McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

This moody, fur-bundled frontier odyssey might be the best Robert Altman film of all time. Warren Beatty plays a entrepreneurial rogue who sets up business in a muddy northwestern mining town (it looks, no kidding, as if it were shot in 1830) and eventually teams up with an opium-smoking madam (Julie Christie) who’s looking to set up a whorehouse. Trouble sets in when gangsters try to squeeze out the pair and resort to authentic prairie ethics to get their way. This movie teems with life like a beehive; nobody was better than Altman at filling movies up with believable inhabitants and texture, and here the misty, greasy, snowy reality of range life is evoked like nobody’s business. No chicanery here—even though the film was actually shot in Vancouver, it shows just what Rocky Mountain life without utilities was like. Even the relentless Leonard Cohen songs begin to get under your skin. The movie is also an unarguable triumph of the American New Wave—those years between 1966 and 1977 in which Hollywood went out of its way to make gritty, truthful, challenging films you could believe in.

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