Sign up for the
and get $50 off Final Draft 12
By Martin Keady · November 20, 2014
Perhaps the clue is in the name. For much of the 1970’s (and a period in the 1990’s, when he enjoyed a late renaissance), Robert Altman was the “alt” (as in alternative) to much mainstream cinema, especially in America. Where most movies are tightly focused on one or two characters and have a relatively straightforward story, his movies were often loose, even sprawling, featuring groups (or even whole cities) of characters, and sometimes seeming to possess no discernible narrative at all. But it is precisely for those reasons that Altman is one of the truly great filmmakers. At his best (as in many of this top ten, and especially his top three), his movies achieve a remarkable naturalism that, like all the greatest art, is almost more lifelike than life itself.
Photo: Getty Images
10. Secret Honor (1984)
It is the subject matter of Secret Honor that is so startling, and a testament to Altman’s remarkable powers of empathy: an avowed liberal pot-smoker himself, he could nevertheless humanize the arch-enemy of the left, Richard Nixon. The “secret” of the story is that Nixon himself was merely the stooge, or fall guy, for a powerful military-political network that he protected to the end of his presidency, even at the cost of his own reputation. It is a remarkable fictional reimagining of the darkest moment in American political history and emblematic of Altman’s eternal desire to position himself against the grain, finding some small nobility in even the most apparently ignoble of men.
9. Kansas City (1996)
Kansas City exemplifies how Altman was usually more interested in character and mood than the mechanics of narrative. Ostensibly, it is a period crime thriller about a kidnapping (or series of kidnappings) that go wrong, but in reality it is arguably Altman’s most autobiographical movie, an homage to the city of his birth and upbringing, soaked in mournful nostalgia and his beloved jazz.
8. Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976)
Deliberately released to coincide with (and contradict) the bicentennial celebrations of American independence, Buffalo Bill and the Indians is a classic slice of Altman-esque alt-history, dismantling much of the mythology surrounding America’s most sacred cow, the Wild West. Paul Newman (in one of his least obviously sympathetic starring roles) plays Buffalo Bill, who is more of a carnival huckster than a legendary cowboy, peddling spurious tales of the white man’s triumph until Chief Sitting Bull arrives at his travelling show to expose the truth of the genocide of the native Americans. In the era of Rocky, the film was famously a commercial flop, but its sheer chutzpah marks it out as quintessential Altman.
7. Gosford Park (2001)
Gosford Park may be only half a great movie – but what a half! Its depiction (with a seemingly free-floating camera and a cast of dozens) of all the varied lives inside an English country house between the wars is revelatory. Fragments of conversations, of stories, of entire lives are presented, before we race on to another even more compelling vignette. In the first hour of Gosford Park, Altman captures more of the grandeur and injustice of the English class system than an entire series of Downton Abbey. It is intriguing, therefore, that Julian Fellowes wrote both: Gosford Park delights in the minutiae that Fellowes seemed to sacrifice as Downton became almost ludicrously obsessed with a succession of historical events, from the sinking of the Titanic to the Easter Uprising. It is undoubtedly true that the film falters once Stephen Fry’s detective arrives on the scene: Fry is many great things, but no great cinematic sleuth. But as Altman himself said, “Gosford Park is not a whodunit but a who-cares-whodunit.” Who cares indeed, when the world in which such a murder can happen is so beautifully, fully realised?
6. Short Cuts (1993)
Short Cuts is one of the all-time great cinematic adaptations of equally great literature, giving the lie to the oft-repeated theory that it’s easier to make a great film from a bad book than a great book. It was based on several short stories by the marvellous Raymond Carver, who in many ways was the literary equivalent of Altman, telling great truths through seemingly small stories. Short Cuts is also a classic Altman ensemble movie, with wonderful performances from the likes of Julianne Moore and Jack Lemmon (in one of his last great screen roles), but it is the roving, always-inquisitive camera that brings it all together, culminating in an amazing earthquake scene that is one of the most realistic ever filmed.
5. The Player (1992)
The Player was Altman’s remarkable return to form (and fame) after a largely fallow 80’s. It is one of the great “Hollywood on Hollywood” movies, telling the story of a studio exec (Tim Robbins in what is probably a career-best performance) who accidentally kills a screenwriter. (The centrality of a screenwriter to the story is itself one of The Player’s best in-jokes.) From its bravura extended opening sequence, in which the camera swoops around the studio lot like a bird (in dazzling imitation of Orson Welles’ opening to Touch of Evil), to the ridiculously overblown conclusion of the film-within-a-film that the exec ends up making, The Player is as phony and fabulous as old movietown itself.
4. The Long Goodbye (1973)
Or “The Stoner Marlowe,” as it is often described, and with justification. Just as Altman himself was a stoner, counter-culture version of earlier Hollywood masters like Hawks and Huston, so Elliott Gould is a stoner Bogart, barely able to keep himself conscious long enough to investigate a typically labyrinthine Raymond Chandler-derived plot. Sterling Hayden, a poster-boy for the original era of noir in movies such as Kubrick’s The Killing, is now not just a bad guy but a downright nasty guy, showing how the neo-noir of the 70’s could out-noir even the earlier classics. (See also Chinatown.) And has there ever been a more imaginative, if brutal, instrument of torture than The Long Goodbye’s use of a broken coke bottle? That one image alone crystallizes Altman’s career-long obsession with exploring the often harsh reality of the so-called “American dream.”
3. Nashville (1975)
And finally the top three – and what a top three, a trio (even almost a loose trilogy, at least stylistically and thematically) to match the top three masterpieces of any other director in movie history. The fact is that any one of Altman’s top three could be considered his greatest film: they’re all that good. Similarly, I could examine at length about almost any scene in Nashville, Altman’s examination of the music industry in “country city,” but one absolutely stands out, albeit for purely personal reasons. I must have seen Nashville as a child, or at least the scene in which an aspiring young female singer tries to perform before an all-male audience, who reject her vocal ability and instead exhort her to strip, and in her stupid but all-too-human desire to please she obliges. When I saw the film again, many years later, it was that scene that stood out, with all the force that only a childhood memory can have. And it is perhaps the single greatest scene Altman ever filmed, embodying America’s loss of innocence.
2. MASH (1970)
I suffered my own loss of innocence, at least cinematically speaking, when I saw Altman’s film of MASH. Like, I suspect, many viewers, I came to it thinking that it would be a big-screen version of the TV series, complete with Alan Alda’s loveable army doctor, Hawkeye. Instead, I was confronted with a nightmarish (literally so for a young viewer) portrayal of war, with blood, warts and all. Now, of course, much as I retain fond memories of old Al and the TV show, it is the movie MASH that is the indisputable masterpiece: episodic; pioneering Altman’s use of overlapping dialogue (perhaps his enduring gift to cinema); and gloriously blurry and messy, as if shot through a khaki gauze.
1. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
If McCabe And Mrs Miller is not the greatest western ever made (and it’s certainly a contender), it is undoubtedly the greatest north-western ever made, as Warren Beatty’s small-time businessman McCabe tries to strike it rich in a snow-bound town (aided in large part by his introduction of a brothel, overseen by Julie Christie’s Mrs Miller), only to be destroyed by big business, in the form of a rapacious company that wants his land. Everything about the film is extraordinary, from Vilmos Zsigmond’s sublime cinematography to the soundtrack (for which Altman almost wholly appropriates Leonard Cohen’s debut album), but special mention must be made of the two stars: has any film ever had a more beautiful leading man and leading lady than Beattie and Christie in McCabe and Mrs Miller? (And no, I’m not counting Shampoo, where they were less scruffy but more sterile.) McCabe and Mrs Miller is stunning and – for me, at least – just edges Nashville and MASH as Altman’s most masterful masterpiece.