From the earliest days of cinema audiences have gathered to gaze at the flickering play of lights in movie houses, primarily to see their favorite glamorous stars. The dream factories in Hollywood were quick to catch on that the biggest names in Hollywood would reel in the biggest crowds and generate the biggest box office tallies. Soon gimmicky films, custom-made to headline as many movie stars as possible on the marquee, luring in would the biggest queues, and generating the most excitement.
This trend continues today, where a certain kind of motion picture is made that’s top heavy with as many big names as possible, to appeal to the biggest and widest demographics.
And while it was tempting to make the following list overfull with blockbuster spectacles (the recent spate of Marvel movies, and actioners like The Expendables franchise all have large name casts), mainstream comedy hokum (the Cannonball Run series, as well as the Austin Powers movies all have many remarkable cameos, as does Movie 43, which is so bad we’re embarrassed we even mentioned it), and/or big budget animated films (DreamWorks and Pixar projects each boast expansive voice casts of first-rate A-listers, for instance), but instead we went for a considerable cross-section of movies.
Each film listed here is of a fine quality, and while some are flawed (The Greatest Story Ever Told is cheesy to a fault), others are straight-up masterpieces (The Godfather being a prime example), and all celebrate to a certain degree, the cult of celebrity. Many, of course, are multi-protagonist tales or feature surprise cameos of the most recognizable men and women on the planet, and they’re all worthy of your attention, and praise. Enjoy!
20. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Today a staple of East Sunday television programming in North America, director George Stevens’ mealymouthy adaptation of Fulton Oursler’s 1949 best-selling book “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is, as the Christian cults will tell you (and tell you, and tell you), all about the life of Jesus Christ, from the Nativity through on to the Resurrection.
Thankfully this Sunday sermon is punctuated with some truly inspired casting, starting with ol’ JC himself played by Max Von Sydow. Not to be outdone or overlooked, the perpetually creepy Donald Pleasence is perfect as Satan, and other credible casting choices include Richard Bakalyan as Dismas, Robert Blake as Simon the Zealot, Jose Ferrer as Herod Antipas, Charlton Heston as John the Baptist, Martin Landau as Caiaphas, David McCallum as Judas Iscariot, Dorothy McGuire as Mary, Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene, Kojak himself Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate, and in his final film role, Claude Rains as Herod the Great.
The critics were never terribly kind to The Greatest Story Ever Told, and with good reason as it reads like so much Christian propaganda, but it’s a technically impressive feat, the sort of biblical epic that today is seldom attempted.
19. The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
Cresting the wave of impressively made though extremely contrived disaster films from the 1970s (1974’s Towering Inferno and 1970’s Airport are other fine examples), is Ronald Neame’s overwrought actioner the Poseidon Adventure.
Based off of Paul Gallico’s 1969 best-seller, and taking more than a few cues from the real-life tragedy that befell the ill-famed Titanic, the thin-plot pivots on the fictional luxury liner the SS Poseidon, and her final voyage before the scrapheap. On her course from New York to Athens on New Year’s Eve, a tsunami is destined to destroy the ship and those aboard her, unless the survivors can work together, face deadly odds, and make it through.
For popcorn fare, The Poseidon Adventure has a shockingly solid ensemble that includes five Academy Award winners amongst them (Jack Albertson, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Gene Hackman, and Shelley Winters), as well as such recognizable names as Carol Lynley, Roddy McDowall, Leslie Nielsen, and Stella Stevens.
18. JFK (1991)
Oliver Stone’s riveting agitprop speculations on the events leading up to John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the supposed cover-up as viewed through Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), a former New Orleans DA makes for some technically dazzling, overtly biased, bombastic, and conspiracy-fuelled carnival ride.
Adapted from Jim Marrs’ “Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy” and Jim Garrison’s “On the Trail of the Assassins”, Stone and co-screenwriter Zachary Sklar manipulate the viewer with their own confirmation biases, but it holds together rather well, with a huge debt owed to the gobsmackingly extensive and extremely talented cast.
The A-listers giving it their all (and in more than a few instances going way, way, way over-the-top) include Ed Asner, Kevin Bacon, John Candy, Vincent D’Onofrio, Brian Doyle-Murray, John Larroquette, Tommy Lee Jones, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Oldman, Joe Pesci, Beata Poźniak, Michael Rooker, Donald Sutherland, and Sissy Spacek.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of this ambitious picture is the incoherence of all the complex and insurmountable difficulties in the JFK assassination quagmire, but from an ensemble acting standpoint, this is a film of fine pedigree.
17. The Lord of the Rings (2001 to 2003)
It’s nothing short of astonishing how Kiwi low-budget splatter comedy king Peter Jackson (Bad Taste , Dead Alive ) miraculously reinvented himself as big budget and even bigger spectacle adapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic and massive three-volume book, The Lord of the Rings.
As fantasy trilogy it’s an unsurpassed and generous masterwork, subtitled The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003), the ground-breaking and deservedly award-winning spectacles presented therein are further buttressed by the all-star cast which includes; Sean Astin, Sean Bean, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Billy Boyd, John Rhys-Davies, Brad Dourif, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Andy Serkis, Liv Tyler, Karl Urban, Hugo Weaving, and Elijah Wood as the intrepid hobbit hero Frodo Baggins.
Awesome and innovative, The Lord of the Rings films may well be the pinnacle of fantasy films.
16. Heat (1995)
No one does the cops and robbers game quite like Michael Mann (Miami Vice), and his mid-90s crime caper laudation, pitting master criminal Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) against veteran LA robbery-homicide detective Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) has a mythic quality.
Mann, at the height of his considerable directorial powers, grounded this variegated and violent tale on actual events, buoyed by an incredible cast which also includes Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Val Kilmer, Ted Levine, slimeball Tom Sizemore, Wes Studi, Jon Voight, Mykelti Williamson, and a young Natalie Portman.
Never less than gripping, Mann’s tale of heists and inquisitions is memorable for one very remarkable and lengthy action set-piece; the armored car takedown and daytime shootout in downtown Los Angeles.
Landing when Heat did, in a post-Pulp Fiction postmodernist sphere, Mann’s guns-blazing old line permutation holds up and keeps pace like a Swiss watch.
15. A Bridge Too Far (1977)
Cornelius Ryan’s non-fiction best-seller from 1974, marvellously adapted by Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Goldman, lays the groundwork for director Richard Attenborough to bring to life A Bridge Too Far as one of the 70s most celebrated war epics. Set in 1944 as the Allies, acting overconfident in the European land war against the Nazis are soon to see how grandly they’ve overstepped themselves, and pay a terrible price.
The British land troops are led by the somewhat cocky Lieutenant Colonel Vandeleur (Michael Caine) and Lieutenant General Horrocks (Edward Fox), who will both eat a lot of crow once they realize how many of their men have unwittingly been sent to certain doom, along with British and American paratroopers led by Major General Roy Urquhart (Sean Connery) and Brigadier General James Gavin (Ryan O’Neal) caught up in the catastrophe known as Operation Market Garden.
Also in the expansive cast are Dirk Bogarde, James Caan, Elliott Gould, Anthony Hopkins, Gene Hackman, Hardy Krüger, Laurence Olivier, Robert Redford, Maximilian Schell, and Liv Ullmann.
And while period details are perfect, the film has several deliberate factual errors that better serve the dramatics of the tale. So while history buffs may feel a little wronged, the dramatic heft and intensity more than makes up for this powerful film that, while impressive and well-made, should never be mistaken for a history lesson.