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TOH! Picks Robert Altman's Top 15 Films

by TOH!
April 4, 2014 5:02 PM
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Robert Altman
Robert Altman

In the spirit of the UCLA Film and Television Archive's drool-worthy Robert Altman: A Retrospective, kicking off April 4, TOH! writers list their 15 favorite films by the iconic American director. Also debuting at UCLA is Ron Mann's new documentary biopic "Altman," which will air on EPIX this summer. 


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

'McCabe & Mrs. Miller'
'McCabe & Mrs. Miller'

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'
'The Long Goodbye'

"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

Ronee Blakely as country star Barbara Jean in Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975)
Ronee Blakely as country star Barbara Jean in Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975)

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

'3 Women'
'3 Women'

"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


  • Jimmy | April 7, 2014 10:24 PMReply

    The Long Goodbye is my second favorite film of all time. (I guess I get Robert Altman.)
    California Split and Brewster McCloud need to be on the list.

  • JT | April 7, 2014 4:21 PMReply

    Let's face it. You either "get" Altman or you don't. The wonderful thing about Altman films is that there are so many wildy different ones, that it's sort of de rigeur for an Altman fan to have a favorite that few people like. I happen to love HEALTH and Quintet a lot, though I'm probably only one of a handful who feel that way. I do agree that Streamers and California Split should be on any Altman best list. The only film of his that I think should be kept out of sight forever is his clueless adaptation of Beyond Therapy. And while I hated OC and Stiggs the first time I saw it, it gets more interesting (and funnier) on each viewing.

  • James | April 7, 2014 3:06 PMReply

    "Popeye" over "California Split," "Streamers," or "Buffalo Bill and the Indians?" No way!

  • Miles Ridding | April 5, 2014 4:43 AMReply

    I have to say that I have always had major reservations about a lot of Robert Altman's films. He has made a few excellent ones, some good, but the majority are actually not my cup of tea. Ranging from boring to over rated.

    His outstanding work is in fact, in my opinion, just two films:-
    Three Women

    **** Films
    Come Back to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean

    *** Films
    A Wedding
    Fool For vLove
    Short Cuts
    The Player
    Gosford Park

    ** Films
    McCabe And Mrs Miller
    A Perfect Couple
    The Gingerbread Man
    Cookie's Fortune

    * Films
    The Long Goodbye
    California Split
    Thieves Like Us

    No Stars (His Duds)
    Buffalo Bill and The Indians
    Secret Honor
    The Company
    A Prairie Home Companion

    I have seen others but memory fades me to give a proper rating. Also I haven't included films that he produced only.

  • MDL | April 4, 2014 6:41 PMReply

    Don't forget California Split. I'd drop out Popeye or Vincent and Theo for that one. But, still, a lot of great films to admire.

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