Tuesday, January 26, 2016

2015 Year in Review: Best 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.

There were quite a few good ensembles this year – including these that I didn’t have room for above. Anomalisa is perfectly cast, and perhaps Tom Noonan should get a special award since aside from the two leads, he is a one man ensemble. Bridge of Spies was anchored by two great performances by Hanks and Rylance – but everyone in the cast adds to the atmosphere wonderfully. The Diary of a Teenage Girl has such wonderful work in even the smallest of roles that the whole things has the heir of authenticity. Ex Machina has a perfect 4 person ensemble, although they don’t do a lot of “ensemble” acting. Heaven Knows What had a cast of mainly non-professionals, who made this study of addiction and street life ring truer than most. Mad Max: Fury Road had a cast who do so much while barely speaking a word. Son of Saul is a parade of sad faces, none more so than the star. Spy contains a cast of movie stars, deftly mocking themselves. Star Wars: The Force Awakens featured some people sliding into old roles like a well-worn shoes – and added some great new actors as well. Steve Jobs was more than the Michael Fassbender show, because people make a lot of fairly small roles. Straight Outta Compton was at times a parade of cameos, which would be annoying if they weren’t all so good (please make the Keith Stanfield Snoop Dogg movie now). The Tribe contained an ensemble speaking entirely in un-subtitled sign language – and still you get everything you need. Wild Tales had one crazy story after another, all executed by a talented cast.

And these were, for my money, the 10 best ensembles of the year.

10. Love & Mercy  - Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Erin Darke, Brett Davern, Bill Camp.
Paul Dano’s is clearly the standout performance in Love & Mercy  - playing Brian Wilson before he is too far gone into mental illness, who is trying very hard to get the music in his head into the recording studio – with brilliant results, but ones that may well cost him a part of himself. But it’s hardly the only great performance in the movie – there’s John Cusack, as an older Wilson, completely gone, Elizabeth Banks, making a lot out of what could well have been another “supportive wife” role, Paul Giamatti, playing an evil manager (far worse than his on in Straight Outta Compton) – and Bill Camp as Wilson’s asshole father. Then there are the actors playing the other Beach Boys, and various other supporting characters. Only Dano, and Banks, have “awards” roles here – but everyone in the film is wonderful.

9. Room - Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy, Tom McCamus, Wendy
The first half of room really is the Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay show – a brilliant ensemble of two, who work off each other, and have a deep felt connection, that makes you believe in this small world they have created together. They are assisted here by Sean Bridgers, as their creepy captor (who isn’t required to do much beyond being creepy – but he does that wonderfully). The second half is really when the ensemble work comes in. I’m thinking of the smaller, quieter moments – how Joan Allen is there to support her daughter and grandson, hiding the pain in her face as she tries to act normally, who Tom McCamus (as Allen’s new husband), subtlety and kindly helps to draw out Jack, how William H. Macy trembles with rage he cannot express – even how Wendy Crewson can be so casually cruel to Larson in the interview. In many ways, this is movie about showcasing the two lead performances – which have deserved all the praise they have received. It’s too bad that many haven’t looked beyond that at the supporting performances.

8. Sicario - Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Donovan, Victor Garber, Raoul Trujillo, Maximiliano Hernández, Lora Martinez-Cunningham, Daniel Kaluuya, Kim Larrichio, Dylan Kenin, Julio Cedillo.
The only bad thing about this being such a strong year for lead actress performances is that Emily Blunt’s wonderful work in Sicario has been drastically undervalued – she plays Sicario’s central character, a strong, competent FBI agent, who ends up being shunted aside (not by the movie, but by the characters in the movie – it’s kind of the point) – and it is the best thing Blunt has ever done. And she’s not alone – Josh Brolin’s easy charm makes you overlook, at first, how big of an asshole he is – Jon Bernthal is proving to probably be the best actor to come out of The Walking Dead, with his charming, violent performance. The people playing various FBI agents, and Cartel members, don’t get much to do, but they do it well. Best of all is Benicio Del Toro’s mysterious figure, who turns out to be the exact opposite of his role in Traffic. Director Denis Villeneuve is skilled at marshalling these large casts into something like this – and he does probably his best work here with this cast.

7. Brooklyn - Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Jane Brennan, Julie Walters, Fiona
Glascott, Brid Brennan, Eileen O'Higgins, Peter Campion, Emily Bett Rickards, Eve Macklin, Nora-Jane Noone, Samantha Munro, Jessica Paré, Jenn Murray, James DiGiacomo.
One of the unfortunate side effects (perhaps the only one) of how a central performance as wonderful as Saoirse Ronan’s in Brooklyn is that it tends to overshadow the rest of the fine work in the film. And Ronan’s performance is brilliant – as an Irish woman in Brooklyn, struggling with homesickness, who then falls in love, and then heads home, and isn’t sure what to do anymore, Ronan’s performance is stunning and emotional. But she’s hardly the only great performance in the film – there’s Emory Cohen’s sweet Tony, who she cannot help but fall for, Domhnall Gleeson’s Irish suitor, stiff upper lip, but quietly nice, Jim Broadbent’s sympathetic priest, Julie Walters’ hilarious landlady – and an assortment of roommates, Ronan’s mother, the two gossip, and Tony’s scene stealing younger brother. Ronan deserves every ounce of praise she has received – but the rest of the cast should get some as well.

6. Carol - Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Sarah Paulson, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith, Kevin Crowley, Nik Pajic, Carrie Brownstein, Trent Rowland.
Much of Carol, of course, is made up of just Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara – and how their deepening relationship changes them. They are the best couple in a movie in 2015 – but they are hardly the only great performances in the film. Kyle Chandler is excellent as Blanchatt’s long suffering husband – used to be dominated by strong women, and not quite sure how to respond now. Jake Lacy is wonderful as Mara’s clueless boyfriend. The best supporting performance belongs to Sarah Paulson, as Blanchatt’s “friend” who started the whole mess. But even the small roles are well filled out – the guy from the Times who is nice to Mara, the detective who seems so silly, until he isn’t, etc. Director Todd Haynes has always been able to fill out small roles well – and I’m not sure he’s done that better in any film than Carol.

5. The Big Short - Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale,  Brad Pitt, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy
Strong, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Tracy Letts, Marisa Tomei, Adepero Oduye, Melissa Leo.
We have seen large cast of Wall Street traders before – usually dressed to the nines, and all of them are assholes. That cast works (it certainly did in The Wolf of Wall Street) – but one of the things that makes the ensemble cast of The Big Short so good is that, aside from Ryan Gosling, who could have stepped out of that film, the rest of the cast are doing something completely different. Steve Carell’s anger and nasal voice in the film are funny until they’re not – then he’s an audience surrogate for all that pent up rage. Christian Bale is rather one note, but it’s a fine note, and what the film calls for. Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong as like a comedy team working for Carell. John Magaro and Finn Wittrock well matched neophytes. Tracy Letts great as someone who is convinced the old ways are the best ways. Melissa Leo has a fine cameo as a rating agent literally going blind. Adepero Oduye is understated and wonderful as someone as a go between for the banks to Carell. No, I didn’t need to see Brad Pitt once again be the voice of the reason – as good as he is at it, and the film wastes the immense talents of Marisa Tomei – but this is a great ensemble that finds just the right tone for the film – which is very, very tricky.

4. Experimenter - Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, John Palladino, Jim Gaffigan, Anthony Edwards,Taryn Manning,
Lori Singer, Anton Yelchin, John Leguizamo, Kellan Lutz, Dennis Haysbert, Emily Tremaine, Josh Hamilton, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Edoardo Ballerini, Tom Bateman, Ned Eisenberg.
Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter has a great, underrated lead performance by Peter Sarsgaard, as Stanley Milgram, the famed social scientist, who studied authority. It’s wonderful work – serious, and yet comical – semi-bemused – taking his work seriously, but not too seriously. It’s a perfect performance for a movie which is as much of an experiment as anything Milgram did. The supporting cast who comes through – sometimes only for a scene or two, are not quite what you would expect, but are always great – starting with Anthony Edwards and Jim Gaffigan in the first scene, as two people paired up for an experiment. Throughout the movie actors like John Leguizamo, Taryn Manning and Anton Yelchin leave impressions, even while only being on screen for a minute or two. These performances are key – they define the movie, and the experiments, in a few moments – and no hits a false note (not even Kellan Lutz, playing William Shatner). The most underrated ensemble of the year.

3. The Hateful Eight -  Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell), Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Zoë Bell, Lee Horsley, Gene Jones, Keith Jefferson, Craig Stark, Belinda Owino, Channing Tatum.
Quentin Tarantino has always excelled at finding the right actors for his movies – like all writers with a distinctive dialogue style all their own, not everyone can do Tarantino’s dialogue with the style required, which is why he often returns to the same actors again and again. In The Hateful Eight, he has given Samuel L. Jackson his best role since, well Django Unchained, but his best lead role in many more years – and as always, Tarantino’s muse delivers precisely the performance required. He returns to others in his stock company as well – Tim Roth, for the first time since Pulp Fiction, clearly relishing his return to Tarantino’s world, Michael Madsen (for the first time since Kill Bill), bringing his understated world weariness to the film, Kurt Russell, doing a killer take on John Wayne, and Walton Goggins – barely used in Django, but made brilliant use of here. To the mix he adds some new faces to his world – Demian Bichar, clearly having fun with a thinly written role (reminded me of what was said about Benicio Del Toro in The Usual Suspects – since nothing he said was important, Del Toro just did whatever he wanted with his accent), Bruce Dern, wonderfully evil and best of all Jennifer Jason Leigh – clearly relishing the chance to dig into such a bizarre role, and making the most of it. Tarantino relies heavily on his actors – one false move, and everything goes to hell. And yet, somehow, he always gets things right.

2. Spotlight - Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d'Arcy James,
Stanley Tucci, Elena Wohl, Gene Amoroso, Doug Murray, Sharon McFarlane, Jamey Sheridan, Neal Huff, Billy Crudup, Robert B. Kennedy, Duane Murray, Brian Chamberlain, Michael Cyril Creighton, Paul Guilfoyle, Michael Countryman, Len Cariou.  
Mark Ruffalo is probably the de facto lead in Spotlight – and he’s quite good in the role, although his is hardly the first performance in Spotlight that comes to mind. That would be Michael Keaton, as understated here as he was balls out over the top in Birdman last year. Then probably Liev Schreiber, who is absolutely wonderful, as the new editor of the paper in his few, quiet scenes. And then the list just keeps going – John Slattery has some nice scenes, Paul Guilfoyle has a killer one near the end of the film or Len Cariou, who seems so nice as the Cardinal, even though he’s a shit. Or Rachel McAdams, trying to be as sympathetic as possible. Or Stanley Tucci. Or Billy Crudup. Spotlight really is the essence of great ensemble acting – everyone slides into their, and no one is trying to outdo the rest of them. No wonder it’s dominated the category this year.

1. Inside Out  - Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dia, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Richard Kind, Paula Poundstone, Bobby Moynihan, Paula Pell, Dave Goelz, Frank Oz, Josh Cooley, Flea, John Ratzenberger.
Because of the way voice over work, the best ensemble cast of the year may not have actually worked together that much. As odd as that it, it doesn’t change the fact that Inside Out has the best ensemble cast of the year. Pixar has always picked the right voices for their films – they don’t shy away from using movie stars, but it’s not required either – they pick the best people available. For the five major emotions, they could not have chosen better – if Amy Poehler is pure bliss as Joy, Lewis Black is naturally brilliant at anger, Mindy Kaling hilarious as disgust, Bill Hader quite good as Fear – and best of all is Phyllis Smith as Sadness, which is perhaps the best character in Pixar’s long history. The human characters are well suited as well – Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan as Mom and Dad, Kaitlyn Dia, heartbreaking, as the little girl going through a tough time. And, of course, Richard Kind as Bing Bong. The essence of ensemble acting is the way the actors play off each other – and no cast did a better job than that this year than Inside Out.

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