Robert Altman’s 20 best films – ranked!

From The Long Goodbye to Short Cuts, Altman’s innovative movies have influenced a generation of film-makers. With the re-release of Nashville and a BFI tribute, we rank the work of one of America’s greatest directors

20. That Cold Day in the Park (1969)

The ad campaign declared this “the ‘post-Graduate’ you’ve been waiting for!” Er, no. Mrs Robinson may have been bitter but she wasn’t homicidal. And even before Sandy Dennis is nailing the windows shut to prevent her pretty hippie houseguest (Michael Burns) from escaping, it’s clear that this eerie thriller, later dismissed by its director as “pretentious”, will be no walk in the park.

19. M*A*S*H (1970)

This Palme d’Or-winning Korean war comedy, rejected by Stanley Kubrick and Sidney Lumet, introduced Altman’s signature style: slow zooms, overlapping dialogue, ensemble casts, stoned humour. It can be appreciated still for its innovation rather than its boys’ club bawdiness. A forgiving viewer may tolerate the humiliation of “Hot Lips” (Sally Kellerman), but only a heartless one would find it funny.

18. A Perfect Couple (1979)

Nutty rom-com about two computer-dating doofuses (Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin) with nothing in common. Dooley is in wisecracking Albert Brooks mode (“My father was Greek, which would ordinarily make me half-Greek, but my mother was Greek too …”) while the film was surely a direct influence on Punch-Drunk Love (which also filched a song from the Popeye soundtrack).

17. The Company (2003)

Mixing real dancers from the Joffrey ballet company with a handful of actors (Neve Campbell as a dance student, James Franco as the chef who falls for her, Malcolm McDowell as the company’s demanding director), this is a fluid blend of fiction and semi-documentary. The final performance, involving luminous puppets and Fellini-esque costumes, is an eye-popping highlight.

16. Brewster McCloud (1970)

A grab-bag of skits and gags hung loosely on the tale of a modern-day Icarus (played by Bud Cort, who appeared in Harold & Maude the following year), who is constructing his own winged apparatus. Altman regular René Auberjonois turns into a bird, Margaret Hamilton from The Wizard of Oz pops up briefly, and the director’s most magical collaborator, Shelley Duvall, makes her eye-catching debut.

15. A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

“The death of an old man is not a tragedy,” declares Virginia Madsen in Altman’s swansong. Paul Thomas Anderson was the on-set “pinch hitter”, ready to take over if his ailing idol flagged. It’s remarkable, then, that the result is so effervescent, with songs, silliness and sage reflections from the cast (Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan, Woody Harrelson) at Garrison Keillor’s folksy radio show.

14. The Player (1992)

Snazzy and shallow right from its opening, unbroken seven-minute take, Altman’s comeback after a decade on the margins was no Hollywood satire – he called it “a very, very soft indictment” – but it’s still a blast. Tim Robbins is the studio executive stalked by a spurned screenwriter, though the plot matters less than the in-jokes, jibes and cameos (Cher, Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, et al).

13. Kansas City (1996)

Jennifer Jason Leigh in Kansas City.
Jennifer Jason Leigh in Kansas City. Photograph: Electric/Eli Reed/Allstar

Altman was a jazz buff whose improvisatory process had frequently been likened to the genre, so this intoxicating 1930s-set tribute to the music of his birthplace represented a homecoming in more ways than one. Jennifer Jason Leigh is the fast-talking Jean Harlow nut who kidnaps a prim society wife (Miranda Richardson) in a bid to save her own husband from a vicious gangster (Harry Belafonte).

12. Secret Honour (1984)

From chaotic ensemble casts to one actor alone in a room. Altman had already directed Donald Freed and Arthur M Stone’s play on stage; the film version feels taut and tart, with craggy, tortured Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon brooding on defeats and betrayals. Director and ex-president are worlds apart politically but Nixon’s cry of “Fuck ’em” sounds positively Altmanesque.

11. Vincent & Theo (1990)

The relationship between Van Gogh and his brother supplies the canvas for a rumination on life, art and commerce, featuring passionate performances from Tim Roth and Paul Rhys. Made as a four-hour television miniseries but released in a 138-minute version in cinemas, it provided another opportunity for Altman to ponder his own artistic travails, including his (soon-to-end) Hollywood exile.

10. California Split (1974)

“I feel like a winner but I know I look like a loser.” So claims Elliot Gould in this near-plotless comedy about two gamblers (George Segal is the less shambolic one) chasing a lucky streak. Not all of it plays happily today: the mood sours when the pals pose as cops to spook an ageing transvestite. Mostly, though, it’s pleasingly loose and bittersweet. Not to mention pioneering: the eight-track recording system first allowed Altman to mix between sound channels like a DJ.

9. Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

“I left the major studios,” Altman said in 1981. “I didn’t leave movies.” For most of that decade, he confined himself to low-budget independent features based on plays, some of which he shot immediately after directing them on stage. The best was this drama about a 20th-anniversary reunion of a James Dean fan club. Altman and a formidable cast (including Cher, Sandy Dennis and Karen Black) transform the rudimentary text into an elegiac, fragmented reflection on the dormant past.

8. Short Cuts (1993)

Boosted by The Player, which earned him the best director prize at Cannes and an Oscar nomination, Altman returned to the multi-character format that had worked so thrillingly in Nashville (and so poorly in A Wedding, from 1978). With a dream cast – including Robert Downey Jr, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Frances McDormand and Julianne Moore – he knitted the short stories of Raymond Carver into a sprawling, creepy-funny LA horror-show. The climactic earthquake has a “Will this do?” quality but Short Cuts is still A-grade Altman.

7. Popeye (1980)

One of the few comic-book movies to reproduce the spirit and texture of its source material. Bright costumes pop enticingly against the grey town of Sweethaven, built from scratch on the island of Malta and shot by Fellini and Visconti’s cinematographer, Giuseppe Rotunno. As the muttering, one-eyed sailor, Robin Williams sometimes gets lost in the madcap jumble of the frame but Shelley Duvall is deliriously good as Olive Oyl. Harry Nilsson’s songs gladden the heart in this slapstick musical crammed with colour and joy.

6. Gosford Park (2001)

Or: Downton’s Dad. Julian Fellowes won an Oscar for this 1930s-set murder mystery that ventures upstairs, downstairs and everywhere in between. Debate persists over how much of Fellowes’s script made it to the screen but one thing is clear: the seductive bustle, piercing humour, complex sound design and inquisitive zoom shots are pure Altman. As is the generous direction of a top-drawer cast, including Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Clive Owen. Oh, all right then, and Laurence Fox.

5. Thieves Like Us (1974)

Edward Anderson’s Depression-era crime novel was previously filmed by Nicholas Ray in 1948 as They Live By Night, but Altman sent screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury (who later wrote Nashville) back to the book. Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall had a brief bite of romance together in McCabe and Mrs Miller, but here they sink their teeth into meatier roles as, respectively, a goofy crook and his smitten squeeze. Tragedy looms at the end of this fine-grained portrait of love under the gun.

Nashville. Photograph: Paramount Pictures

4. 3 Women (1977)

Altman suffered from periodic delusions of Bergman, resulting in films such as That Cold Day in the Park (so-so) and Images (bad), as well as the tremendous, haunting 3 Women. The first half is a Mike Leigh-esque cringe-comedy about mismatched flatmates – bossy-boots Millie (Shelley Duvall) and shrinking violet Pinkie (Sissy Spacek) – before a bold narrative rupture that would later influence David Lynch and Apichatpong Weerasethakul among others. Even when movie and characters alike become fractured, the actors hold their nerve spectacularly.

3. The Long Goodbye (1973)

Outrage greeted this irreverent update of Raymond Chandler’s gumshoe thriller, thanks to the effrontery of casting the dazed, dishevelled Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe, a character for ever associated with Humphrey Bogart. There is also the early-1970s Californian vibe with its dope and hippie chicks; hulking Sterling Hayden being bullied by thimble-sized Henry Gibson; a young Arnold Schwarzenegger stripping down to yellow underpants; and a brutal ending that diverges shockingly from the novel. But as Marlowe keeps saying: “It’s OK with me.”

McCabe and Mrs Miller.
McCabe and Mrs Miller. Photograph: Warner Bros/REX/Shutterstock

2. Nashville (1975)

Kurt Vonnegut pointed out that Altman’s influential, multi-character epic begins with a patriotic ballad asserting that “we must be doing something right to last 200 years”, then ends three hours later with everything having gone horribly wrong. In between, 24 characters – including an unstable country star (Ronee Blakley) and a philandering singer-songwriter (Keith Carradine) – mingle against a backdrop of music, parties and politics. Vonnegut called the film “a spiritual inventory of America,” while Pauline Kael proclaimed it “the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen”.

1. McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971)

“How could one person be responsible for so many truly great films?” wondered Paul Thomas Anderson. Nashville may be more ambitious but McCabe is Altman’s melancholy masterpiece, a grungy but romantic anti-western that is hard on the ear (“The sound was fucked but he never changed it,” said the film’s editor, Lou Lombardo) and impossible to resist. Warren Beatty is the garrulous, cigar-chomping chancer who builds a brothel in a turn-of-the-century mining town, Julie Christie the cockney know-it-all who appoints herself its madam. From the grainy, Leonard Cohen-accompanied opening shot of Beatty riding through the gloom to the final snowbound showdown, this is bliss.


Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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