10. Traffic (2000) by Steven Soderbergh
They said Steven Soderbergh couldn´t even direct Traffic, but he did, and won an Oscar for it, so the joke´s on them. He made other good ensemble movies (Ocean´s Eleven, maybe Contagion), but with this amazing movie about the war on drugs, he set the mark high. The Wire then broke the mark and set it way higher (almost unreachable).
The movie was shot in over 110 locations of eight different cities, so you can imagine how many plot lines that means. There are many stories and they intersect fast, so fast that it gets kind of confusing, but Soderbergh used the problem as a virtue: he shot with three different films stocks (with their own grain and color treatment) to give each story a distinctive look.
The cast includes Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones just when they were engaged, the leap of Topher Grace (That 70´s show) into cinema and, among others, the miraculous performance of Benicio del Toro, who won a best supporting Oscar mumbling in Spanish. It´s not The Wire, but it´s also a very good ensemble effort on the drug problem.
9. Dazed and Confused (1993) by Richard Linklater
The 70s was a great time to be young. Richard Linklater got to enjoy it as a teenager and relive it while shooting one of the best high school movies of all time. You have the stoner and the sportsman, the slut and the nerd, but somehow they all seem more credible while speaking the lines of a director who loves filming conversations.
Linklater knows how to write an ensemble film. Slacker, SubUrbia, A Scanner Darkly and Boyhood also deserve a place in this list, but Dazed and Confused is very well focused on its issue. Everything is here: the rituals, the party, the clash of high school classes and doubts about the future. And as a good example of how to tight an ensemble film together, it all happens in one place and one day: the last day of school in Austin, Texas, May of 1976.
The soundtrack is a good picture of that time (Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Bob Dylan, Lynkyd Skynryd and more) and the young cast presents Ben Affleck, Mathew McConaughey, Milla Jovovich and Adam Goldberg before you knew their names (if you haven´t learned Adam Goldberg´s yet, look it up). To put it simple, this movie rocks.
8. American Beauty (1999) by Sam Mendes
A good look at the miseries of suburbian American middle class, lighter in mood and prouder of its wit than Short Cuts, American Beauty is still a great ensemble film that probably would be loved even more if it didn´t win every Oscar there is. People love to defend their cult films and the Academy took this one from us.
Sam Mendes made a great directorial debut here, but looking back at it, it´s probably Alan Ball the one who deserves the louder claps, proved later by writing ensemble stories with biting truth in the TV series masterpiece Six Feet Under.
The cast also shines and take advantages of their characters: Chris Cooper, Annete Bening, Mena Suvari, Thora Birch, there isn´t a bad note around, but still Kevin Spacey manages to stand out and give the performance of his life… until House of Cards came around.
7. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) by Wes Anderson
Talk about a great movie poster. They are all up there, quirky, unique and irresistible. Which Tenenbaum do you like the best? Every one of them would be an excellent choice in a costume party. They are so brilliant and defective at the same time it’s hard not to think of them as a family, despite how different they all are. That´s because the creative vision of Wes Anderson can unite everything with his original visual style and writing tone (deadpan comedy with a heart).
Is there any Wes Anderson flick that isn´t an ensemble film? Make a list: The Royal Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom, Grand Budapest Hotel. Every movie is a display of numerous fabulous characters. Why is that? He just loves writing dysfunctional unordinary families and coming up with new ways of keeping them together. They all live in a world he reinvents in each film. Happily, we´re allowed to live in it for a couple of hours every other year.
6. Magnolia (1999) by Paul Thomas Anderson
The most ambitious movie from one of the most ambitious, and one of the best, filmmaker of our time is also his own personal favorite. He wanted to do an intimate small-scale film and it “kept blossoming” into Magnolia, a sentimental yet intimate epic which follows characters in search of love and forgiveness during 24 hours in Los Angeles.
Here is a chance to see Julianne Moore, William H. Macy and John C. Reilly (among others) at the top of their game. And for those Tom Cruise haters, they will learn to respect (even love) him with his Seduce and Destroy seminar. The Aimee Mann song and the raining frogs are good examples on how to tie interlinked plots. These stories can be judged to be as emotional as a soap opera but are, in fact, part of an ensemble masterpiece. Because it did happen, and it wasn’t by chance.
5. Pulp Fiction (1994) by Quentin Tarantino
This movie did so much it became an instant classic. It revived John Travolta´s career, made a star out of Uma Thurman, killed the hero in the middle of the film, has one of the greatest soundtracks of all times and won the Palm d´Or in Cannes. How did Tarantino do it? He´s a genius writer, that´s how he did it.
It doesn´t matter if the plot starts with the middle, the end or the beginning or how the stories intersect or jump into each other, each one is so powerful on its own, the dialogue, the music, the characters, that it´s impossible to choose a favorite scene. The dance contest, obviously. Or when they bring out the gimp? Wait, Christopher Walken´s ass watch story! But Samuel L. Jackson drinking sprite and Harvey Keitel´s Wolf and the sexy belly of Bruce Willie´s… forget it. They are all of equal greatness. That´s what makes this an excellent ensemble film.
4. Amarcord (1973) by Federico Fellini
Amarcord is a filmed poem about Rimini, the small Italian coast town where Fellini grew up in the 1930s, and as any good poem it’s mostly a feeling, a scent, something that can´t be described in words. Characters may come and go through the scenes without the constrictions of a linear narrative or a plot structure because they all have a coherent part in the anarchic imagination of Federico.
It is said that Amarcord is an autobiographical film about Fellini´s childhood (the title means “I remember”), but in the director´s words: “It is not memory that dominates my films. It seems to me that I have invented almost everything for the pleasure of being able to recount them”. He may be a liar, but such a good liar, that perhaps truth is overrated.
3. Short Cuts (1993) by Robert Altman
If you look up “ensemble film” on a dictionary, maybe Robert Altman´s picture will illustrate the definition. Nashville, M.A.S.H, Gosford park, Pret-a-porter and The Company are only some of the many choral movies he´s made. Short Cuts juggles some like 22 characters brought up from Raymond Carver´s short stories and manages to keep them all in the air for more than three hours.
It´s not a cast, it´s a nonstop cameo of movie stars. But Altman is a crafted orchestra conductor and the melody´s author is no other but Carver himself, a writer who can capture the essence of Los Angeles´s working class and the other side of the American Dream in just a couple of truthful moments. The result is not as good as his books, but that´s an understatement.
2. All about My Mother (1999) by Pedro Almodovar
Ensemble movies work best when they are led by a particular tone or vision, and Almodovar has that personal touch. It´s almost impossible to separate his movies from himself, and that´s a good thing. In All about My Mother, he puts his humor behind the melodrama and ends up with an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. This is his love letter to all women and he dedicated the film to courageous and authentic actresses as Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands and Romy Schneider.
The colorful feminine cast benefits from the strong, truthful and over the top scenes that only Almodovar can write. Cecilia Roth and Penélope Cruz know especially that working with him is an actress’ dream. The characters must endure many tragedies and emotional crisis with dignity and a sense of humor, because that´s Pedro´s take on life.
1. 12 Angry Men (1957) by Sidney Lumet
Twelve men arguing nonstop in a jury room to decide the life of a man. Gradually the personalities and prejudices of each one rise and all there is left is a naked portrait of American´s justice system. This is the debut feature of Sidney Lumet, the wonderful director of Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, that could also have Network showing off here. Twelve Angry Men, however, is an iconic ensemble film that dances through dialogue with twelve characters without stepping on any feet.
Much of the credit comes from the meticulous play written by Reginald Rose, but Lumet knows how to film a whole movie in a room, changing lenses and camera angles to make it seem more claustrophobic as the hours go by. The story is exhaustingly gripping to the end and we couldn´t sustain our presumption of innocence if we didn´t include it on the list.
Author Bio: Fernando Milsztajn is an Argentinian writer. He was a cinema journalist and curator of Ojo de Pez movie cycle in Club Cultural Matienzo, and is the author of the web series Neuróticos and No Sé Qué.