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.
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.