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Robert Altman's Top 15 Films

Thompson on Hollywood By TOH! | Thompson on Hollywood October 13, 2014 at 3:07PM

With a new Museum of Modern Art retrospective on its way to New York, we pick our 15 favorite films by director Robert Altman.
6
'The Player'
'The Player'
'Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean'
'Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean'

"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

'Short Cuts'
'Short Cuts'

"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'
'Gosford Park'

"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


This article is related to: Robert Altman, UCLA Film & Television Archive, Features


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.