20 Essential Robert Altman Films You Need To Watch

14. Prêt-à-Porter (1994)

Prêt-à-Porter (1994)

Altman headed back to high satire and another stab at pretention run amok with his next film, one of his great misfires that makes for absolute essential viewing. The subject here is the fashion industry and nobody comes away clean. Where bird shit was the scourge of Brewster McCloud and medflies the chosen plague of Short Cuts, dog shit is the subtext here and everyone’s stepping in it.

That Altman has a very low esteem of this industry is clearly evident and his camera crew was met with disdain from the many real designers who appear alongside the absolutely massive cast. The feeling that the film was a rush job is also clearly evident and the sprawling ensemble piece misses more targets than it hits.

One can sense that this slipped through his hands while it was being made. It almost becomes a documentary on its own making as everyone involved was allowed to indulge in improvisation and ended up having what looks like the time of their lives while their director took a backseat. That Altman was gravely ill during the shooting of the film, due to the need for a heart transplant, helps to explain the film’s incomplete quality, and poignantly so.


15. Kansas City (1996)

Kansas City

As an ode to Altman’s hometown and what he may have wondered would be his last film, this stands out as a formally unusual and adventurous film for him, and filled with reminiscences from his childhood. Tinged with a nod to noir, it’s another inquiry into what happens when reality starts to come apart for those who have given over to the dream factory of Hollywood, as Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Blondie commits a crime straight out of an afternoon B-picture.

The music that permeates throughout, as a marathon jazz jam session plays in counterpoint to the complex narrative of crime, kidnap and depression-era politics, is typical of Altman’s sense of style. Harry Belafonte is a chilling surprise as the heartless mob boss, Seldom Seen and Miranda Richardson is haunting as a politician’s wife drowning herself in opium.


16. Cookie’s Fortune (1999)

Cookie’s Fortune (1999)

His first collaboration with screenwriter Anne Rapp gave us one of his most uplifting and even heartwarming films, a glowing, pastel hued southern gothic of family secrets and suicide, Easter pageants, wills and last wishes, catfish enchiladas and pints of Wild Turkey.

Of the many joys on hand are the unhurried pacing that mirrors the casual setting, sincere characterizations, a series of satisfying twist endings and one of the most memorable of all of Altman’s many communities. Holly Springs feels like one of those magical places that could only exist in the world of fiction. Cynicism was largely missing from this vision and the good nature behind all of Altman’s work was in the forefront, at full bloom.


17. Dr. T & the Women (2000)

Dr. T & the Women (2000)

One of the most wrongfully maligned of Altman’s films, his second with writer Anne Rapp, this is one of his richest pieces and a great final summation on his extended studies of the world of women. Turning the tables once again, Altman drops Richard Gere’s immensely popular gynecologist in the middle of a hotbed of privileged Dallas women, a wild menagerie who surround him like a bevy of tropical birds, edging past the others for his affection and attention.

The twist here is that Dr. T is hardly the pussy hound we’d expect him to be, but a man with a respect for women so deep that he has trouble seeing past his own adoration. He takes the submissive role here, as the women who occupy every corner of this film display what are some of the most undesirable qualities of their sex and leave him in the dust.

Accused of misogyny by those who couldn’t see this as the scathing satire it is, the film is hardly remembered and lost in the ether. With its bright lighting, looking uncharacteristically like a commercial romantic comedy, and decidedly radical attempt to perceive women and men in the age old struggle, only now with the genders switched, feels unambiguously subversive.


18. Gosford Park (2001)

Gosford Park

Just as most people will remember Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce in the CBS series of MASH, there will be just as many who will remember Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey and not as the hilariously tart tongued Countess of Trentham in Gosford Park, her precursor.

Altman once again took on new territory with unwavering control and poise with this upstairs, downstairs murder mystery. Gathering together an unprecedented ensemble, featuring a virtual history of British acting, the overarching theme at hand here was the strange co-existence of lords and servants, two societies that existed on top of one another, depended on each other for existence, and how one was almost completely ignored by the other in a fascinating dance of everyday aberration.

Julian Fellowes’ Oscar winning script is as educational as it is labyrinthine and Altman sticks to it with more than usual fidelity. His energies here were more focused on the atmosphere and the body language, the darting eyes telling all with their gaze. His constantly tracking camera observes this territory like a true interloper, fascinated by what he sees.

The center of the film, as the entire household, servants and guests alike, are connected by the music of Ivor Novello, stands as one of the most beautifully rendered passages in all of Altman. It’s stirring to see this society on the verge of eventual evaporation, and this quiet moment that unites them all go by largely unnoticed.


19. The Company (2003)

The Company (2003)

Neve Campbell asked for Altman to direct this tribute to the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago and he took the job after realizing that it would be perfect, since he knew nothing about dance. Most unexpectedly, and improbably, he went on to make one of his most personal films.

This in-depth look at the hardworking lives of young dancers, with Altman working for the first time on digital hi-def video, came to reflect Altman’s own career and philosophies of directing, working with ensembles, fighting for more money, working with less, reaching for impressions, painting with bodies and sets, trying to articulate the mysteries of creation and expression.

The usual sharp-eyed and critical look at show business, often seen as catalyst for delusion, gives way to a more balanced and benevolent mien of people in the midst of their passions. In one of Altman’s most gorgeously staged scenes, a ballet goes on in the midst of a thunderstorm, as a sea of umbrellas open up like lily pads on a lake over the audience’s heads.

And in a classic moment of hard truth, a young dancer’s entire career is ended in one moment when she snaps her Achilles tendon, with a sound that echoes in silence throughout the stage. The moment is exemplary of several such moments in Altman’s work, such as the climax of Nashville, or when Elsie speaks out of turn in Gosford Park and the resulting silence speaks volumes – life comes to shocking interruptions and then must proceed once again, with a sense of professional duty and determination, no matter how cold it may seem.


20. A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

A most unexpected rumination on how to die, Altman’s final masterpiece rounds out his canon with high spirits, ribald rejoicing, wonderful performances by one of the liveliest casts he ever assembled and a bewildering sense of all things fleeting and transitory.

Garrison Keillor’s warmly satirical radio show and its fictionalized final broadcast sets the stage for this wistful backstage roundelay of vignettes and routines, where a mysterious Angel has come to haunt the wings of the stage and herald the death a performer. It’s saddening and very tangible that Altman was assessing his own struggles in this elegiac film, with the ways in which to bid adieu to life, to do so with respect and style, with love and purpose, to put on your best show, no matter what.

Author Bio: Michael H. Smith has been an avid cinephile and writing on film for almost as long as he can remember. He regularly contributes to his blog, After Images – Revisiting Films (http://michaelhawthornesmith.wordpress.com/).