Breaking Down 20 Contenders for the SAG Film Ensemble Award

THR's awards guru surveys buzzy films with powerful acting chops (including 'Beasts of No Nation' and 'The Hateful Eight'), as well as what they have going for and against them.
Courtesy of Netflix; Kerry Brown/ Twentieth Cnetury Fox; Andrew Cooper/The Weinstein Company
'Beasts of No Nation,' 'Brooklyn' and 'The Hateful Eight'

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The lone SAG Awards category that has no equivalent at the Oscars is best ensemble, or, as the prize (which goes to a film's actors who receive a single card in their film's end credits) officially is known, "the SAG Award for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture."

Interestingly, even those in SAG-AFTRA who vote for the award (nominees are determined by a nominating committee and winners by the full membership) are not quite sure what it aims to recognize. Some take it literally and seek to reward casts that performed the most cohesively together; others only consider films with large casts; and still others back the casts of the films they liked best, since there is no SAG Award given for best picture.

The nominations for the 22nd annual SAG Awards will be announced Dec. 9. Here's a look at the strengths and liabilities of 20 contenders for the film ensemble award.

Beasts of No Nation (Netflix)

PRO The best thing that this gritty film has going for it — at the SAG Awards and elsewhere — is the beneficence of distributor Netflix, which seems willing to do whatever it takes to give Beasts its best shot.

CON Other than Idris Elba, no members of its cast are "big names"; indeed, most never acted before.

The Big Short (Paramount)

PRO No cast packs as many big names as this one — Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and the list goes on — and few other films this year are both fun and socially significant.

CON SAG-AFTRA voters have generally displayed an aversion toward comedy.

Black Mass (Warner Bros.)

PRO Actor turned director Scott Cooper's pic stars actors' favorites (Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton) and wouldn't be the first tepidly received film to make it — see: Bobby, Hairspray and August: Osage County.

CON Nobody can spot a shaky accent like another actor, and some in this film are better than others.

Bridge of Spies (Disney)

PRO It's impossible to find actors more liked or respected by their peers than Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, who anchor this one, which also gives good parts to young up-and-comers such as Jesse Plemons and Austin Stowell.

CON Steven Spielberg is hit or miss with the actors — Lincoln and Saving Private Ryan were nominated; War Horse and Munich weren't. This one underserves some of its actors, such as Alan Alda and Amy Ryan.

Brooklyn (Fox Searchlight)

PRO This is an acting showcase for Saoirse Ronan, newbies (Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson) and vets (Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent). A small pic about immigrants has been tapped before: In America.

CON Having a cast comprised mostly of Irish actors unknown to Americans makes the film feel more authentic but may put it at a disadvantage with voters.

Carol (The Weinstein Co.)

PRO One of the few female-centric films in serious contention, it features highly acclaimed performances from two of the most revered actresses in the business, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

CON Films that are essentially two-handers tend to be overlooked — although this one features strong cameos from actors' actors Sarah Paulson and Kyle Chandler.

The Danish Girl (Focus Features)

PRO A period piece drama with a love story at its center that stars Eddie Redmayne as a historically significant figure opposite a terrific young actress? Well, The Theory of Everything was just nominated.

CON Transphobia is a real thing and may make this film a tougher sell than one about Stephen Hawking.

The Hateful Eight (The Weinstein Co.)

PRO Weinstein-distributed films have been nominated every year since 2009 (and all but five times in this category's 20-year history). This diverse cast — including Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Dern — reps the company's best shot this year.

CON Quentin Tarantino's last film, Django Unchained, wasn't nominated — though that probably had more to do with the late release of its screeners.

Joy (Fox)

PRO Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, the two other David O. Russell dramedies with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, were nominated (Hustle won). Why not this?

CON The film hasn't begun screening yet, but early reports suggest it's more about J-Law and less about the others than the earlier films.

Love & Mercy (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

PRO Great reviews and ringing endorsements from the subjects, Melinda and Brian Wilson, boosted this unconventional musical biopic.

CON Few movies released as early as June have maintained the momentum necessary to land a nom, and they've usually featured bigger stars than John Cusack, Paul Dano and Elizabeth Banks.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Bros.)

PRO The critical and commercial smash boasts among its cast an Oscar winner (Charlize Theron), rising stars (Tom Hardy and Nicholas Hoult) and fun randoms (Zoe Kravitz and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley).

CON Genre bias is a real thing, and otherworldly action-adventure movies have never registered in this category.

The Martian (Fox)

PRO Few casts are as likable or diverse. Hits with humor have been nominated: My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Bridesmaids, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Also, space movies: Apollo 13 won.

CON The reality is that Matt Damon is the only member of the cast who has much to do in the film, and voters may feel that a best actor nom for him is acknowledgment enough.

The Revenant (Fox)

PRO Alejandro G. Inarritu's pic is a haunting dance between Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, among their generation's brightest thesps. Inarritu's Birdman is the reigning champ.

CON The two stars are not the warmest glad-handers in the world, which could hold them back.

Room (A24)

PRO You couldn't design a better acting showcase than this, in which Brie Larson and young Jacob Tremblay keep people riveted despite spending a significant part of the pic alone in a small room.

CON The stars aren't household names (but supporting players Joan Allen and William H. Macy are).

Sicario (Lionsgate)

PRO Denis Villeneuve's drama has been described as an acting relay race, with the baton passing from Emily Blunt to Josh Brolin to Benicio Del Toro. All three are highly regarded by their peers.

CON The actors are doing things we've seen them do before — Brolin as a cocky prick, Del Toro as super intense.

Spotlight (Open Road Films)

PRO The favorite boasts a who's who of actors well known and liked, including Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber and Broadway's Brian d'Arcy James.

CON The film's upsetting subject matter could deter some from ever checking it out in the first place.

Steve Jobs (Universal)

PRO Films about well-known people have performed strongly in this category, and this cast has something for everyone, from "serious" thesps like Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet to a surprisingly affecting Seth Rogen.

CON Fairly or not, the film, a disappointment at the box office, has been most celebrated for the work of its writer (Aaron Sorkin).

Straight Outta Compton (Universal)

PRO Apart from The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road, no film seriously in the running for this prize has grossed more at the box office than Compton, which is set in the past but powerfully captures the current zeitgeist.

CON An August release date isn't ideal (although The Help overcame one to win), and the fact that the film's three principal actors all are new to the big leagues could be a hindrance as well.

Suffragette (Focus Features)

PRO This is a cast filled with great actresses from different generations — from Carey Mulligan to Helena Bonham Carter to Meryl Streep — telling a story about remarkable women, which sets it apart.

CON It has generated mixed reviews and limited buzz, centered primarily on Mulligan.

Youth (Fox Searchlight)

PRO Filling a dramedy about old people primarily with revered vets (Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Jane Fonda) and a few youngsters (Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano) worked for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

CON The arty film, with its slow pace and vague storyline, is far from everyone's cup of tea.

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