The Countdown: Top Ten Ensemble Films

| August 15, 2016

The Countdown: Top Ten Ensemble Movies

Often on The Countdown: Movie and TV Reviews Podcast, Paul and Wayne discuss what they’re criteria for assembling a given list might be.  Seems fair.

Ensemble movies cover a ton of different movies in all genres, time periods, styles, etc, so I wanted to put together a list that is varied and celebrates the challenging act of putting together a great cast and developing them all as individual characters within the group.

Googling “best ensemble movies” will turn up a number of films that clearly have one or two featured characters (The Dark Knight) supported by a strong supporting cast.  However, I want the movies on my list to feature a core group of central characters and none of them feel like the main character.  Also, I decided to only include one superhero team-up movie otherwise there’s a good four I can think of off the top of my head and it quickly just becomes a list about superhero teams.  Perhaps another list for another day.

Ordering this list was very difficult as I really enjoy all of these and ranking one over the other felt like it could change on any given day.

Honorable Mention:  Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Dir. Steven Soderbergh
Soderbergh’s all-star remake of an incredibly boring rat pack film from 1960 is a ton of fun and features a great, charismatic cast, all of whom have something to do, character development, and clear motivations.  It does have a tendency to sacrifice character and stakes for a joke, hence it not actually making my list, but it was close.

10. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Dir. James Foley
Only David Mamet could make a drama about real estate agents fascinating.  The ensemble is stellar, featuring maybe the best ever performances from many of the cast, including Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, and Alec Baldwin.  Weirdly, the weak link to me is Kevin Spacey, who I otherwise think is absolutely terrific but is a bit wasted here.

09. Magnolia (1999)
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Honestly, I haven’t seen this in a while, but I remember being completely blown away by this and how Anderson structures the story to build tension until the completely unpredictable and absurd climax.  Great performances, including one from Tom Cruise, who I’m typically not a fan of, but when he’s on, he’s awesome.

08. Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
Dir. Joss Whedon
I’m a bit of a Shakespeare geek, but even I admit that not everything the bard came up with was gold.  I tend to not like his comedies, but Much Ado About Nothing is a phenomenal dark comedy and Whedon’s adaptation finds an amazing balance between jokes, sight gags, and devastating tragedy.  Plus, the cast is comprised of mostly people Whedon has worked with before, including Alexis Denisoff and Amy Acker from Angel playing the two leads, and Nathan Fillion slipping into a role he was born to play:  Dogberry.

07. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Dir. Quentin Tarantino
I was on the fence about including this or Reservoir Dogs, but ultimately went with Pulp Fiction because I think it is a better film, with a richer ensemble of characters, and maybe as important: a more diverse ensemble of characters.  Tarantino grew a lot as a filmmaker between Dogs and this and so many of the episodic scenes that compile this masterpiece are iconic, and the way the different characters’ stories overlap and come together is structurally perfect.

06. The Usual Suspects (1995)
Dir. Bryan Singer
Did I mention how much I like Kevin Spacey?  This could have very well been where my fanaticism of him started.  The movie is tonally varied, weaving together violence, emotion, laughs, twists, and action.  I love the way the movie is cut together and keeps you guessing.  And of course, the ensemble are terrific together and as individual characters.

05. Three Kings (1999)
Dir. David O. Russell
Maybe the smallest ensemble on the list, but the titular three kings, and the unofficial fourth king played by Spike Jonze are all awesome.  I don’t blindly love all of Russell’s work like a lot of people, but he has done some great films and this is probably my favorite.  I don’t get into a lot of war movies, but give me some characters I care about and I’ll come along with whatever story you want to tell with them.

04. Justice League: Doom (2012)
Dir. Lauren Montgomery
As promised, here is my superhero team-up film.  What?  You were expecting Suicide Squad?  Shut up.  I have a lot of problems with the budding DC Extended Universe thus far, but DC’s animated movies have always been on point, and Doom is a fantastic story about immortal villain Vandal Savage assembling a team of supervillains to use Batman’s own contingency plans against the rest of the Justice League.  I can’t get over how much I loved this movie, and how depressed I am that the DCEU will never come close.

03. The Breakfast Club (1985)
Dir. John Hughes
I tend to hate movies and TV shows about high school students because every one manages to slip into some incredibly predictable clichés about nerds, bullies, jocks, outcasts, and cheerleaders.  Maybe I just went to a high school where people didn’t fit neatly into these nonsensical categories, but I’m betting most all people did too.  John Hughes gets it, and masterfully plays with how popular culture views and depicts high school students by allowing his ensemble of iconic characters to find common ground, relate to each other, and break free of these boxes they’ve let themselves get locked into.  Perfect.

02. L.A. Confidential (1997)
Dir. Curtis Hanson
Hey!  More Kevin Spacey!  L.A. Confidential is like a master’s class in writing.  The characters are fleshed out and realistic, and even more impressive to me is how all of the main characters go through a completely organic reversal and change between the start of the film and the end.  I know that stories about corrupt cops have become commonplace and boring, but you give me a movie like this or Dark Blue that’s about redemption and principle, I am on board every time.

01. Serenity (2005)
Dir. Joss Whedon
Hands down, no contest, thanks for playing.  Whedon is a master of ensemble writing and I easily could have also included Marvel’s The Avengers and Cabin in The Woods on this list without batting an eye, but I wanted a bit more variety.  Based on Whedon’s cult hit TV series Firefly, Serenity continues the story of Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his hodgepodge crew of smugglers, civilians, and fugitives.  It’s about survival, humanity, and fighting for what you know is right.  Plus, the ensemble of a whopping 9 main characters is amazing even if you haven’t seen the TV show establishing all of them.  I saw the movie first, and knew everything I needed to about every character and what they wanted.  Watching the TV series certainly helps give greater context and emotional resonance for what happens in the movie, but it’s so impressive to me that it stands so well on its own.

About the Author:

Joe Sanders Joe Sanders is a podcaster, playwright, and college instructor in Kalamazoo, MI. He has a master's degree in playwriting and a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches thought and writing, and is the host of the Quote Unquote Guilty podcast, part of the Word Salad Network.

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