Happy birthday, Robert Altman! The iconoclastic filmmaker, who would have turned 95 on February 20, 2020, is one of the few directors to have an adjective made out of his name. (An “Altmanesque” film is usually one that features a huge cast, overlapping dialogue and an ever-moving camera style that never quite seems to sit still.) Altman’s work was not limited to films — he began his career by directing episodic television shows (winning an Emmy for directing HBO’s “Tanner ’88”), as well as mounting numerous operas and other stage productions.
But Altman’s love was truly making films. To accomplish his signature overlapping dialogue, he designed innovative sound systems on which filmmakers still rely today. His sets were always a party (some would say a bacchanal), and actors clamored to work with him. Studios, however, would regularly butt heads with Altman, who would promise them a potentially commercial genre picture (a Western, a private-eye noir, a whodunnit murder mystery), then set out to subvert the familiar genre completely. The studios would largely hate it, but his fans would eat it up. Having finally achieved success in film in his 40s, he became a middle-aged wonder boy, then fell from grace completely, clawed his way back and had a late-career renaissance that any contemporary director would envy.
Altman has received acclaim internationally, with his films winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the Golden Bear at Berlin and the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes. He has been nominated for 5 Golden Globes, with four for his direction (“M*A*S*H,” “Nashville,” and “The Player,” finally winning for “Gosford Park”) plus a fifth for co-writing “Short Cuts.” Altman has also been nominated for seven Academy Awards — five for Best Director and two more for producing a Best Picture nominee (“Nashville” & “Gosford”). Altman was selected to receive an Academy Honorary Oscar, presented by his “Prairie Home Companion” co-stars Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, in 2006, several months before the director’s death.
In honor of his bacchanal spirit, let’s raise a glass (or his preferred joint) to the skies to wish the great man a happy birthday by counting down his 15 best films. Our photo gallery features his greatest movies, ranked from worst to best.