This is a year of great ensemble work across the board. Often SAG voters will look at the bold names and be more familiar with them, which means they remember and admire their work in previous films, which is why films with many well-known names often make it in for ensemble. But sometimes the work is so powerful and memorable it might be cast entirely with unknowns and still make an impact.
Some of the best films are pure ensemble work, like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, where a team of actors take us back to the French beaches where 300,000 Allied soldiers were trapped by Hitler’s army. While some of the faces are recognizable — Tom Hardy and Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance and, of course, Harry Styles — many faces are not known but are just as good. Like Fionn Whitehead and Jack Lowden. Dunkirk’s ensemble succeeds in making us believe that we are right there with them.
Another pure ensemble is Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, with masterful work across the board, starting with with the film’s standout lead performance, Algee Smith as an up and coming singer who, in one night, is stripped of his dignity and ambition. His life forever altered, he rebuilds his life in a different direction — his is the most fully drawn character. The rest of the film is filled with brilliant ensemble work, from Will Poulter as the psychotic racist cop, to John Boyega as the one good cop with a conscience, to Anthony Mackie as the soldier trapped in the Algiers Motel, to John Krasinski playing against type as a sleazy lawyer. Detroit is one of the best ensembles of the year.
Another film that has lead performances but is really dependent upon its fine ensemble is Dee Rees’ exceptional film Mudbound. Easily one of the best films of the year, Mudbound is one of those movies that is gifted with a director who knows how to work with actors. Every performance is pitch perfect, from the two sons Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell, Jason Clarke as Hedlund’s older brother, to the women who portray mothers and wives, Carey Mulligan, and Mary J. Blige. Though Mitchell and Blige are the standouts, not enough attention has been paid to Mulligan’s tortured, moving performance. Mudbound depends much on the writing and directing but really, this house is built with the performances, with all of the actors working at the top of their game, doing what an ensemble should do: working in unison from the same script, in the same time and place, with a generous give and take from one another.
Then there are the films that are anchored by a lead performance which is flanked by standout supporting turns. The strongest ensembles are often those centered by a performance that is likely to be nominated for lead.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is probably the most likely to succeed with SAG recognition — at least that’s how it seems right now. Fastened by a rough, exacting turn from Frances McDormand, Three Billboards is really about how there is still some good inside of us, some redemption, some forgiveness. It’s also about the enduring, unending grief of a mother who loses everything when her daughter is raped and murdered. McDormand sets the bar for the other actors to meet, and meet it they do. Sam Rockwell is almost a co-lead and probably has the film’s most dramatic arc. Woody Harrelson is the film’s conscience. Peter Dinklage has a brief but memorable turn as McDormand’s potential paramour. Three Billboards has drawn memorable portraits of characters we won’t soon forget.
Right behind Three Billboards has to be Lady Bird, which is also anchored by a strong female lead: Saoirse Ronan as the confident, if somewhat arrogant, teenager en route to “the road to find out.” But Ronan’s work is enhanced by two supporting turns from Tracy Letts as her father and Laurie Metcalf as her mother. Both are reliably great character actors who have never had a moment like this to shine, and shine they do. There is also Beanie Feldstein as the nice friend Lady Bird doesn’t appreciate until the end. Lady Bird is full of wonderful performances and is clearly made by a director who not only knows actors but gives them much room to breathe.
Sally Hawkins anchors Guillermo del Toro’s glorious film The Shape of Water, but her lead character is paired with Octavia Spencer, who plays her best friend and partner-in-crime when the two jailbreak a captured creature. There are few things more pleasurable on film this year than scenes of Spencer and Hawkins tooling their way through cleaning the government building, with Spencer chit-chatting at Hawkins (who can’t talk and must listen). Their observations about people and their mess is so funny. But Richard Jenkins is also brilliant as Hawkins other partner-in-crime and neighbor friend. He too chit chats while she patiently listens. And finally, the great Michael Shannon as the film’s villain is so so good. He has some of the best lines in the movie. The Shape of Water gives both Lady Bird and Three Billboards some heat when it comes to potentially winning Best Ensemble, the reason being that every performance is well drawn on its own and all of them make a cohesive whole that hums along to tell this remarkable love story.
Speaking of love stories, Timothée Chalamet is outstanding as Elio in Call Me by Your Name, but his work is equaled by Armie Hammer as his lover, and Michael Stuhlbarg as his father. While not as large an ensemble as some of the other films, the work by these central performances is crucial to the film’s success. This is a film that exists in a different time and place, before so many things happened to alter American culture — and there is an undeniable kind of purity in that. No cell phones, no computers, just the natural world and the physical sensations of being young and in love. Call Me by Your Name is one long heavy sigh, a reach back to that pivotal time in anyone’s life when they feel the call of true love for the first time. You can’t forget it. Chalamet is so good as a young man discovering who he is, what he wants, who he loves. But Armie Hammer is also striking in the role as the more experienced, worldly, slightly older man who is slowly opening a door. And of course, Stuhlbarg has a great moment at the end of the film which I won’t spoil here.
Emma Stone also plays a character whose coming out story is told on film in Battle of the Sexes. Like Chalamet’s character, Billie Jean King doesn’t yet live in a time where coming out is made easier with acceptance and support. It’s a very big deal in the early ’70s — a potentially career-ending big deal. Yet this film, like Call Me by Your Name, is about the truth of who these characters are, regardless of whether or not society has caught up it yet. It is also a sensual, moving journey. With across the board great acting, from Steve Carell to Andrea Riseborough and Sarah Silverman, Battle of the Sexes is a big, full, funny ensemble revolving around one strong central performance in Stone.
Gary Oldman portrays the indomitable Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour and he is probably on screen at least 90% of the time. But Oldman is also flanked by some of the best actors in the business. Like Dunkirk, Darkest Hour focuses on a singular moment in time and to do that, to really do that well, director Joe Wright needed actors who could hit the ground running and match Oldman’s powerhouse, unequivocal work. He got that in Ben Mendelsohn, whose King George is a little stronger than we’ve seen him portrayed elsewhere, and Kristen Scott-Thomas as Churchill’s wife Clementine. There’s also Lily James and Stephen Dillane and countless other faces populating this ensemble work, but the bold names deliver, and that’s what will often earn the SAG ensemble nod.
Margot Robbie is the central performance in I, Tonya, but her work is partnered with and plays off well with Alison Janney, the current frontrunner in the Oscar race for supporting actress. The film is a pitch black comedy and filled with actors who know how to hit just the right notes to make it funny and tragic at the same time. Another pitch black (horror) comedy is Jordan Peele’s Get Out which, like I, Tonya, is populated by a well-acted ensemble but really focuses more on the film’s central characters, led by Daniel Kaluuya and supported by Alison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, and Betty Gabriel.
Kumail Nanjiani heads up the wonderful ensemble for The Big Sick, which co-stars Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, and Ray Romano. The Big Sick paints a picture of two cultures clashing and merging, so the cast features many actors of color, Indian and Asian as well as those from the white community. Zoe Kazan in particular is so good in the film. Holly Hunter is the more likely nominee, and deservedly so, but Kazan doesn’t get enough attention for her work. The entire cast does a great job weaving back and forth between funny and serious, always working from the same universal tone.
The Florida Project is really anchored by Brooklynn Prince as Moonee and supported by Willem Dafoe as the kindly motel manager who reluctantly looks after her. But first-timer Bria Vinaite as Moonee’s mom is brilliant — a natural in front of the camera, helping to tell this realistic looking story authentically as possible. The Florida Project is filled with performances by kids who take us into their world. It’s a smaller ensemble but it’s an ensemble nonetheless.
Another ensemble that features a large cast of well-known names mixed with unknowns, and another one that blends cultures is Alexander Payne’s underrated Downsizing. Centered on a great performance by Matt Damon, and flanked by the film’s standout, Hong Chau, with so many other enjoyable turns by Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgård, James Van Der Beek, and Jason Sudeikis. Downsizing is a big movie about going small. If you let it take you where it wants you will enjoy the ride. Chau is particularly great paying tribute to her Vietnamese immigrant parents.
James Franco plays Tommy Wiseau in the hilarious The Disaster Artist, an ensemble film about the worst (ensemble) film ever made. Led by Franco with a supporting role by his brother Dave Franco, The Disaster Artist has a big cast full of well-known faces, like Judd Apatow, Sharon Stone, Alison Brie, Josh Hutcherson, Zac Efron, Megan Mullally, and Bryan Cranston. The Disaster Artist is a movie about actors who love to act so much that they’re willing to act in this movie. James Franco is particularly good as Wiseau, taking the role deeper and darker than anyone could have ever imagined.
Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is moored by a great turn by Christian Bale, but is supported by a large cast featuring many Native American actors like Q’orianka Kilcher, Adam Beach, and Wes Studi. It also features Ben Foster, Rosamund Pike, Jesse Plemons, and Peter Mullan. Hostiles is a moody Western about America’s past, and atoning for the way we took what we wanted with little regard for what (and who) was already there.
2017 has a lot of films with memorable ensembles that might not be considered for the SAG ensemble prize. Surely Steven Spielberg’s The Post seemed tailor made for it. But since no one has yet seen it, it’s hard to know whether to include here. The same goes for The Greatest Showman, Phantom Thread, and All the Money in the World. It’s worth remembering that Darren Aronofsky’s mother!. Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled also have memorable ensembles.
The SAG ensemble lineup will likely be surprising, as it has been for the past few years. Which five would you predict will get nominated there?