Paragraph One: He adored Woody Allen movies. He idolized them all out of proportion. Uh, no, make that: he romanticized them all out of proportion. To him, no matter if they were on the big or small screen, these were movies that were shot on celluloid and pulsated with universal truths. Uh, no, let me start this over…
Paragraph One: He was too romantic about Woody Allen movies, as he was about everything else. He thrived on the old jazz soundtracks and the brown water jokes. To him, Woody Allen movies meant nerdy, polymorphously perverse women and neurotic men who knew exactly how to make them smile. Ah, too corny for my taste. Let me try to make this more profound…
Paragraph One: He adored Woody Allen movies. To him, they were a metaphor for the decay of contemporary cinema. The same repetitive themes that stifled so many movies were rapidly turning the art form of his dreams into…no, it’s gonna be too preachy. I mean, let’s face it, I want some people to read this blog post here.
Chapter One: He adored Woody Allen movies, although to him, they were a metaphor for the decay of contemporary cinema. How hard it was to exist within a movie-loving community stuck in a rut of deluded nostalgia, arrogant moralizing, white-privilege-based elitism…too angry. I don’t want to be angry.
Chapter One: He was as romantic and insightful as the movies he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a brilliant filmmaker. Oh, I love this. These 10 Woody Allen movies were some of his favorites, and they always would be.
10. To Rome with Love
Beginning with Match Point in 2005, Woody Allen (Do I really need to point out “no relation”? Allan Stewart Konigsberg began going by the name we all recognize in his teens) took his moviemaking operation out of New York and began what I think is fair to call his “tourism years,” in which he spun largely the same type of intelligent, high-strung, character-based stories—just set outside America. Finding beauty and affection for the city lights of London, Paris, and Barcelona, Allen has now steadily—and I mean steadily, being one of if not the most prolific filmmakers of our time—produced a series of films that have managed to accent both the limitations and universality of his special brand of upscale comedic romanticism.
It’s a choice I suspect I would have in common with very few, but To Rome with Love is currently my favorite film of his Tourism Years. Set in the gorgeous Italian capital, this bubbly omnibus nicely juggles the misadventures of an everyman (Roberto Benigni) who suddenly finds himself inexplicably famous; a newlywed couple (Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi) who gets separated by mischance and seduced into extramarital flings with a prostitute (Penélope Cruz) and a movie star (Antonio Albanese); a young tourist (Alison Pill) whose whirlwind engagement to an Italian lawyer (Flavio Parenti) brings her parents (Woody Allen, Judy Davis) to the city to meet him and his family, which is headed by a mortician (Fabio Armiliato) who discovers he has an unusual talent for opera; and an American architect (Alec Baldwin) who acts as the world-weary, cynical conscience of a student (Jesse Eisenberg) contemplating the trade-up of his steady girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) for a sexually adventurous actress (Ellen Page), an eager-to-impress young woman of questionable emotional stability.
If the cinematic teaming of Allen and Benigni sounds like a match made in comedy heaven (it did to me, being a fan of both), what surprises is how satisfyingly low-key that alliance turns out to be. Alec Baldwin’s role is a highlight, serving as a hark back to the charming Play It Again, Sam device—where he’s the Bogart figure who both is and isn’t “there” to converse with Eisenberg and Page as they negotiate the terms of their attraction to each other. And while we’re on the topic of Ellen Page (who I positively love), she’s the most engaging and right-on-the-money addition to the Allen repertory in years; I’d love to see him use her again, maybe in an even larger supporting role that would focus on her comic gifts. Cinematographer Darius Khondji’s work is lovely here, and it’s also treat to have Allen himself back onscreen after a relatively long absence in his own films.
To Rome with Love also includes the single most hilarious piece of comic inspiration to come from Woody’s pen in a long time—involving how his character, a quasi-retired opera director, manages to launch the singing career of his future son-in-law’s father. In fact, the idea is an absolutely perfect illustration of the way the writer-director has fused farce to great beauty over the course of his long career.
9. Another Woman
Among his films that accent drama far more than comedy, Another Woman is the one I feel drawn back to repeatedly. Having not seen it for years now, though (while also not having laid eyes upon Interiors nor September for even longer), I’m in kind of a weak position to talk very extensively about why I might prefer it. (Like the way some of us rank our favorite films by any artist or our “favorite films of all time,” if I went back and watched these three back to back now, I could easily picture myself changing my mind)
What I remember most about this film was how strong and cold it feels, with Gena Rowlands‘ performance a towering work of balled-up anguish. Add to that the presence of the always-marvelous Gene Hackman (was there ever an actor who you’d think would be less well-matched to the world of Woody Allen?) and a particularly icy turn by the great Ian Holm (as Rowlands’ sexually indifferent husband), and you get a film in which underplaying is revealed as the great art that it is. More directly modeled on the work of Allen’s idol Ingmar Bergman than most of his other films, Another Woman is rigid and isolating and shows how a person can be taken prisoner by bitter regrets.
8. Mighty Aphrodite
I really can’t reprint some of the most hilarious lines from Mighty Aphrodite, and that’s one of the things that make it truly exceptional in the Allen canon. This happily vulgar comedy about a couple (Allen, Helena Bonham Carter) whose highly intelligent adopted son turns out to be the child of a dim-bulb porn actress (Mira Sorvino) that Allen’s character then tries to “improve,” Pygmalion-style, is a heady mix of the sacred and the profane, with a singing-dancing Greek chorus (led by none other than Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham) intermittently commenting on the action.
The Greeks are always on hand to counsel (or, in some cases, badger) Allen as his character contemplates an affair with the chirpy-voiced Sorvino—the device reminding us just how all of us make such grandiose spectacles of our own innermost travails, and how we’d all be so much better off to recognize that a little song and dance can help heal us in the wash of time.
The first Woody Allen film I saw at the movies. Made way in advance of the digital age in which the sort of tinkering that goes on in Zelig would become much more easily managed, the film is a miracle of blending images made in the past and present. The film masquerades as a documentary (also in advance of that device becoming practically de rigueur for comedy) to tell the eccentric story of a man so lacking in any sense of self that he literally becomes a human chameleon, changing his physical appearance and general demeanor to fit in with his surroundings while inadvertently stumbling through great moments in history. Only through the intervention of a caring psychiatrist (Mia Farrow) does Leonard Zelig begin to uncover the source of his bizarre neurosis…with the “cure” then becoming far worse (and even funnier) than the disease.
6. Husbands and Wives
Is this the movie that tells us more of the truth about the “real” Woody Allen than any other film? A lot of viewers thought so when, in the immediate aftermath of the scandal that revealed his romantic relationship with Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, they watched one particular scene in Husbands and Wives with equal parts fascination and horror.
Allen and Farrow play a married couple in the film—they were not, it may be relevant to remind everyone, married in real life—who learn at the beginning of the story that a couple they are friends with (played by Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis) are splitting up, a shocking piece of news that leads them to heightened states of unease and doubt about their own relationship. The camera lingers on a huge closeup of Farrow, her expression probing and suspicious, as she asks Allen’s character point blank:
Do you ever hide things from me?
I remember that moment at the movies as one of real unease, feeling as if somehow this might be Allen’s way of confessing something of the truth about himself and the offscreen torments he and Farrow must have been going through. The entire film pushes this idea of interrogation and intrusiveness not just with the ragged style of handheld camerawork (a rarity in his movies) but also with the conceit of an offscreen figure who “interviews” the film’s characters, post-events of the story, in short segments throughout. Allen’s character in particular, by the very end of the film, is visibly impatient for the question-and-answer sessions to wrap up. The closing moment leaves you feeling very much on edge.
All of this, unfortunately, is also a huge, huge distraction from just how funny the movie is. The late Sydney Pollack, better known to most of us as a gifted director, gives one of his most memorable performances here, with Judy Davis an absolute revelation. Also of interest are a relatively early turn by Liam Neeson and a deliciously cruel performance by Juliette Lewis, who plays the (much younger) woman that becomes the object of Allen’s infatuation.
Woody references Emily Dickinson: The heart wants what it wants. This is a message that flowers in all of his movies; Husbands and Wives asks its characters, and us by extension, to face that fact and make of it what we will—about ourselves and the people who make it their business to tell our stories.
5. Take the Money and Run
Of Woody’s “earlier, funnier” movies, it’s no contest for me. Take the Money and Run, his second feature as writer/director (depending on how exactly we are to count What’s Up, Tiger Lily?), makes me laugh the hardest every single time. Others may prefer Bananas, or Sleeper, or Love and Death—and I think they’re all terrific, don’t get me wrong—but it’s the chronicle of dopey career criminal Virgil Starkwell, whose father tried to “beat God into him,” that I’d cue up if I wanted to introduce someone to Allen’s movies.
The unsung hero here may be Jackson Beck, who narrates the pseudo-documentary portions of the film. There is nothing as hilarious as the deadly-serious gravitas he brings to his lines, including the one describing the rap sheet of a Starkwell co-conspirator: …wanted all over the country for arson, robbery, assault with intent to kill, and marrying a horse.
4. Annie Hall
Annie Hall only at #4, you say? Well la-di-da, la-di-da.
Maybe we could safely call Annie Hall the “Zagat-approved ‘best Woody Allen movie’ ever”—if for no other reason than it is the sole work from the filmmaker to achieve the status of Best Picture Oscar-winner. (To date, only three of Allen’s features have been nominated; props to you if you can name the other two off the top of your head without looking it up. I couldn’t)
I’m going to waffle now, mid-blog-post, on what I just said about Take the Money and Run being the film I’d use to introduce a newbie to the cinema of Woody Allen; I think if you were to apply the “alien from another planet drops down to Earth and asks, ‘What is a Woody Allen movie’” test, this would almost have to be the film that gets cued up first, seeing as how it represents the most even mix of so many of his preferred devices: the fourth-wall-breaking moments (“I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here…”), the Jewish jokes (“I heard him say it: JEW eat? JEW! You get it? JEW eat?”), the neurotic Woody “nebbish” persona (“Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.”), the scornful jabs at pseudo-intellectualism (“Sylvia Plath: interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misrepresented as romantic by the college girl mentality.”), and a cosmological approach to the mundane (“Sex with you is really a Kafka-esque experience.”). It’s a glorious love letter to Diane Keaton, too—the actress I would judge to be his finest onscreen romantic foil.
Pound for pound, it may not be my personal favorite, but calling Annie Hall “the” Woody Allen Movie wouldn’t get you any argument from me.
3. Crimes and Misdemeanors
Crimes and Misdemeanors strikes me as the true high-wire act of the entire Woody Allen filmography, swinging as far back and forth between gravely serious drama and goofy comedy as you possibly could and get away with it. Martin Landau, only a few years away from Academy Awards glory with his tribute to Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, here gives an equally sensitive and intense performance as an ophthalmologist who becomes blind to all distinctions between right and wrong in the pursuit of ridding himself of the woman (Anjelica Huston) with whom he’s had a longstanding affair. Allen himself takes charge of the film’s comedic center, playing a small-time documentary filmmaker whose far more successful brother-in-law (Alan Alda) does Allen a “favor” by asking him to helm a program devoted to celebrating his legend as a producer of popular (and very lowbrow) television comedy.
In addition to the usual laughs at the expense of shallow artists (“You’d think no one had ever been compared to Mussolini before”) and the poignant ruminations about the meaning of life (“Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, that human happiness does not seem to have been included in the design of creation.”), Crimes and Misdemeanors benefits from the addition of real existential dread and genuine suspense built into the Woody Allen movie equation.
This film was a risky enterprise in terms of its balance of tone, but a triumph because it pushes—without pushing too far—the generally accepted limits of mixing comedy and tragedy. Or, to paraphrase a running joke in the movie: If it bends, it’s genius. If it breaks, it isn’t.
2. Hannah and her Sisters
One of the Woodman’s most “respectable” successes, Hannah and Her Sisters represents a second much-agreed-upon crest in the Allen filmography (with Annie Hall, I’d say, being the first) as a more mature and effective blend of comedy and drama than we had seen from him up to that point. The 1986 film made the kinds of risks he took four years later with Crimes and Misdemeanors “possible.” We also saw Allen take a step towards recognizing that he would no longer have to be at the very center of his films in order to have them be great, or for him to have a great part—in this case, leaving much of the heavy lifting of the dramedy to the incomparable Michael Caine.
That said, Hannah is perhaps the finest “ensemble” act Allen has ever pulled off, devoting equal love and attention to the three women of the title (Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, and Dianne Wiest) as well as an assortment of richly colorful supporting characters played by Maureen O’Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, Carrie Fisher, Daniel Stern, and—in what might be his most delightful connection to Ingmar Bergman ever—the legendary Max von Sydow, who musters the deadpan gravitas to deliver what should go down as one of the greatest lines of dialogue in the history of film comedy:
If Jesus came back and saw what was going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.
No surprise here if you were paying attention at the outset; Manhattan is (at least as of this writing) my favorite Woody Allen movie. Not just for the ingredients we can all agree have been long and justly celebrated—the glorious Gordon Willis cinematography where every black-and-white frame is like a page taken from an art book, the majestic George Gershwin music—but for those small pleasures you might have forgotten about.
There’s the small-but-riotous part played by Meryl Streep, who’s writing a book about her marriage to the Allen character; the party scene in which a foo-foo film director discusses his upcoming movie about a guy who “screws so great” his lovers die from pleasure; the dark and deathly quiet of the planetarium where Allen and Diane Keaton’s characters take refuge from a thunderstorm and come to realize they might be in love with each other (in a lesser movie, they would kiss at the end of the scene); the on-the-nose-but-no-less-charming-for-it camera pan reminding us how we will all come to the same dust as the Neanderthals; and the fact that, at the end of a Woody Allen movie—for once—the Woody Allen character truly seems to become a little bit wiser about his ways than he was at the beginning.
“You have to have a little faith in people,” Woody’s college-bound girlfriend tells him in a scene that neatly echoes, and yet somehow reverses, the meaning of the moment of miraculous recognition that takes place between the Little Tramp and the Flower Girl at the end of City Lights. Just as in Chaplin, a lovestruck nebbish has been recognized for the person that he is; at the end of Manhattan, though, rather than our shedding of joyous tears, we’re left in a state of bittersweet empathy for broken hearts and hoped-for wisdom.
Sure, not every Woody Allen movie is a masterpiece. For every fantastic film to be found in his considerable back catalog, you’re just as apt to suffer through one that just feels like it’s marking time or telling the same gags over and over again. His movies can be “totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd”…but it’s like that old joke about the guy who goes to a psychiatrist because his brother thinks he’s a chicken and he won’t turn him in because he needs the eggs.
Fans won’t ever stop watching and loving Woody Allen movies, because most of us, well, we need the eggs.