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The 25 Best Ensemble Movies Ever

Cinema’s starriest in film history’s greatest.
Update The Lists Ensemble Films
By  · Published on July 30th, 2018

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Grand Budapest Hotel

(Note to all the disappointed Moonrise Kingdom (2012) super-fans: I hear your woes. It’s a terrific ensemble film. Yet, the major screen time held by the two fantastic, but not even slightly famous, central characters made the choice pretty easy.) I didn’t want to spoil the excitement of the reveal when I was talking about The Royal Tenenbaums earlier, but it’s impossible to leave this wildly imaginative and blindingly starry culmination of Anderson ensembles out of the top five. Plus, it’s many peoples’ favorite of his and certainly near the top for me. By 2014, Anderson had established himself alongside Altman, P.T. Anderson, and Tarantino as peerless ensemble commanders in film history. And it’s safe to say that no one had ever seen anything like Grand Budapest.

Capitalizing on Anderson’s knack for decorous production design, punctilious photographic symmetry, and magnificent screenwriting, each member of the cast managed to supply a nonpareil performance. Newcomers Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, Lucas Hedges, Tom Wilkinson, F. Murray Abraham, and Bob Balaban showed their prowess while the regulars settled into place with ease (Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe). And, of course, the dearest and earliest of all frequent collaborators—Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman—form the center of the secret concierge Society of the Crossed Keys.

4. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

Ensembles Mad Mad Mad World

With this epic screwball comedy, Kramer sought to round up the entire A-list comedy community, and he damn near did it. It is, undoubtedly, the film with the most noteworthy actors on this whole list, but many of which do/did not qualify as A-list and many A-listers who were essentially cameos. Hence, the reason it was unable to crack the top three. That said, I am not taking anything away from this film. Not only is it an absolute riot, but it is the crown anomaly of—socio-political controversy king—Stanley Kramer’s otherwise staid career. The rest of this blurb should probably just be devoted to listing as many cast members as I reasonably can so you get the picture.

The principal ensemble alone qualifies: Edie Adams, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Dorothy Privine, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Dick Shawn, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, Terry-Thomas, basically the only non-comedian in the entire movie, Spencer Tracy. Supporters like Eddie Anderson, Jim Backus, Peter Falk, Jimmy Durante, William Demarest, and Paul Ford push it into stardom heaven. And—take a deep breath if you’re reading this out loud to anyone—cameo appearances by Jerry Lewis, The Three Stooges, Carl Reiner, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Sterling Holloway, Jack Benny, Paul Birch, Joe E. Brown, Alan Carney, Ben Blue, Andy Devine, Lloyd Corrigan, ZaSu Pitts, Chick Chandler, Charles Lane, Stan Freberg, and (believe it or not) many more blend with the rest to form an all-time achievement. As if that wasn’t enough, Kramer also went offered Peter Sellers, Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, Stan Laurel, Bud Abbott, Judy Garland, and others roles that were eventually turned down or cut.

3. Short Cuts (1993)

Short Cuts

(Note to the curious and/or frustrated Altman lovers: Gosford Park and Short Cuts edged out Nashville (1975) due to the heavy screen time of a slightly lesser-known—remarkable nonetheless—cast and The Player (1992) because of its reliance on the dense dose of cameos. Plainly speaking, all belong in the ensemble hall of fame.) Altman’s film is well-aware of its star power. The poster for the film was virtually just a list. It reads: Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Madeleine Stowe, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett, Buck Henry, and Huey Lewis. Clocking in at just over three hours, this interwoven adaptation of Raymond Carver short stories tailored to Los Angeles is truly one of Altman’s best, and that’s saying a whole hell of a lot.

2. The Thin Red Line (1998)

Thin Red Line

Don’t ever complain to a Malick fan about waiting. After the ineffable Days of Heaven (1978), two decades of radio silence sank all hopes of a return into oblivion until he emerged with this beautiful, gut-wrenching, impressionistic exploration of the human condition according to wartime. Apparently, the seemingly eternal wait was met with strenuous demand because everyone who was anyone in Hollywood found themselves drooling over the opportunity to read for a role. Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage, Matthew McConaughey Leonardo DiCaprio, Ethan Hawke, Johnny Depp, and others either met with Malick or read for roles to no avail.

On the other hand, those who did make the cut—some by the margin of a mere scene (George Clooney)—transformed the picture into an indestructible A-list vehicle (Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, John Cusack, John Travolta, Woody Harrelson, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly, Jared Leto, Elias Koteas, John Savage) with extraordinary detail of beloved character actors (Tim Blake Nelson, Thomas Jane, Mark Boone Junior, Miranda Otto, Ben Chaplin, and Nick Stahl). It also champions the award for Malick’s most effusive mythical deletion of A-listers that supposedly filmed scenes (Mickey Rourke, Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas, Martin Sheen, Viggo Mortensen, and a 3-hour bout of overlaid narration from Billy Bob Thornton), but a couple of them have since been discounted (Sheen, Mortensen). Ultimately, The Thin Red Line is the archetypal essence of what this list seeks to acknowledge, but one film barely bests it.

1. Magnolia (1999)


(Note to other P.T. Anderson purists: you understand the pain I endured and the insanity I staved to not include Inherent Vice (2013) on this list in all of its ensemble wonder). Enchanting from the first second of its antique exordium to the last second of its Aimee-Mann-overlaid fourth wall obliteration, Magnolia is a modern, comi-tragic fable of Homeric proportion (complete with significant animal roles). Other directors might have left the same story at “shit happens,” but Anderson braves the dark of the human soul in all of its pain and longing. He weaves like Woodcock through sparsely intertwined stories of childhood disappointment, incessant embitterment, and shattering loss, slowly unveiling the philosophical reality that unifies them all. There are no big bang realizations, no kitschy screenwriting maneuvers, nothing of the sort. It’s like a winding puzzle with un-primped edges all around looking for companion pieces—incomplete, but somehow perfect because the puzzle maker designed it that way.

In all of this, Anderson’s brilliant direction would be less so if the methodical subtlety of emotion weren’t offered by the films sovereign ensemble. Tom Cruise, Melora Walters, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Orlando Jones, Melinda Dillon, Patton Oswalt, Jason Robards, Philip Baker Hall, Luis Guzman, Alfred Molina, Thomas Jane, Clark Gregg, Neil Flynn, William Mapother, and Henry Gibson (plus, voice roles by Mary Lynn Rajskub and Paul F. Tompkins) form a perfect balance of stardom and celebrated support. It also comes with one of my favorite film history stories to imagine: Anderson meeting Kubrick and Cruise in England on the set of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) to implore Cruise to take the role mere months before Kubrick died. I like to think of it as a passing of the torch from the once greatest living director to the current greatest living director. And Magnolia was the first thing to come of it. It is, quite frankly, one of the greatest films ever made, and without a doubt, the ensemble of all ensembles.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.