Top 10 Altman

Earlier this year, I said of BREWSTER MCCLOUD, “On a second viewing, I’m still fond of it even though I hesitate to include it in my top ten Altman films.” Naturally, ever since then I’ve wondered what, in fact, would constitute my top ten Altman films. Having seen a few and trying to think way back to memories of a few more that I haven’t seen in well over ten years, let’s count down the results:

10. THE PLAYER (1992)
One of those I have not seen in over a decade, and one I can imagine seeming a little dated twenty years on. However, this film’s dark, dark Hollywood satire seems so quintessentially Altman that in retrospect I’m flummoxed as to why he didn’t make it earlier in his career. It all may feel a little too self-congratulatory, but it hits the correct, deserved targets.

A lot of Altman has made it to DVD over the past decade; this is one of the few holdouts (along with HEALTH and THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK). After a recent, rare screening at the MFA, I have no trouble calling it a lost classic, although its one weak spot—Ed Graczyk’s sentimental screenplay, adapted from his own play—prevents it from feeling like a true Altman film. Still, as Spielberg brought Kubrick’s ideas to life in A.I., Altman enriches and transcends the material here and gets great, one-of-a-kind performances out of Karen Black, Sandy Denny and a young Kathy Bates. Cher, in her film debut, is also fine but she’d get better.

See, the point of an exercise like this is to either validate or repudiate sweeping generalizations I end up making in my reviews. Undoubtedly, this is a seriously flawed film—comically broad, occasionally ridiculous, its eventual running-out-of-steam best exemplified when one character simply gives up and shoots himself out of the movie. Fortunately, it’s full of just as many magnificent, crazy ideas that bespeak a very particular (and peculiar) vision. It’s unlike any other film and, at times, unlike any other Altman film.

Arguably Altman’s slowest film: a depression-era drama set in the south, inspired by both BONNIE AND CLYDE and THEY LIVE BY NIGHT. Although people commit bank robberies and the two lovably gawky but not overly quirky leads (Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall) fall in love, not much else happens, and that’s kind of the point. The film is more notable for its impressionistic rendering of a specific time and place via a roving camera that’s like a series of old faded photographs coming to life and a multilayered soundtrack of radio broadcasts that expands on how Peter Bogdanovich employed Hank Williams tunes throughout THE LAST PICTURE SHOW.

I saw a film print of this at the Brattle ten years ago, and it may be the ideal way to see it (if you can) since the DVD purportedly changes a lot of the music due to rights issues. I mention this because the music here is essentially a third main character, commenting on the quixotic pursuits of would-be professional gamblers Elliot Gould and George Segal as they hit up casinos from L.A. to Reno. Of course, this shaggy friendship tale is the anti-OCEANS 11 and perhaps the underseen classic in Altman’s oeuvre.

5. NASHVILLE (1975)
Like THE PLAYER, this is the kind of ambitious masterwork you sense Altman was working towards for a such a long time you’re almost surprised that he didn’t get to it sooner. Even if, like me, you’re not a country music fan, the performance scenes (which seem to account for at least one-third of the entire film) fascinate, capturing something distinctly humane and revealing that mere dialogue doesn’t always allow for. Altman plays his cast of 24 like an orchestra so expertly that the great, tragic, triumphant convergence of them all at the finale still packs a punch, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

4. 3 WOMEN (1977)
Alternately, his most pretentious, irritating, mesmerizing and sublime film. That’s another way of saying that not everything in it works—the last 15 minutes, for example, are more WTF than even BREWSTER MCCLOUD. But Shelley Duvall’s fearless performance as an exceptionally self-assured chatty devotee of fashion tips and recipes gleaned from women’s self-help magazines is for the ages, as is Sissy Spacek’s (arguably creepier here than she was in CARRIE one year before). When Woody Allen makes a Bergman film, the result is INTERIORS; when Altman does the same, the result makes Bergman look as normal as Woody Allen.

Leave it to Altman to make a Philip Marlowe picture that not only pisses all over the idea of what that should entail but also gets awfully close to what a Real World Marlowe would be like—especially one living in sleazy, strung-out 1970s Los Angeles. Its mirrored landscapes seem as radical and iconic as the far different ones in the # 1 film on this list and the endless reiterations of the title song approach the fluidity of jazz. Not as much as Gould does, however. Imagine an alternate universe where Duvall won an Academy Award for 3 WOMEN and Gould won one for his Marlowe—a man living and communicating on instinct, exuding a strange (but not sanctimonious) purity in the face of endless, encircling corruption.

2. GOSFORD PARK (2001)
Like NASHVILLE, this employs a massive ensemble delineated by class and hinges upon a murder. Predictably for Altman, he pretty much glosses over the latter and focuses almost entirely on the former’s subtleties, forging a rich, witty, revealing take on an awfully particular culture. Less predictably, he achieves this with a culture (and a country!) he’s never previously explored; his most important film since NASHVILLE, not to mention one of his biggest commercial hits.

1. MCCABE & MRS. MILLER (1971)
Not much of a surprise if you read this blog and saw my fake Sight & Sound poll ballot a few weeks back. To that, I’ll only add that this beautiful anti-Western made a huge impact on me after my first viewing 14 years ago because I had no expectations for it and none too high an opinion of Westerns, anti or otherwise. That opening image of Warren Beatty riding his horse in the rain to Leonard Cohen’s “Stranger Song” is really all one needs, I think, to determine whether this is your favorite Altman film—if you don’t instantly fall in love, it’s just not gonna happen.


Other Great Altman Films I Could Not Squeeze into this Top Ten: Popeye (no, really!), Cookie’s Fortune, (maybe) A Prairie Home Companion

Altman Film I’d Like Most to See Again for Reassessment: The Company

Unseen Altman I’d Most Like to See: That Cold Day In The Park, A Perfect Couple, HealthSecret Honor, Vincent and Theo

Altman Anyone Can Live Without: Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Quintet, O.C. and Stiggs (I’m guessing–it sits unwatched in my Netflix instant queue).

My (Fake) Sight & Sound Film Poll Ballot

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Once every ten years, British cineaste rag Sight & Sound conducts a critics’ poll of all-time greatest films. With the latest edition’s results imminent, here’s what my ballet would look like if I had one. The poll requires participants to list only ten films, which is a preposterous thing for any film geek to consider (but most of us love doing it anyway).

In chronological order…

1. SUNRISE: A TALE OF TWO HUMANS (F.W. Murnau, Germany, 1927)
A majestic summation of what silent cinema could accomplish, and almost by default, since technology rendered this particular aesthetic obsolete shortly thereafter. Although of its time in a visual sense, it endures because it depicts an age-old conflict of morals without moralizing, instead expressing the simple, pure joy of being alive and sincerely in love.

2. BRINGING UP BABY (Howard Hawks, USA, 1938)
As I wrote when I recently saw it, the essential screwball comedy and a strong candidate for best all-time film comedy: every single scene faultlessly jam-packed with punchy, witty dialogue, every last joke hitting its target with agility and grace, every ounce of dazzling chemistry between Hepburn and Grant effortlessly sparkling.

3. VERTIGO (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1958)
Because every ballot needs at least one slot for Hitchcock. Because 50+ years on, it still speaks volumes about how we’re all voyeurs (especially moviegoers). Because this is James Stewart’s best onscreen persona: curious, driven, and tormented. Because odd blonde goddess Kim Novak still beguiles and comes off as enigmatic as Marilyn.

4. PLAYTIME (Jacques Tati, France, 1967)
I’ve haven’t seen this in awhile given that it’s the one of two films I have to watch in a theater, never on TV (the other is by Stanley Kubrick—guess which one). No other director viewed film as a multi-dimensional canvas in the way Tati did here, taking physical slapstick to new heights of cerebral sophistication without forgetting to be funny.

5. MCCABE & MRS. MILLER (Robert Altman, USA, 1971)
One could say Altman turned the western inside out with this revisionist take on the genre, but what he actually did was radically alter how one could tell a story by dropping the audience into the thick of it as if they were Warren Beatty’s McCabe, a stranger in a town not yet fully built. A rich mess of overheard dialogue, muted lighting and Leonard Cohen songs all cohere into something transformative, a new way of comprehension via textural and poetic detail.

6. ANNIE HALL (Woody Allen, USA 1977)
I viewed this again two weeks ago and as a romantic comedy, it holds up nearly as well as BRINGING UP BABY, but with a twist: it takes the earlier film’s greatest attributes and so finely refracts them through Allen’s sensibility that the result is like a perfect dramatization of one of his stand-up routines. And it might’ve been nothing but wacky comic navel gazing if not for Diane Keaton’s input and inspiration, which gives the film its soul.

7. THE LAST OF ENGLAND (Derek Jarman, UK, 1987)
Because in his truncated life, Jarman did more than arguably any other contemporary filmmaker to combine and recontextualize disparate genres and formats. Because he introduced us to Tilda Swinton. Because this scathing, explosive attack on a country ravaged by Thatcherism retains all of its power a quarter century on. Because he gave a voice to the queer and the HIV-positive at a time when they were ignored.

8. BEAU TRAVAIL (Claire Denis, France, 1999)
Claire Denis’ idiosyncratic take on Melville’s Billy Budd is a brilliantly conceived, gorgeously framed Rubik’s Cube of a film that’s also a rigorous, kinetic paean to the male form. As it pieces together a purely visual language, at its center, the wiry, wound-up Denis Levant can barely conceal a mounting intensity the film keeps bottled up until it’s released in an unexpected, euphoric finale.

9. MULHOLLAND DR. (David Lynch, USA, 2001)
Constructed from scraps of a rejected television pilot, Lynch’s weirdly emotional mindfuck of a film fearlessly explores connections between dreams, reality and the movies and all the sublime and more-often-than-not terrifying possibilities that surface as those things overlap. I can’t imagine another film I’d want to watch on endless repeat—just thinking about the opening mélange of skittering images and swing music gives me goose bumps.

10. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (Wes Anderson, USA, 2001)
Despite often citing it as my favorite film, I almost didn’t include it here since MOONRISE KINGDOM gave me hope that Anderson may surpass it someday. Then I considered the film’s insane, jewel-box attention to detail, its cast of enchantingly flawed characters and the fact that with each viewing, I’ve taken away more from it. I haven’t seen it since 2007, so I’m speculating that it still holds up. With good faith, it earns a spot here.

Because all-time top ten lists are ridiculous and because I can’t resist, here are ten more I wish I could include on this ballot: The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ In the Rain, Rosemary’s Baby, Young Frankenstein, This is Spinal Tap, High Hopes, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, The Sweet Hereafter, There Will Be Blood.