Sunday, June 12, 2011

My 42 Favorite Woody Allen Movies

For years I held the opinion that Woody Allen’s DreamWorks contract merely enabled him to pump out half-hearted, under-baked nihilist comedies more nihilist in execution than tone -- easy paychecks that could continually make enough overseas to fund the next project and keeping the elusive, sprawling jazz documentary he always hoped to film at bay.  My perception of his post-Sweet and Lowdown pictures as sub-par never allowed me to accept that these were movies he ever wanted to make.  Worse, it perpetuated the opinion that, since Cassandra’s Dream wasn’t my favorite movie, I should be informing the now-75-year-old how to make films.

Then every couple of years a Match Point or a Vicky Cristina Barcelona would come along and purport to be a “return to form,” as if we would want nothing more than a rehash.  Whatever Works excited by claiming to revive a Manhattan-era screenplay.  Only too late did we realize that it was left in the closet for a reason. 

2011 and three-quarters of a century.  Makes a guy think.  Woody Allen releases Midnight in Paris and I refuse to call it a return to form, because that is precisely the point.  That bird has flown.  F. Scott Fitzgerald shows up in the picture as if to undermine Gatsby’s philosophy about repeating the past.  Allen continues to be an uncompromised American voice whether by pioneering psycho-slapstick in 1973’s Sleeper or stubbornly refusing to flesh out characters in Melinda and Melinda.  God, it’s patronizing to refer to Woody Allen as anything like a “national treasure”, but there’s a reason why even You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger can play in New York for eleven months.  Some of us still need the eggs.

(Note: this countdown refers to Allen’s directorial pieces only.  The Front and Play It Again, Sam would rank about 22 and 19, respectively.  Additionally, New York Stories would rank around 25, though it is hampered by weaker efforts by Coppola and Scorsese.  Allen’s third, “Oedipus Wrecks” is easily the highlight of the picture.)

42. Anything Else (2003)
My strong infatuation with Christina Ricci ran from about 1997 through 2000 when a number of atrocious career decisions tainted her legacy.  Sure, I should have thought twice when she claimed “Detachable Penis” was her favorite song, but I didn’t know it would lead to Pumpkin, Miranda and Prozac Nation.  Then she took a job with Woody Allen and things were looking up.  Unfortunately, the title left me wishing for exactly that.

41. Scoop (2006)
Never has Woody Allen looked more like Jack Kevorkian.  Never did I wish his services used on a shuddering, lurching film more.

40. Don’t Drink the Water (1994)
Diane Keaton > Mia Farrow > Scarlett Johansson.  Thank God we didn’t have to add Mayim Bialik to this equation.

39. What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1968)
Plays like a smug episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" in which Allen showcases he can write stand-up material, but never convinces us he cares about his subject matter.  Parody without affection is dead.

38. Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)
A 1940’s period piece which isn’t too dissimilar in tone from Small Time Crooks (and not altogether detestable), only much of the jokes seem to be written while Woody Allen looked like this:
37. Whatever Works (2009)
A tried and true Allen premise and an inspired casting of Larry David are floundered by half-assed performances and weak 21st-Century rewrites to force “relevancy”.  Though Larry singing “Happy Birthday to You” while washing his hands is pretty hard to shake.

36. Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
In case you didn’t know, Groucho Marx was the first thing listed that makes life worth living for Allen’s Isaac in Manhattan.  Few will find Edward Norton’s singing to rank among their other ten.

35. Take the Money and Run (1969)
"Take the Money and Run has some very funny moments, and you'll laugh a lot, but in the last analysis it isn't a very funny movie. It isn't really a movie at all. I suspect it's a list of a lot of things Woody Allen wanted to do in a movie someday, and the sad thing is he did them all at once.” – Roger Ebert

34. Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
A pleasant excuse for Allen’s neuroticism in a film that gives reason to mind your own business, but often feels like you’re watching A&E.

33. Celebrity (1998)
The universal pan of Celebrity is wholly unfair.  The casting of Branagh is a stroke of genius and he weaves in and out of the Allen type in an engaging way relative the subject matter. 

32. Hollywood Ending (2002)
A self-conscious film whose failure is due largely in that we start to disbelieve Allen’s fear of writer’s block when he’s able to put out one of these films a year.  (However, a hilarious conversation about “artistic masturbation” has to have an element of self-parody as well.)

31. Cassandra’s Dream (2007)
Oedipus Wrecks the boat.

30. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)
A slight improvement on Whatever Works that doesn’t quite add up to Vicky Cristina Barcelona in a movie that isn’t too dissimilar from either.  Essentially, unhappy people refuse to be happy.

29. Bananas (1971)
Never been the biggest fan of Allen’s most political works, and where this movie fails (despite its great concept) is in ignoring the whole product for the sake of the aside.  Despite its brilliant title the film never really resonates together.  But Woody Allen wears a fake beard and it rules.
28. Small Time Crooks (2000)
Rather than watching privileged characters piddle their lives away into avalanching mistakes, I think the joke in Allen’s meditations of the futility of life resonate more when luck is sometimes, genuinely on your side – not that it makes life any more valuable, but it’s almost disingenuous to take on a worldview where everything is left to chance and never works out.  I like Small Time Crooks because, though slight, it is never glum.

27. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972)
Like my issues with Bananas, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex is compassless.  However, the film has the decency to play it for what it is: a series of vignettes.  It also never quite resonates together, but Woody Allen is dressed as a sperm and it rules.

26. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
A rare Allen film in which characters make life decisions which are a little more conventional (and a little less psychoanalytical).  A movie full of beautiful people, if not completely engaging characters.

25. Melinda and Melinda (2004)
I dig the 21st-Century Woody Allen films in which he doesn’t try to do more than the film allows.  Melinda and Melinda is effective in sticking to its experiment and draws out one of Will Farrell’s best performances.  Would have preferred to have seen Winona Ryder and Robert Downey Jr. in the picture, but Allen really got the most out of what he put in here.

24. Deconstructing Harry (1997)
The world rallied behind Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but where is Robin Williams’s Oscar for one of his three most likable performances in his career?

23. Shadows and Fog (1991)
Not quite up to snuff with his Ingmar Bergman pictures, Shadows and Fog is a very atmospheric experiment with much more easy gags than your typical Fellini picture.  It’s a bit of easily-digestible absurdism.

22. Alice (1990)
You know, I never really dug Lewis Carroll, so a Woody Allen psychosomatic take on Through the Looking Glass is never blasphemous and always fair game.  The plot meanders (sometimes to a fault), but so does the source material.  It’s something of a female empowerment picture that feels somehow condescending.  Mia Farrow plays the morose straight, and the colors play for strong effect.

21. Match Point (2005)
As much as I didn’t buy into Match Point being a “return to form” or “Hitchcockian” upon its release, its style is undeniable and its ending really digs into me.  It’s a film of Allen’s typical existential worldview, but one in which people are forced to live their lives with consequences and meaning (or rue for its lack thereof).

20. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982)
Woody Allen’s take on Ingmar Bergman’s take on Shakespeare.  Misguided at times, but salvaged by a brilliant Jose Ferrer.

19. September (1987)
At once a recycled Allen problem – couples trapped in unsatisfying relationships – the tone is played winningly in his best “stage” depiction.

18. Another Woman (1988)
A more sincere take on female psyche than Alice, Another Woman speaks strongly not only of Allen’s inherent realization of women on screen, but of a struggle Allen still faces every year: relevance in a changing world hindered by age.

17. Midnight In Paris (2011)
Owen Wilson’s “oh, boy” persona echoes a late-‘70s Woody Allen that allows for more self-effacing than Allen’s intellectual ever could.  A line delivered to T.S. Eliot about “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” seems to fall right out of Annie Hall but, just like the theme of the picture, the laughs aren’t for the sake of nostalgia, but are genuine. 

16. Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
If Love and Death jabs Dostoevsky for easy gags, Bullets Over Broadway lets the philosophy brew in one of Allen’s best depictions of moral dilemma.  Jennifer Tilly delivers an Allen performance for the ages.

15. Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
Perhaps as straight a rom-com as Allen has delivered since Annie Hall, Mighty Aphrodite succeeds in its oddball Greek asides that beckon to Allen’s early ‘70s anarchism without detracting from the absurd narrative.  Mira Sorvino is great and all the pieces fall together.
14. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
More a chick flick than most Allen fans are willing to admit, it’s a rare Allen picture in which happy endings fall into place despite themselves.  The cast hands out excellent performances (Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest won Academy Awards and who hadn’t loved to see what Woody Allen can do with Max Von Sydow?)  For me, Hannah and Her Sisters works in spite of itself.  The cast carries gaps in rationale and monotonous subplots.  It’s a spectacle of an actors’ picture which Allen bobbles.

13. Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
Combines some of my favorite parts of Radio Days (nostalgia for a non-filmic form of entertainment) with my favorite parts of Manhattan (glamorizing even the seediest parts of the city with astute black-and-white), but the parts don’t equal as great a whole.  Allen’s performance is subdued, and that is its strength.

12. Sleeper (1973)
The best of Allen’s slapstick farces, Sleeper is the first film in which Allen comes into his own as an auteur.  Yes, the script is often carried by punchlines, but they are among his best punchlines. 

11. Radio Days (1987)
One of the things I respect most about Woody Allen is his interest in things other than film.  He loves his Swedish arthouse, but his movies respect the medium without necessarily idolizing it.  Radio Days is similar in tone to Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon as a bittersweet picture enamored of a time gone by.  As a cinephile, I almost respect that Allen’s interests are more broad.

Stardust Memories10. Stardust Memories (1980)
It took a lot of guts to do what Woody Allen did in 1980.  Stardust Memories is acerbic and confrontational.  It risks selling his fanbase down the river and doesn’t send them off with so much as a tip of the hat.  Stardust Memories is one of the few, complete works of an artist disillusioned by fame who has the balls to put himself under the microscope at its center. 

The Purple Rose of Cairo9. Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Woody Allen allows many of his pictures to appear economical and uncinematic.  Films like Radio Days and Broadway Danny Rose (and even the standup sequences in Annie Hall) flirt with presenting an Allen who uses film as a medium for a purpose rather than an end.  Purple Rose of Cairo informs us that it was the movies that broke his heart, but what sweet pain. 

Love and Death
8. Love and Death (1975)
The tenderest display of the love between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, Love and Death attempts to wax philosophic about life’s big questions, but it all goes back-burner when we see the vitality and chemistry between the film’s two leads. 

Crimes and Misdemeanors 

7. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Crimes and Misdemeanors may be the most definitive Woody Allen picture: where is the line drawn between comedy and tragedy?  It is more about love and death than Love and Death.  It’s about science and religion and every heavy Allen topic, but handled in a way that refuses to skirt the issues, trivialize them or take them for granted.  It is self-assured, serious and the jokes – among his best – not only hit, but sting. 
6. Zelig (1983)
Zelig is Woody Allen’s greatest achievement in moving beyond the one-liner, meshing his wryest social commentary with one of his best comedies in a film that attempts to use film language so on-target it’s a shame he never attempted it again.

Sweet and Lowdown 

5. Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
For all the talk of Allen’s “Bergman era”, little is mentioned of his Fellini takes.  Shadows and Fog, Broadway Danny Rose and here, in a loose-telling of La Strada, Allen displays a tenderness and affection of human drama without its trappings of cinematic weightiness.  Sean Penn delivers one of the two or three best performances of any Woody Allen picture, and its tone resonates deeply.

Annie Hall4. Annie Hall (1977)
Suck it, Star Wars.

Husbands and Wives 

3. Husbands and Wives (1992)
Woody Allen’s breakup masterpiece is, in some ways, a philosophic blueprint for everything he’s made since: Change is inevitable; everyone hates change.  Allen’s neurotics aren’t played for laughs here – they are touching, universally resonating fears.  Part of what bothers me in Allen’s later films is the flippancy of relationships.  Husbands and Wives understands what couples will put up with to avoid goodbye.

2. Interiors (1978)
It’s my suspicion when Woody Allen says of the making of Interiors, "It's always been my fear. I think I'm writing Long Day’s Journey Into Night and it turns into Edge of Night," that a part of him means he dreads losing the comic mask.  To make an intensely personal drama of unknown fears (if Allen’s psychoanalysis record has anything to say about it, maybe even unknown to him), one risks the label of pretentiousness.  But pretension is the antonym of sincerity, and I never question in my viewings of Interiors that Allen is pretending anything.  That’s where the fear hits home.

Manhattan1. Manhattan (1979)
I once had a professor lecture on Tracy’s final lines of Manhattan in which she tries to comfort Isaac by telling him that “not everybody gets corrupted”, but misheard what she said and built the Woody Allen theory that “everybody gets corrupted.”  And in Allen’s work and life since 1979, I can see how he misheard it.  That famous Manhattan sunset was also the sunset of his relationship with muse Diane Keaton.   

To accuse the directorial bulk of Woody Allen’s career of being self-important misunderstands what it is to be an artist and diminishes the gut-wrenching autobiographical nature of his best works.  Life goes on for Allen, and we are lucky enough to see a new picture every year.  His inspiration may ebb and flow, but at its core, not everything gets corrupted.  Not even the bad eggs.

1 comment:

  1. This was awesome to read. I recently watched Manhattan for the first time, after absolutely loving Midnight in Paris. I've never been a huge Allen fan, Sleeper was the only other one I've seen, but the way Manhattan and MiP struck me, on top of reading this wonderful article, I am probably going to watch all of his films now.

    Thanks for the great read!