yoshi Oida as perhaps the two most devout people in the movie and Tadanobu Asano as the Interpreter, who knows precisely how things will go. Together, they give a complex portrait of the Japanese in the film at this time – both good and bad. Scorsese always gets great performances out of his cast – and Silence is no different.
7. Fences – Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby,
Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney.
You can certainly argue about if, as a director, Denzel Washington didn’t do enough to make this adaptation of August Wilson’s play cinematic or not – but what you cannot argue is that Washington gets terrific performances out of himself, and the entire cast. Washington himself has the big, show-offy role – the patriarch of the family, who dooms himself with his actions – and it’s a performance where Washington revels in every big, beautiful moment. Viola Davis, as his wife, is even better – trying to be happy in the earlier scenes, and then even when her word crumbles, she does her best to keep it together, while revealing some large truths. The rest of the cast all have their moments. The best supporting role is Stephen McKinley Henderson, as Washington’s friend and co-worker – a seemingly happy-go-lucky guy, who sees much more than he lets on. So yes, you can argue that Washington should have done more to “open up” the play (you’d be wrong, but you could argue it) – but I don’t see how you could argue with these performances.

6. Hail, Caesar! - Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Max Baker, Fisher Stevens, David Krumholtz, John Bluthal, Alex Karpovsky, Aramazd Stepanian, Allan Havey, Robert Pike Daniel, Ian Blackman, Geoffrey Cantor, Christopher Lambert.
I’m not sure there is another director (perhaps Wes Anderson), who have a style as specific as the Coen Brothers do, that still manage to find the perfect cast every time out. Hail, Caesar is anchored by a great performance by Josh Brolin – in a Christ-figure like role, and he’s terrific. But there is a lot of great supporting work – George Clooney adds another great Coen idiot to his resume, Ralph Fiennes has the single funniest scene of the year, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill  and Channing Tatum all basically show up for a scene or two, and are brilliant. No one is better than Alden Ehrenreich, a charming idiot, who isn’t nearly as dumb as he first appears (and, of course, is Fiennes scene partner in the hilarious scene). The Coens cast better than anyone – Hail, Caesar! Is just more proof of that.
5. Certain Women – Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Lily Gladstone, Jared Harris, James LeGros, Rene Auberjonis.
The films of Kelly Reichardt are so quiet, so delicate that a single wrong performance can throw the whole movie out of whack. Luckily for us, she is an expert at casting – and does an excellent job of bringing together her cast, for her three short stories here. Laura Dern anchors the first part, as a competent lawyer, used to having to work harder against the casual misogyny around – and Jared Harris is equally good as her client, a seemingly nice guy, who perhaps isn’t. Michelle Williams anchors the second part, as a woman who wants to build a new house, using old materials – even as her marriage crumbles. The third, and best part, has a great performance by Kristen Stewart – as a young lawyer, who travels hours each way to teach a class, and an even better one by Lily Gladstone, as a rancher who becomes infatuated with her. Certain Women is a small movie – a quiet movie, a subtle movie. In order for it to work, Reichardt and her cast all have to be perfect – the fact that they are, makes this easily one of the best ensembles of the year.
4. Hell or High Water - Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey, Christopher W. Garcia, Kevin Rankin, Melanie Papalia.
Often, it doesn’t work when big time movie stars try and play normal people – especially normal, rural people from Texas, as they lean into the accent too much, and end up sounding and acting like Cletus the Slack Jawed Yokel. No so with the excellent cast of Hell or High Water – who do it effortlessly. We know that Jeff Bridges could have done his role – as the aging Texas lawman on one more case before retirement, in his sleep, but he brings his effortless charm out wonderfully. His scene partner – Gil Birmingham – is a great foil for him. On the other side of the law, Ben Foster continues his string of wonderfully weird performances, and Chris Pine grounds the whole movie with the best work of his career. There’s a lot of great work in smaller roles as well – especially two waitress, you will never forget.
3. Manchester by the Sea - Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas
Hedges, Liam McNeill, C.J. Wilson, Heather Burns, Tate Donovan, Matthew Broderick, Gretchen Mol.
It’s always a little hard to evaluate the ensemble cast of a movie that is so dominated by one powerhouse performance. For Manchester by the Sea, that performance is by Casey Affleck as a grieving janitor, forced to return to his hometown – the last place he wants to be. It’s one of the greatest performance you will ever see – and it does dominate the film. That doesn’t mean there isn’t great work elsewhere – Michelle Williams is also getting deserved kudos for her work as Affleck’s former wife (it one of the best performances in a stellar career) – newcomer Lucas Hedges shares much of the screen time with Affleck, and does a great job. Smaller roles are well filled by Kyle Chandler, Matthew Broderick and Gretchen Mol. Yes, Affleck and Williams dominate the film – and deserve all the awards they win – but there’s a genuine ensemble here as well.
2. The Lobster - Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, Léa Seydoux, John C. Reilly, Olivia Colman, Angeliki Papoulia, Jessica Barden, Ashley Jensen, Ariane Labed, Garry Mountaine, Laoise Murphy, EmmaEdel O'Shea.
I’m honestly not sure there was an ensemble cast with a more difficult job this year than that of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. The film is a brilliant, deadpan comedy/satire, that requires very specific performances out of its cast – if they go broad, the effect is ruined, if they go too deadpan, they come across as dull eyed and boring. But the cast of The Lobster nails their tricky roles – playing people who are truly are really happy to be controlled in the way they are, or at least skilled at pretending they are (and letting the audience know, who is who). The best performance is by Colin Farrell, the sad eyed man who wants to belong, but perhaps never will. The best working in the supporting cast is done mostly by those with the smaller roles – Olivia Colman as the overly chipper Hotel Manager, Ashley Jensen, as a sad woman eating cracker and Angeliki Papoulia as the appropriately named Heartless Woman. Acting awards often go to people doing big, emotional performances – the ones in The Lobster are not that, but they’re every bit as good.
1. Moonlight - Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle
Monáe, André Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner, Patrick Decile.
2016 really was a great year for ensemble casts – and yet, even in one as strong as this, the cast of Moonlight stands out as something rather special. Barry Jenkins found three, virtually unknown actors to play his central character at three different intervals, 10 years apart. What’s remarkable about the work of Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes in those roles is how similar the character remains in each segment, while still allowing for growth and change. The supporting cast slides in nicely alongside them – Mahershala Ali is great as the only male mentor in his life – a nice guy, but also not the best role model despite how he tries, Naomie Harris shows up in all three segments as the main characters drug addicted mom, and delivers a blistering performance. I also dearly love Andre Holland as the one character who truly seems to listen to the main character, and has the ability to break through to him, and Janelle Monae, brilliant as his substitute mother. Jenkins goes for a very specific type of vibe and tone in Moonlight – and each other these actors gets it just about perfectly. Easily the best ensemble cast of the year.

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