Films of the decade: "Gosford Park"

Robert Altman's aristocratic murder mystery became an unlikely triumph of the ensemble-movie master's late career

By Molly Haskell

Published December 18, 2009 3:04PM (EST)

A still from "Gosford Park"
A still from "Gosford Park"

When I look back on my favorite films of the last decade, the most memorable combine tradition and innovation, pay tribute to the history of cinema while striking out in idiosyncratic ways. The question becomes whether to go with one of the young Turks who've changed the very rhythm of movies, how we see and feel them -- Spike Jonze with "Adaptation" and Richard Linklater with "Before Sunset" in particular -- or the old stalwarts whose freshness seems even more surprising. Eric Rohmer's "The Lady and the Duke" stands out as a little masterpiece of artifice and paradoxical depth, but, being partial to ensembles, I'll go with Robert Altman's multivocal "Gosford Park," a movie that continues to dance merrily in my head and a triumph after a desultory decade. This period country-house murder mystery, richly textured, gently satirical, combines all of Altman's strengths without the derisiveness and artistic cynicism of his weaker films.

The British aristo setting and upstairs-downstairs theme of Julian Fellowes' screenplay (from an original idea by Altman and Bob Balaban) provides not only a structure for Altman's restlessly probing, graceful choreography, but just the right emotional distance. There's a Renoiresque respect for all points of view, and even a little awe on Altman's part for this elegant, cruel species and their lower-caste but equally memorable other half. And even more than usual, Altman gets delicious, pointed moments from an incandescent cast, the patricians of British thespians. Light on its feet, yet intricate as a puzzle, a deft mixture not only of personalities but of different tones, this is a movie that repays repeated viewings and reminds us how rare (and underappreciated) true airiness is.

Film Salon has invited a group of special guests to write about their favorite film(s) of the 2000s. To read the entire series, go here.

Molly Haskell

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