Along with Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, Robert Altman's 1993 epic Short Cuts is my favourite American film of the last 20 or so years. I was trying to think of any other films which could challenge these two and I was struggling - American Beauty, Schindler's List, There Will Be Blood, ... maybe. Short Cuts is also, for me, Altman's crowning career achievement, surpassing his other 'ensemble masterpiece' Nashville, and his other great films - MASH, McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Player. Altman was nominated for the Best Director Oscar for the film, but was beaten by Steven Spielberg for Schindler's List (perhaps not surprisingly).
The film Short Cuts, which is based on a selection of Raymond Carver short stories, is a true epic, coming in at three hours duration and telling the intertwining stories of 22 main characters. Set in Los Angeles, the film's human scale is colossal, dealing with the whole gamut of human experience and emotion - covering tragedy, comedy, depression, jealousy, suicide, sexual frustration, musical ambition, murder, infidelity, horror, death, hypocrisy and racial tension. The film also features an acting masterclass from Altman's superb cast, which features many American actors/actresses, relatively unknown at the time, who have developed into some of the top acting talent in Hollywood (for example, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Madeleine Stowe and Frances McDormand). The film also includes excellent performances by singer, and some-time actor, Tom Waits, and by established Hollywood actors such as Tim Robbins, Matthew Modine, Robert Downey Jnr. and, one of the all-time great screen actors, Jack Lemmon, who delivers an emotional tour-de-force performance as returning father, Paul Finnigan.
In the film, Altman also gives a significant nod to nature, in effect demonstrating that we humans can cheat, abuse, deceive, taunt, amuse and live pretty much as we choose, but eventually nature will prevail, whether it be in the form of the potentially dangerous pesticides being used to spray crops (and inadvertently, homes) at the start of the film, or in the form of the earthquake which disrupts the lives of the film's protagonists at the close of the film.
The complexity, and multi-stranded nature, of the narrative render any summary description pretty meaningless, not to say, impossible to construct. Suffice to say, there are a number of individual performances, and scenes, worthy of specific mention, including Tim Robbins and Frances McDormand's brilliantly hilarious affair, respectively as bragging, but inwardly vulnerable, cop Gene, and devious, scheming lover, Betty. Jennifer Jason Leigh is also excellent as the foul-mouthed, phone sex worker Lois, a job she is happy to perform as she changes her baby's diapers, much to the disgust and frustration of husband Jerry (Chris Penn). Also worthy of mention is the brilliant scene, as confusion at a photoshop results in an exchange of expressions of horror between Buck Henry and Fred Ward's fishermen and friends Honey (Lili Taylor) and Lois, as each picks up the other group's gory snaps.
But, for me, there are two standout scenes. The first is that of Jack Lemmon's impassioned diatribe as father, Paul Finnigan, to 'long lost' son Howard (Bruce Davison) as he admits to a soul-destroying infidelity in his past. The gradual build-up of tension and despair in his performance is a pointed reminder that Lemmon was one of the screen's finest actors, full stop, and not just a great comic actor. The second, in another devastating denouement, comes towards the end of the film, when, under pressure from husband Ralph (a great performance from the sadly 'lost' Matthew Modine), wife Marianne played by the brilliant Julianne Moore, finally admits to her own past infidelity. Moore, probably the best American actress of her generation, delivers another superb performance in this film, to match those she has subsequently given in films such as Far From Heaven, The Hours, Boogie Nights, The Kids Are All Right, and, another highpoint, Magnolia.
In summary, Short Cuts is a compelling and emotionally-charged masterclass in acting and film-making.