Ensemble films can either unify or be a complete mess, like many other things. Whether they are parallel stories in a shared world, or a group of great actors occupying the same time and space, they must flow together to make a lasting film.
On this list, there are films where actors don’t ever cross one another’s paths, or where the entire ensemble is always on the same mission. Regardless, here are great films with amazing ensembles.
10. How the West Was Won (1962)
Cast: John Wayne, James Stewart, Karl Malden, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Eli Wallach, Thelma Ritter, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, Lee J. Cobb, Walter Brennan, Andy Devine, George Peppard, Carroll Baker
Spanning literally the entirety of the west in a 2:89 aspect ratio with three directors in three hours, you were going to need a great cast to pull this one off. Consisting of a majority of the A-list actors from the Hollywood era in 1962, the film seamlessly transitions from the Rockies, the Civil War, the railroad era, and the Great Plains era as we join new groups of actors.
The film consists of many male actors who were used to the west. However, most don’t cross one another as the independent stories are true to themselves, and each actor plays their part perfectly. Sometimes it’s difficult to make an ensemble and separated piece where big stars only have a minimum amount of screen time, but somehow, maybe due the grandeur of the film, it works.
The film was a critical and box office hit, thanks of audiences wanting to see so many high profile acclaimed actors in one sitting.
9. Ocean’s 11 (2001)
Cast: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia, Elliot Gould, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Carl Reiner, Eddie Jemison, Don Cheadle, Shaobo Qin, Bernie Mac
Steven Soderbergh shows no signs of slowing down, especially during one of the peaks of his career in a rare more successful remake of the original. The amount of A-listers in the film that work together so fluidly, comedically, and dramatically together is almost shocking. The film is obviously about the heist of three Las Vegas casinos.
The film consists of 13 leads, where all the characters interact and have little riffs and stories. Between the brotherly bantering of Scott Caan and Casey Affleck, or the legendary orders of Carl Reiner and Elliot Gould, there is never a dull moment – it is all pure entertainment.
The film is endlessly rewatchable and to enjoy some of the top Hollywood performers all in one film makes it such a rare treat in how they all play off one another. Maybe it’s the ‘men on a mission’ kind of film, but thanks to the cast, it’s cinematic, fun, and unforgettable.
Soderbergh has used ensemble casts before such as in “Traffic,” “Contagion” and the Ocean sequels, and but here he got the most bang for his buck.
8. The Women (1939)
Cast: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Virginia Weidler, Phyllis Povah, Lucile Watson
Even though men are talked about in the film, the screen is only graced with the presence of women, and they sure succeed in proving a point. Regardless of the year being 1939 and the fact that it was based off a Clare Boothe Luce play, the film stands up today.
All of the women and some of the top leading ladies of Hollywood grace the screen. It revolves mostly around their romantic endeavors, strictly from their point of views on the affairs. Maybe it’s just watching great actresses on screen without a man bursting in, but it shows again how Hollywood allowed the women simply to be themselves.
For example, the scene where Crawford marches into the dressing room and goes head to head with several others. She insults, gets insulted, and storms out after creating a frenzy with the others, only to be on the defense again. The emotions and context are all over the place and we are never not enthralled.
George Cukor surely made a hit in 1939 and hopefully audiences can appreciate this great cast at their finest, simply amongst themselves.
7. The Rules of the Game (1939)
Cast: Nora Gregor, Paulette Dubost, Marcel Dalio, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir, Pierre Nay, Julien Carette, Gaston Modot, Pierre Magnier, Leon Larive, Henri Cartier Bresson, Marguerite de Morlaye
One of the first true foreign films that featured a large cast in its entirety. Jean Renoir was able to capture the French upper-class society and their servants in pre-World War II France in a comedy of manners. What is striking about the film is the mise-en-scene and how Renoir allows the characters, including himself, to operate within one frame so the audience can see how they all operate together.
The film can be considered a critique of society, but we are able to view a world that is rarely seen, especially at the time. Consisting of actors from stage and film and even some non-actors, we see the charming, witty, and clever upper class with the observance, obedient, and cunning lower class. Since both sides of society are at play, we can gather a large amount of what France was like at the time.
Due to Renoir’s framing and diversity in class structure in the film, we rarely get an ensemble film where polar opposites are portrayed on screen as they are here.
6. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Cast: Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, Dianne Wiest, Michael Caine, Woody Allen, Carrie Fisher, Max von Sydow and a supporting cast
A film from the ‘a film every year’ writer-director Woody Allen brings an interconnecting story that revolves around the lives of three sisters and their lives. We witness two years of the three sisters in fragmented pieces of a narratives in the ups and downs in Manhattan.
Over the course of the film, the boyfriends, husbands, and relatives overlap as everyone struggles to find happiness and meaning in their life. It plays out in great Woody Allen fashion with each actor, since Allen usually casts his films right with Juliet Taylor, delivering the tragicomic one-liners and awkward situations.
Throughout the film, an amazing supporting cast plays around in the main cast, with J.T. Walsh, Richard Jenkins, Lewis Black, John Turturro, Julie Kavner, Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O’Sullivan, Julia Louis Dreyfus, and Daniel Stern showing up in random places. It’s amazing, regardless of whether it was an early role or a later role or how these actors fit in that universe.
Almost every emotion is played upon in the film beautifully by a great cast.