Because I am ultimately far more concerned with entertaining myself than providing edification for you my readers, I thought it might be fun to pursue a bit of a theme with my Sunday reviews for a while. In honor of the impending Academy Awards, I will spend the month of February looking at Oscar-winning films that I've never seen, and own anyway. Good for me, because it helps me to keep burrowing through my rather daunting stack of unwatched DVDs, good for you because...I said so.

I don't know of any great filmmaker who has had so few ideas as Woody Allen. I don't mean that as an insult (hell, I kind of liked The Curse of the Jade Scorpion), but it's hard to deny that certain things come up over and over again: erudite upper-middle class New Yorkers have wordy conversations about the intersection of art, sex and morality, with a male protagonist who is very smart but not quite as smart as he imagines, with a crippling inability to relate to people in a normal social setting. This is blended with a visual sensibility so inert that even demigods like Gordon Willis and Sven Nykvist have been only semi-successful in overcoming it to make movies that look even slightly interesting.

(There are, of course, exceptions; sometimes the upper-middle class New Yorkers are upper-middle class Russians).

This isn't news, of course, but I found myself unable to ignore that thought during Bullets Over Broadway, a film unique in Woody's career for numerous reasons - his first film set in the 1920's, his only film involving the Mafia, really his only "backstage" film - and despite that, I kept finding myself wondering how the cast of Manhattan got trapped in period costumes.

Which isn't to say that it's not a satisfying experience, just that it's really not at all an original one. John Cusack (who had previously filmed a tiny cameo for the director in the star-studded misfire Shadows and Fog) leads the cast as David Shayne, a combination of Clifford Odets and Woody Allen (it's always "a combination of X and Woody Allen," unless it's just "Woody Allen") who accepts money from a gangster to fund his new play. This leads to some early hand-wringing on the subject of whether it's right to accept blood money for art. As rehearsals progress, David begins taking script notes from a tough guy enforcer (Chazz Palminteri), and this leads to some late hand-wringing on the notion of authorship. In between, David has an affair with the imperious diva Helen Sinclair, his leading lady, played by Diane Wiest with the cigarette-throated, silent-movie gusto that calls to mind nothing so much as Gloria Swanson in her years of decline. This leads to hand-wringing about the intersection of sex and morality.

Oh, but it's easy to rag on Allen these days. Back in 1994, the Woodman's formula hadn't yet gone totally sour (this was back when there were only a couple of truly bad Woody films, and those separated by several years, back in the days before the wretched Hollywood Ending could be immediately followed by the vicious & wretched Anything Else) and seeing him play the same old tunes was the appeal, rather than a masochistic punishment. Viewed in that respect, Bullets Over Broadway is a rousing success, with the auteur in very fine form. Perhaps it's not quite as strong as the screenplay to Manhattan Murder Mystery from the year before, the director's last masterpiece before Match Point, but it's funny and generous. And a generous Woody Allen film has always been a rare treasure.

Ironically, this generosity grows out of the transparent crappiness of the main character. I don't mean to slight Cusack's performance - which falls on the more-reputable side of the "People Channeling Woody Allen" continuum - but David is an ass. He's arrogant and talentless, and while doesn't keep Allen from presenting most of his protagonists as heroes, in this case I think we're meant to understand that David's haughty superiority is a sign that he doesn't really get what's going on (maybe it's just that I'm conditioned to kind of dislike every character John Cusack has ever played).

So when David bitches about this actor or that incident, we're inclined to disagree with him, and reject his authoritarian views on the theater as the responsibility of one man. Instead, Bullets Over Broadway emerges as a celebration of collaboration, from the writing (who's the author, again?) to the ways in which each actor brings out something in the play that the author never imagined. It's not hard to see where writer/director Allen, noted for the strength of his ensemble casts and the freedom he accorded to his performers, was trying to go with this. Individually, every character is their own kind of appalling, but when they're all onstage, they create something true and special.

This obedience to the communal ideal of theatre is highlighted especially in the examples where it's defied. Jennifer Tilly's Olive Neal is a terrible actress, and alone in the cast is exempted from Allen's generosity (she's treated much like a latter-day Lina Lamont from Singin' in the Rain), but this is because she is specifically an outsider. She is not of the stage, and does not want to be of the stage; she wants celebrity. Therefore, her shabby treatment by the film and its director is understood as a punishment for her intrusion into the finely tuned machine of Broadway. In a similar vein, David' mentor Sheldon Flender (Rob Reiner), who ultimately becomes the closest thing the film offers to an antagonist, stands opposed to theatre as a performing medium, preferring to write incomprehensible and unstageable plays, thereby reinforcing his authority. It is only when David begins to reject Sheldon and his modes of thought that he becomes a noble and upright person.

It's all a very romantic idea of Broadway, of course, but Woody Allen was always a bit of a romantic when he was celebrating the bygone days of entertainment (think Radio Days, Play It Again, Sam, or even The Front). He loved the old times, and that's never been more obvious than in Bullets Over Broadway, which is perhaps the finest of all Allen's period films in the loving detail lavished on recreating the past. Every set and costume oozes "The '20s," even the cinematography by Allen regular Carlo Di Palma has the faded, browned look of a vintage photograph, even though it looks more like the 1940s of Gordon Willis's Godfather than the actual 1920s. The film looks nostalgic, just as it talks nostalgic.

So what if it's ultimately redundant in the Allen canon? Nobody did it better, not even, ultimately, Woody, and while he would still make the occasional film that was funnier, he never came close to another screenplay which so unambiguously praised the human capacity to create, rather than destroy.

Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actress, Dianne Wiest
Other Nominations: Best Director, Woody Allen
-Best Supporting Actor, Chazz Palminteri
-Best Supporting Actress, Jennifer Tilly
-Best Original Screenplay, Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath
-Best Art Direction, Santo Loquasto/Susan Bode
-Best Costume Design, Jeffrey Kurland

Let's put it this way: when I was watching the film, I found myself thinking, "what a shame the costumes and sets weren't nominated." Forgive my shoddy research. I can't speak to the films that actually won in those categories, but this was perfect in both ways.

I'm okay with the Screenplay nod - it's one of Woody's best from the 1990s - but I'm even more okay it lost to Pulp Fiction. Whether it justifies the Best Director slot is a bit trickier, although he was at least as good as the winner, Robert Zemeckis (in a category where Krzysztof Kieslowski was nominated for his last film, mind you).

As for the actual winner: Wiest was fantastic, capturing the gonzo outrageousness of an aging flapper with flair and wit, and a brilliant voice. It was her second Oscar for a Woody Allen film (after Hannah and Her Sisters, and perfectly deserved. Her category mate was basically just "doing a Jennifer Tilly," which only worked because the script was set up that way; I feel much the same about Palminteri.