20 Essential Robert Altman Films You Need To Watch

7. Buffalo Bill & The Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)

Buffalo Bill & The Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)

From a masterpiece to a flop, the usual Altman rhythm continued unabated. This may have been a failure but it’s one of his best films, a dry and dark on all of the worst elements of the country that Nashville was willing to temper with engaging and touching human behaviors. It’s another closed-off community, a world defined by its own rules, in this case a circus of sorts and a show business machine.

Buffalo Bill (a wonderfully self-effacing Paul Newman) is depicted as a drunken, racist philanderer prone to irrational alcoholic fits and occasional impotence, unable to track an Injun in the wild but willing to fire rounds at a harmless pet bird. The film’s perspective is obvious and repetitive but its seething anger at American history is persuasive, inarguable and largely ignored by cinema at large.

This is one of the purest examples of Altman using his stature and acuity to take on great themes, to evade complacency, to aggravate and point fingers. Nashville gave him carte blanche and Dino DeLaurentiis as an enthusiastic backer, until the word got out that the film was not going to be a wild and wooly shoot ‘em up but a searching, heavy-handed diatribe.

Altman would have tackled Doctorow’s Ragtime next (and Doctorow appears unbilled in the film as the assistant feeding President Cleveland nearly every line) and with that panoramic assessment of American history, he would have made perhaps one of his most celebrated masterpieces. But Altman fought too hard, played dirty and DeLaurentiis backed away.

Altman was on his own and set up his own mini-company, Lion’s Gate, where, for a time, he was able to do exactly what he wanted and with whom, working with small budgets and the same group of actors and assistants that had by now formed a family. There was another bright period coming, but with fitful successes (artistic only), and Buffalo Bill acts as a kind of harbinger of things to come, especially in the way that its haunting climactic scene between Bill and a spectral Sitting Bull in full head dress, as Bill experiences a kind of alcoholic hallucination during a late night thunderstorm, seems to echo the smaller scale, chamber-like theatrical adaptations Altman would undertake in the blighted 80s.


8. 3 Women (1977)

3 Women

“We don’t like the twins…You’ll learn about them soon enough.” The less said about this one, the better, because, as Altman would have it, it’s all really up to the viewer to decide. It comes closest to Brewster McCloud in its rich inscrutability, signposting clarity just enough before leaving you stranded and needing to find your way out yourself.

Of all the Altman films to list, this one is the most urgently in need of simply sitting down and watching, to sort out its endless mysteries for oneself. Within an arid landscape, we are subjected to a rich interplay of themes which once again, as in the visuals of The Long Goodbye, reflect and refract upon one another.

The women of the film are a Russian nesting doll, one fitting inside another to replace the empty spaces one creates on their own. Millie (a luminous, heartbreaking Shelley Duvall) being the most empty of all, and the narrative center, is a merciless yet deeply sympathetic depiction of a Modern Woman that has been fashioned, used and abused by a phallocentric society that has no idea what to do with her.

A disciple of the trite and shallow, defined by naïve sexuality, she continuously digs herself deeper into a world she doesn’t understand, in the middle of a dreamlike desert, flanked by a disciple of her own (Sissy Spacek, disturbing) who intends to usurp her, like an alien being, as in inlet to human understanding, and finds very little to work with.

On the other end of the spectrum lies Willie, a pregnant painter, silent and resigned, seeming to understand everything Millie doesn’t about the gloomy deal that women in this society have been laid. She alone has created the world the other two are drifting through. But who knows? Any explanation of this film is bound to conflict with another’s. Watch it. Watch it again. Indulge in a dream.


9. A Wedding (1978)

A Wedding (1978)

Perhaps the most essential Robert Altman film for ones who have surrendered to his whiskey-sour approach to form and humanity, pitched somewhere between the multi-character masterpieces (Nashville, Short Cuts) and the quirkier, no-less brilliant works (A Perfect Couple, Popeye), A Wedding is a brimming series of demented observations, riffs and overlapping inanities all brought together in a subterfuge of chaos to make a blurry, astringent, humanistic whole.

The tone is more cartoonishly satirical than it had ever been before and Altman’s take on the human element was colder than ever, but he also seemed to be having great fun with this opulent stew – a near-exhausting collection of characters trying ever so hard to maintain a rigid sense of control during a stiff societal ritual in which everything, down to the tiniest detail, goes awry.

It is a perfect amalgamation of Altman’s hyper-real approach to depicting what is often a surrealistic or impressionistic mural of the world. It’s like watching an especially over-crowded episode of Three’s Company or Soap but filmed as a fly-on-the-wall documentary, and the result is a totally unique experience. Great fun for the initiated and later turned into an opera, directed by Altman himself in his later years.


10. HealtH (1980)

HealtH (1980)

Having been given a five picture deal with 20th Century Fox, and therefore a blank canvas to paint upon, Altman made five very diverse films, where a certain kind of listlessness or lack of drive seemed to become apparent. Perhaps it was Altman’s need for a clearly defined enemy to fight against that gave his work a certain vigor and its sudden lack revealing a more equable, if not dispassionate, mindset.

3 Women and A Wedding are vital Altman films, the dismal post-apocalyptic exercise of Quintet has its fans but definitely telegraphs lethargy and A Perfect Couple is a mish-mash of a romantic comedy, very sweet but somehow lacking in its edge and seemingly made out of an obligation to do something audience-friendly, no matter how idiosyncratic the results ended up.

Fox reneged on their deal come HealtH, the last film in the Fox cycle – simultaneously one of Altman’s most preposterous creations, and one of his most appealing.

Yet again a microcosm of society, here a circus-like health convention at a Florida hotel, during the presidential election of its organization, the high ridiculousness on display entails Lauren Bacall as an 80 year old virgin who lapses into mini-comas mid-sentence, Carol Burnett as a White House emissary who gets a political re-education when she’s not getting the hots in the midst of sheer terror, a cross dressing Henry Gibson as a political dirty trickster, Paul Dooley running his campaign from the bottom of a pool and Dick Cavett roaming about, trying to make sense of all the hoopla.

The specter of Buffalo Bill returns as well, suggesting that old demons from the country’s past still inform the follies of today. As a shrill parody of the American political scene, it’s fitfully funny but also astute in its depiction of a society giving in to complacency and marginal interests being treated with extreme duress.

Alfre Woodard steals the show as the hotel manager, observing the convention’s insanity with cool-as-a-cucumber enervation, stating “I heard the going rate for this cheap-ass convention is only $35. It was $100 last week when the manure people were in here…but they got class.” HealtH has never been released on home video by Fox.


11. Popeye (1980)


Next to HealtH, This seems to have the worst reputation in the Altman canon, and is the film least deserving of it. Even if Altman misfired, there was usually something rare and interesting on display, but Popeye is nothing less than one of Altman’s best films, one that needs to be seen with new eyes, willing to appreciate what a lovingly mounted and beautiful production it is.

One is hard pressed to explain in what way Altman – with Robert Evans as producer, with Jules Feiffer as screenwriter, with Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall in perfect casting, with Harry Nilsson penning songs of tongue-tied delight – did not deliver a film that surpasses expectations. Using his own McCabe & Mrs. Miller as a reference point, Popeye stumbles into Sweethaven as a mysterious stranger, mumbling like Marlowe, and proceeds to search for his pappy while falling in love with Olive Oyle and sparring with Bluto, while the trademarks of Altman’s filmmaking are given one of their most spirited exhibitions.

It’s a lightweight, episodic delight and unlike any other family-oriented entertainment from that time due to the great effort made to create a living cartoon. Even John Huston’s Annie, which spurred Robert Evans to take on E. C. Segar’s sailor man, looks drab by comparison. Altman hired contortionists and acrobats to play some of the numerous extras and the cumulative impression is of a comic strip being treated with the utmost intelligence and respect for its limited horizons.

The impressive Malta set became a veritable playground for Altman and his cohorts Even though there were reports of a nightmarish shoot, drenched in drugs and bad weather, the end result is a consummate work of art. Neither audiences nor critics could decide what to make of this rather sophisticated approach to material that was deemed somehow beneath Altman, and the dismissal of this great piece sent Altman into a dark time of withdrawal from major films and a time spent with prodigious stage adaptations, often for television.


12. The Player (1992)

The Player (1992)

He came back with a vengeance with this gleefully unrestrained attack on the Hollywood system and all of his worst fears that had already come true in the 90s. Films here are sent through the mill, Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins in a classic performance), a movie executive who makes the decisions of what will go on to become the next cookie-cut fodder for the big screen. He holds court in his office where writers flock to pitch him ideas, stories need to be summed up within minutes, representing more than a few hooks in order to make it into production.

Film is no longer art, but a factory product. The industry is so powerful that it is able to chew people up and spit them out, and even get away with murder. Altman got personal this time and it’s certainly one of his best films. The fun he’s having is palpable, from the endless in-jokes to the constant stream of cameos, stars playing themselves with bitchy one-liners or merely passing through unnoticed. No other filmmaker could have taken such vengeance out on his enemies with such grace and wit, and also come out on top with a bona fide hit so that the target of his satire was clamoring to fund his next film.


13. Short Cuts (1993)

Short Cuts

After the success of The Player, Altman was returning to his usual prolific output, roughly a film released every year or so, and simply put, this is one of the decade’s most important and influential films. This adaptation of the works of Raymond Carver was a massive undertaking and would prove to be one of his most impressive feats.

Following over twenty disparate and distressed characters over a few tumultuous days in L.A., the film paints a vastly layered, jazzy rendering of modern malaise. The America on display here, in a film made by a 68 year old man, has finally reached a boiling point where everything is so small, so petty, the population so huge, so scattered, that birthday cakes can cause sociopathic behavior and dead bodies become mere inconveniences.

Men are seen as impatient and brutish, the women deceitful or alarmingly wild-tempered. Children are largely ignored or yelled at (except for a boy in a coma, who suddenly seems so precious and delicate). Life is a very busy, stressful affair. And this is one of the rare American films that really attempt to show what working class people’s lives are like, and how certain domestic dramas play out in homes of different economic means.

Madeleine Stowe hurriedly makes some slapped-together peanut butter sandwiches for the kids while breathlessly telling her sister on the phone that the dog ran away and that the kids are in a panic. Her sister, Julianne Moore, a painter and married to a surgeon, sits contentedly in her home, alone, with a jar of peanut butter in front of her which she dips a spoon into to enjoy all by herself.

The smallest detail, the simplest comparison of the chasm that separates these women is made, and done so economically in Altman’s style. The distinction rings hollow however, since both women’s marriages are falling apart. The peanut butter is just a visual game, one of many in this heavily layered film.

The sheer amount of incident, nastiness, connections made or missed and the rising tide of despair threaten to overwhelm, but something close to grace or wisdom is acquired by the all-encompassing nature of what Altman is making us see. To take in all sides is to say how very much we need to be clear with each other, and to pay better attention of how we behave in every day existence.