In the long-lasting wake of the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood casting wrap earlier this month and the frenzy of anticipation it has sparked—which will no doubt carry into August 2019—it seems timely to dive into film history’s most stellar ensembles. I want to start by ripping the band-aid off and telling you what this isn’t. This is not a countdown to the biggest ensemble casts ever and it does not include ensembles of less than 10 notable actors. Of course, “notable” is subjective, but for the sake of this list, it refers to A-listers and beloved character actors. The actor qualifies as an A-lister if they ever were one. They do not currently have to be one and they do not have to have been one at the time the film was made. What is this then? It is a ranking of the largest ensembles in the greatest films. There is no point system or clear-cut identifier as to which ended up where exactly, but you’ll notice that the casts get bigger and the films get relatively better as the list progresses.
So, if you’re skating through to see where Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) landed, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s an unbelievable ensemble performance, but it only has eight notables. As much as I love it, this is a mercilessly exclusive group and there are too many films that meet the criteria to make an exception. If your heart is set on a Valentine’s Day (2010) appearance, go buy some chocolates, turn on an old movie, and Elle Woods your way through it, because the film actually has to be great to make the list. If we concluded with the most stacked films of all-time without attention to quality, the top ten would sour in the despicable likes of Movie 43 (2013), The Expendables series, Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and New Year’s Eve (2011) among others. Essentially, the value would be placed in money over merit and the wealthiest projects would occupy the top tier—a real-life parallel that needs no repetition.
In a moment of critical sobriety, I decided to limit Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Altman, and Wes Anderson to two films a piece simply because they each have multiple peerless films with huge all-star casts and in a list of 25 I want to keep the playing field somewhat level. Also, for the sake of this list, brief cameos are not necessarily moot, but they are not included in the film’s ensemble count. For instance, if The Big Short was on the list—it isn’t—Margot Robbie’s delightful bathtub diatribe would not earn her recognition in the group of A-listers prominently featured. Alright, enough rules. Let’s get into it.
25. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
As far as film history is concerned, the legend of Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is just that—legendary. Pre-dating 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007), Superbad (2007), Step Brothers (2008), and the like, Anchorman ushered in the era of Apatow that took American audiences by storm with its outlandish, improvisational style. It’s well-balanced with a slew of stars (Paul Rudd, Christina Applegate, Steve Carrell), a handful of beloved character actors (Chris Parnell, Fred Armisen, Fred Willard, Danny Trejo), yet unrecognized talents in tiny roles (Kathryn Hahn, Seth Rogen, Paul F. Tompkins) and surprise A-listers (Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller). Not to mention, who could ever forget the motorcycle-hardened, burrito-mourning Jack Black punting poor Baxter off the Coronado Bridge?
24. Spotlight (2015)
Tom McCarthy’s disquieting re-telling of the Boston Globe’s indictment of the local Archdiocese of the Catholic Church is most often (and rightly) discussed for its disturbing content and real-world applications, both of which the film addresses with stunning poise. But, my god, how about that lineup? The “Spotlight” team itself radiates star power (Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James) and the supporting cast isn’t much less impressive (Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, John Slattery basically reprising his Mad Men role, Paul Guilfoyle, Jamey Sheridan).
23. True Romance (1993)
Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Michael Rapaport, James Gandolfini, Chris Penn, Tom Sizemore, Christopher Walken, Samuel L. Jackson, and Brad Pitt. Hell, even the screenwriter is an A-lister (Quentin Tarantino). Beyond providing the screenplay in all of its pulpy eccentricities, Tarantino clearly rubbed off his yet unknown love for massive ensembles on the piece. Scott utilized everything in front of him to achieve the most singular direction and, consequently, best film of his career.
22. Gosford Park (2001)
The who’s who of 21st century UK film royalty, Altman’s examination of class disguised as murder mystery employs a sparkling range of faculty from then-burgeoning A-listers like Clive Owen and Emily Watson to staples like Tom Hollander, Camilla Rutherford, Richard E. Grant, and Stephen Fry to established sovereignty of the industry like Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Alan Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Michael Gambon, and Eileen Atkins. And, as always, some notable Americans couldn’t keep their bloody paws off (Ryan Phillippe, Bob Balaban).
21. Tropic Thunder (2008)
Writer/director/actor Ben Stiller’s Vietnam War satire is an ensemble triumph of hilarity. Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., and Stiller headline the cast, which is rounded out by Jay Baruchel, Steve Coogan, Nick Nolte, Danny McBride, and Bill Hader. Christine Taylor (Stiller’s wife) shows up in the faux-film “Simple Jack,” Matthew McConaughey is suspiciously perfect as a bro agent, and Tom Cruise delivers one of the most eclectic performances of his career as the outraged (and dancing) Les Grossman. Cameos by the likes of Tyra Banks, Maria Menounos, Jon Voight, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jason Bateman, Lance Bass, and Alicia Silverstone are a bonus, but the true genius of the film is found in its constant references to film history’s most significant Vietnam movies.