In a series of Best Of posts, we’ll be taking a look at a few categories worth singling out as we move towards our ten best films of the year. More and more, ensemble driven films are popular because big-name actors prefer to take smaller, more interesting parts rather than put on a superhero costume or not work at all. A strong ensemble cast is always noticeable from the outset, especially if there is a good relationship between the actors and a better relationship between actors and their director. Where 2014 had some brilliant showcase pieces with one or two strong actors standing out, like The Imitation Game with the brilliant Benedict Cumberbach and Keira Knightley, American Sniper, which is mostly about Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller, Whiplash, which is JK Simmons and Miles Teller mostly, or The Theory of Everything which is Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, it was also a year with great ensemble work worth noting.
So herewith, our top eleven Best Ensembles of 2014
Birdman is really nothing without its ensemble cast. These actors had to prepare long in advance to have this kind of humming symmetry and perfect rhythm with each theory and Inarritu’s roaming camera. Though the lead, Michael Keaton, is the standout performance, the character who shows the most vulnerability and depth, he is matched well by the supporting players, chief among them Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan and Zach Galifianakis. If you want to watch a master class in acting, watch Birdman. How fun it must have been for these actors to tear into this work and their exuberance shows in every frame of this film. That makes it one hell of a contender for the SAG ensemble award and probably its winner. Birdman is about many things. It’s about art and it’s about love. It’s about the collapse of our culture and about hope for its future. It is funny, crazy, moving and a celebration of the hopelessness of existence. But it’s nothing without its actors and it might be the only film on this list you can say that about. That, my friends, is ensemble acting at its best.
Ava DuVernay is one of the few directors working today who invests in really good African American actors at every level of renown, not just the big names. But to bring the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the march to Selma to life she needed a powerhouse and she got one in David Oyelowo, who manages to do what many actors have never been able to – capture both King’s majestic gift for giving speeches and his more human side, the man who was also a husband. Some of Oyelowo’s best scenes take place with Lyndon Johnson (an understated Tom Wilkinson) where he’s quietly trying to convince the President of the United States how important voting rights are to communities in the South, communities like Ferguson, Missouri. But Selma isn’t just Oyelowo’s performance. Supporting players include Tim Roth, Giovanni Ribisi, Oprah Winfrey, the wonderful Lorraine Toussaint. Another standout is Carmen Ejogo as Correta Scott King, who does more than just stare lovingly at her powerful husband but rather keeps her own internal world close to the surface of her skin. Selma had to be an ensemble work because that is the whole point of this most excellent film – to show power in numbers, what communities can do when they come together for a common cause. Selma is not a film that simply teaches you about civil rights – it is vibrant piece of work from one of America’s most promising directors. It is also one of the best films of 2014.
3) Gone Girl
Director David Fincher has never done this kind of satire before with such a large cast. While all of his films have humor in them, and he’s generally comfortable with large casts, like in Benjamin Button, the Social Network, Zodiac and Fight Club, here he has cast a hive of women surrounding one man, Ben Affleck character who must make his way out of the sticky web unscathed. Striking a note somewhere between hilarious and creepy, half the cast slithers in and out of Fincher’s world like hidden monsters, while the other half bumble through it like normal people. The biggest box-office hit so far in the race, of Fincher’s career and nearly everyone involved in the film except for Affleck, Gone Girl turns out to be the biggest surprise of 2014. The standouts are the marvelous Carrie Coon as Affleck’s sister, Kim Dickens as the wisecracking gumshoe, funny Emily Ratajkowski as the mistress, Sela Ward, Missy Pile, and the one, the only Tyler Perry are all adept at handling Gillian Flynn’s wry humor. Neil Patrick Harris steps in as Desi, a strange kind of mix of Cary Grant and Liberace, while Ben Affleck has never been better as the puppy dog husband getting in way over his head. But Gone Girl belongs, ultimately, to its titular star – Rosamund Pike who finally got the chance to show people what she’s capable of as an actress. Sweet, vulnerable, vicious, bitter, scary, mean – Pike knocks it way out of the park in one of 2014’s best performances by a man or a woman. Gone Girl works because every element of it is in the same groove, humming along at a similar frequency. The actors work with the director who works with the composers, the cinematographer and the editor. Fincher proved with Gone Girl that stories absent brilliantly written parts for women are less interesting, less entertaining, and ultimately less successful than projects like these that invest full in what women are capable of – in darkness and in light.
4) Boyhood – Linklater, like the other directors on this list, is also someone comfortable with an ensemble but maybe never as interesting as it is here, in Boyhood, where the actors he’s working with are aging 12 years in the process. Talk about your true ensemble. They are living their real lives while making the film. While Patricia Arquette is the heart and soul of the film, the other actors hold their own, especially Ethan Hawke as the good-time Charly dad who grows up, too, to become a real father by the end. Lorelei Linklater, Papa Linklater’s daughter who also grows up and comes of age, really, while making the film. If you follow her on Facebook you’ll see what a fascinating individual she is, in addition to her talent as an artist. And of course, Ellar Coltrane, the star of the film who acts as a little boy, then a young teen and finally a grown man. All the while, these actors are communicating with each other as their characters. Though we know Hawke and Arquette really well from their acting history, there is not an inauthentic moment in the film where they stop being the characters they play. Boyhood is one of the best films of the year that features some of the best acting in any film of any year.
5) Into the Woods
This singing cast under the careful hand of Rob Marshall brings the musical back to movie theaters in a great way. It’s the thing that’s been missing from his other films (except Chicago) — a tight, complete ensemble as this. A lot of that is Marshall but some of it was Meryl Streep, by most accounts, who kept the actors in this (and in Osage County) working together like family. The standouts are Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine and Streep, of course, but wait, there’s more – there’s Tracy Ullman, Emily Blunt, Christine Baranski, James Corden, Tammy Blanchard, Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone. They can sing and act and do both so well that it almost feels like you’re watching it live, on stage. Thing is, this is a less funny version of the play. Marshall did not back off of how sad the story turns by the end, and maybe that is the thing that ultimately makes this film great.
You’d be hard pressed to find a better triangle of performances than you do here, with Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. You can throw in Vanessa Redgrave who has some small but key roles as the mother who could turn daisy to a stone with one look. The volleying between Tatum and Ruffalo and Carell is exciting to watch, subtle though it is sometimes. One of the best scenes in the movie involves the moment (spoiler alert) when Ruffalo realizes just who and what Steve Carell is. It’s such a subtle but powerful shift and it all happens with one look. That is how Foxcatcher moves, slowly, deliberately towards its tragic end.
7) The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson is also a director who likes to work with large ensembles. Though Ralph Fiennes is the lead here, he is joined by a wonderful cast of character actors at their absolute most colorful, including Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Lea Seydoux, Tom Wilkinson, Saoirse Ronan – really, can you get a bigger and better ensemble cast than that? A Wes Anderson movie is really like stepping into a Wes Anderson world where the acting is all very stylized. I’m sure that there is nothing more fun for an actor than to stretch themselves that way.
8) Mr. Turner
I was remiss in my earlier director piece ignoring the brilliant Mike Leigh for his masterwork, Mr. Turner. Leigh goes deep once again with a fine team of actors, probably many of them not known in the US but all of whom are masters of the craft of acting. Starting with the magnificent Cannes and New York Film Critics winner Timothy Spall, along with Dorothy Atkinson as his skin afflicted maid, Ruth Sheen of course, Lesley Manville — both from Another Year, Marion Bailey and more. This is such an ensemble piece that you don’t get much dialogue from Mr. Turner himself, but rather a lot of grunting. But you could go to school on these actors, indeed.
9) Inherent Vice
You can’t lose when you put Josh Brolin in an ensemble. He almost always makes it better – he’s like a younger, leaner John Goodman in that way. Brolin is the standout in a film full of funny, vibrant, surreal, memorable performances in this Paul Thomas Anderson existential comedy. Other standouts include Martin Short, Jenna Malone, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson and of course, the star Joaquin Phoenix. Newcomer Katherine Waterston is a true find, slinking in and out of the scenes as this film’s romantic muse. Anderson is adept with ensembles, often using a large cast to springboard his ideas off of – he believes in the actor to tell the stories and delights in turning their faces into canvases, pulling out extreme and bizarre performances from them sometimes. Most appreciative from Anderson this year is the sensuality he brings to the big screen, something sorely missing from many of the other films this year.
10) A Most Violent Year
The JC Chandor crime film about the oil scandal of the 1970s is really worth seeing because of its actors. Like Margin Call and All is Lost, Chandor often invests much in his actors while keeping the thrust of his stories a bit opaque. He writes plots that have actors reacting to their circumstances, which almost always leads to the best kind of acting. To do that, you need great performances and he gets them from Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, Catalina Morena Sandino and others. While Chastain (as usual) steals the show, Oscar Isaac shows his unending range here again as a husband and father trying to hold together a family life under shady circumstances. The film feels to me like a tribute to Chandor’s own father, which makes it kind of autobiographical but it really is a study of a time and place, that is strong on acting more than anything else.
11) Still Alice
Julianne Moore plays a woman afflicted with early onset Alzheimer’s. It becomes a story of a mother doing everything she can to hold on for the sake of her daughters and their lives to come. Alec Baldwin is excellent as Moore’s supportive husband, along with Kate Bosworth as the elder daughter. But it is really Kristen Stewart alongside Julianne Moore who makes Still Alice so exceptional of a cinematic experience. Stewart’s raw vulnerability and eagerness to both care for, relate to and help her mother is one of the most moving supporting performances I’ve seen this year. The way Stewart looks at her mother who is fast fading before her eyes is real and powerful. Moore responds to this and the two of them take this film where it needs to go. Moore has been giving standout performances for years, and gave another one this year in Maps to the Stars, which would be on this list if it were coming out this year. But here, she adopts little affectation in bringing Alice from an alive spark to a vanishing imprint of who she used to be. This is some of the best acting you’ll see this year not because it is showy or funny but because it is so organic and real – they are communicating clearly to each other, through their characters, through themselves.
The critics didn’t seem to respond to this very actor-driven film but here is the power of ensemble work at its best, probably because it is directed by an actor. It’s another cast of women, all of them brilliant in their roles as mentally ill wives discarded by their husbands. Naturally, the brilliant Ms. Swank is the standout here, alongside the always present Tommy Lee Jones. Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer and Sonja Richter play the women, with character actors like William Fichtner, Tim Blake Nelson, John Lithgow, Hailee Steinfeld and James Spader. Meryl Streep pops in towards the end but her real work this year is in Into the Woods. Still, The Homesman is an actors movie all the way, with Jones giving Swank much room to showcase her performance as Mary Bee Cutty, a woman born out of her time.
Angelina Jolie is another actor’s director, being an actor herself. Though the film feels a bit like she’s in over her head – even the best of them would have a hard time telling this epic tale — she is very good with her key ensemble, including Jack O’Connell as Louis Zamperini, Miyavi and Garrett Heldund. She never gives them the short shrift and spends a lot of time on their faces as their emotions change.
Christopher Nolan’s giant space epic is also strong on ensemble work, with Nolan investing a great deal of his time and energy on the actors, which include Jessica Chastain, Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine and more. The visual effects maybe overshadow them a bit but the emotional impact of the film is due primarily to the actors, particularly McConaughey and Chastain.
Xavier Dolan’s film is about three characters. It is also about three brilliant actors willing to turn themselves inside out. Anne Dorval is especially good as Mommy, a strangely complex bad mother trying to be a good mother under the circumstances. I love what Dolan does here, with this impossible relationship between mother and son, not to mention the neighbor who becomes like a surrogate mommy for the main character. Antoine-Olivier Pilon is fantastic as the manic depressive son, as is Suzanne Clement as the neighbor.
As far as SAG ensemble goes, I would not be surprised if their list was:
Into the Woods
The Imitation Game
I also think The Grand Budapest Hotel and Gone Girl are possible choices there. But we shall see next week.