Back in the era of Hollywood's star system, movies were promoted based on their lead actors and actresses—true stars who were idolized by an entire nation, with many who dreamed of emulating their success.
As the filmmaking industry developed, directors started getting much more recognition as artists, especially with the auteurs of the French New Wave in the 1950s. But even so, the universal love of stars never truly waned; if anything, it has grown even stronger over time.
One thing remains true: a movie needs more than a great cast to be a great movie, but a great cast can elevate a mediocre movie into a great one. And with a terrific ensemble cast, cinematic dynamite is all but guaranteed.
Here are my picks for the best ensemble cast movies in cinema history, with each one making full use of its actors and actresses.
10. Don't Look Up (2021)
Directed by Adam McKay
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep
Comedy, Drama, Sci-Fi (2h 18m)
While the final result may have polarized audiences, there can be no disagreement on the cast of Don't Look Up.
Led by Leonardo DiCaprio at center stage, who had spectacular support from Jennifer Lawrence and Rob Morgan, everyone in this film skillfully delivered comedic moments and dramatic monologues.
Besides the main trio, there was also Meryl Streep, Mark Rylance, Jonah Hill, Kid Cudi, Ariana Grande, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Ron Perlman, and Timotheé Chalamet.
With each scene packed with at least two of these stars at any given time, it's one of the best recent examples of an ensemble cast movie that made full use of its talent without wasting their potential.
9. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson
Crime, Drama (2h 34m)
Pulp Fiction is so iconic that it pretty much speaks for itself at this point. Though it was only Quentin Tarantino's second feature, it boasts an impressive cast led by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson.
Within this twirled, non-linear narrative, there are so many different stars who more or less act as the main characters of their own films. That includes Tim Roth, Uma Thurman, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Christopher Walken, Bruce Willis, and Harvey Keitel.
The stellar cast even includes writer-director Quentin Tarantino himself. The groundbreaking director went on to make a number of other star-studded movies, like Jackie Brown (1997) and Inglourious Basterds (2009).
8. Inception (2010)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Elliot Page
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi (2h 28m)
A heist film is always a brilliant opportunity to mix a bunch of Hollywood stars together in a pot. Just look at the success of Ocean's Eleven (2000)! But of all the heist films, our pick for best ensemble cast by sheer talent—and quality of narrative—goes to Inception.
Once again, we have Leonardo DiCaprio as our lead, with supporting acts provided by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Tom Berenger, Ken Watanabe, Elliot Page, Marion Cotillard, Dileep Rao, Lukas Haas, and the late Pete Postlethwaite.
And how could we forget Christopher Nolan's frequent collaborators in Cillian Murphy and Michael Caine? Now that's a fun cast!
7. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
Directed by Adam McKay
Starring Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Steve Carell
Comedy (1h 34m)
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is one of the best comedy films of all time, and much of that is due to it featuring one of the best comedic entourages in cinematic history.
An electric Will Ferrell leads at the helm, supported by David Koechner, Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd, and his love interest in Christina Applegate.
But on top of that, Anchorman stands out for all the different cameos throughout the film, by actors, writers, and directors. Highlights include Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Jack Black, Danny Trejo, Fred Willard, Kathryn Hahn, Fred Armisen, Adam McKay, Tim Robbins, and Chris Parnell.
Plus the rest of the famed Frat Pack in Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, and Vince Vaughn! It's a real who's-who of casting that makes the film vibrant.
6. Knives Out (2019)
Directed by Rian Johnson
Starring Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas
Comedy, Crime, Drama (2h 10m)
A proper whodunnit mystery movie calls for an all-star ensemble cast. Each character has to be eye-catchingly distracting, and what better way than to make each character played by someone famous?
In Knives Out, the victim Harlan Thrombey is played by Christopher Plummer while the main detective is played by Daniel Craig. LaKeith Stanfield plays the suave local detective, Frank Oz is the family's attorney, and Ana de Armas shines as Harlan's personal helper.
The suspects include Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, and Don Johnson.
Every single actor and actress in this film has had their own leading role at some point, and it's phenomenal to see them all in the same film together.
5. Gosford Park (2001)
Directed by Robert Altman
Starring Maggie Smith, Ryan Phillippe, Michael Gambon
Comedy, Drama, Mystery (2h 17m)
Like Knives Out, Gosford Park is a whodunnit murder mystery with a star-studded cast. There isn't a single central protagonist, as the plot follows a large, sprawling selection of characters interchangeably.
The cast boasts iconic British actors like Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Charles Dance, and Helen Mirren.
It also features some newer blood (at the time), including Kristen Scott Thomas, Richard E. Grant, Emily Watson, Eileen Atkins, Tom Hollander, Stephen Fry, Bob Balaban, Jeremy Northam, Alan Bates and Kelly MacDonald. Clive Owen and Ryan Phillippe also assume leading roles.
Gosford Park is the kind of film that would've been produced as a mini-series today, given the amount of talent on display as they work through a satisfyingly compelling narrative.
Despite an incredible cast, the only reason why this film doesn't top our list is because it could've done more with thespians of this caliber. This epic cast feels squashed due to the film's 137-minute runtime.
4. Boogie Nights (1997)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds
Drama (2h 35m)
If there's one director who knows how to handle a great ensemble cast, it's Paul Thomas Anderson. The underappreciated Magnolia (1999) was a stunning film with a brilliant cast, but we're going with Boogie Nights because it benefits the most from its larger-than-life personas.
With Burt Reynolds, Mark Wahlberg, and Julianne Moore, you already have enough for a great film. But Boogie Nights also features Heather Graham, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luiz Guzman, Philip Baker Hall, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, and Alfred Molina.
The best part about Boogie Nights is that nothing ever feels rushed, and everyone gets just as much screen time as they need. Anderson brings out the lively and vivacious quality of the 1970s through his extravagant cast, and that's why it sits so high on our list.
3. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom
Action, Adventure, Fantasy (2h 58m)
No other epic film series has yet achieved the level of success of The Lord of the Rings. Across the original film, we bounce from Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen to Elijah Wood and Sean Astin.
The plot continued to shift, eventually following Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davis as they raced on horseback alongside Karl Urban. Andy Serkis and Brad Dourif turned in outstanding performances, and Christopher Lee remained as iconic as ever.
Other great actors in the original film trilogy include Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, Ian Holm, Dominic Monaghan, Cate Blanchett, Miranda Otto, Sean Bean, and Billy Boyd.
The entire cast magically conveyed the majestic quality of the original books, making it one of the best book-to-film adaptations of all time.
2. The Thin Red Line (1998)
Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte
Drama, History, War (2h 50m)
The foot soldiers of war are rarely remembered. Visionary director Terrence Malick seems to understand this, as he—rather ironically—cast big names for small parts in The Thin Red Line.
The cast is brimming with iconic actors, with Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin, and John Cusack providing lead performances. While some of these actors went on to win Oscars or dominate at the box office, in this particular film, they're nothing but pawns.
There are also cameos by George Clooney, Adrien Brody, Nick Stahl, Tim Blake Nelson, Miranda Otto, Jared Leto, Nick Nolte, John Travolta, Woody Harrelson, and John C. Reilly. Few films have ever matched this selection of big names, and the results speak for themselves.
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric
Adventure, Comedy, Crime (1h 39m)
Director Wes Anderson has an eccentricity about him—one that isn't only reflected in his filmmaking style, but also in his casts.
Over the years, he's crafted numerous features with large casts of big names, but none have hit the mark better than The Grand Budapest Hotel. With a charismatic lead in Ralph Fiennes and a funny Tony Revolori as his protégé, it's clear Wes Anderson understands comedy.
But the film grows even larger, going so far as to include Tom Wilkinson, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Bob Balaban, Lucas Hedges, Léa Seydoux, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Jude Law, Jeff Goldblum, and Tilda Swinton. Now that's an immense cast...
We also see frequent collaborators of Wes Anderson make cameo appearances, including Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson.
The diversity of actors is representative of Anderson's eclectic storytelling style, and it stands out as the best ensemble cast ever put to film.