The Fifties for 2013: Best Ensemble
Clip — Fill the Void — Frances Ha — In the Fog — No
Byzantium — Frances Ha — The Place Beyond the Pines — Short Term 12 — The Spectacular Now
JOE: To begin with, not to bypass Greta Gerwig's significant contributions to her film, but can we talk about making difficult on-paper characters work? That's what I think Mickey Sumner and Michael Zegen do as, respectively, borderline unbearable and horrible-at-times friend Sophie and idle hipster shithead Benji. It helps that, for once, Noah Baumbach isn't out for blood at all times. Still, I think so much about those characters and the ability of the audience to find them at odd angles comes from the performers' dedication to allowing the audience to laugh at them while not entirely dismissing them. I'd love a supercut of all the times Benji and Frances bat the word "undateable" back at each other, for example. Each time, it means something a bit different. Anyway, the great performances don't stop there, and whether it's Adam Driver doing his Adam Driver thing (blunt and sexy and Wrong For You) or Grace Gummer doing her Grace Gummer thing (all the brittleness that her mom and sister shrug off their shoulders resting comfortably atop hers) or Charlotte D'Amboise looking at Frances and wondering how (or if) she's going to tell this girl what's good for her. Whose Frances supporting performance tickled your fancy the most?
NICK: You mentioned most of my favorite players in Frances Ha, a movie of which I have fond but not total recall. D'Amboise is a treat every second she's up there. Otherwise, bits and players run together a little for me, while I principally recall a mood and a milieu. The great ensemble work is responsible for that, particularly in scenes like the bad dinner party where Frances is being a doofus and Grace Gummer is sucking lemons about having invited this nut to live with her, even temporarily. Am I crazy for thinking I was on Sumner's side of her fights with Gerwig more often than the reverse? We might have related to the movie differently, or I might just be mistaken, but it's a tribute to the whole ensemble, Gerwig included, that it evokes so many points of view and so many possible takes on multiple, colorful characters that you don't dislike even if you're not too eager to meet them in real life.
I've already said a fair bit about Clip, with its gutsy Serbian youngsters playing dissolutes, brats, aggressors, self-exploiters, and risk-addicts, and about Fill the Void, whose characters are the diametric opposite of everything I just said about Clip while still negotiating a complex web of tensions. I don't think even these films would rival Frances Ha for my winner in this category, if I were picking a winner. My fifth pick was No, just in over War Witch and Place Beyond the Pines. Even though I know you liked the film, you didn't list it here. Not that impressed?
JOE: I remember liking No quite a bit, but I confess it's not one of the movies that jumps out at me when I survey the year to date. As for Frances and Sophie, I think I was on Sophie's side later on, once Frances has gone a bit off the rails: the vodka incident, etc. But I think I took Sophie's initial move-out betrayal about as hard as Frances did (that shit was cold) and so I lingered on Frances's side. But, yes, so many angles to take on these characters and not one a "wrong" one.
I think that's probably something you could also say about all the Important Men in The Place Beyond the Pines. I'm a bit skittish in praising its ensemble when the script so thoroughly fails its female characters—even intentionally so, it often seems. Still, Eva Mendes and Rose Byrne do their level best, while Bradley Cooper, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, etc., do some bang-up work creating ambiguities in a script that's so concerned with determinism. Even Ryan Gosling, whose one note has been plucked heavily these last few years, does largely laudable work.
With Short Term 12 and The Spectacular Now, I'm looking at future-of-the-business talent on display. In Short Term, it's Larson and Gallagher headlining a bang-up cast of foster kids, most especially Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are backed up not only by bang-up youth talent (Brie Larson again; Mary Elizabeth Winstead reuniting with her Smashed director) but also some killer one-scene wonders from Bob Odenkirk, Kyle Chandler, Andre Royo, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Finally, part of the reason that Byzantium snuck up on me was that I wasn't sure how much acting was going to happen in yet another vampire tale. But Gemma Arterton, of all people, made me a believer with a multi-faceted protector/warrior holding more and more strongly to the center of the film as it goes along. Saoirse Ronan is typically out of time and space, to great effect, and she's joined there by Caleb Landry Jones. And once again, Tom Hollander shows up to evade my attempts at pinning down just what kind of persona suits him best.
NICK: Byzantium was shot by Sean Bobbitt, who lit Steve McQueen's Hunger so strikingly, so I guess between that plug and yours, I can be talked into more adolescent vampires. But it takes some doing.
What I admire about the huge ensemble of No is how well they sustain the movie's precarious tone, halfway between winking comedy and earnest historical testimony. They also find themselves in a period film circa 1988, having to remind us in almost subliminal ways that they live under a dictatorship and can expect arrest or worse at almost every moment; then again, they are so used to this fact that it can't appear too new or too conscious a preoccupation. The film is made all the more "period" by the VHS-quality filming, and there's a found-footage naturalism to their interactions—long silences and empty stares, as often happens when no one thinks a camera is on—yet the human community is always dramatically compelling.
My last ensemble pick isn't as fun as yours, and let me just say how eager I am to check out Short Term 12 and The Spectacular Now. It's a tougher sell to get people to see In the Fog, a kind of Rashômon story built around some rural Russian characters and their sad, brutal, unshakeable implications in World War II. The movie gets richer, more complicated, and more despondent as it goes, in no small part because of the deft underplaying of everyone involved.
We can risk going negative for a second: was there an ensemble so far this year from which you'd wanted a little more? The only flaw I really care about in The Heat, which is so terrific in so many ways, is how it hems in a lot of great comic players whom I'd love to see really throw down with the leads: McDonald, Killam, Curtin... That movie's an easy B+ from me, if not higher, with broader and better-managed interplay across its talented cast.
JOE: My guess is that, since The Heat is the rare movie from the Feig/Apatow concern that doesn't feel overlong, they were probably harsher with the cuts than usual. As for my pick for a movie that could have used its ensemble better, I do wish that Mud had been less wrapped up in The Lives of Boys of All Ages, turning away from its title character a bit more and giving more time to its supporting players. It remains the only movie I have ever seen that has left me wanting more Michael Shannon.
As usual, readers, we'd love to hear your own favorites, or your own choices for films where the ensemble felt just short of satisfying. Is it weird that neither Joe nor I invoked Blue Jasmine even though we'd both seen it? Anywhere else you think we might have goofed?
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