Robert Altman

I was going to write about everything Bay Area cinephiles have to be thankful for, but death got in the way. So I’ll write about Robert Altman.

Young mavericks took Hollywood by storm in the 1970’s, with Altman all but leading the march. But he wasn’t young. At 45, he had nearly 20 years experience directing TV and educational films when MASH made him a darling of the counterculture. He remained a darling for the next 36 years.

I never cared much for MASH. Even in 1970, I found it only a moderately funny military comedy with pretensions of significance. Age hasn’t improved it; now it’s a misogynistic, moderately funny military comedy with pretensions of significance.

But MASH made Altman’s name, and started a great career. Two films later he put the final, perfect coda on the Western with McCabe and Mrs. Miller. A few more years and he would all but create a genre of his own with Nashville. He wasn’t the first to weave multiple, coincidentally connected stories into one coherent work of art, but he did it best and made the style his own. Mick LaSalle’s review of Bobby in Thursday’s Chronicle calls it “Altman-esque;” seven years ago, similar words were used for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.

Altman holds the record for receiving the most Best Director Oscar nominations without a win–five, for MASH, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park. But he doesn’t hold that record alone. Clarence Brown, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, and King Vidor all tie with him. Scorsese may yet surpass him–perhaps this year for The Departed.

Hey, here’s something to be thankful for: We had Robert Altman for 81 years, 36 of them as a great filmmaker.

And we can also be thankful that the following films are playing in the Bay Area this week.

Recommended: Brazil, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. One of the best black comedies ever filmed, and the best dystopian fantasy on celluloid. In a bizarre, repressive, anally bureaucratic, and thoroughly dysfunctional society, one government worker (Jonathan Pryce) tries to escape into his own romantically heroic imagination. But when he finds a real woman who looks like the girl of his dreams (Kim Greist), everything starts to fall apart. With Robert De Niro as a heroic plumber. This is the second of Gilliam’s three great fantasies of the 1980’s, and the only one clearly intended for adults.

Recommended: The Wizard of Oz, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00, Sunday, 5:00; Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 2:00. You don’t really need me to tell you about this one, do you? The first entry in the new Cerrito Classics series.

Recommended: Little Miss Sunshine, Rafael, opening Friday. I’m glad this movie is a comedy; a drama with these characters would be unbearably depressing. Little Miss Sunshine puts a supremely dysfunctional family on the road in a broken down VW bus, with the goal of entering their prepubescent daughter into a beauty contest for girls too young to have any business in a beauty contest. The result opens a window into the souls of five damaged adults and two youths destined for damaged adulthood, while delivering a steady stream of strong, deep, and sustained laughs. Not a simple feat for a first-time screenwriter (Michael Arndt) and two directors experienced only in music videos (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris).

Recommended: The Departed, 4Star, opened Thanksgiving Thursday; Roxie, opening Friday. Alfred Hitchcock once said he didn’t mind plot holes as long as they went unnoticed until the audience was driving home. That’s exactly how my wife and I reacted to Martin Scorsese’s all-star remake of the Hong Kong police thriller Infernal Affairs. As long we were in the theater, Scorsese’s intense police thriller about two undercover moles–one a cop pretending to be a gangster, the other a gangster pretending to be a cop–riveted our eyes to the screen. Talking about the movie on the way home, the problems kept coming up. But Hitchcock was right. The Departed carries you along like a river, offering fascinating characters portrayed by some of the biggest and most talented male stars around, moral ambiguity, graphic violence, and a complete lack of predictability to heighten the suspense. So what if it’s full of holes. This is Scorsese’s least ambitious, and his best, film in years.