Altman. It’s an incredible filmography. Altman has 16 archiveable films, 6 top 500 films, and 9 top 100 films of their respective decade. His 1970’s decade was incredible—a whopping 9 films in the archives and 6 in the top 100 of the 1970’s (a considerable decade in film). He might not be Scorsese behind the camera but he’s a stylish director in his own right. I think the problem is my drop-off after Nashville is pretty substantial. Atlman only has one film in my top 200 and at this level (and higher) that’s pretty rare.  

Best film:  Nashville is just a giant masterpiece (#61 of all-time and completely emblematic of Altman’s visual and narrative stylishness). Simply put, it’s one of the best films of the 1970’s. Affecting, hilarious, well-acted, and of course, Altman at the height of his aesthetic and storytelling powers as a director.

this may be Altman’s greatest shot- Tomlin’s performance perfectly captured by a floating zoom

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total archiveable films: 16

top 100 films: 1

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gorgeous reflection in glass in The Long Goodbye
dp Vilmos Zsigmond

top 500 films: 6 (Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, MASH, Gosford Park, The Long Goodbye, The Player)

haunting conclusion to The Long Goodbye

top 100 films of the decade: 9 (Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, MASH, The Long Goodbye, California Split, 3 Women, The Player ,Short Cuts, Gosford Park)

the sunken pool mise-en-scene in 3 Women

most overrated:   Short Cuts chimes in at #485 on the TSPDT consensus list and I couldn’t quite find a spot for it in my top 500 but I appreciate the greatness of the film.

most underrated: MASH is #247 for me and #891 all-time on the TSPDT list. No way in hell there are 890 better movies. MASH has some of Gould and Sutherland’s best work right off the bat in the 70’s Altman is firing with overlapping dialogue, zooming all over the place, and a big middle-finger at the establishment. I’m guessing the slapstick football ending is what isn’t aging well for some viewers… I mean it’s very good slapstick- if people don’t like slapstick that is a taste preference. It’s certainly in step with the film’s form, that genre’s great history (winking at everyone from Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman to the Marx brothers’ Horse Feathers) and the greater point and criticism Altman is trying to get across (the absurdity of all of this).

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the last supper in Mash– Altman the satirist paying homage to Bunuel
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gem I want to spotlight:  The Player. Robert Altman’s The Player was a major comeback for the artist who was right there on the Mount Rushmore of the American new wave of cinema in the 1970’s with Coppola and Scorsese. I’ve seen the film at least a half dozen times. It’s a solid top 10 film of 1992 even if it falls short of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Eastwood’s Unforgiven and maybe even Reservoir Dogs, The Last of the Mohicans and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.  What struck me most about this most recent viewing of The Player  is the opening long take which is, deservingly, quite famous. It’s a wonderful long take that pays tribute to other famous long takes with the characters dialogue (mainly Fred Ward) during the scene. It’s both breathtaking and damn funny. What stuck out to me while watching it this time was how Altmanesque this long-take is. There’s overlapping dialogue (another Altman trait), satire (of course), and tons of camera zooms. It’s not fluid like Ophuls and it doesn’t frame faces at fantastic angles like Iñárritu (which you could argue he got from Kalatozov).   It really shows that not all “oners” or long-takes are the same. Compare this one with Welles’ Touch of Evil (which Altman mentions in the text as an overt homage)Cuaron in Children of Men. or Bela Tarr, Joe Wright, De Palma, Godard (Weekend), Antonioni’s Passenger, Scorsese, Hitch or Kubrick…..They are all subtly different and I take great satisfaction in seeing that Altman can pay tribute to Welles but still make this shot his own. His long take isn’t beautiful like many of the others—it’s pure Altman—which really is better.

stylistic innovations/traits:   Redoing genres (war film, western, gangster film (Thieves Like Us), noir/detective,) is a good start. Many of Altman’s films were sprawling ensemble narratives (Nashville, Gosford Park, Short Cuts). Visually he had those beautiful zoom shots that allowed him to pick and choose which characters from his ensembles to eavesdrop in on. Married to the zooms is the overlapping dialogue (or “cross talk”)– the multitrack sound has got to hurt his reputation abroad with non-English language critics. I’ve written about this before but on a list like TSPDT that is incorporating more and more lists from other continents typically overlooked (which I have mixed feelings about) I feel like Altman suffers (he’s rated 44th on TSPDT director list). I mean look at his films- they are so quintessentially American (obviously Gosford Park and Vincent and Theo are the exception).  Many depict the nuance of a city (Nashville, Kansas City, Short Cuts) or the celebration (or satirizing of Americana itself (Prairie Home, Buffalo Bill).  I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how much I appreciate Altman’s dedication to “middle-finger cinema” like Bunuel (takes the “last supper” shot from Viridiana for MASH) or Pasolini.  Nashville, The Player, Buffalo Bill, McCabe, MASH (sometimes shockingly so), Thieves Like Us…all a big middle finger to the establishment, Hollywood, America, the church, politicians, etc.  For the record, I don’t care what his (or Bunuel’s or anyone else’s stance is—I just like that he’s committed to it as an artist.

Altman’s camera floats in on on spectacular Julie Christie his trademark zooms, lighting by Vilmos Zsigmond, music by Leonard Cohen

top 10

  1. Nashville
  2. McCabe & Mrs. Miller
  3. MASH
  4. Gosford Park
  5. The Long Goodbye
  6. The Player
  7. Short Cuts
  8. California Split
  9. 3 Women
  10. Buffalo Bill and the Indians
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genre dissection- here in Thieves Like Us

By year and grades

1970- Brewster McCloud R
1970- M.A.S.H. MP
1971- McCabe & Mrs. Miller MP
1973- The Long Goodbye MS
1974- California Split HR
1974- Thieves Like US R
1975- Nashville MP
1976- Buffalo Bill and the Indians R
1977- Three Women HR
1982- Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean R
1990- Vincent and Theo R
1992- The Player HR/MS
1993- Short Cuts HR
1999- Cookie’s Fortune R
2001- Gosford Park MS
2006- A Prairie Home Companion R

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives