With Avengers: Infinity War boasting close to two-dozen superheroes and a slew of other non-super characters it is safe to say that it is an ensemble cast movie (and one of the more ambitious ones to boot). The ensemble cast movie, with so many moving pieces to put together, is a notoriously hard type of movie for filmmakers to put together. But it is also one of the more exhilarating for the viewer as just about every frame of the movie is filled with stars and characters we love. Avengers: Infinity War is more or less successful in accomplishing this almost impossible task of trying to tell a story while trying to cram as many stars as the movie’s frame could hold. But was it the best to do so? This is what I intend to find out in the list below.
But first, let’s establish some parameters:
- In order to be a true ensemble movie, there needs to be a cavalcade of recognizable stars and more importantly no one star can rise above the rest. The movie’s success depends on all of the cast, or at least a significant amount of the cast, to have equal importance to the movie. This disqualifies a movie like 12 Angry Men because while there is a large cast who share an almost equal amount of time on the screen together, it is also clearly Henry Fonda’s movie.
- There must be an obvious “the whole is greater than the sum of their parts” feel to the movie in that each of the individual story-arcs of the different characters don’t amount to much but it is the way that their stories come together that makes the movie. Conversely, a movie where all the major characters coalesce to one singular goal also counts.
- The movie cannot also clearly be about one or a couple of people. Lincoln boasts a fantastic ensemble cast and a weaving plot that shows in intricate detail the machinations of American democracy. But it is also, as the title suggests, primarily a profile of Abraham Lincoln. So it doesn’t count.
- Due to the “star power” rule above, the movies need to be live-action. Sorry
- And for (my) sanity’s sake, I am restricting this particular list to English-language films only (my dearest apologies to Amarcord) seeing as my perception as to what makes a recognizable star is decidedly Hollywood-centric.
Now let’s get on with it!
Honourable Mentions (in alphabetical order)
The Big Short
Dazed and Confused
A League of Their Own
The Magnificent Seven
This Is The End
Waiting For Guffman
Wet Hot American Summer
10. OCEAN’S ELEVEN (2001) dir. Steven Soderbergh
If one were to distill the essence of the ensemble cast film to its purest form, it might look like Ocean’s Eleven. Soderbergh’s heist film is proof that sometimes all you need for a successful movie is to get a bunch of A-listers and character actors to chew scenery and shoot the breeze together while letting them look oh-so-glamorous while doing so. Hardly any of the actors in this movie look like they get out of second gear for this movie. They hardly have to because they look like they had so much fun filming it and that fun is contagious. Thanks to some truly assured direction by Soderbergh the movie is an effortless if not challenging ride. And there is nothing wrong with that.
9. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014) dir. James Gunn
While Avengers: Infinity War is inarguably the biggest ensemble cast movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it cannot hold a candle to the sheer joy that is seeing the “bunch of a-holes” Guardians come together for the first time. This colourful cast is the classic definition of “the whole being more than the sum of its parts” as Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel) are each less-than-compelling characters from the B-list of the Marvel superheroes roster but whose undeniably chemistry together turn them into the best superhero group this side of the Avengers. Throw in other characters like Yondu, Nebula, the Collector, and the Nova Corps. and you have all the makings of a rollicking space adventure that also represents the absolute confidence of Marvel Studio’s storytelling (they made a raccoon and a one-sentence talking tree compelling superheroes!).
8. IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963) dir. Stanley Kramer
This movie is a comedy epic with an extremely simply premise: a bunch of motorists stop to help when they see a car careen of a cliff on a remote California highway. Just before the driver kicks the bucket, he reveals that he is a wanted criminal and that he has buried $350,000 in a park on the Mexican border. Naturally this kicks off a three-hour (!) mad dash across land, sea, and air as each of the motorists try to get to the park before the others using every underhanded technique in the book to keep their fellow travellers from the literal buried treasure. It is a ridiculous farce of a movie, but it is also never anything but highly entertaining.
7. THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015) dir. Quentin Tarantino
Count me among the minority of people who find The Hateful Eight to be highly underrated. While most people might place Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs as the better ensemble cast movie, I think that Tarantino’s boiler-room Western thriller is his most audacious act. He places eight truly unlikeable and villainous people in the same boarding house for three hours, has them speak horrendous stuff to one another and do even worse things to one another in a melange of violence and shifting allegiances, and yet it is all so very compelling. Of course it helps when Tarantino’s eight in this case comprise of arguably his strongest cast in Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bechir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern.
6. THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS (2001) dir. Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson’s family epic The Royal Tennenbaums is a movie where its obvious glibness and smugness make it seem nothing more than a cynical portrayal of a bunch of unlikeable people tied by familial relationships. And yet spend just more than a passing moment with the Tennenbaum clan and you will find that their general caustic nature masks a sincere longing for all the trappings of a traditional loving family that seemingly eludes them. Featuring some truly tragi-comic performances by the cast (and an especially great send-off performance by Gene Hackman) it is a surprisingly warm and sympathetic film – to those willing to look beyond its surface.
5. THE THIN RED LINE (1998) dir. Terrence Malick
Just how enormous is the cast of this movie? Reportedly Bill Murray, Billy Bob Thornton, and Mickey Rourke were all cut out of this movie while Adrien Brody only found out on premiere night that his supposedly leading role was severely reduced to a supporting role. And yet there are still over two-dozen name characters left. This is partly due to the unique creative process of the enigmatic director Terrence Malick but it is also because it allows us to see the scope of the horror of the Battle of Guadalcanal. Unlike most war movies however, Malick is less concerned with stories of heroism and rather our seeming primal instinct for pitting ourselves against each other. It is a movie of stark contrasts, where Malick’s penchant for capturing beauty jarringly comes up against the brutal ugliness of war, creating a hallucinatory meditation of war and our place in it.
4. LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001) dir. Peter Jackson
Part of the joy of seeing Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy is in witnessing the almost pitch perfect performances by the entire cast who truly become living embodiments of the iconic characters Tolkien fans have come to know and love. While this excellent streak of casting would carry over into the subsequent sequels as the story gets bigger and bigger, Fellowship of the Ring makes the list because nothing can beat the sheer joy of seeing the cast step into their roles for the first time so completely that it completely nullified any fear that this would be anything but an excellent adaptation of one of fantasy’s great novels.
3. MAGNOLIA (1999) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights is undoubtedly the more fun ensemble movie but his sprawling epic Magnolia is the one I find myself drawn to more. The interlocking series of stories of one day in the life of several souls is an operatic ode to desperate loneliness, disappointment, resentment, and despair filled with actors who are obviously giving their all. It is a movie that features Tom Cruise at his rawest as a truly loathsome men’s rights-type motivational speaker, revealing what a fantastic actor he can be when not shackled by genre material. And yet he is simply just one of many fantastic performances from such luminaries like Philip Baker Hall, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Melora Walters, and Jason Robards among others all framed by the empty promises of love and inner peace emblematic of the San Fernando Valley and by extension, America.
2. THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) dir. Philip Kaufman
The race to get to the stars of the mid-20th century is a fascinating period punctuated by lunacy and bravery and no other movie perfectly captures that spirit better than The Right Stuff. Traversing the years between the first sub-sonic pilots all the way to the pilots of the Mercury space program, the movie is a sprawling epic through the shifting sands of those tumultuous years. It is also a fascinating examination of the changing myth of American heroism as the movie begins with lone-wolf cowboy-type test pilots who risked life and limb for their country in secret-testing fields while ending with media-ready camaraderie of the Mercury pilots who basked in the public adulation of their symbolic victories in the space-arms race.
1. NASHVILLE (1975) dir. Robert Altman
Taking place over five days, Altman’s Nashville is a hard thing to try and pin down. It is definitely a showcase of American heartland music as significant chunks of the movie are merely filmed musical performances. It is also a snapshot of an America in search of itself as it was shot in the days following Nixon’s resignation and shown to the country in the wake of its aftermath. Its two dozen or so main characters in the movie range from aides to political candidates for the Presidency all the way down to the desperate singers of this town looking for their magic ticket out of obscurity. It is filled with people who are diametrically opposed to one another who bump up unexpectedly with one another, showing both humanity at its best and its worst. Every time I revisit this film, I struggle with figuring out what this movie is about. But Nashville never fails to move me.