One of my favorite awards in the whole awards season is the Screen Actors Guild citation for Best Ensemble. This award always reminds me of Robert Altman, who should have won 10 of these things. This means a group of actors working together, in sort of rotating combinations, through a film. Big casts work best for this, but the size isn’t the only determination. The director has to be using all of his or her people ensemble. It’s the French word derived from Latin: “union of parts, parts of a thing taken together,” from French ensemblée “all the parts of a thing considered together.”
- SPOTLIGHT– Tom McCarthy nimbly moves this group around as they investigate the Boston archdiocese. The ensemble includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James in sort of the first rung, and then a second run of Stanley Tucci, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Crudup, and Richard Jenkins (on the phone). All the parts keep moving like a Swiss watch, in perfect time.
- THE HATEFUL EIGHT– No one handles groups better than Quentin Tarantino. “Hateful Eight” to me was like watching a skillful production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Hughie” or “The Iceman Cometh.” Much of it is set in one room, a large cabin that never feels confining. There’s a dazzling interaction among the 8– Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, et al. And even when some of them are removed from the equation, a second tier group shows up in the form of Channing Tatum and his people. Tarantino is performing magic, which is why it look so easy. Deceptive.
- THE MARTIAN– I think we forget this is not the Matt Damon show. While Damon is the center of activity, the action involves a lot of people working together including Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena and so on. Damon’s rescue from Mars takes a village, and Ridley Scott gives its members a lot of latitude– and altitude.
- JOY– I chose “Joy” over “Brooklyn” only because the latter film splinters between Brooklyn and Ireland, and “Joy” is all together now. David O. Russell has become a master of the ensemble game, offering kooky families with many members, major and minor. Some players come from past movies. But then he adds Isabella Rossellini, Edgar Ramirez and Virginia Madsen as new seasoning, and the whole thing clicks. “Joy” isn’t just about Joy Mangano, it’s about Everywoman and her posse of loyal but sometimes frustrating confederates.
- CREED– is an obvious choice. Ryan Coogler moved the people of “Fruitvale Station” around so brilliantly. Here he’s got Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Sylvester Stallone, Phylicia Rashad in the forefront, but then he has that whole boxing crowd with Richie Coster, Andre Ward et al. EEveryone’s important, and each of them contribute equally. When it’s over, you’re ready for the sequel. That’s good filmmaking.