Movies love to pad their casts with as many A-listers (and just actors in general) as possible. Just look at Avengers: Endgame (2019), for heaven’s sake. I’m pretty sure 3/4 of the budget was spent on salaries alone. It makes me yearn for films that are able to eclipse their small casts with their bounteous stories.
At a time when more means more and the best movies have the biggest casts, I think it prudent to look back at some movies that have pretty minimal casts. Smaller casts allow the film to blossom without the weight of star power or face recognition. Rather than pointing out our favorite actors, we focus on the story and the elements of the film more, something I think we miss in bigger blockbusters now.
Hell in the Pacific (1968)
What Happened Was (1994)
#10: 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Horror movies tend to do the best with minimalistic casts. Then again, it’s always good to have a few excess characters to kill off when things get boring. However, 10 Cloverfield Lane does the most with its small cast. Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives a grand performance by inserting just the right amount of fear and paranoia into a film rife with suspense and bone-chilling encounters with the paranormal. John Goodman, John Gallagher, Jr., and Winstead compose a talented main cast that allows for the suspense and tension to really shine through. Without a lot of characters to clutter up the moment, the audience can feel the same terror the characters are going through.
#9: 127 Hours (2010)
First of all, let me be the first to say that James Franco is amazing in this film. His slow descent into desperation and madness slightly reminds me of Jim Carrey in its inanity. Plus, the fact that Franco is the only one we need to focus on in 127 Hours allows for director Danny Boyle to utilize some great editing and cinematographic techniques to create an entrancing film. You’d think it’d be hard to make a movie out of one man’s desperation, but Boyle does so brilliantly by incorporating flashbacks, dream sequences, and little quirks that show the character’s true emotions. With such small casts, it’s easy to show the story rather than tell it.
Fun fact: this movie makes me intensely queasy throughout the entire thing just in anticipation of the climax. Y’all know what I’m talking about.
#8: Gravity (2013)
The most recent addition to this list, Gravity is an exhilarating example of a space film. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are such a power duo and, though I wished they shared more onscreen time together, their performance in Gravity is strong. Though it moves slowly at times, the action is surprisingly intense and engaging. We really get to know Bullock’s and Clooney’s characters and that intimacy allows us a connection sometimes lacking in films with bigger casts. The special effects really pop and create an enchanting film that both fascinates and causes me a lot of anxiety. Touching and heartwarming while also suspenseful, Gravity utilizes its small cast brilliantly.
#7: Hard Candy (2005)
Imagine Home Alone (1990) but much darker and much more violent; that’s what Hard Candy is. Starring Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson, we follow Page’s journey as she tortures Wilson’s character, who is a pedophile. This thriller benefits from its small cast, heightening its tension and suspense. The closed-in setting takes all that tension, anxiety, and terror and puts it in a little box in our minds. Director David Slade has the audience right where he wants them to evoke extreme disgust and terror from them. Kudos to Ellen Page, by the way, for playing such a controversially violent yet sympathetic character at such a young age.
#6: Buried (2010)
For a movie about a guy in a box, it is one intense film. Word to the wise: this film is not for the claustrophobic. Ryan Reynolds plays Paul, an American truck driver who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time in Iraq, landing him buried alive in a coffin. Buried is a race against time for Paul’s life. I said before that with smaller casts you can focus on other elements of the story, but Buried is truly a film that showcases who Ryan Reynolds is as an actor. This is by far the greatest performance I’ve seen from the man. His emotion, his conviction, his timing — it all blends perfectly in this high-emotion thriller. It’s at times like these that I wish the indie film world received a lot more love.
#5: Rope (1948)
My favorite game to play with Alfred Hitchcock movies is counting how many sexual innuendos I can find; there’s quite a few in Rope. This classic movie plays out a bit like a TV show bottle episode, with the characters spending most of their time in a small apartment. The film revolves around two intellectual classmates who murder their friend using the ideas of their former professor (played by James Stewart). But keeping the secret of murder is not as easy done as it is said. Like all Hitchcock movies, the suspense is built up and released at just the right moment. And the dialogue in this movie is genuinely some of the best in Hitchcock’s career — just listen to Stewart’s angrily dramatic speech at the end. Rope is a beautiful piece of cinema that doesn’t need a large cast to stand out.
#4: Sleuth (1972)
Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine are amazing actors and their reputations alone should tell you that this film is fantastic. Sleuth is about a man (Olivier) who, finding that his wife has a lover (Caine), challenges that lover to a deadly battle of wits. As in any good mystery, there are lots of twists and turns to keep you guessing along the way. Director Joesph L. Mankiewicz deftly amplifies the sense of animosity between the two characters with quick shots and lingering sneers. If we had just been told that the two characters hated each other, it would have been a good film. But the fact that we can feel that hatred through the screen makes this film amazing. It’s a game of cat-and-mouse that takes the audience by the nose and drags them through all the drama and action.
#3: My Dinner with Andre (1981)
If I had watched My Dinner with Andre maybe ten years earlier — before I had been exposed to the philosophers of the internet — I would have thought it to be the most profound movie I’d ever watched in my life. At times it feels a bit like two Redditors got put in a room with gourmet food and asked to discuss some deep topics. Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn create a beautiful, dynamic relationship. Everyone wants to have conversations that mean something, but sometimes it’s hard to get past small talk. My Dinner with Andre breezes past that step and shows us the potential our relationships could have if we could simply overcome the social constructs we’ve placed ourselves in.
This film gets bonus points because Wallace Shawn says “inconceivable” one time.
#2: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Elizabeth Taylor’s performance as a catty, insulting wife is filled with acid; it really elevated her from just an okay actress to a phenomenal one. However, because her performance was so bratty, that personality got associated with her. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is such an intriguing classic film in how it carries along its small group of characters and its story. You’d think that watching characters insult one another for two hours wouldn’t be interesting, but it captures your attention from the very beginning. Virginia Woolf takes something we all deal with at some point — marriage or relationship troubles — and it magnifies them into something uglier and scarier than we could have ever imagined.
#1: Cast Away (2000)
The very first movie that came to mind when I was thinking of small casts was Cast Away. How much smaller can you get than Tom Hanks and a volleyball? In all seriousness though, Cast Away is the primordial example of a survival movie and there was no one better to get for this movie than Tom Hanks. The film shows how far the human body can be pushed to survive; a man faces bleak odds and overcomes them through the strength of sheer willpower. I admire Hanks’ dedication to the role and his sincere portrayal of a man in his purest form. Cast Away is a tough act to follow when it comes to showing what a movie with a small cast can do.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on the best movies with small casts? Comment down below!
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