Top 5: Ambitious Ensembles

This weekend, directors Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer unleash their nearly 3-hour epic Cloud Atlas, one of the most ambitious films of ever made with one hell of an ensemble cast, from Tom Hanks to Halley Berry, Jim Broadbant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Keith David, Susan Sarandon, and Hugh Grant (whew, out of breath?). Though Cloud Atlas tells 6 interconnective stories over the course of centuries, it won’t be the first film that spreads a star-studded ensemble cast out across multiple countries and/or time periods. From Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction to Robert Altman’s Nashville, Hollywood has had a long tradition of telling ambitious stories with several big name actors in small roles that all add up to create one riveting whole. In honor of Cloud Atlas continuing this trend in exhilarating fashion, we thought we’d take a look back to discuss 5 other great ambitious ensembles (in no particular order):

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Babel (2006) – Similar to his previous works Amores Perros and 21 Grams, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel is a riveting, multi-story drama, one that connects 3 separate stories taking place in the United States and Mexico, Morocco, and Japan. Though it took home the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Drama, the film ultimately was overshadowed by Martin Scorsese’s behemoth, The Departed. However, Babel is an undeniable masterpiece as it depicts a singular shooting that connects characters played by Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, Elle Fanning, Michael Pena, Adriana Barraza, and Rinko Kikuchi (Barraza and Kikuchi were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Kikuchi was particularly robbed for the win). Much like Cloud Atlas, Babel’s interwoven stories produce connections that are both obvious (parents in one narrative and their kids in another) and subtle (one character’s emotional reaction to something can ripple and be seen again by another character reacting the same way to a different event on a different continent; make sense?), and it’s a film that wakes you up to a startling revelation: no matter race, gender, location, or language, human interaction and motivation is the same in all of us.

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Traffic (2000) – From Out of Sight to Erin Brockovich and Ocean’s Eleven, director Steven Soderbergh has become a master of ambitious ensembles over the past decade, but no film is as rich and gut-churningly intense as Traffic. Starring Benicio del Toro, Salma Hayek, Michael Douglas, Topher Grace, James Brolin, Albert Finney, Catharine Zeta-Jones, Dennis Quaid, and Don Cheadle, Traffic chronicles the illegal drug trade through multiple stories that show how a user, an enforcer, a politician, and a trafficker all indirectly and directly connect. With Soderbergh’s raw direction and an out-of-this-world ensemble, headed by del Toro’s Oscar-winning performance, Traffic is a knuckle clenching political thriller that will leave you on the edge of your seat as the characters force you to do all of the dirty work.

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Sin City (2005) – There’s no question that Quentin Tarantino is a legend of the ambitious ensemble movie (any film of his is certainly worthy of a spot on this list), so realizing that he was a consultant on his friend Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City makes sense, for this eye popping spectacle is like the Pulp Fiction of comic book films. Based off Frank Miller’s acclaimed graphic novel, Sin City tells 4 different stories (2 in the middle and 2 split half way, part told at the beginning and part told at the end) about the dark, crime-ridden underworld of Basin City and stars Jessica Alba, Devon Aoki, Alexis Bledel, Michael Clarke Duncan, Rosario Dawson, Benicio del Toro, Carla Gugino, Josh Hartnett, Brittany Murphy, Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Elijah Wood, and, yes, many more. This is one film that brings the comic book look to vivacious life on screen and the movie feels and unfolds like a page-turning noir – it’s a knockout.

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Contagion (2011) – Well what do you know, another Soderbergh ensemble film that is just as knuckle clenching as Traffic! Released in early September of last year, Contagion was only a moderate success and faded out at the box office before it could find awards-season legs. What a shame! Contagion is a gut-churning international thriller that chronicles a multitude of characters across the world during an influenza pandemic that wipes out the population. With Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lawrence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, and Jennifer Ehle all playing somewhat minor roles, the film combines all of its threads to create one horrifying and paranoia-filled whole. It’s hard to watch the film and not come out of it with the desperate urge to wash your hands – trust me, with an ensemble this incredible, plus Soderbergh’s grimily hyperrealistic direction and Cliff Martinez’ hypnotic score, this is one nightmarish experience that will keep you up for days.

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Crash (2004) – When Crash upset Brokeback Mountain by winning Best Picture at the 78th Academy Awards, hundreds of moviegoers and critics cried foul, but while Brokeback Mountain is an emotional tour-de-force, there’s no denying that Crash is just as powerful and worthy of the big prize. Featuring Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, Brendan Frazier, Terrence Howard, Ludacris, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillipe, Larenz Tate, and Michael Pena, Crash interlocks seven different stories over the course of 2 days as it examines all forms of racial boundaries in Los Angeles, California. As characters interact with one another, themes of racial integrity ripple through the lives of seemingly disconnected people of different genders and ethnic backgrounds, and when they all seem to blend at the film’s climax, the movie becomes a riveting statement on racial violence. Having also won the Oscar for Best Editing, Crash weaves its multiple narratives effortlessly and, ultimately, the seven different threads form a unison feature that is bound to move you.

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So, there you have it, 5 of my favorite ambitious ensemble movies, a list that Cloud Atlas has certainly joined in exhilarating fashion (get our review later in the week); Are you a fan of ensemble films? Excited for Cloud Atlas? Which ambitious ensemble films are your favorites? Sound off below and let us know!

Article by Zack Sharf

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2 thoughts on “Top 5: Ambitious Ensembles

  1. and then there is the God Father…Brando, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, James Caan, Tallia Shire, Dianne Keaton, Ab Vagoda, John Marley.

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