The New Hollywood movement introduced audiences to more than a few memorable filmmakers, from hard-boiled crime directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese to genre enthusiasts like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. While these filmmakers played a significant role in shaping American films of the '60s and '70s, viewers shouldn't look past the contributions of lesser-known directors as well, like Hal Ashby, Michael Cimino, and Robert Altman.
In the latter's case, Robert Altman's movies broke new ground in the '70s film circuit, pioneering the use of rambling cinematic storylines populated by large casts of characters. A prolific director who worked in the comedic, mystery, crime, Western, and war genres, Altman ranks as one of the most multi-faceted directors of his generation, a guiding light for later filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Richard Linklater. Check out a roundup of all the best Robert Altman movies.
1. Nashville (1975)
Altman's deconstruction of the '70s folk rock industry continues to serve as a pillar in the New Hollywood movement. Opting for a threadbare storyline with little in the way of plot, Altman instead put the narrative focus of his film on his disparate cast of characters (with a total of 24 main characters identified in the film). A stylistic precursor to later works like Boogie Nights, critics, cinephiles, and film scholars persist in singling out Nashville as Altman's magnum opus.
2. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
An early entry in the Western revisionist genre, Altman shattered endless conventions regarding McCabe & Mrs. Miller. In a cinematic genre known for constant gunfights, horse chases, and clear-cut heroes and villains, Altman presented a cast of ambiguous characters known for their moral complexity and self-interested motives. The resulting film laid the groundwork for the revisionist Western moving forward, existing alongside other notable films like The Wild Bunch and Little Big Man.
3. M*A*S*H (1970)
Altman's breakthrough film, M*A*S*H broke a multitude of rules regarding the traditional war film. Opting for a more sentimental, pacifistic message, Altman presented the Korean War with inherent absurdity, focusing on individual soldiers' attempts to alleviate boredom and homesickness. The most important film in Altman's young career, M*A*S*H also established numerous signature elements associated with Altman's later movies, from a liberal use of dark comedy to massive ensemble casts (Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, and Robert Duvall).
4. The Player (1992)
A return to form for Robert Altman movies, 1992's The Player features dark comedy so biting and cynical, it makes M*A*S*H seem as light-hearted as a '30s Marx Brothers film by comparison. A vicious takedown of the film industry, Altman takes special care when ripping apart the more callous side of Hollywood, poking fun at the shallow-minded directors, the easily-annoyed actors, and the unscrupulous, profit-obsessed executives who reign over the entire business.
5. The Long Goodbye (1973)
A postmodern riff on the noir genre, The Long Goodbye acts as a contemporary adaptation of Raymond Chandler's famous hard-boiled novel. Featuring a charismatic Elliott Gould as mild-mannered private eye Philip Marlowe, The Long Goodbye traces Marlowe's constant attempts to do the right thing, even at the cost of his own safety, personal happiness, and well-being. The Big Lebowski of its day and age, Altman's work on the film helped The Long Goodbye transcend the noir genre, juxtaposing the '40s detective story with the counterculture of the 1970s.
6. Gosford Park (2001)
Perhaps the final great entry among Robert Altman movies, Gosford Park acts as a whodunit in the same mold as an Agatha Christie novel. Set in early 20th century England, the movie involves the events leading up to the murder of an influential aristocrat (Michael Gambon), and the subsequent investigation overseen by a buffoonish inspector (Stephen Fry). A social satire probing into the severe contrasts between the upper crust of British society and the lower-class workers catering to their every need, Gosford Park makes for one of Altman's most exciting titles in his 2000s-era career.
7. 3 Women (1977)
A rare surrealist film from Altman, 3 Women illustrates the director's profound range as a cinematic artist. An ambitious cross between psychological horror and absurdist drama, 3 Women‘s dreamlike tone sets it apart as a movie unlike any other in Altman's filmography. A far cry from the ensemble movie that characterize Altman's career, 3 Women's sparse, ambiguous storyline may frustrate some, but it no doubt makes for one of the more interesting additions to Altman's career.
8. Short Cuts (1993)
An ideal companion piece to Nashville and M*A*S*H, Short Cuts sees Altman return to the larger-scale productions of his earlier years. Taking plenty of inspiration from the short stories of Raymond Carver, Short Cuts follows a massive lineup of characters, tracking their day-to-day lives in idyllic Los Angeles. An effective follow-up to The Player, Short Cuts finds Altman at the peak of his creative output, cementing his long-awaited return to mainstream cinema.
9. California Split (1974)
One of the most subtle and affecting Robert Altman movies, Altman disguises California Split as an outright comedy film, centered around Elliott Gould and George Segal's misadventures in Southwestern America's various opulent casinos. As the movie rolls along, though, Altman manages to underscore the two men's slow descent into gambling addiction, their initial bouts of fun and fancy transforming into something far more sinister and serious.
10. A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
The last film Altman ever made, A Prairie Home Companion also makes for a bittersweet conclusion to Altman's entire career. Melding comedy with drama, A Prairie Home Companion focuses on the final performance of a fading radio theater music troupe. Rather than meditating on the finality of their last performance, A Prairie Home Companion's large cast delights in the closing moments of their time together, bringing Altman's entire filmography to a fitting and powerful farewell.
11. Vincent & Theo (1990)
Though Popeye‘s underwhelming critical reception left Altman in industry limbo until The Player, Altman remained hard at work cranking out several lesser-known films, including the 1990 biographical film, Vincent & Theo, a stirring biopic centered around Vincent van Gogh (Tim Roth) and his brother, Theo (Paul Rhys). Polar opposites in temperament and personality, Vincent and Theo nevertheless harbor similar longings for life, with Altman illustrating their struggles with addiction, religiosity, and long bouts of mental despair.
12. Fool for Love (1985)
An engrossing film from Altman's overlooked '80s period, Fool for Love adapts Sam Shepard's stage play of the same name. Starring Shepard and Kim Basinger as a former couple thrust together once again by either chance or providence, Altman uses Shepard's electric screenplay to probe into the deep-seated questions about romantic entanglements, including examinations over chance, fate, and plain old bad luck.
13. Thieves Like Us (1974)
A faithful adaptation of Edward Anderson's novel of the same name, Thieves Like Us traces the surprising romance between two criminals (Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall) on the run from the law in the 1930s Southern U.S. A film that bears plenty of similarities to the decade-defining Bonnie and Clyde, Altman manages to present his own take on the lovers-on-the-lam subgenre, right down to a meaningful exploration of how systemic poverty feeds rampant criminality.
14. Cookie's Fortune (1999)
If The Player mocked the practices of Hollywood, Cookie's Fortune does the same for the idea of the “perfect family.” After their wealthy aunt Cookie (Patricia Neal) takes her own life, her insecure family members attempt to cover up the incident, hoping to preserve their respectful standing in the community. A humorous satirization of small-town gossip and Southern communities, Cookie's Fortune delivers the same bountiful laughs as The Player or M*A*S*H.
15. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
Rebounding from the shortcomings of Popeye, Altman turned his attention to the theatrical world, directing several stage plays on Broadway–including Ed Graczyk's Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Soon after the show's theatrical debut, Altman wound up adapting the show into a feature-length film, partnering with Cher, Sandy Dennis, and Karen Black in order to do so. An outside-the-box production for Altman, the film set the standard for his more theatrical films of the 1980s (which includes Fool for Love and Secret Honor).
16. Secret Honor (1984)
Altman's most minimalist film, Secret Honor utilizes a simple plot set-up: in his secluded country home in New Jersey, disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon (Philip Baker Hall) espouses on his abundant failures in his personal and professional lives. A one-man show with a single setting, Secret Honor‘s greatest characteristic involves Hall's energetic performance as the controversial commander-in-chief.
17. Brewster McCloud (1970)
Released the same year as M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud established Altman's proficient ability to work between conflicting genres. Experimental in nature, the film showcases several loosely-connected segments, all of which revolve around a young man (Bud Cort) attempting to construct his own pair of angelic wings. Among Altman's funniest films, the movie's surrealist nature also marked one of the earliest forays into absurdist storytelling as far as Robert Altman movies go.
18. Images (1972)
Most audience members have tended to view Images with a divided response. Some feel it one of Altman's weakest films, others his most underrated. A psychological horror film that owes plenty to Roman Polanski, Images nevertheless makes for a fascinating project from Altman. His sole foray into the horror genre, Altman's ethereal treatment of horror can get under viewers' skin in a way no other Altman movie can.
19. Popeye (1980)
One of the biggest failures of Altman's career came with 1980's Popeye. A live-action adaptation of the animated icon Popeye, Altman's take on the spinach-chomping cartoon sailor served as Altman's most significant disaster up to that point in time, earning scathing reviews from critics. In more years, however, Popeye‘s critical reception has considerably warmed, with many praising the movie for capturing the spirit and tone of the original animated shorts.
20. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976)
Like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Altman uses Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson as a more intrinsic deconstruction of Western antiquity. Portraying such iconic figures as Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley as people rather than folkloric characters, Altman frames the historical backdrop of his story with realistic clarity, likening itself more to the Indigenous American perspective of Westward Expansion.