A movie poster full of stars with different outfits and peculiarities is very tempting for the audience. But even more so, for the producer, who thinks that casting a variety of attractive actors, giving at least one good scene each and scattering thin stories together can deliver a hit. That may be true, but it doesn´t mean that the result is any good.
Writing an ensemble movie is a hard thing to do: the colorful secondary characters that add comic relief to a story now have to step up and be at the same level as the main character. Can they do it?
There isn´t enough time for everyone in the movie – unlike a tv series, where ensemble casts usually work for the best, so the writer must introduce and develop each character with broad strokes, without cheating, respecting the arcs of every story and keeping them believable at the same time. Can he do it?
Also, something – a day, an accident, a city, a family – must hold them together. It can´t be random. Every story has to work as a different point of view of the same theme, giving the whole movie a richer and wider perspective.
So an ensemble film is certainly not an easy thing to do, but when it´s done right…
Check out this list of great ensemble movies and decide for yourself if less is more, more is more or, more or less, you don’t know but still love them all.
20. Love Actually (2003) by Richard Curtis
After writing such successful romantic comedies as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, Richard Curtis gets corny and mixes every love story there is under the charm of Christmas and somehow gets away with it. The trick is not only in the great cast and the comic timing, but in the different endings (not all happy) and variety of forms represented with all the spectre of love in one single lovely ensemble movie you can watch every time you feel bad.
The comeback cover of “Love Is All Around” by Bill Noghy´s forgotten rock star sums up the movie. Not even the new Prime Minister of England can escape from the power of this magnetic force and being played by Hugh Grant doesn´t help a bit (he couldn´t get rid of the romantic movie genre in the last two decades). Cynic viewers probably won´t admit that they enjoyed a sentimental movie for once.
19. Do The Right Thing (1989) by Spike Lee
The entire shooting of this movie took place in one block in Brooklyn. All the races collide with violence imploding at every minute. That´s New York. Spike Lee knows it better than most, having grown up there, and he presents all the hatred (and love) of his neighborhood in a colorful ensemble movie that couldn´t be done by anyone else. The opening credits with Rosie Perez´s frenetic dancing speaks for itself.
The Italians hate the blacks, the blacks hate the Asian. ”Are we gonna live together? Together are we gonna live?”, asks Mister Senor Love Daddy. It´s the hottest day of the year, and it´s gonna get even hotter, while so many immortal characters – Sal, Radio Raheem, Da Mayor, Mother Sister – cross paths and strike sparks against each other.
Spike Lee wrote the script in two weeks: he knew exactly what he was talking about. It´s been 25 years since Do The Right Thing came out, and the movie is so alive today as the issues uncovered.
18. Songs from The Second Floor (2000) by Roy Anderrson
After 25 years without shooting a feature film, Roy Andersson, a refugee in the advertising world, reinvents himself as a mix of Ingmar Bergman and the Monty Pythons with a masterpiece that paints the apocalypse of capitalism in numerous surreal and hilarious vignettes that granted him the Grand Jury Price in Cannes.
Every shot is done with one long take where the camera stands still. You´ll have time to look at the frame as a painting and in that patience lays a painful deadpan humor that keeps you thinking. Nothing works here. The traffic is as stuck as the lives of the desperate people trying not to drown. Scene after scene, they all pile up to a greater concept: an economic system collapsing.
Anderrson would continue the attack to the grayness of the Swedish middle class in You, The Living, another film worthy of this list. But one of them is plenty, because both movies have the auteur touch that gives them their togetherness, just like a good painting.
17. Happiness (1998) by Todd Solondz
Todd Solondz must have written this perfect script with a machine gun. Or it seems that way. Here are all the sad people left behind in other movies: the losers, the perverts, the nerds. Is he one of them? The humor is so black that some critics may fail to see anything through it. They can claim that Solondz laughs at his own characters, but he´s really trying to expose a truth. Because these people do exist, they are part of the human race, and that means we´re all capable of being them.
This controversial acid comedy can generate guilty laughs and walkouts from good nature people, but it´s a masterpiece in its own genre. It´s as unique as Todd Solondz. He is more an auteur than a director. You can love him or hate him, but you should know him first. Happiness is a good place to start.
16. La ciénaga (2001) by Lucrecia Martel
It´s sticky hot, the summer goes up to your head so much that you can´t think straight, and you can feel it in your skin because Lucrecia Martel took you there. She´s a gifted filmmaker that fills each frame with so many textures – sounds, language, symbols – that you can almost breathe the heavy air of Salta, a small provincial town of Argentina.
Here, two women and their families are followed in an ensemble film that is hard to pin down what it´s really about. Everything is happening at once, but nothing in particular. Twisted relationships, constant drinking, a passive decadence, too much to look after and nobody paying attention. It´s all in the atmosphere. The tension. Martel makes you think you´re watching an hypnotic documentary. That´s not an easy task.
15. Together (2000) by Lukas Moodysson
This isn´t a great film, but it´s definitely a lovely one. How can it not be? It takes place in a swedish hippie community in the 70s and it has the sensibility of Lukas Moodysson, director of Fucking Amal and We Are The Best! (run to see this last one, please).
If you think moving together may be the death for many couples, picture this: a revolutionary, two open marriages, three gays (or four), three kids, two carnivores, eight vegetarians, and some hypocrisy living under the same roof. That´s an ensemble movie!
14. Boogie Nights (1997) by Paul Thomas Anderson
Dirk Diggler, Rollergirl, Buck Swope, Jack Horner… they are all fun names with great performances and they are going to get to the top only to fall down at a higher speed. This roller-coaster ride takes no shortcuts and no exceptions: every character has to take the ride and you just have to love them for it.
This story was told many times in real life. You can change the context – music, sports, mafia, Hollywood – and retell it in any place or time; it just keeps happening and it´s fascinating. That´s why although it might be catalogued as the Goodfellas of porn in the late 70s, Boogie Nights has its own place in film history.
Boogie Nights proves before anyone else that Mark Wahlberg can be a very good actor, it witnesses the comeback of Burt Reynols. It not only has the cast of a lifetime (Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilley, Heather Graham, Alfred Molina, William H. Macy, Don Cheadle) but every one of them has an unforgettable role. They are all introduced in an opening sequence that must be shown in film school as an example of a sequence shot. And, even if you´re not a woman or a homosexual, you have to admire that last shot of the movie.
13. Amores perros (2000) by Alejandro González Iñárritu
A car accident intersects three stories filled with dogs, love and human brutality in Mexico City. It could be the premise of a good exercise for script writers class, but it´s the plot of the first Inarritu film which opened a somewhat ensemble trilogy followed by 21 Grams and Babel.
Amores perros may break your heart, but it has a heart in its right place. Like Chivo, the homeless kidnapper. Or the irresistible Gael García Bernal, who can put his dog in a dogfight, steal the woman of his brother, cause a fatal accident and still make you believe he was right about it all.
Some people may accuse Alejandro González Iñárritu, who used to be a publicist, for using (abusing) too many dramatic effects, but probably after Birdman, a movie as big as its ambition, that may win over the next Oscars, nobody will doubt his talents.
12. Requiem for a Dream (2000) by Darren Aronofsky
You need good stomach to watch this movie. Ideally, you should watch it when you need to recover from a drug addiction. Darren Aronofsky takes four lives filled with dreams and optimism and crashes them all at the same time in a long final act you´ll have to watch between the gaps of the fingers covering your face. This is beyond horror flicks. It´s just plain cruel. It’s the complete opposite of a happy ending.
It’s also an ensemble movie very well written (by sadists), where the director’s touch is constantly felt with his unique directing style. When most movies have approximately 600 cuts, Requiem has over 2000. That makes the pace of the drug experience so frenetic that you forget to slow down before it´s too late. Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans give their best but Ellen Burstyn hurts the most with her brilliant performance. It´s a crime she didn´t get an Oscar for it.
11. The Thin Red Line (1998) by Terrence Malick
After twenty years out of the scene, Terrence Malick came back to film all the actors he couldn´t direct in the past two decades into one ensemble movie. He shot over a million feet of film and made an original cut of almost six hours, before starting to cut and cut and cut parts and storylines to wrap it up in a close-to-three-hour-long movie.
All this sounds like the work of a megalomaniac without proper supervision, but the result is an existential war movie that clashes with nature and the nature of mankind. There are as many lines of poetry as bullets in this film, and somehow it all works.
As chaotic as it is, with actors appearing and disappearing constantly, this ensemble film works because they all serve for a bigger concept. A vision of life and death in a wonderful world that witness the brutal madness of humanity with indifference. Watching a Hollywood star die five minutes after his first line only serves better to the point: everything can happen during a war.
And if the stars don´t like it they can get some comfort knowing that at least their parts made the final cut, while Gary Oldman, Martin Sheen, Mickey Rourke, Bill Pullman and Viggo Mortensen didn´t get to show their performance at all. Hiring all those names and giving them nothing to show for after twenty years of doing nothing… you need guts (and ego) to do that. Malick has both.