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« Previewing the animated features of 2014 | Main | Open Thread: The Problem of Proliferation & Consensus »
Thursday
Dec262013

Year in Review: Best Ensembles & Best Casting

To the tune of Madonna's "Music" ♫

Hey Mr Director, get your ensemble on, all the guys & ladies
And once the movie starts
don't ever let them stop, they're gonna drive me crazy

People make the movie come together - yeah


As annoying as it was in 2003 when Mystic River was attempting to halt the inevitable Lord of the Rings coronation with a sort of 'people are the best special effects!' Oscar campaign, the sentiment was true and remains so. I've been going to all kind of movies my whole life and  I've yet to see anything that's as remarkable as the happily regular occurence of weird electricity and true magic sparking when fine actors collide, collude, combust or cooperate.

So as we're all celebrating the holidays with our own personal ensembles of friends and family, I thought it would be a good time to honor the most special collections of players in 2013.  I can never let the Screen Actors Guild have the last word on this matter because, though acting is their raison d'etre, they never get this category right, opting for popular Oscar bound films with big casts and not really thinking about the WHOLE cast, and how all those players are interacting and bouncing off or working together. This year, they chose August: Osage County, American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years a Slave, Lee Daniels' The Butler, and I think two of those are really poor choices (though I like all five films) when you're thinking about the acting collective as opposed to just one or two performances within it. SAG's past history suggests that they're only comfortable with "star" ensembles so they were never going to go for fine teams like Frances Ha and Short Term 12 but why not Prisoners which is a sharp example of stars NOT connecting with each other on purpose. Everyone in that cast is alone since all the characters are horrified by each other (and sometimes themselves), trapped in their own personal grief and grievances.

When you're talking about great ensemble work I think you're also talking about fine direction and smart casting, though there are exceptions. Two fascinating examples of how complicated this all gets in that you can have one without the other(s) are August: Osage County and 12 Years a Slave. A:OC has a lot of fine actors in it but the director John Wells can't figure out how to see all of them at once, opting too often for shot / reverse shot when he needs to widen the camera or choreograph them differently so we can watch them together. I've never understood why so many contemporary directors have trouble absorbing this concept since their peers who are skillful at shooting group scenes are hardly obscurities. Just watch a couple of movies by David O. Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson (or classic departed directors like Wyler or Altman) and you'll instantly be smarter about ensemble vision; They know exactly when to go to or stay with a two-shot or a three or four or even five shot... Hell, get everybody in there -- the more the merrier! As for 12 Years, I'm on record as complaining about the casting. Too many of its (white) supporting players are too familiar as  faces go which, in a lesser movie, would really derail the existential horror. But there's no denying that when this cast is acting together it's absolutely electric... I still get chills thinking about the way Michael Fassbender leans on his co-stars like they're his furniture and the way the various actors playing the slaves freeze up whenever they're being observed and the multiple nuances of when the actors are willing to look at each other and when they're too scared or smart to. It's all top notch work but if the director wasn't wise enough to let you see this -- and many directs aren't, just stiching 90 minutes of establishing shots and close-ups together and calling it a movie -- the ensemble probably wouldn't be winning as much praise.

Without further ado... My Nominations for Best Casting & Best Ensemble

And, in case you haven't seen THR's Casting Roundtable. I watched it only after making my lists since I didn't want to be unduly influenced but it's completely interesting. 

I only wish they could have found room for Rich Delia and Douglas Aibel, since I'm honoring both this year.

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Reader Comments (13)

Agree with Hustle, 12YAS, and Frances Ha. Wasn't too into Prisoners and could not see Short Term 12.

I'll go to bat for The Bling Ring for the Ensemble category. Like to know about the casting process for that one. Chang and Broussard were such good finds.

December 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Ensemble: Of the nominees, either 12 Years a Slave or American Hustle would get my vote, but I'd also have Inside Llewyn Davis, The Wolf of Wall Street and Out of the Furnace in the running.

Casting: Of the nominees, I'd choose The Wolf of Wall Street, but my shortlist would include Out of the Furnace, Philomena (I'm surprised, too), American Hustle and Fruitvale Station.

December 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

^ yes, Fruitvale was great casting

December 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

I can tell already that my little college town's inability to program Short Term 12 is going to be a liability heading into Film Bitch season. Sigh. My pick for Best Casting is The Selfish Giant, which I saw for the first time yesterday and totally fell in love with. Amazing film on every level. Clearly the director had a strong hand in getting the performances that she got, especially out of the young nonactor leads, but the casting director must have been like a pied piper or something to get that ensemble together.

Happy to see Blue Is The Warmest Color on your casting long list. It's absolutely a two lead movie, but the periphery is filled in perfectly, especially the high school. Of your shortlist, I'd go for American Hustle, mostly because I love the idea of David O. Russell bringing back the John Ford-esque company of players.

December 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTB

Yay for Prisoners!

December 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFernando Moss

Best casting, Wolf of Wall Street, and I can not believe I said that with Hill, but everybody was just so great in that movie. From the smaller roles, Jonze, McConaughey, Jean Dujardin. So well done all the way around.

December 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkatie

Nice Ensemble list especially the mention of Short Term 12 but I do not get the Prisoners nod maybe because I do not like the film and feel the cast is big names but unlike 12 Years a Slave big names that don't work well together. Your casting choices are other great choices especially Frances Ha for finding the dynamic duo that is Gerwig/Summer but also Short Term 12 for mixing reconizable stars like Larson and Dever with newer actors all working well with each other. Have not seen WOWS or AH yet but from the rest of your nominees I like them.

December 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEoin Daly

One of the Best Casting for me this year was MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. As a Whedon fan, I just love how all of his previous shows as well as The Avengers were represented by the actors he chose and how well they were for their respective parts (with one slight exception which I'd rather not say). Granted his penchant to re-use the same actors over and over might not please others, but can't help but love his loyalty to actors.

December 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

After being really upset with you (yeah, I take your opinions too seriously)for not loving La Vie d'Adèle and for all the hate you gave to The Counselor, Oblivion and particularly the masterpiece that Les Salauds is, I need to say it: LOVE your choices, Nathaniel! Great lineups, great writing, great everything! I adore all the love to Frances Ha and the fact that, despite you didn't love Prisoners (I think it's great, and quite underrated in the blogosphere), you could appreciate the virtues of the ensemble work. Can't wait for more awards!

December 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDeivith

I always make a clear distinction about the 2 categories: Best ensemble for a movie with huge cast, but they blend in and produce what is "the sum is greater than its parts", while Best Casting for a movie that choose the right actors for the right parts, who bring the uniqueness into the characters. (like Chicago, although the ensemble is wonderful, I got a feeling many actresses who get the lead roles can easily get nominated)

My Ensemble Shortlist:
-12 Years a Slave
-American Hustle
-Inside Llewyn Davis
-August: Osage County
-Prisoners

My Casting Shortlist:
-Blue is the Warmest Color
-12 Years a Slave
-Short Term 12
-Captain Phillips
-The Past

(Frances Ha was a 2012-released)

December 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commentertombeet

Here’s a casting riddle that will stump everyone except the most informed film fan. Can you figure this one out?

Frank McHugh was to ________________________

As William Bendix was to _____________________

As Don Gordon was to ________________________

As Paul Newman and Robert Redford were to each other. (hint)

First one to post the correct answer gets my love and respect.

Lorren Daro

January 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLorren Daro

Here’s a casting riddle that will stump everyone except the most informed film fan. Can you figure this one out?

Frank McHugh was to ________________________

As William Bendix was to _____________________

As Don Gordon was to ________________________

As Paul Newman and Robert Redford were to each other. (hint)

Correction/Addition: You'll need to explain the reason for the connection between these actors in order to have answered correctly.

First one to post the correct answer will have earned my love and respect.

Lorren Daro

January 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLorren Daro

Ensemble shortlist:
Blue Jasmine
12 Years a Slave
Her
Philomena
Mud

Casting shortlist:
The Bling Ring
Side Effects
Blue is the warmest Color
12 Years a Slave
Blue Jasmine

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

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