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My 5 Favourite Robert Altman Films



In many ways, Robert Altman was the quintessential American filmmaker. Not only was he the son of a Mayflower descendent, but he made films about many facets of American life, simultaneously exposing both the inherent problems and natural beauty found in the American landscape, from Nashville to Hollywood to the Western frontier. The five-time Academy Award nominated writer-director, had a lengthy and often feted career in film and television that continued right up to his death from leukaemia complications in 2006. Though his health was deteriorating, he still managed to complete his final film, A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, starring Meryl Streep and Altman mainstay, Lily Tomlin, that same year.

A new documentary about Altman’s life, simply entitled ALTMAN (click for review), directed by Canadian filmmaker, Ron Mann, is coming to theatres this fall and, in anticipation of this celebration of Altman’s work, TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto will be screening an impressive selection from Altman’s illustrious career in a series entitled, Company Man: The Best of Robert Altman. Just ahead of this series’ official launch on Thursday, August 7, Black Sheep Reviews looks back at our five favourite Robert Altman films (in alphabetical order).



After just having called Altman a champion of American storytelling, the first film we cite as one of his best takes place in England. GOSFORD PARK is Altman’s last great film and a masterclass in British period filmmaking. Hailing from an Oscar winning screenplay by Downton Abbey creator, Julian Fellowes, GOSFORD PARK is set in 1932 and tells the story of a group of wealthy Brits and one rich American who have gathered at a mansion in the British countryside one weekend to hunt. Along with them, they’ve all brought their valets, lady maids and assorted other servants to ensure the weekend runs properly. For fans of the popular PBS television series that was originally conceived as a spin-off of this film, this may sound like second hat. This has a murder mystery built into though! Aside from that, and nothing against the cast of Downton Abbey, GOSFORD PARK also boasts one of the most incredible British ensembles ever assembled, including Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren (both of whom nabbed Oscar nods for their parts), Clive Owen, Michael Gambon, Kelly MacDonald, Emily Watson, Kristin Scott Thomas and more. I guess the Brits had been waiting ever so patiently for their chance to work with the king of the ensemble.

MASH (1970)


I’m very mixed on MASH. On the one hand, this is the film that put Altman on the map. Prior to the success of this film (it won the Palmes d’Or at Cannes and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay, which it won), Altman had worked mostly in television and had only made a handful of films, none of which had done great things for his career. A number of directors passed on MASH because of its controversial anti-war message and Altman’s bravery for taking the project is commendable in itself. That said, the film itself, while often quite droll and biting, feels oddly misogynistic at times. I often find it difficult to assess whether the film is critical of the rampant sexism in the army or if it is actually delighting in it to some extent. All the same, MASH introduced many to Altman for the first time, and with that many more people were exposed to what became Altman’s signature style of creating naturalistic environments that featured many people speaking over each other in a seemingly chaotic, mostly improvised, but ultimately controlled manner. Despite being torn on this title, it feels wrong not to include it. After all, it made every other film on this list possible.



Although not universal, NASHVILLE is considered by many, including this film critic, to be Altman’s masterpiece. It is a sprawling epic that runs almost three hours in length, features no less than 24 main characters and spans the five days leading up to a controversial political rally being held in Nashville, TN. Altman’s ability to throw so many balls up into the air and not only juggle them all in a balanced and entertaining fashion, but also to derive an ever changing meaning by slowly connecting all of the pieces together, remains unmatched in the industry and is at its best here. The underlying political bed that drives NASHVILLE forward helps to highlight how important the city’s political influence is, as well as demonstrate how much power and sway the city’s country music stars have over their fans. Of course, there’s also plenty of drama amidst this community as well, and this too Altman treats fairly and consistently. Nothing overpowers; instead, it all flows together seamlessly as the viewer is given a private look behind the scenes of one of America’s most important musical cities. Tomlin is particularly heartbreaking as a dissatisfied wife and mother of two deaf children; as is the debut performance of Ronee Blakley, who plays a delicate country rose whose time in the spotlight is wearing away at her mind. Both were nominated for Oscars but Keith Carradine actually won one for his song, “I’m Easy”. There is over an hour of musical performances in NASHVILLE and all the songs were written by the actors who sang them. Just another Altman touch!



This Hollywood satire written by Michael Tolkien marked something of a renaissance for Altman. In fact, it was his first real hit since NASHVILLE. It was also my personal introduction to the filmmaker’s work and remains to this day one of my all-time favourite films. Tim Robbins plays a Hollywood executive who is receiving threats from a writer (Vincent D’Onofrio) he never called back. After the writer ends up dead, Robbins becomes the main suspect in the investigation, which does nothing to stop him from getting involved with the dead writer’s girlfriend (Greta Schachi). For THE PLAYER, Altman basically called up everyone he knew in Hollywood to cameo in the film and many of those who did, did so for absolutely no money. As a result, everyone from Julia Roberts to Bruce Willis to Anjelica Huston to Joel Grey can be seen popping up randomly throughout the film. It is an extremely sharp, witty affair that exposes so many of Hollywood’s conventions and shortcomings, while both operating within those confines and rising above them whenever necessary. In that sense, it is operating on numerous levels at once and once again, Altman casts a very wide net but never loses control over his catch. And as if the suspense and the satire weren’t satisfying enough already, Altman opens the film with an 8-minute crane shot, besting Orson Welles’ six and a half minute shot from TOUCH OF EVIL, which one of the characters here actually points out, that whirls around a Hollywood studio lot, introducing us to almost all the major characters and setting up everything we need to know to enjoy the film. It is mesmerizing.



Building on the success he regained with THE PLAYER, Altman threw himself into another epic ensemble piece, similar in size and scope to NASHVILLE with 1993’s SHORT CUTS. The film runs just over three hours long and is based on nine short stories by Raymond Carver. They are all Los Angeles based and there are some connections between them, some scant, some significant. At times, there doesn’t seem to be much happening in this film but that is when Altman excels. He has an uncanny ability to make the ordinary seem anything but and he has such a great understanding of human interaction, both intimate and casual, that he knows how to find the nuances in his actors’ performances. Yet again mostly improvised, SHORT CUTS focuses on the uglier side of human behaviour, from adultery to abuse and neglect. This film is all about the choices we make on a regular basis that alter our lives before we can realize the impact they’ve had. Tomlin again has one of the more tragic story lines; she hits a young boy with her car and leaves him after she thinks everything has checked out fine. She realizes how, had this gone worse, her entire life could be be changed in that instant. Little does she know though that the boy slipped into a coma that afternoon. It may take a very long time to get there but SHORT CUTS goes very, very deep.

Company Man: The Best of Robert Altman begins Thursday, August 7, at TIFF Bell Lightbox, in Toronto. It opens with MASH and is followed the next day by another Altman classic, MCCABE & MRS. MILLER, starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. The latter will be introduced by the Academy Award winning cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond (CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND). The print that will be shown has also recently been restored. For more information and for tickets, please visit

One Comment

  1. Oh gosh, my 5 favorite Altman movies seem to evolve over time. He’s the granddaddy of what Roger Ebert called “hyperlink” movies, which distinguish themselves by having multiple characters and story threads and not just one easy-to-follow plot.

    I love “MASH” and “Gosford Park”, but I think my top 5 would include “3 Women” with Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek from 1977. I saw it for about the fifth time at Ebertfest a couple years ago in a brand new print and it occurred to me then that it’s like watching it for the first time, every time. It’s a movie you just can’t get to the bottom of and its mysteries keep me coming back for more.

    I also have come to love “California Split” (1974), a movie he sandwiched between “The Long Goodbye” and “Nashville” about a couple of degenerate gamblers. There are new snippets of dialogue always waiting to be found under the breath of all those actors who all seem to be hooked up with mics. If not that one, than “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” for sure, which has become one of my favorite westerns. It’s so unique and that Leonard Cohen music compliments the mood of that film perfectly.

    Nice list. Always love reading about Altman.

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