Monday, January 30, 2023

Which Ensembles Will SAG Recognize?

Plenty of disappointing ensemble films seemed great on paper. You know, the ones — destined for success on the merit of starry names alone. But when the stars do align, watching so many great actors share space is a treat. So, what makes a great ensemble? It’s a lot more individualistic than one would perhaps think. In some of the greatest ensemble films of all time, from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve” (1950) to Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” (2019), each character carries the weight of responsibility to tell a story, and there’s a deep understanding of their significance. Even when some characters are not on the screen, you can feel their presence in another’s thoughts. Their screen time isn’t a fight to get everyone seen in the flashiest way but instead shaped by the progression of a character’s influence within the story. It’s a question of which casts work stronger together, bolstered by what makes each performer unique. Similar to the effect of falling dominos, one actor can change the energy of a scene with a range of abilities, from the generosity of talent to being a good listener. The joy of a great ensemble is watching the actors bounce off one another seamlessly while also feeling invested in their individual perspectives on the overall story. No matter how much screen time they share, the characters are defined enough in their own right to mean something to someone else.

In an abundance of film riches, 2022 boasts terrific acting ensembles across various genres of storytelling. One of the highest forms of industry recognition for ensemble work is the Best Performance by a Cast category at the Screen Actors Guild awards. SAG voters have ample opportunity to nominate their fellow actors and, for this year, in particular, create one of the strongest ensemble lineups of recent memory. From Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” to Maria Schrader’s “She Said” and The Daniels’ “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” the list goes on. Parallels are often drawn between SAG and AMPAS, whether overlapping voters or the predictive relationship between the former’s Best Ensemble and the latter’s Best Picture. While the recipients of these two categories don’t always match up, enough SAG-nominated ensembles have made their way to the Oscars for there to be a fairly accessible route.

The past five years of SAG ensemble winners range from a capture of the zeitgeist (“Parasite“) and a worldwide phenomenon (“Black Panther“) to the little engine that could (“CODA“). All aforementioned films received Best Picture Oscar nominations, with “Parasite” and “CODA” winning in their respective years. Many of the films in contention for the Best Picture category this year are ensemble-heavy. As this season continues to take shape, multiple names in the same film, from “The Banshees of Inisherin” to “The Fabelmans,” are expected to be called on Oscar nomination morning. Leading up to the Oscars, the SAG awards can shed more insight into the race with their best ensemble casts. Two days before the SAG nominations are announced, here is a look at some of the films in contention for best cast and gems to remember in the midst of more typically expected ensemble fare…

IN CONTENTION

“Women Talking”
Based on Miriam Toews’ book of the same name, Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” is a shattering cinematic conversation. Polley gives voice to layered perspectives on resonant themes, from faith and forgiveness to democracy and recovery. The story follows women in an isolated colony who meet secretly behind the backs of the men who sexually assaulted them. The women grapple with three choices: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. There’s an added layer in understanding that the women in the colony aren’t taught to read and write, which explains why a male character is in the meeting to transcribe. This is a story not just of women talking but of men listening and taking notes. Rather than frame the story around one character, Polley fosters an ongoing conversation in which everyone participates. Her empathetic direction builds momentum as the story progresses; you don’t want to see anyone left behind when the time comes to make a decision. Considering the difficulty in choosing a favorite performer from this cast, SAG has an opportunity to award a film that truly gives meaning to the word ensemble. From Claire Foy and Sheila McCarthy to Jessie Buckley and Rooney Mara, the remarkable “Women Talking” ensemble is joined hand in hand to tell a bleak and hopeful story.

SAG acting predictions: Best Supporting Actress (Jessie Buckley)

“The Banshees of Inisherin”
If “The Banshees of Inisherin” wins Best Cast Ensemble Performance at the 2023 SAG Awards, it wouldn’t be the first time a Martin McDonagh film won this category. Can he follow the success of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” with his latest title, a lyrical fable receiving similar acclaim? “The Banshees of Inisherin” is McDonagh at his most mature. Funny and melancholic, the film, at its core, is about the disillusionment of a friendship breakup. McDonagh finds the humor in Colm (Brendan Gleeson) cutting ties with Pádraic (Colin Farrell) in a remote location off the coast of Ireland, where the company isn’t easy to find from the get-go. The beauty is in watching these magnificent actors’ playfully harsh banter, which comes with an aching tinge of loneliness. The characters in this story may be lonely, but the ensemble cast has an abundance of community spirit. From Farrell and Gleeson to terrific co-stars Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan, everyone cultivates a strong sense of place together. Of all the starry ensembles throughout McDonagh’s films, “The Banshees of Inisherin” shines brightest with tragicomedy gold.

SAG acting predictions: Best Actor (Colin Farrell), Best Supporting Actor (Brendan Gleeson & Barry Keoghan) & Best Supporting Actress (Kerry Condon)

“Everything Everywhere All At Once”
It’s one thing to watch an excellent ensemble work in a single universe, but the genre-bending “Everything Everywhere All At Once” follows an entertaining ensemble cast across the multiverse. This infinite realm of being is an actor’s dream; to jump from the embodiment of one character to another. Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the film is a sensational piece of art with a core of optimistic nihilism. The off-the-walls existential story needs an anchor to follow, and that’s the exceptional Michelle Yeoh. Not only is the role of Evelyn a showcase of her talent, but she is also a fascinating leader for you to explore in a never-ending visual stimulation. In addition to Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan gives one of the year’s finest performances as Evelyn’s husband, Waymond. His character’s romantic sensibility and big heart are incredibly charming. A central recurring theme of the film is the mother-daughter relationship, which resonates in large part thanks to Stephanie Hsu. Her portrayal of Evelyn’s daughter, Joy, is transcendent. From this incredible trio to James Hong and Jamie Lee Curtis, the talented ensemble conjures a wide range of emotions all at once.

SAG acting predictions: Best Actress (Michelle Yeoh), Best Supporting Actor (Ke Huy Quan) & Best Supporting Actress (Jamie Lee Curtis)

“The Woman King”
Inspired by true events, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s historical epic “The Woman King” is exhilarating. With an incredible transformative performance by Viola Davis, plus an ensemble that includes the great Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, and John Boyega, the story of the Agojies is brought to life. Davis stars as Nanisca, the lead warrior of an all-women military regiment protecting the African Kingdom of Dahomey from armed forces in the 1800s. Women in the palace are called upon to join the King’s guard, and those who pass the test of battle skills will become Agojie. Thuso Mbedu, who plays a young warrior in training Nawi, brings remarkable energy and presence to the screen. One of the most emotional aspects of the film is her relationship with Lashana Lynch’s character Lzogie, who becomes a guiding and protective figure for her. Lynch stands out among the cast with compelling work that resonates with a significant turning point in the film. With vulnerability and strength, the entire cast of “The Woman King” bring forth an emotional battle and a story of immense cinematic scale.

SAG acting predictions: Best Actress (Viola Davis)

“She Said”
Women’s stories shine through as the focus of Maria Schrader’s brilliant “She Said.” Based on the New York Times investigation of Harvey Weinstein, the film follows how reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor broke the story. It is one of the most momentous pieces of journalism; a cultural change was ignited, and cases of sexual harassment will continue to be investigated across multiple industries beyond Hollywood alone. Twohey and Kantor broke not only a story but also decades of silence and complicity that caused harm to so many. Schrader, who should be in the conversation for Best Director, brings respect and care into the telling of this narrative. She adapts Twohey and Kantor’s book “She Said” with empathy, focuses on the victims’ voices, and adds subtle moments that resonate deeply as a female viewer. The performances from Zoe Kazan, Carey Mulligan, Andre Braugher, Patricia Clarkson, and scene-stealers Jennifer Ehle and Samantha Morton are masterclasses in nuance. The screenplay by Rebecca Lenkiewicz is amplified by the actors, who add even more urgency to a deeply important film.

SAG acting predictions: Best Supporting Actress (Carey Mulligan)

“The Fabelmans”
Steven Spielberg’s coming-of-age family drama is an ensemble by design. The film takes a trip down memory lane to Spielberg’s own childhood, his early love for cinema, and the influential people who shaped the filmmaker he is today. After years of exploring personal aspects of his life through metaphor, Spielberg rebuilds a tangible lived experience through his younger self’s eyes, Sammy. “The Fabelmans” is an exercise in Spielberg’s ability to relate life back to you, as though you are a fly on the wall of family dynamics. From Sammy’s parents (played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano) and siblings to school friends, distant relatives, and iconic filmmakers, you see first-hand their effects on his life’s trajectory. The story dramatizes family life, particularly a disintegrating marriage, and how divorce can shift the way you see your parents. Sammy’s experiences are often filtered through an unwavering passion for filmmaking. The push-pull of family relations and personal dreams are brought to the screen by a solid ensemble of well-respected actors.

SAG acting predictions: Best Actress (Michelle Williams) & Best Supporting Actor (Paul Dano & Judd Hirsch) 

More in contention: “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” and “Elvis

UNFORGETTABLE GEMS

“After Yang”
Colin Farrell is in another fantastic ensemble this year. Kogonada’s “After Yang” is one-of-a-kind science fiction about the interconnectedness of life. The director brings patience to giant conversations around grief, remembrance, and the power of reconnecting with loved ones. It’s a story set in a near future of accelerated dependence on technology and follows a malfunctioning robot named Yang and the family who tries to repair him. Being reminded of life’s precious gifts in the process, much of the film explores what it means to be truly connected to the people you care about, and this sentiment shines through in the acting. When parents Jake (Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) bring Yang (Justin H. Min) into their home, the robot becomes like a sibling to their daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). When Yang breaks, the family realizes how special this robot is. Farrell gives one of his most understated performances. In addition, the wonderful work by Min, Turner-Smith, and Tjandrawidjaja perfectly align with Kogonada’s vision. Smaller roles played by Haley Lu Richardson, Sarita Choudhury, and Clifton Collins Jr. make enigmatic impressions. Together this ensemble grounds sci-fi in human nature.

“Bones And All”
Based on the book by Camille DeAngelis, Luca Guadagnino’s hypnotic cannibal love story “Bones And All” is an unforgettable balance of gruesome horror and moving romance. The story follows Maren (Taylor Russell), a young cannibal who is learning how to survive on her own while fighting off her instincts. At first, only her father (André Holland) knows her true nature, having recorded several tapes she would later listen to as a recollection of her experiences. Then she is found by Sully (Mark Rylance); the unnerving encounter ignites her move through states in an escape from him. When she meets another cannibal Lee (Timothée Chalamet), it’s as if the world stops. They fall for each other and together challenge a lonely and disturbing existence. Russell gives one of the year’s most memorable and unique performances; Chalamet is charismatic as ever; Rylance is unsettling. Collectively, they paint an aching portrait of trying to survive on the outskirts of society. With outstanding work by Michael Stuhlbarg, André Holland, and David Gordon Green, “Bones And All” eats up a lot of the competition for this year’s best ensemble.

“Broker”
Through the interconnected storytelling of “Broker,” director Hirokazu Kore-eda has crafted a beautiful film of found family. The story centers on a road trip during which launderette owner Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), church employee Dong-soo (Dong-won Gang), and young mother So-young (Ji-eun Lee) interview the potential parents of the baby So-young had abandoned. Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo are brokers, using the church’s baby box to steal So-young’s baby and put him up for sale. Recurring themes of broken families and early abandonment take the story to such unexpected places. The terrific ensemble cast makes you feel deeply attached to the characters, wanting them to be okay and find solace from their inner conflict. At the heart of “Broker” is a group of people whose lives have been forever changed throughout the film, having formed an unconventional family in the process.

“The Menu”
Mark Mylod’s delicious thriller “The Menu” satisfies with one of the most entertaining ensembles this year. The story of a chef’s obsession with fine dining is pushed to the extremes when a group of patrons travels to a remote island for a meal at his exclusive restaurant. Anticipation gnaws for what sort of dining experience the staff at Hawthorne have cooked up. This is one twisted story, and Ralph Fiennes’s work as the uncompromising Head Chef Slowik is commanding. His comedic abilities shine through the character’s scorching one-liners. Anya Taylor-Joy also has a compelling performance that gives her character Margot a mysterious edge. Nicholas Hoult, John Leguizamo, Janet McTeer, Reed Birney, and Judith Light shine among a busy supporting cast. Still, the most fascinating standout is Hong Chau, who is having a standout year. Her deadpan delivery and chemistry with the entire ensemble are exciting to watch unfold.

“TÁR”
While Todd Field’s long-awaited return to film is receiving plenty of singular praise for star Cate Blanchett, the supporting cast of “TÁR” works wonders. They each invite you into a world beyond what composer Lydia Tár (Blanchett) has crafted and wields measured control over. Nina Hoss speaks absolute volumes with a single look of expression; Noémie Merlant is a mysterious combination of admiration and inquisitiveness towards her boss, and newcomer Sophie Kauer plays a novice musician with commanding aspiration and presence. As they each orbit around Blanchett’s sensational performance, they reveal layers to Lydia in ways that only they can, given their proximity, and in Hoss’ case, romantic relationship as Lydia’s wife, Sharon. A line Hoss directs to Blanchett — “There are many things I accept about you” — contextualizes so much and reinforces the power of this film as more than a one-woman show.

What do you think will be nominated at the SAG Awards this week? Do you think there’s a chance “Women Talking” can make a comeback? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account, and check out the Next Best Picture team’s latest Oscar predictions here. Our final SAG Nomination predictions will be posted tomorrow and the final nominations will be announced on Wednesday at 10am EST.

Nadia Dalimonte
Nadia Dalimonte
Editor In Chief for Earth to Films. Film Independent, IFS Critics, NA Film Critic & Cherry Pick member.

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