HAPPY ENDINGS and PULP FICTION top our favorite ensemble casts

What makes a great ensemble cast? Often the individual players are exceptional in their own right; often they are undisputed leads. But brought together, with the right director and the right script, they can create something different, something bigger.

In HAPPY ENDINGS, airing tonight at 8P, Don Roos ties together the story of a documentary filmmaker (Jesse Bradford), the counselor he’s blackmailing (Lisa Kudrow), her masseuse boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) and gay stepbrother (Steve Coogan), a would-be singer (Maggie Gyllenhaal), her boyfriend (Jason Ritter) and his father (Tom Arnold). Among others. Follow all that?

Funny, compelling, HAPPY ENDINGS also stars Sarah Clarke and the ever-luminous Laura Dern as a lesbian couple dealing with questions about their son’s paternity.

It’s not often that one film can cement a young director’s legacy (Quentin Tarantino), reveal his muse (Uma Thurman), revive a once-favored actor’s career (John Travolta), earn multiple Oscar nods (winning for Best Original Screenplay) — and entertain the pants off nearly everyone. But then, it’s not often that a movie like PULP FICTION comes around.

Oh, and did we mention the great Samuel L. Jackson, as well as Tim Roth, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames, Amanda Plummer, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette and legends Christopher Walken and Harvey Keitel?

Some ensemble casts weave together disparate storylines; others keep the main players together nearly throughout, as in Bryan Singer’s neo-noir THE USUAL SUSPECTS.

The criminal band in service of the mysterious Keyser Söze consists of Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro, Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollak and Kevin Spacey, in a role that earned him his first Oscar. The cast is rounded out by Chazz Palminteri, Pete Postlethwaite and Giancarlo Esposito.

We might very well have put another of Wes Anderson’s movies on this list (THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, perhaps?). But this year’s dreamy MOONRISE KINGDOM was so atmospheric and layered, so quirky and moving, and it featured such nuanced performances in a story of young love and the grownup world it doesn’t fit into.

Starring Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton and newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward — and, of course, Anderson’s frequent favorite, the elusive Bill Murray.

When it was released in 1999, MAGNOLIA created a sensation as much for its ensemble cast as for its moving, decidedly nonlinear storytelling.

Narrated by the magician-actor Ricky Jay, MAGNOLIA stars Tom Cruise (in an Oscar-nominated role), Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, Alfred Molina, Melora Walters, Philip Baker Hall and the legendary Jason Robards in his final role.

Don’t miss HAPPY ENDINGS tonight at 8P on Sundance Channel.

Photo credit: AllMoviePhoto.com