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9 Brilliant Films Featuring a Minimalist Cast and Virtually No Supporting Characters

By Dustin Rowles | Seriously Random Lists | October 1, 2013 | Comments ()


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The much-anticipated Gravity opens this weekend, and in the minds of critics, it has already been nominated for 17 Oscars. It looks both terrifying and terrific, and I cannot wait to sh*t my pants. There is nothing harder for me to watch onscreen than the plight of hopeless characters who have little or no control over their fates. What’s also interesting about Gravity is that there are only two onscreen characters (played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney), and while you’d think that movies in which most of the action involves either two people talking to one another or one monologuing with himself for an hour and a half would be boring, some of the very best movies of this century have featured minimalist casts. I didn’t realize it until I was putting the list together, but films with minimalist casts also frequently involve doomed characters, and it can be a powerful combination, as the list below can attest:

Moon — The mind-blowing debut of Duncan Jones, Moon essentially features only one actor (Sam Rockwell), and an Artificial Intelligence companion (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Like in Gravity, we eventually find out it is hopeless for the lead character(s), though to say anymore would be to spoil one of the best sci-fi films of the century.

Open Water — Terrifying in much the same way that I expect Gravity wil be: Because of the sense of hopelessness. The two main characters (who make up almost all of the screen time) are stuck in the water, basically waiting to die in one of the worst manners possible: By being eaten to death by sharks. It’s a completely doomed scenario and, like Gravity, it plays on our fears of having no control.

Paranormal Activity — There were only four characters in this movie, and two of them barely had any screen time. Similar to Gravity and Open Water, Paranormal Activity proves itself, in the end, to be another movie about doomed characters. There are no exorcisms. No stakes in the heart, or silver bullets. Leaving the house would do them no good, because the spirits follow the people. All they can do is wait until the paranormal activity has its way with them.

Cast Away — The first two acts — arguably, the best two acts of the film — center around one man, Chuck Noland, deserted on an island by himself. The only conversation that Noland has are those with himself, and despite that, Cast Away garnered Tom Hanks an Oscar nomination, and includes the most devastating sequence of all time between a man and a volley ball.

127 Hours — Much like Cast Away, 127 Hours centers around one man, trapped in a cave, and for more than an hour and a half, we watch him struggle to free himself until he’s forced to cut off his own arm. James Franco was also nominated for an Oscar for the brilliant way in which he managed to engage an audience in his solitary effort to survive.

I Am Legend — There are scores of extras in the end, but the majority of I Am Legend is about one guy (and his dog) struggling to survive a vampire holocaust. Will Smith is fantastic in this, and if it weren’t for the cop-out Hollywood ending, it would’ve gone down as one of the better post-apocalyptic films in recent memory.

Buried — All of Buried is centered on one man (Ryan Reynolds), buried underground, trapped inside a coffin. He has a cigarette lighter and a phone, and all he wants to do is escape, but he has no idea where he is. Sorely under appreciated and under watched, Buried is a masterpiece of claustrophobia and doom.

Timecrimes — One of the smartest, most engrossing time travel films you will ever see, Timecrimes has a very small cast of five, but only one of which has extended screen time. Trying to explain what this mindfuck is about will break your brain.

Hard Candy — Sandra Oh has a small role in this, but it’s largely a psychological argument (that includes extended scenes of torture) between two people, one a teenager, and another, a 32-year-old photographer that she believes is a pedophile. It’s grueling, tense, and economical, and so well done there are moments in which we actaully sympathize with the pedophile.







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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Jackie Jormpjomp

    Seen some other very good entires here (Andre, Conversation, Sleuth, The Fly, Zombleland, Silent Running) and any one of them would be better than Paranormal Activity. Psycho ALMOST qualifies, Jeremiah Johnson seems like a good fit but I humbly submit MST3K: The Movie, unless you count the film within the film and then never mind. Duel and Dead Calm, one would think would be MUSTS on here. On the B flick side you have Saturn 3, Three (extra points for Kelly Brook nudity which automatically moves this to an Oscar worthy film), and of course the movie with the fewest speaking parts in history Citizen Kane, (hee hee hee)

  • Javier

    The Man From Earth?

  • Sharon

    Closet Land with Alan Rickman and Madeleine Stowe. Just the two of them...so good.

  • BlackRabbit

    Apollo 18. Underrated and creepier than I expected.

  • Benjamin Shidler

    The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a nice one - quite an economical and effective thriller.

  • Ozpinhead

    Not so minimalistic as some of the list, these also have some of the traits discussed and haven't seen them pointed out:

    To those of you who loved Timecrimes, check out the movie Triangle. Most of the action takes place in a cruiser ship and although there are a handful of characters, it's really only about one of them.

    Also, i know there are more characters in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the meat of the movie has only 3 characters inside a spaceship and one is a computer voice.

    Dead Calm could also be considered along these lines.

    P2. As far as i can recall, it basically has two characters and the action takes place inside an underground parking lot.

  • Semilitterate

    I love Dead Calm

  • e jerry powell

    The film version of Oleanna.
    Alan Rickman and Madeleine Stowe in Closet Land.
    Both versions of Sleuth (pretty much by default).
    Hiroshima, mon amour.
    Antichrist (debatable, I admit).

  • e jerry powell

    Speaking of David Mamet, did the world really need a remake of About Last Night?

  • Timecrimes is The Shit. Like, officially, The Shit.

  • crispin

    "Death and The Maiden"

  • damnitjanet

    My son and I were trying to explain the impact of Wilson to his girlfriend, who has never seen Castaway.

    That's a hard one to make sound reasonable. But, definitely devastating.

  • Chris

    Man, I really hate to be a big wet blanket, but Gravity really didn't work as much as you'd hope. Children of Men is one of my favourite movies ever, and I was absolutely jazzed about seeing this, but dude can't write.

  • chanohack

    Trying to decide if Pontypool has too many characters for this list. There are only five major characters, one who gets zero screen time since we only hear his voice on the radio or phone, but a handful of tiny characters and several extras. (I want it to count because it's SO good.)

  • ZbornakSyndrome

    Kill is kiss, kill is kiss, kill is kiss...

  • crispin

    Any of the "Before..." films.

  • This list is exceptional.

  • Mrs. Julien

    That comment is equivocal.

  • Tinkerville

    For a slightly more uplifting entry, I'd include Before Sunrise and Sunset. Consisting entirely of conversations between two characters and beautiful from start to finish.

  • AvaLehra

    Have you seen Before Midnight, yet? I haven't and am wondering if it's just as good.

  • Tinkerville

    I haven't! I've definitely been meaning to but completely missed the boat when it was in theaters. I also am being a bit cowardly because I love the ambiguous endings of the first two so much that I almost don't want to see what happened to the relationship.

  • Sean

    You have to watch. It is wonderful, in its own way. I never imagined that we would get to spend the rest of our lives catching up with them every 8-9 years. I think that is a great thing.

  • Maguita NYC

    I believe Dustin reviewed the movie not long ago.
    ...

    I really should have looked it up first, because usually when I say this, it turns out TK actually wrote the review.

  • AvaLehra

    "...and includes the most devastating sequence of all time between a man and a volley ball."

    Oh my god, no kidding! Seeing little Wilson float away breaks me every time. I was flipping channels one day, and Cast Away was on in Spanish -- so I sat and watched for a bit with my husband who doesn't speak Spanish. (Watching movies dubbed in Spanish just brings on a whole new layer to the film). Anyhoo, hearing Tom Hanks yell "WILSON, LO SIENTO!" will still cut you -- in any language.

    True Story: in our home, whenever we are apologizing for anything we now say, "Wilson, lo siento."

  • Maguita NYC

    I will be using "Wilson, lo siento!" every time I need to apologize from now on.

    Mr. CEO, I forgot to mail these on time. Wilson! Lo siento!!!

  • Thor

    Also the only sequence of a man and a volleyball.

  • TheOtherGreg

    My Dinner with Andre

  • SlurpyDurp

    Really don't understand what people see in Buried. Flat and exceptionally stupid characters, ridiculous coincidences that totally contradict the grounded tension that the film did manage to create at times, and absolutely embarrassing special effects the one time they threw them in. Total overreach by a not terribly talented director in my eyes.

  • Thor

    Not sure how you could call a movie set in a box an "overreach," especially from Cortes, who's a B-movie director by trade. A movie set in a box isn't really an overreach for anyone, actually. That's about as little reaching as you can get, story-wise.

  • SlurpyDurp

    Movies like Buried, 127 Hours, Moon, etc. (where there is really only one character) are so hard to pull off. It seems to me that Cortes did this movie just to say "Look what I can do!" It's like a checkers player becoming jealous of the more respected chess players and thinking he can inherently succeed at the game. AMbitious, yes, but that is not enough to carry a film.

  • Thor

    Sure, I don't think Buried stands up to Moon or 127 Hours, but those were made by more talented people. Buried is a B-movie and it's not pretending to be anything but.

  • SlurpyDurp

    Article calls it a "masterpiece". That it is not. But I may have been looking at it through a too-critical lens. Congress could learn from this truly genius bipartisan compromise.

  • Thor

    Oh yeah, it's definitely not a masterpiece. And only memorable because it features one actor.

  • PDamian

    So glad Hard Candy is included in this list. Fantastic movie, and hard to shake afterwards. Patrick Wilson was excellent, but Ellen Page was astoundingly good, and so much tougher, harder and more cruel than her character in Juno.

  • Sean

    I actually think her Oscar nom for Juno was payback for not being nominated for Hard Candy.

  • ZbornakSyndrome

    That movie blew my little mind. I was never that in love with Juno, but Page won me over with Hard Candy - that was a wonderful performance.

  • Thor

    It's such a morally ambiguous movie. I was left with the feeling that Wilson's character might not have been as guilty as Page seemed to think. It reminds me a lot of Lolita, where the man has committed a crime, but the girl who was supposedly hurt is actually extremely villainous as well.

  • Sean

    But he was guilty, in the end. When she finally got him to open his safe of pics of young girls. That is why he finally killed himself, instead of facing the consequences of those actions.

    However, we spent the first 90 minutes completely unsure of that. Going back and forth wondering if the girl was just crazy, and he was innocent.

  • Thor

    But we also spend the whole movie watching this girl torture a man she had no proof of being guilty. The movie asks if all the torture was worth his confession. Regardless of his crimes, was the method worth the confession (and execution)?

    In the end, I think he was guilty AND she was crazy.

  • Sean

    Absolutely. And that was the point I think. Yes, he was guilty of horrible crimes. But the movie asked if you felt the punishment fit the crime. And made you uncomfortable with whatever side of that question you were on.

  • trickyhd

    GAH! SPOILERS! WTF?

  • Sean

    There is no such thing as spoliers for a 10 yr old movie. And Rosebud is a sled. And the wife in Presumed Innocent killed the girlfriend.

  • Jackie Jormpjomp

    And the Titanic sank because of aliens.

  • PDamian

    "Morally ambiguous" ... excellent way to describe that movie.

  • Mrs. Julien

    a masterpiece of claustrophobia and doom ...like our love.

    Mr. J and I tack "like our love" onto portentous statements. It's our version of adding "in bed" to fortune cookie predictions.

  • Anne At Large

    STEALING THIS NOW.

  • chanohack

    Me too.

  • Maguita NYC

    EXCUSE YOU! Wilson was not just a "volleyball" in Cast Away. He was one of the main characters but did not speak. He listened and offered immeasurable support!

  • Uriah_Creep

    Hey Maguita, have you ever considered opening your own image hosting service? I'm pretty sure it would be only a matter of time before Google Images came to Maguita Image Services to find new content.

  • Maguita NYC

    Ah man, this comment would have been EE gold, for I know Mrs. J would have gotten a kick out of it.

  • Uriah_Creep

    I'll have to be happy with the Maguita Honorary EE Award.

  • Maguita NYC

    How about we both settle for and share a booby prize?

  • Uriah_Creep

    Well played... yiou guessed my weak spot.

  • Michelle

    WILLLLSSOOOOON.

    Oh god, that scene. I still get the feels when I think about it.

  • Tinkerville

    That Scene destroyed me so much more than most cinematic deaths involving, you know, people. I'm tearing up just thinking about it. Damn volleyballs.

  • Maguita NYC

    I could not hit a volley ball with a clear conscience after that. And I used to be a volleyball player! Every time someone would smash that ball into the sand, I'd scream in my head "Wilson.... WILSON!!!!"

  • Blake

    Silent Running?

  • Blake

    Also The Conversation.

  • Basement Boy

    LOVE "Moon" (and also happy to see "Timecrimes" on here.)

  • JoannaRobinson

    One of my all-time favorites is an indie called Better Than Sex which plays out like a (well) play between David Wenham (Faramir!) and the adorable Susie Porter. I love it. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt02...

  • Mrs. Julien

    I've watched that. I did, uh, not have the same response as you did to it. But I guess they can't all be an oil slick of lyrical desire.

  • eskaton

    Cronenberg's 'The Fly' is primarily two characters with only a handful of other characters with very small screen time.

  • lowercase_see

    Six people left in the world and one of them is Bill fucking Murray.

  • Jackie Jormpjomp

    Another great one

  • Mrs. Julien

    Imagine their joy if one of them is fucking Bill Murray.

  • Repo

    Buried really is seriously underrated and one hell of a showcase that Reynolds can do so much more more than smirk when he wants to. More of that and less RIPD please.

  • Ben

    I really wanted to see it because I love Renyolds and it's supposed to be great, but yeah no fucking chance in hell. I could barely make it through the first half of Descent, let alone an entire movie even more claustraphobic.
    I've gotta wonder if that hardcore 'nope' factor had anything to do with it's lack of success.

  • BWeaves

    My Dinner With Andre.

    I snorted popcorn out my nose during the end of "Waiting for Guffman," when Corky shows off his "My Dinner With Andre" action figures.

  • Jackie Jormpjomp

    How did they leave that off the list?

  • I like how they're all practically survivalist movies

  • Caillan

    Sleuth

  • TheOtherGreg

    Yes! The 1972 version, with Michael Caine and Lawrence Olivier. Haven't seen the 2007 remake, which I think put Caine in the older role

  • Guest

    I could only get through 10 minutes of the remake before I turned it off and searched for the original on Netflix. That movie was so good.

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