A long time ago, Abe Beame once wrote a song called “Hey You.”
In her fantastic 2015 New Yorker profile, “The Nerd Hunter,” the iconic casting director Allison Jones notes ruefully, that there is no Oscar for “Best Casting.” There’s an Emmy for casting, but no Oscar. Allison Jones is almost solely responsible for casting Freaks and Geeks, Superbad and Bridesmaids, and in doing so, is on a short list for the most influential person in the last 20 years of comedy and one of the most important casting directors of all time. The New Yorker profile is a kind of procedural. The author, Stephen Rodrick, follows Jones around and attempts to capture the magic of what she does. To have a script, and thousands of hungry talents of all ages and types vying for different parts, and trying to pull the golden needle out of the haystack, finding the best candidate for each job, over and over again.
Before I started working on this piece, it was hard for me to understand why a “Best Casting” Oscar doesn’t exist, but now I kind of get it. To a layperson, it could be the most mystical and impossible to comprehend of the processes that go into making a film. What’s more impressive, matching the ideal actor to the ideal role, as There Will Be Blood did when Daniel Day Lewis essentially reprised his role as Bill the Butcher, or finding unexpected brilliance in say, taking weird and twitchy Steve Buscemi and making him a slow-witted but amiable bowler? Do you award for the unexpected? An actor or actress awarded a part you wouldn’t expect them to thrive in that they end up being perfect for? Could one shining breakout find be worthy of recognition? Is Debra Granik a genius for discovering Vera Farmiga, Jennifer Lawrence, and Thomasin Mckenzie, or is she extremely lucky? (Spoiler: She’s a genius)
Maybe this is why the Academy hasn’t done it. Casting now is such a complicated and messy process. Like, with all due respect to 12 Years a Slave casting director Francine Maisler, Brad Pitt is a top 3 superstar in Hollywood in addition to a producer of the film. His inclusion is probably what got the film made. He was great in his bit part as a soulful abolitionist, but if he had been a bad fit, does it matter? Was there anything Maisler could’ve done to prevent him from that role if she wanted to? What do we make of films that fail due to bad casting for similarly dollar oriented reasons?
But casting director is a job, a very demanding one, as central to the success of the film as any other below the line position, perhaps more so. As that New Yorker profile reports, it is also criminally under-compensated, and in a corresponding twist that will shock absolutely no one, is a rare position in the film industry dominated by women. So I decided that in my imaginary awards that few people will take the time to sift through, I might be controversial in some of my fake Academy’s decisions and even misguided if there are people with more knowledge of the casting process around certain films than I was. I had 20 years of films to consider and dedicated probably both more and less time and research to this thought experiment than each year deserved. Nonetheless, it it was worth it to shine a little light and show a little love to these under-appreciated artists.
This is not an award for “Best Picture.” But it should go without saying that while a great casting job doesn’t necessarily make the best pound for pound film, you can’t have a great film that is poorly cast. When it came to the distinction, what I decided is, like every other Academy Award, “Best Casting” is an award given to one person, but is a labor of collaboration, beholden to an alchemical mix of brilliance, talent, circumstance and fate (not to mention director’s approval). Establishing the bonafides of who is responsible for every decision behind assigning each role in a film is impossible and would render this entire process moot. Or, I should say, more moot.
In this exercise, my only real guide was the screen. I was not beholden to prestige pictures. I went everywhere: Rom-Com, Superhero, Indie, Animated, nothing was out of bounds. I also am including the best thing we have at the moment to a “Best Casting” Oscar, the SAG Awards’ “Outstanding Performance for Cast” winner from each year, to give you an idea of how one wing of the Academy’s voting body might have leaned had they had the choice. I also included the Independent Spirit’s Robert Altman Award, an ensemble distinction invented in 2007 and perfectly dedicated to the great director who came to his projects with a list of actors he wanted to work with and directed scores of great films over the course of 50 years starring some of our greatest talents perfectly utilized.
I’m also just randomly adding a “Best Find” category, awarding a casting director for discovering a household name each year. And then, of course, I will have an additional paragraph or two (or three) in which I sweat and bleed and wring my hands over this completely arbitrary and imaginary bar argument that literally no one cares about but me. Enjoy.
2000: Gail Levin – Almost Famous
SAG Outstanding Performance by a Cast: Traffic
Best Find: X-Men – Roger Mussenden (Hugh Jackman)
A trend that may emerge in this piece is as a child of the analytics movement, I tended to favor PER in picking winners. How many parts per film were nailed, star as well as supporting? There are some crazy people who think Almost Famous is cloying or sentimental and this somehow renders it not great (it is), but even if you hold that opinion Gail Levin is Wilt Chamberlain here. Start with Kate Hudson, who exploded off of this nominated performance and became a Rom-Com staple for the next ten years, but this is wall-to-wall perfection.
Billy Crudup had his magnetism and basic decency unlocked and detonated and he’s still eating lunch off it today; Phillip Seymour Hoffman is as likeable as he’ll ever be as Lester Bangs; Jason Lee, previously a dickhead ViewAskew mainstay, is great as the egotistical lead singer of Stillwater. We meet Zooey Deschanel for the first time in a heat check role and I fell in love with her along with every other 16-year-old in America. Gail Levin saw that Jimmy Fallon was an affable kind of scummy empty suit, which is what Lorne Michaels would see a decade later when he awarded him The Tonight Show. Marc Maron has a bit part that still opens his paradigm-shifting podcast, Fairuza fucking Balk and Anna fucking Paquin are the groupie Greek chorus, the genius Frances McDormand is the brainy and liberal yet strict mother and would also be nominated for “Best Supporting.” This paragraph is already swollen but I guarantee you I missed some brilliant performance because there are just too many to list.
The one perceived hole you may take issue with is Patrick Fugit who was very, very green and had to carry basically every scene in the movie. But he didn’t, not really. Scene by scene the film is about William Miller’s awkward education. While William is a participant, we’re here to listen to his teachers. He’s goofy and naive but he’s supposed to be. This film was about gradual loss of innocence. And perhaps Fugit wasn’t and never will be a great actor but his performance is nearly note perfect, including those that may land off key, because he’s believably, and on a meta-level literally, an inexperienced kid in way over his head.
2000 was a year in which we were properly introduced to Christian Bale, adult movie star in American Psycho, Joaquin Phoenix, adult movie star, in Gladiator, and Jack Black, adult movie star, in High Fidelity (also a great ensemble piece). But all three of those actors at least had varying length resumes. The find of the year was Australian stage actor Hugh Jackman, who was second choice behind Dougray Scott to don the adamantium claws, then spent 16 years as a fucking icon in the groundbreaking comic franchise. Today, it would be impossible to imagine anyone else as perfect in the role.
2001: Mary Selway – Gosford Park
SAG Outstanding Performance by a Cast: Gosford Park
Best Find: Anne McCarthy & Kelly Gesell – The Fast & The Furious (Vin Diesel)
Good to have an opportunity to give this award to the actual Robert Altman, who was near the end of his career as well as his life in 2000. Gosford Park boasts a laughable, ridiculous roster of all good-to-great character actors. Sometimes casting is about discovery and sometimes it’s about having great taste. This is a case of the latter.
The find of the year went to two women who were casting a Summer popcorn flick that put Point Break on wheels. They bet big on a vaguely ethnic former bouncer with a tongue too big for his mouth who had some bit parts in a few notable films on his resume, but had given us no evidence he was about to become the bedrock of the most important and lucrative film franchise of this century.
As Dominic Torreto, Vin Diesel was guttural and soulful, slippery but sincere, he was instantly recognizable as a superstar and became the most important superhero without powers or a butler this century. As the franchise would go on they would start adding piece after piece to what has become the most reliably deep bench in franchise blockbusters, but the DNA was there from the beginning with Dom, Brian and Letty.
2002: Justine Arteta & Kim Davis Wagner – Adaptation
SAG Outstanding Performance by a Cast: Chicago
Best Find: Ellen Parks – Secretary (Maggie Gyleenhaal)
So the winner here gets by on an embarrassment of riches. Like, yeah, maybe we should cast Meryl Streep as a thoughtful, beautiful journalist who gets a chance to become slightly unhinged. Maybe Chris Cooper could work as an eccentric but appealing working class weirdo. Maybe Brian Cox could be a blustery yet engaging screenwriting guru. But then you get to, “Maybe Nicholas Cage could be his own twin and one is a flabby insecure brilliant Charlie Kaufman surrogate and the other is an oblivious yet soulful Charlie Kaufman surrogate”, and you immediately understand why Adaptation didn’t just work but remains one of the most affecting and innovative films of this century, if not ever. I love Nicholas Cage unironically and it’s largely because back in his prime, every once in a while he still could reach back and hit you in the gut with serious and studied performances like this one.
In Best Find, Jake Gylenhaal’s little sister was riveting in the now probably super problematic Secretary, a film I’ll describe charitably to younger film nerds as “Even darker and more fucked up Phantom Thread”. It was a graduation from bit parts to legit star who could carry a film and win a staring contest with James Spader. A career that started off with a bang, or a slap (sorry).
2003: Ilene Starger – School of Rock
SAG Outstanding Performance by a Cast: LOTR: Return of the King
Best Find: Suzanne Smith, Billy Hopkins and Kerry Barden – The Station Agent (Peter Dinklage)
There’s a chance this was the worst year for film of this century. Pickings are really, almost depressingly thin. I was close to going with Finding Nemo for making inspired use of Albert Brooks as a worried, neurotic Jewish dad who happens to be a clownfish, and capitalizing on the insane likability of Ellen DeGeneres who was just getting started as a daytime icon. I also considered Kill Bill, a film that once again shows excellent taste in rounding up a literal murders row of cool and sexy evil women for Uma Thurman to cut through.
But ultimately, I went with School of Rock because as difficult as I’d imagine casting is, casting children must be 100 times harder. However well a kid may present in a room, getting them to work on cue, with professional actors, over and over again on a set sounds like a damn near impossible task. And yet School of Rock nailed every part in one of the most endearing and enjoyable films of the aughts, family friendly or not. And betting on Jack Black to be perfect playing off them as a loveable shlub was also a risk though it seems like a no brainer now. You wouldn’t necessarily look at the guy who sang “Fuck her gently” and think, I gotta give that guy a PG musical comedy with kids to helm. And yet it became a smash hit that turned into a literal Broadway show.
Best Find goes to The Station Agent for finding a once-in-a-generation dwarf superstar in Peter Dinklage, but they get extra points for being one of the great Bobby Cannavale’s first notable credits. Both men did good work here but were blown off the screen by indie film goddess Patricia Clarkson.
2004: John Jackson – Sideways
SAG Outstanding Performance by a Cast: Sideways
Best Find: Marci Liroff – Mean Girls (Rachel McAdams & Lizzy Caplan)
2003 was a barren wasteland but the very next year was an embarrassment of riches. For me, it came down to two great movies that were almost hampered by phenomenal screenplays and visionary directors when trying to evaluate casting decisions. When you’re weighing two films like Sideways and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it’s impossible to claim any sort of definitive victory so I’ll briefly hash out my logic. Sunshine is a masterpiece of against type casting. You have Ace Ventura as a repressed sad sack lead in a romantic……. Comedy? And Rose from Titanic as a punk rock self destructive slacker weirdo matching his pace step for step. There’s great supporting performances all around, it’s a beautiful and demanding film that works on every level.
I gave it to Sideways on chemistry. You have a journeyman sitcom actor like Haden Church as a lovable dumbass lothario; Giamatti is very much in his comfort zone, but not yet to the point of self parody — so vulnerable and human that it can be hard to watch. Over a decade before Killing Eve, Sandra Oh is here, when her most notable previous role had been the assistant on Arli$$. Then there’s the real breakout, Virginia Madsen who has a deep IMDB but I can’t remember seeing in anything before or after this. She was a revelation in a truly great film entirely built on the relationships between the four leads. Sometimes it’s about who has the most bodies, and sometimes it’s about who has the best talent where it matters.
Best Find was a bit of a conflict. Mean Girls is a relatively easy pick but you have to reconcile McAdams’ semi-prominent role in Tina Fey’s fellow SNL alum Rob Schneider’s The Hot Girl the year before. I considered Peter Saarsgard who kind of runs away with Garden State, a film no self-respecting person my age will admit they liked in college, even though they did. The deciding factor was Lizzy Caplan, a true find and instant girl next door who was great as Lohan’s goth friend with integrity and has built a not quite as good as it should be career for herself.
2005: Douglas Aibel – The Squid & The Whale
SAG Outstanding Performance by a Cast: Crash
Best Find: Sarah Finn & Randi Hiller – Crash (Michael Peña)
Another Thunder Dome year. Sin City was a starfucker’s noir paradise. Munich was a stacked deck as well as Jewish crack. Wedding Crashers and The 40 Year Old Virgin kicked off the Apatow and Apatow/McKay adjacent revolution in comedy. And Brokeback Mountain was a groundbreaking high-balancing act that worked because of four stellar lead performances. But I’m making a homer pick. The Squid & The Whale kicked off the modern age of Baumbach. It was a perfect hybrid of Kramer vs. Kramer and vintage 70s and 80s Woody Allen (-(post-modern, post Gerwig Baumbach updated, and some would argue, improved on this formula with this year’s warmer and more generous Marriage Story).
As someone whose main relationship with Jeff Daniels in the 90s was Dumb & Dumber, it’s hard to convey how stunning it was seeing him for the first time as the heavily bearded, hilariously oblivious, obtuse and unbearable stand in for Baumbach’s father Jonathan. Linney is reliably unbelievable here, and this is probably her best role to date. But Eisenberg wins the film and probably also deserves “Best Find.” He picks up the mantle of an entire 100-plus year history of cerebral, twitchy and Jewy New York actors who stand in for all of us. Eisenberg stepped into this role born to play it, and with the possible exception of Mark Zuckerberg he never seemed more at home or comfortable in another role.
“Best Find” was between the wonderful Ellen Page who broke out in the really fucked up Hard Candy, Joseph Gordon Levitt who went from the awkward teen on a shitty alien sitcom to a hardboiled high school heartthrob/detective in Rian Johnson’s Brick, and our hands down winner, my personal God, Michael Peña for his breakout in the piece of shit, Crash.
If you’re considering Crash through a lens specifically focused on casting, it’s a pretty great piece of work. Sandra Bullock is an awful racist, Matt Dillon is a fantastic reclamation project as a conflicted racist cop, Ludacris and Terrence Howard are fonts of depth and humanity; Don Cheadle, Keith David, Tony Danza, Brendan Fraser, Larenz Tate, Ryan Phillipe and Thandie Newton are also in this movie. But Peña got the career maker here. This didn’t give us a good indication of just how funny he was, but within 10 years he’d be anchoring Marvel movies and making every part, no matter how ancillary, memorable and hilarious. He’s one of our great, if not our greatest character actors.
2006: Ellen Lewis – The Departed
SAG Outstanding Performance by a Cast: Little Miss Sunshine
Best Find: Debra Zane & Jay Binder – Dream Girls (Jennifer Hudson)
Tough year. Here are the best picture nominees from 2006: The Departed, Babel, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen and Letters from Iwo Jima. The best of the blockbusters were Casino Royale and Mission Impossible 3, which is really only good for the couple of scenes where Phillip Seymour Hoffman played the bad guy. It’s almost kind of an insult that The Departed is currently Scorsese’s are only “Best Picture” and “Best Director” awards. With such shit competition, he practically won by default.
Casino Royale is tempting; it reimagined Bond and didn’t just breathe life into the ageless franchise, it delivered the best Bond of all time and the best Bond movie in its first trip to bat. But really, there’s no other choice. Damon has never been slimier, Wahlberg got an adrenaline shot to the chest before each of his electric scenes, Jack is just feasting on the scenery, Farmiga is an instant star, DiCaprio is still all grim method but that works with his role, the bit parts go to the likes of Alec Baldwin, Anthony Anderson, Ray Winstone, Kevin Corrigan and Martin Sheen. Everyone was having a blast and it was palpable.
“Best Find” was equally tough. Dream Girls is on the shortlist for my favorites among these schmaltzy modern Hollywood musical reboots but I mean, it’s kind of tough to give a “Best Find” award to the people who “discovered” Jennifer Hudson because the entire country kind of beat them to the punch. Still, winning American Idol doesn’t make you a lock to win a fucking Oscar, or even be a competent actor, or really a successful artist as most of the history of the show has borne out.
I recall at the time of production and the release of Dream Girls, all the hype had been around Beyonce who was trying to build up a career as a legit actress and a lot of people were taking her seriously. As we’d soon find out, she might be an animatronic Disney robot so this isn’t as impressive looking back, but Hudson blew her off the screen anytime they were together in this film and it was kind of shocking she not only was nominated but won an Academy Award over Cate Blanchett.
What makes the role even more distinction worthy is her debut was very much her peak. Without checking her IMDB, the only other film part I could remember her in was as a token in the god awful Sex in the City big screen sequel, and when I checked her IMDB it turns out it’s even worse. I don’t know if this is a commentary on her actual non-musical talent or the extremely sad state of the job market for black actors but there’s no question she found her perfect expression as Effie, and if she wasn’t brilliant the movie doesn’t work. So a risk and a great decision.
2007: Mali Finn – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
SAG Outstanding Performance by a Cast: No Country for Old Men
Robert Altman Award: I’m Not There
Best Find: Matthew Barry & Nancy Green-Keyes – Alpha Dog (Literally the entire cast)
This is probably going to be the first real controversial year for anyone particularly invested in this list. As is the case a bizarre amount of the time, 2007 was as fertile as 2006 was barren. It was a year of not just great movies, but movies by great directors with unbelievable casts. No Country for Old Men won Best Picture; There Will Be Blood was built around a feud for the ages; Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a hard boiled two hander with Ethan Hawke and Phillip Seymour Hoffman that was Sidney Lumet’s last film; Knocked Up essentially invented the Apatow brand with all due respect to The 40 Year Old Virgin; Zodiac is a dark hangout movie about obsession, ambiguity and an obscure serial killer that falls flat if the ensemble isn’t incredible; I’m Not There cast six great ideas of Bob Dylan in what might be the most original film of the century and an Oceans film came out this year.
But this award goes to a slow burn cult Western that has gone onto gain meaning as a truly great and unfairly maligned film, and as a point of ascendence for most of its stacked cast. If The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was a subversion of the historical western, Jesse James was a subversion of that subversion. A film that makes Unforgiven, another subversive Western classic, play like an episode of Hee-Haw by comparison. It’s a near three-hour Twilight Zone episode about a worshipful fan in the late 19th century who desires nothing more than to be the outlaw hero he grew up being regaled with tales of, and has that wish granted.
Within that parable is a meditative, strikingly beautiful and nearly unbearably depressing tone poem that asks a lot from its two hands. Affleck’s transformation in particular was striking. He’s a full fledged, empty, dull eyed creep, twitching in his own skin. And you could argue this is the dawn of Pitt’s modern era, when his instincts and gravitas caught up with one another and he learned to do more with less, with impeccable taste in projects under the direction of auteurs. As a paranoid, ruthless Jesse James he could’ve easily gone big as the script occasionally demands, and stayed big. Instead, he conveys menace and tension with calm, the stillness in a line reading or a subtle shift in his seat before sudden explosions of violence.
Oh, and around them is only a rogues gallery featuring Paul Schneider, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner before Hurt Locker, Sam Shepard and Garret Dillahunt. Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel show up as well but were presumably casualties of a brutal tug of war in post production between director Andrew Dominik and the studio.
Still, this award is for what it unlocked in what ended up being two of the most important American actors of the next decade. Affleck stepped out of his brothers shadow and announced himself as a serious talent, and Pitt turned a youth as a heartthrob movie star into a middle age as a thoughtful performer, whose every project would be appointment viewing.
“Best Find” was a toss up between Superbad, another Allison Jones masterpiece that gave us a formal introduction to Jonah Hill, the big screen emergence of Micheal Cera, Emma fucking Stone, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Alpha Dog, which nearly won the fake Oscar outright.
Baby Anton Yelchin, Emille Hirsch, Vincent Kartheiser, Olivia Wilde, Amanda Seyfreid, Shawn Hatosy and the lead singer of a boyband were all relatively new faces and fresh talents in this true crime melodrama that’s most impressive distinction was an MTV Movie Award for “Best Breakthrough Performance” for Justin Timberlake. Some of these talents popped and some didn’t, but at the time it was an impressive assembly of young Hollywood (Oh, Sharon Stone, Bruce Willis and Harry Dean Stanton were also involved).
It was fittingly the work of director Nick Cassavetes, the child of his mother Gena Rowland and his father John, an artist who was no stranger to assembling unbelievable casts and somehow getting even more out of them. But the deciding factor for me was the unreal breakout performance by Ben Foster. I’m going to keep my powder dry on this because I have a feeling I will be writing about Ben Foster sometime in the near future, but if you’ve never seen Alpha Dog, or haven’t seen it in a while, or even if you watched it yesterday, I’d urge you to stop what you’re doing, rent it on your laptop or buy the DVD from the nearest dollar bin or invite me over to your house and I will personally act out all of his incredible scenes from this movie.
2008: Jina Jay – In Bruges
SAG Most Outstanding Performance by a Cast: Slumdog Millionaire
Robert Altman Award: Synecdoche, New York
Best Find: Allison Jones- Step Brothers (Katheryn Hahn)
The main contenders this year were The Dark Knight, which I couldn’t reward in good conscience because while it’s great, it’s one of three films that ever managed to put the clamps on the great Christian Bale. Revolutionary Road, a great staredown rekindling the old Titanic flames I couldn’t reward because it would require me to watch it again and that harrowing knife fight is probably next to Requiem for a Dream as the greatest and simultaneously least rewatchable film of all time. Milk, Doubt and Tropic Thunder were close as great ensemble pieces with an embarrassment of riches that when I got down to measuring by the gram were just a tad too obvious. And Taken and Iron Man not only boasted two great casts, but created two entire genres of film (Ironically, even though Marvel now dominates the landscape, through the specific lens of casting I was leaning Taken because “Old Man with gravitas kicks ass” is such a brilliant but non-intuitive genre).
In Bruges is a great meandering action flick/inquisition about a suicidal hitman in a Belgian purgatory named Bruges that is actually a ring of hell. At this point, Colin Farrell had basically drunk and snorted his career and pissed it away as a plug and play shit action hero, this part single handedly reshaped his narrative by reminding us of his talent, his shaggy likeability and his humor. He’s great as an Irish hitman with a neurotic and nebbishy soul. Brendan Gleeson is his affable scene partner (who also gets ample room to cook) and the two have instant, fantastic old married couple chemistry.
You can’t evaluate these things in a vacuum so even though the cast is solid, part of the charm of this film is the great cast gets to speak Martin McDonagh’s words, the cinematic equivalent of a performance enhancing drug that is incredibly loveable in its first act. And then, Ralph Fiennes as a Guy Ritchie tough drops like a depth charge and In Bruges takes the year in a walk. The challenge of this film is you need to set up a triangle of men who believably love each other and at alternating points in the film want to kill each other in one of McDonagh’s patented Catholic SAT question/morality proofs. It was a challenging team floor exercise landed with ease.
And at last we get to recognize Allison Jones, and it’s for one of her best casting jobs. Hahn is now clearly an icon but she spent 10 years languishing in bit TV parts. Perhaps this is why when she got a chance to fuck John C. Reilly partially visible in a room full of family, she was ready.
2009: Ellen Chenoweth – A Serious Man
SAG Outstanding Performance by a Cast: Inglorious Basterds
Robert Altman Award: A Serious Man
Best Find: Lucy Bevan – An Education (Carey Mulligan)
Up to this point when we’ve discussed casting and how the award has been decided, much of it has to do with stars and how they’re utilized in the context of a specific story. But the wallpaper of a film, the extras, the silent or one line bit parts, it’s all texture that contributes to the final product. This year recognizes The Coens and their longtime casting director Ellen Chenoweth for the way the people on the edges of their film complete the picture and the stories they are trying to tell. The Coen Brothers and Chenoweth could conceivably win this award every year. No directors have the same knack for finding faces and characters that feel authentic and sound like they are direct products of their dark, dumb, silly universe.
A Serious Man is not just arguably the best Coen Brothers movie, and the most complete thesis of their style and mission statement, but it is definitively the COENSIEST of all the Coen Brothers movies. It is chock full of Coen actors, quirky weirdos with perfect Coen faces. It starts with Michael Stuhlbarg, a revelation here who also could’ve been Best Find. Following this performance, he quickly and deservedly joined the upper echelon of working character actors. Fred Melamed was a lifer with a deep and deeply bizarre IMDB who found his perfect expression here as an shlubby, sonorous lothario. Richard Kind was probably the most famous actor involved at the time of filming.
If the Coens make a starless picture, it’s obviously a choice. In this Job parable that feels like their most personal film, it was somewhat of a risk for mostly fresh faces but they execute on every possible level and it simply doesn’t work unless every piece fits in place. The kids at the Hebrew School, the Rabbis, the shrew wife in the shtetl, it’s a masterpiece of casting and maybe the very best example of how casting can elevate and complete the world of a film on this list.
“Best Find” should probably go to the team who found Christoph Waltz, an impossible part requiring him to be a charming Nazi who can fluently speak German, English and Italian, but he’s won two fucking Oscars and he’ll probably never play another great role unless it’s pitched in the exact same register because he only has one move, so fuck him.
Instead I went with Carrie Mulligan, a talent I find extremely compelling, an actor who is incapable of picking a boring project or turning in an uninspired performance. An Education is a great coming of age period piece with a cast that could contend for the award in most other years. Mulligan is in every scene and immediately announced she’d be working for the next fifty odd years and we should all be grateful for that.
2010: Laray Mayfield – The Social Network
SAG Most Outstanding Performance by a Cast: The King’s Speech
Robert Altman Award: Please Give
Best Find: TIE: Paul Schnee & Kerry Barden – Winter’s Bone (Jennifer Lawrence), John Papsidera – Inception (Tom Hardy)
Not even writing about this year. Fuck you, it’s The Social Network.
Best Find was tough and this is obviously a total cop out but it’s my dumb fake list featuring a distinction that doesn’t even fall under the phony award that doesn’t exist so I’ll dole out recognition as I see fit.
2010 was a crazy year for new talent. You could argue Social Network’s Rooney Mara and Armie Hammer should be in the mix for this as well. But Lawrence and Hardy are two iconic superstars who practice their stardom in completely different ways. Lawrence was the more conventional breakout. She is the center of a very very good red state noir that holds up beautifully, and her career has been similarly tangible in the way we understand modern stardom. She’s been in a mix of blockbuster IP and challenging auteur films and has a few nominations and an Oscar to show for it.
Hardy is a bit slippery. There’s a chance the most straightforward and starry role he’s ever taken was this one. For one, he’s not wearing a mask, there’s no accent, it’s a minor role in Christopher Nolan’s alternately brilliant and frustrating mid-Batman palette cleanser (Crazy that this film came out between Dark Knight and Dark Knight Rises), but Hardy really jumped off the screen and I think like most people, my immediate response walking out of the film was “Who was that?”
He’s gone on to be one of our most interesting actors. He makes decisions that seem intentionally abrasive in his characters. He loves to disappear and his choices lean towards slight indie shit when he’s not going full tilt in franchises. Venom is probably the weirdest blockbuster of the last decade and I can’t wait for the next one. He’s been a subversive and captivating presence in our lives for the last ten years and it began here.
2011: Allison Jones – Bridesmaids
SAG Most Outstanding Performance by a Cast: The Help
Robert Altman Award: Margin Call
Best Find: Kerry Barden & Paul Schnee – The Help (Jessica Chastain & Octavia Spencer)
I mean how can you not love The Descendents, the Alexander Payne film that introduced me to Shailene Woodley and had Matthew Lillard turn George Clooney into a cuck? There’s also Moneyball, that made the obvious call that Brad Pitt might make a good, somber former athlete wrestling with his limitations and the extremely not obvious call that the fat kid from Superbad could work as a somewhat awkward stats geek with a big heart who would earn an Oscar nom for supporting.
But Bridesmaids wins it running away because Melissa McCarthy might be the most inspired casting decision of the decade. A big deal was made out of this film at the time because on appearances, it was a female lead breakout R-rated comedy in the mold of the Apatowian hits of this era, and it was that. But Bridesmaids succeeds where a lot of the gender swapping comedies of the last ten years have not because it doesn’t ape the beats of male driven films with a sheen of lip gloss. It’s a pretty dark story under the fart jokes and slapstick about self loathing, self sabotage, and jealousy among female friend groups.
It only works because of the stacked cast. Building the film around Wiig, an incredibly talented improviser who wasn’t a slam dunk because as we’ve since discovered, she kind of has that empty vessel quality when she’s not in character that some of the best sketch comedians have. She’s great here because she wrote herself a part that feels personal about a person who is emptied out. As such, the group around her is crucial. The SNL forged bond between Wiig and Rudolph is the soul of the film. It understood the squirmy douchey quality beneath Don Draper’s incredible good looks. Rose Byrne is to this film what Bradley Cooper was to Wedding Crashers. I could write an entire additional paragraph about Rebel Wilson and Ellie Kemper but I won’t. And then of course McCarthey. It’s hard to explain to younger readers now but seeing a CBS sitcom wife come off the bench and instantly announce herself as a top 5 female comedic talent of this century was pretty stunning.
In Best Find, we have two actors with long bodies of work who needed this flawed but surprisingly important film to break out. The Help has its moments but it’s mainly important because it gave Emma Stone, Chastain, Spencer and Viola Davis the platforms they needed to go onto big, regularly Oscar nominated careers. I love Spencer in particular, both here and in general. She’s deeply funny and has a flexibility to jump from comedy to drama to genre like few other working actors.
2012: Avy Kaufman – Lincoln
SAG Outstanding Performance by a Cast: Argo
Robert Altman Award: Starlet
Best Find: Debra Zane – The Hunger Games (Amanda Stenberg)
Casting for Lincoln must have been a massive undertaking that is just absolutely ridiculous. On one hand you could call it an unfair endeavor. It’s a Spielberg prestige picture with Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. It’s practically an automatic Oscar. It’s still incredible this film lost to fucking Argo for “Best Picture” but neither here nor there.
On the other hand, the hit rate in this film is fucking incredible. There’s the obvious ones: Stuhlbarg, Lee Pace and Tommy Lee Jones bickering in congress, David Straithairn as Seward, Spader, Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson wrangling votes behind the scenes, Sally Field as Mary Todd and Joseph Gordon Levitt as Robert. But then you go down the bench and it just doesn’t stop.
Adam Driver is just hanging out waiting for war correspondence, David Oyelwo and Dane Dehaan spit the Gettysburg address back at Lincoln in the opening, Jared Harris is Ulysses S. Grant, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Peter McRobbie, David Costabile, Walton Goggins, like what the fuck? Lukas Haas is in this movie playing a part credited as “First White Soldier”. Did you know Jeremy Strong is in this movie? It’s the historical equivalent of when they’ll have like Ben Kingsley randomly do the voice of a stormtrooper in Star Wars. And it’s more than stunt casting. Everyone is phenomenal no matter how ancillary. I really love Lincoln.
“Best Find” was tough. There were decent contenders but most had either had too much prior exposure or I simply liked Stenburg better. I went with something of a futures bet here. I didn’t particularly love The Hate U Give but Stenberg is pretty undeniable and I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if she has a long decorated career ahead of her. She also has a vaguely Jewish last name, so congrats Amanda!
2013: Ellen Lewis & Cassandra Kulukundis – Her
SAG Most Outstanding Performance by a Cast: American Hustle
Robert Altman Award: Mud
Best Find: Ellen Chenoweth – Inside Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac)
Another one that will probably stir some controversy. Particularly when you consider the top five on the call sheet for American Hustle and the mix of stars and great supporting roles that made The Wolf of Wall Street one of the best films of the decade. But I don’t think Her gets the recognition it deserves. It’s still probably my favorite Phoenix performance and I don’t know that I would have necessarily seen him in the role before he did it. It’s the most human and least showy thing he’s ever done, and it turns out even without the pyrotechnics he’s a stunning actor. Theodore is so awkward and corny and vulnerable but also kind of a shutdown dick, it would be so easy to fuck that part up and the guy who’s known for losing weight, walking like he has scoleosis and going huge doesn’t need anything but high waisted pants to sell it.
Then around him there’s a great, frumpy Amy Adams, Rooney Mara absolutely destroys every scene she’s in, pre-explosion Chris Pratt is hilarious, Olivia Wilde does the most with her scene, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig and Jones himself all have great voice acting parts.
But the main reason Her wins is that I can’t shake the story that originally it was Samantha Morton playing the titular OS. Like other great what if Hollywood tales such as Paul Dano in There Will be Blood and Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, it reminds you how crucial casting is, what happens when it goes wrong, and how important it is to have the presence of mind to see what’s happening during filming and pump the breaks when an actor isn’t working for whatever reason.
Scarlett Johansson does some of her best and most knowable work and fittingly, it’s as a disembodied voice in a machine. (Although to be fair, she has a pair of performances this year that signaled real growth and I thought were her best work since this film) So to me it’s an example of how casting is a living process that doesn’t stop after the movie starts and this decision may have saved one of my favorite movies of the last 20 years.
Apologies to Lupita Nyongo in 12 Years a Slave. Earlier we discussed how the casting of Christoph Waltz was a unicorn hunt, one of those magic stories where finding the right person is necessary or you’d have to rewrite a script or maybe even not go forward with a film. The story of Oscar Isaac, in this film that was 1A with Her as I considered who to give the fake Oscar to, is much the same. The Coen’s needed an original musical talent who could also credibly play one of the most difficult roles I’ve ever seen, a prickly grieving asshole you have to be able to get behind and root for, and he’s just incredible.
Isaac is obviously a superstar now, but with the possible exception of A Most Violent Year when he went full 70s Pacino in 2014, he’s never gotten a role that utilized his talent like this one did. But to be fair, roles like Llewyn come once in a generation.
2014: Sarah Finn & Reg Poerscout-Edgerton – Guardians of the Galaxy
SAG Most Outstanding Performance by a Cast: Birdman
Robert Altman Award: Inherent Vice
Best Find: Francine Maisler – The Interview (Randall Park)
Populist/contrarian film bros might have thought at some point, “How has there been no sign of Marvel up to this point?” Which is fair to ask. If you’re just basing this on wattage and chemistry Avengers and many of the team ups prior to 2014 deserved some sort of recognition. The problem is Marvel had the advantage of a superstructure to build familiarity and warmth leading up to a project like The Avengers. And I don’t just mean familiarity with the actors and their roles, but the entire history of IP leading into the respective franchises who came together in one massive and unprecedented IP orgy.
The Guardians of the Galaxy did not have any of these aforementioned benefits. It was an obscure title with the pudgy doofus from Parks and Rec in the Indiana Jones role, a talking raccoon, a sentient tree that repeats its name over and over, a hyper-literal strong man whose IMDB was mostly populated with mixed martial arts fights, a green skinned warrior goddess and her blue cyborg sister. This was Marvel’s first left turn and significant expansion of the universe, and it was an absolute dunk.
Guardians is probably the best popcorn movie of this decade and it gets that distinction thanks to an all-time collection of needle drops, and what will probably go down as the most inspired blockbuster casting job on this list. The crew is instant chemistry, that two of them are CGI and one just repeats the same three words over and over again and still steals the most moving moment of the film is nothing short of miraculous.
Best Find was difficult. Ansel Elgort in The Fault in Our Stars would’ve been a decent pick but I don’t really care for his work. Same for Taron Egerton in Kingsman: The Secret Service. I also considered Nightcrawler’s Riz Ahmed and The Guest’s Maika Monroe. In the end, Randall Park took it despite working for ten years leading up to his breakout as Kim Jong Un in the controversial Rogan/Franco misfire. It’s generally because I think he’s one of the most likable comedic presences working today and if he’s attached to a project I’m immediately interested in a way I’m not with the rest of the field. It’s ironic and unfortunate that he had to play a North Korean cartoon character to finally get the recognition he deserves, but we live in an ironic and unfortunate world.
2015: Avy Kaufman – The End of the Tour
SAG Most Outstanding Performance by a Cast: Spotlight
Robert Altman Award: Spotlight
Best Find: Cindy Tolan, Jasmond Carol & Victoria Thomas – Straight Outta Compton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.)
Every year presents its own set of unique challenges and decisions to grapple over, sometimes it’s two titans duking it out on my Notes app and sometimes it’s slim pickings. I actually strongly considered Inside Out for this year. It’s a great film that might be the most innovative animation not about Spiderman this decade and its superstar cast is perfectly paired to their corresponding emotions. But frankly I just fucking love The End of the Tour and its performances so I went here.
It’s unlike most of the films on this list that reward volume shooting. This is about the relationship between two men. Like 2008 winner In Bruges, the central relationship is complicated. It’s full of jealousy, resentment, admiration, anger and begrudging respect. It gets credit for going wildly against type for its two principals. At the time, Segal was best known for going full frontal and the Muppets. His Wallace is so delicate and lived in, I have a theory that he’s never really recovered from how deeply he dove into this part and the collective shrug it was received with from the mainstream at the time. It’s a showy performance in the skin of a real historically famous person who suffered a tragic fate. People have won Oscars for far less.
Eisenberg has never been more vulnerable. His David Lipsky is a gushing wound as he attempts to rub shoulders with a temperamental giant. His thousand yard stare is perfectly calibrated to this role, it’s a real joy for me every time I sit down to watch it, which is a lot because I actually bought it on iTunes.
Nothing like some good old fashioned nepotism. Who would’ve thought the perfect person to play Ice Cube would be his son? But that would be giving OJJ short shrift. Since 2015 he’s made interesting, diverse decisions, showing up in the new classic heist flick Den of Thieves the indie Ingrid Goes West and The Long Shot among others. Like his dad, he’s a natural, not just comfortable in front of the camera but instantly likable and relatable. He also wins the award for Jackson family member with the most range.
2016: Yesi Ramirez – Moonlight
SAG Outstanding Performance by a Cast: Hidden Figures
Robert Altman Award: Moonlight
Best Find: Vicky Boone, Kim Davis & Justine Baddeley – Everybody Wants Some!! (Glen Powell)
I mean, why fuck with perfection? It’s been fascinating for me to watch all these critics release their Top Ten movie of the decade lists, acknowledge Moonlight as the masterpiece it is, but continually, apologetically leave the film off. Sorry, your opinion is wrong.
The clip above is somewhat intentional. Generally I’ve tried to source them for moments when the cast really gets a chance to shine, a good group interaction or a direct face off. This is just an absolutely beautiful scene where Kevin cooks for Chiron over moving strings and for me its instructional as to why Moonlight is such a masterpiece. Aside from its groundbreaking subject matter tackling the toxicity of the assumptions society shackles to black masculinity from a technical perspective, it features an introverted, quiet person who is crippled by repression.
As a result, Moonlight is one of the more quiet great films of this decade. It doesn’t live in showy dialogue but in what is left unsaid and in meaningful glances. Its three movement structure necessitates its episodic nature but you don’t get a lot of ensemble acting. It’s built on performances where people come into Little/Chiron/Black’s life, impart their wisdom or their damage, then shuffle on. That being said, the ensemble is incredibly strong, starting with the trio that plays Chiron (particularly Trevante Rhodes). Mahershala Ali won the statue but some days I wake up thinking Andre Holland was actually the best in show. It’s obviously a masterpiece of filmmaking but without the cast it wouldn’t have mattered.
I actually don’t really care for Everybody Wants Some!! I think it’s a misogynistic movie because of how it handles its generally disposable female characters, but the cast is an unreal collection of young male talent. Glen Powell is obviously the best thing on screen and anyone who has seen Set It Up knows why so I won’t waste any more of your time.
2017: Terri Taylor – Get Out
SAG Outstanding Performance by a Cast: Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri
Robert Altman Award: Mudbound
Best Find: Mary Vernieu & Michelle Wade Byrd – Girls Trip (Tiffany Haddish)
There’s at least a chance that Jordan Peele’s brilliant, genre smashing, “Serious Talent” debut was the best cast film of the last twenty years. You might think it’s because this is the movie that introduced Daniel Kaluuya into our lives properly, or the film that perfectly cast Lil Rel Howry as the guy in the back of the theater you saw the movie in urging the protagonist to come to his senses, and that’s not wrong. But the reason why this is a no brainer is Jordan Peele, and his casting director Terri Taylor, understand how creepy white people are, and the varieties of ways white people can be creepy, on so many levels.
They looked at a few borderline iconic white stereotypes and were able to identify the sinister bottom of the personas. They got how liberal Facebook dad Bradley Whitford, like every Sorkin surrogate, has the whiff of privileged and racist douche just under the thin veneer or fiscally conservative socially liberal smarmy fuckboi. They saw that crunchy New Yorker reading yoga mom Catherine Keener has a touch of demented psycho sexual evil behind her no makeup charm. They saw the manipulation, the base evil, self-involved skinny bitch that made Allison Williams so delightfully hatable on Girls, and they found Caleb Landry Jones who’s just a weird, very online frighteningly rapey lacrosse bro.
Without this established white family dynamic, the movie doesn’t work. Spike Lee loves casting evil white people in his films but they’re always rote and obvious monsters. Get Out became what it is because the archetypes are so familiar and knowable yet original. That’s good writing, but it’s also brilliantly taking advantage of our pre-existing relationships with the actors and recognizing their dark shadow. It was no contest.
And in Best Find, we have a choice that mirrors the ascension of Melissa McCarthy at the dawn of the decade: A career jobber with off the chart talent finally gets her break in the comedy of the year, runs with it and quickly establishes herself as a top 5 elite comedic actor.
2018: Terri Taylor – Crazy Rich Asians
SAG Outstanding Performance by a Cast: Black Panther
Robert Altman Award: Suspira
Best Find: Allison Jones & Meredith Tucker – Eighth Grade (Elsie Fisher)
A funny thing happens when you actually introduce real representation into art: You discover a wildly untapped resource of incredible talent. People are often stunned when they look back on old Spike Lee movies, or shows like The Wire, and wonder “How did they discover this insane cast all at once?” It’s because the world is full of less represented talented people who have yet to receive an opportunity that will allow them to fully display their appeal.
Crazy Rich Asians was one of those watershed moments. As you watch it you get the sense you’re being introduced to a group of people who will be a part of your life for a very long time. I will confess that I never watched Fresh Off the Boat till a few weeks ago when Hulu started auto playing it after episodes of The Good Place, but I was stunned to see Constance Wu as a first gen sitcom mom on the show. She’s much more believable as an undeniable fucking movie star as she displayed again this Summer.
Everyone else is clicking on the same “Cute and fun in an affluence porn” frequency. Whether it’s oblivious rich assholes, legitimately evil, calculating catty rivals, or the “Good guys” who radiate warmth and humor, the cast is on beat from front to back. Romantic comedies, the truly great ones, are all about chemistry, and I can say with full confidence this cast, and its romantic leads, made the best romantic comedy of this century. Full stop.
I’ll be talking about Eighth Grade in depth in a few weeks when the Oscar nominations come out but it was my favorite movie of last year. Who knows where she goes from here, because having an entire film built around you by a prodigal savant making his directorial debut won’t likely happen to her again, but Elsie Fisher is the soul of this perfect film and Allison Jones and Meredith Tucker finding her is no less miraculous than the discovery of Christoph Waltz or Oscar Isaac.
2019: Francine Maisler & Jennifer Venditti – Uncut Gems
SAG Most Outstanding Performance by a Cast: TBD
Robert Altman Award: Marriage Story
Best Find: Victoria Thomas – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Margaret Qualley)
One of the dangers of have a Jewish Knicks obsessive from New York award a Best Casting Oscar with no oversight is you can have a year where Joe Pesci, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro can be dusted off and perfectly utilized for One Last Job in a Scorsese masterpiece, Leonardo Di Caprio and Brad Pitt can star together in what may be Quentin Tarantino’s best film and do arguably the best work in either of their historic careers, and the award still ends up in the hands of a grimy, caffeinated NYC throwback starring Adam Sandler as a pastiche of every member of my Mom’s family from Freeport, Kevin Garnett, Lakeith Stanfield, the Weeknd, Elsa from Frozen, Eric Bogosian and a microwave performance by Best Find contender Julia Fox.
Earlier we discussed how the Coen Brothers express themselves through casting. How there is a specific look and character type that articulates their vision of life and their art and they are masters at finding different expressions of these people and populating their movies with them. The Safdies are very similar, though the two “types” of people that are at home in each of their bodies of work are completely and totally different.
The Safdies thrive on a quintessentially New York variety of schlepper. A type that is as diverse and ageless as their native city. But regardless of race, age or gender they can tell you they love you and go fuck yourself in the same sentence and be equally convincing in both sentiments. Uncut Gems doesn’t exactly match the perfection of their mission statement Good Time (And I mean that only as a work that explains them, not as a better film, I still haven’t made my mind up on which I prefer though I look forward to spending the next year or so trying to figure it out) but Uncut Gems may be the more impressive feat. Good Time used Robert Pattinson as an anchor then surrounded him with the Safdie’s trademark brand of found New York City objects. Gems is a bigger swing and thus a much flashier cast that has to meet the brothers on their level, and no one misses a beat.
Sandler is obviously the story, and rightfully so. People have written thousands of words on how the film follows in the tradition of Punch Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories, but I think where those films interrogate the Sandler character and attempt to translate it to life, the Safdies, along with Sandler, have basically literalized it, birthed a cartoon into the word and inserted him into an adrenalized type of heist of film that never stops testing your blood pressure or your patience. It’s incredible stuff.
In Best Find, it’s interesting to have to try to pick this without the benefit of hindsight. I get the impression my list would look very different if I had to dole out the distinctions as the years were unfolding. As a result, I went with a safe pick. Qualley is a bit of a cheat because she’s been around for a while (In addition to being Andie MacDowell’s daughter). Still, while prestige HBO dramas and an exposition spouting down the call sheet role in a Shane Black popcorn flick aren’t nothing, seeing her casually step into a late Tarantino instant classic, lock up with Brad Pitt doing some of his best work, and steal every second of film she’s in was pretty impressive (All due respect to the great, probable future President of the United States, Julia Butters).
Qualley hands in one of those performances where you’re Googling her on your way out of the theater and scouring YouTube for old clips. Her poise, confidence and sexiness as a wild eyed Manson cult member was perfectly pitched. I can’t imagine many 25 year olds would be up to that task. She was an inspired choice.