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Robert Altman’s Top 15 Films

Robert Altman's Top 15 Films

In the spirit of the Museum of Modern Art’s drool-worthy 50-program Robert Altman retrospective, running December 3 to 17, TOH! writers list their 15 favorite films by the iconic American director.

In the 70s, Altman took what Howard Hawks started with rapid-fire overlapping dialogue, and using a fluid camera and advanced on-set sound recording, and pushed his actors toward ever more naturalistic performances. He threw away the stiff conventions of glossy Hollywood filmmaking, thrusting audiences into an immersive universe that was radical at the time and hugely influential. No one could fly by the seat of his pants with such confidence. The maverick director had trouble working with the studios and fared better on his own as an independent. While producers and financiers tore their hair out, actors loved him. And his filmography is so good that we could neither settle for ten nor rank them– we’re listing these 15 must-sees in chronological order. 

“M.A.S.H.” (1970) was Robert Altman’s bold brash breakout. Anarchic and sprawling and hilarious, critics went wild over this noisy sexy Vietnam era Korean War comedy about medics–led by Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye– who played hard between bouts of intense life-saving. Altman’s war drama won the Palme d’Or at Cannes en route to multiple award nominations including the DGA, Golden Globe and the best director Oscar. –Anne Thompson

Altman used his clout from “M.A.S.H.” to get backing for “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971), which was way ahead of its time–and has gained in stature over the years. Long before “Deadwood,” Altman threw out the rule book with this gritty nihilistic western (originally called “The Presbyterian Church Wager”) adapted from Edmund Naughton’s novel. Altman threw iconic lovers Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, at the height of their fame, into an anti-romantic fable about a gambler and a madam, shot by Vilmos Zigmund on a messy, muddy Pacific Northwest location, and surrounded them with an ensemble of wily character actors. The result is magic. Anne Thompson

“Images” (1972). Altman takes on Polanski’s “Repulsion” in this early thriller starring Susannah York, in a terrifying and operatic performance you could see from space. Cathryn, a schizophrenic housewife, after receiving a jeering phone call telling her that her husband may be having an affair, can’t separate her delusions from reality. Male figments — or are they real live figures? — come and go from the shadowy recesses of Cathryn’s mind as she starts picking them off one-by-one. Though “Images” was but a embryo of the ideas to come in Altman’s “3 Women” five years later, it’s a neat entry in the Hysterical Housewives with Psychosexual Persecution Complexes genre, and a real horror movie. –Ryan Lattanzio

“The Long Goodbye” (1973). A top-notch example of what a book-to-film adaptation should be: An infusion of two auteurs’ styles. Altman manages to capture the hard-edged sadness of Raymond Chandler’s masterpiece while also giving this delightfully strange film his own inimitable oddball humor. Here, private eye Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould, low-watt and perfect) lives with his cat in the lofty perch of Hollywood’s historic High Tower Elevator neighborhood. He briefly falls in with an ill-fated and booze-pickled writer (Sterling Hayden) on his quest to find his friend Terry Lennox, a man accused of brutally murdering his wife. –Beth Hanna

“Thieves Like Us” (1974). Altman tries his hand at a Bonnie and Clyde-esque tale, with moving results. 25-year-old Keith Carradine plays the youngest criminal in a three-person ring of bank robbers in 1936 Mississippi. Things take a turn for the worse when a Yazoo County heist goes south, causing Carradine and his new love (Altman fave Shelley Duvall) to hide out in a backwoods cabin. The gentle, sincere chemistry between the two leads reminds of Altman’s knack for deft casting. –Beth Hanna

With “Nashville” (1975), Altman and writer Joan Tewkesbury (“Thieves Like Us”) push cinematic storytelling to a new level and capture the American zeitgeist of the period. They lead us through multiple narratives threaded with emotional musical performances that advance the story–aided by a gifted ensemble. Keith Carradine, Lily Tomlin and Barbara Harris, especially, build deeply poignant characters. Altman earned a slew of director nominations including the DGA, Golden Globe and Oscar, and won the National Board of Review and National Society of Film Critics awards for Best Director.  Anne Thompson

“3 Women” (1977). Perhaps Altman’s most nebulous film, but certainly one of his best. Two lonely young women befriend each other while working at a desert spa for the elderly — the naïve yet creepy Pinky (Sissy Spacek), and the insatiably loquacious Millie (Shelley Duvall). They become roommates, and then everything spirals into sinister oblivion. A portrait of hostility, identity doubling and misogyny, as rich and mysterious as the primal murals painted by the film’s third woman, the pregnant Willie Hart (Janice Rule). –Beth Hanna

“A Wedding” (1978). That weddings can be a hilarious ground zero for culture clash isn’t lost on Altman. This is exactly what he explores in one of his funniest films, “A Wedding,” following the marriage of a carrot-topped daughter of a truck driver to an heir in a very wealthy family with a sprawling countryside manse. More than a couple problems keep the event from running smoothly. For one, no guests show up. And ailing matriarch Lillian Gish decides to croak before the reception gets underway. With Paul Dooley, Mia Farrow, Carol Burnett, Dennis Christopher and many more in a typically Altman-sized cast. –Beth Hanna

“Popeye” (1980). The influence of this jaunty adaptation of E.C. Segar’s “Popeye” comic strip is perhaps most acutely felt in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Technicolor throwback romance “Punch Drunk Love,” which even uses Shelley Duvall and Harry Nilsson’s lilting “He Needs Me” theme from the Altman musical. 30 years later, “Popeye” is still alive and kicking, with Duvall (as Olive) and Robin Williams (as the titular sailor man) having a ball with Nilsson’s good-natured music and lyrics. Scribe Jules Feiffer, also a comic strip writer, revels in the cartoonish aspects while fleshing out a backstory about Popeye’s squandered childhood. It’s a silly little nothing of a movie. But Altman could kick back and take it easy, too — even if the result was a critical and commercial pratfall. –Ryan Lattanzio

“Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982). This gently sad, low-budget adaptation of an Ed Graczyk play stars four screen titans — Cher, Sandy Dennis, Karen Black and Kathy Bates — as estranged members of a James Dean fan club who, in the mid-70s, converge at a five-and-dime in Texas to honor the anniversary of his death. Flashbacks fold into more flashbacks, memories get mixed up and secrets come to the fore. It’s heavy on lady-drama, but a quintet of measured and charismatic performances makes for a wistful, kickback experience. —Ryan Lattanzio

An underappreciated entry in the Altman oeuvre, “Vincent & Theo” (1990) is a gorgeous slice-of-life biopic about the relationship between tortured painter Vincent Van Gogh (Tim Roth) and his younger brother/caretaker/patron Theo (Paul Rhys), an art dealer. Altman shot the original BBC four-hour mini-series near Arles where Van Gogh painted many of his masterworks. The director and writer Julian Mitchell whittled down the four hours in order to release a feature film, which may account for why “Vincent & Theo” debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival with barely a ripple. Altman’s groundbreaking youth was behind him; critics took him for granted and didn’t see him breaking new ground with this relatively straightforward biopic. It’s worth reconsideration. Anne Thompson

“The Player” (1992) marked a commercial and critical comeback for the bad-boy director, who landed his third of five directing Oscar nominations–in 2006 he finally collected an honorary Oscar. Screenwriter Michael Tolkin adapted his razor-sharp inside-Hollywood novel; the movie stars Tim Robbins as ruthless careerist Griffin Mill, who will kill to get ahead–and he’s not alone. Altman opens this hilarious movie with one of the most bravura long takes in cinema history. –Anne Thompson

“Short Cuts” (1993). Altman’s ensemble epic takes the lean short stories of master writer Raymond Carver and remixes them into an explosive kaleidoscope of character against the quietly blazing backdrop of suburban Los Angeles. And like Carver’s chiseled prose, “Short Cuts” ebbs and flows to the rhythms of everyday life, where even the most minute of dramas can be world-shattering. Ripple effects are felt across the various story strands: from Lily Tomlin as a put-upon waitress who accidentally does a hit-and-run on the son of Andie MacDowell and her cop husband, who’s having an affair with Frances McDormand, who’s divorcing Peter Gallagher as a helicopter pilot, and it goes on. The chain of events is endless, and it all culminates to an apocalyptic grand finale that is, unquestionably, the reason that Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” exists at all. Ryan Lattanzio

“Gosford Park” (2001). Altman weaves upstairs and downstairs in this epically cast tale of an estate party in the 1932 English countryside. The director’s signature overlapping dialogue (here from Julian Fellowes’ Oscar-winning screenplay, which provided the DNA for his TV hit “Downton Abbey”) seems to have been custom-made for a film like this, where the drama lies in the whispers and offhand remarks made between the house’s staff, always striving for invisibility, and its guests of honor, vying for attention. Starring Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ryan Phillippe, Clive Owen, Bob Balaban, Emily Watson — the estimable list goes on and on. –Beth Hanna

“A Prairie Home Companion” (2006). Garrison Keillor’s radio show gets the Altman treatment in his final film, an imperfect swan song just as he would’ve wanted it. The show — comprised of players Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Lindsay Lohan and Keillor himself among others — is in danger of cancellation, its fate in the hands of Tommy Lee Jones’ Axeman, when Virginia Madsen drops in as angel to shuffle off one of their mortal coils. One of the director’s lightest efforts, but he certainly left us on a high. —Ryan Lattanzio

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