Woody Allen’s 38th feature film as a director, Whatever Works, opened in New York and Los Angeles this past weekend, and if the reviews are any indication, it’s a return to banal, obvious humor for the director after Vicky Cristina Barcelona very briefly indicated that he might have finally gotten out of his more than decade-long slump when it came to making intelligent comedies for adults. That being as it may, 38 films is quite a lot for anyone, which is why I thought it a good moment to commemorate with a list of the Ten Best Films of Woody Allen’s Notoriously Inconsistent Career:
10. Stardust Memories (1980)
The most autobiographical film of Allen’s career – though if you listen to any interview, you’ll hear Allen deny that it was autobiographical at all – was one of those “in the style of 8½” movies about the mind of a director that are so popular with filmmakers who are a little too self-aware of their own intellectualism. But it works terrifically anyway, showcasing Allen at his most experimental and drawing a crisp line in the sand between the sometimes hilarious, sometimes morbid films he made in the ’70s, and the self-conscious attempts to make his very own European art movie that dominated his work in the ’80s. And somehow, it does all of this without seeming particularly pretentious, despite being made by one of the most pretentious American directors of his generation.
9. Husbands and Wives (1992)
Obviously, it’s tempting to read into this film what we know about the dissolution of the marriage of characters played by Allen and Mia Farrow the real-life melodrama playing out between the two, but you don’t need to know the tabloid history to recognise the ragged personal observation that went into this film, perhaps Allen’s most savage. Easily the best of his crypto-remakes of Bergman films (in this case, Scenes from a Marriage), the faux-documentary mixes absurd comedy with the nastiest misanthropy imaginable, not to mention the most deliberately ugly cinematography anywhere in Allen’s decidedly less than postcard-ready filmography, but it’s all in service to a troubling, pessimistic howl of loneliness and isolation. Maybe Allen’s hardest film to watch (ignoring the awful ones), but brilliant and insightful.
8. Match Point (2005)
The Woody Allen European Renaissance began and ended with one film, but when it came out, it was the best thing he’d made in over ten years, and even if in some ways the plot is just a warmed-over rehash of ideas from Crimes and Misdemeanors, it was still pretty unexpected to see Allen, at that late point in his career, come up with something as uncharacteristic as a Hitchcock-style thriller about a greedy, upwardly mobile tennis pro. Trading New York neuroses for European glitz and literally operatic excesses of melodrama and tawdry immorality, the film still bears its author’s fingerprints in all of the big and small details, and even if that means that some of his bad habits are still in evidence, this remains one of the very freshest movies of his career, even after multiple viewings.
7. Sleeper (1973)
The best of the “early funny ones” is a marvelous spoof of a whole generation of earnest sci-fi epics featuring bucolic dystopias with lots of sterile white walls everywhere, and a Mad magazine-style cluster bomb of willfully silly gags at the expense of every fad known to ’70s pop culture. Dated, for sure (one of the film’s most obvious gags is at Howard Cosell’s expense), but there’s a whimsical, slapsticky inventiveness that trumps the period trappings. It’s also the film where Allen’s love of jazz comes into play, not merely on the soundtrack but also in the free-form way that the plot explodes all over the place, like he was making it all up as he was going. By the time that Allen and Diane Keaton (making her first appearance in one of the films he directed, though not their first on-screen pairing) kidnap a dictator’s disembodied nose, Sleeper has clearly become the kind of film where just about anything is likely to happen.
6. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
A dizzy, marvelous fable about how wonderful it is to love movies. It’s a postmodern film that could only have taken place in a premodern setting, during the height of the Depression when things weren’t so awful that you couldn’t spend 90 minutes in the dark watching beautiful people take all the problems of the world away. Of course, being Allen, the whole point is that they weren’t taking those problems away, and that if the movie characters were alive and breathing themselves, they might have problems all their own – but rarely has his pessimism been more charming and amusing. Of all the films in his career, this one might very well be the sweetest; and nestled in the very heart of his mid-’80s experiment with joylessness, it’s all the sweeter.
5. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
A highly contrived attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable – the silly Woody Allen comedies that audiences loved with the serious, Bergman-tinged Woody Allen dramas that he preferred to make; the craziest thing is that it worked so incredibly well. Pairing the stories of a self-loathing documentary filmmaker selling out his talents (a misdemeanor he views as a crime) and an optometrist who takes out a hit on his lover (a crime he comes to view as a misdemeanor) just ought not work at all, particularly given some of the leaden metaphors Allen pulls out in the dramatic, serious half of the film. But the film is one of the smartest, most philosophical works of American cinema in ten years on either side, easily-digestible thanks to the quick back and forth between light and shadow, and anchored by Martin Landau in the best performance of his career.
4. Love and Death (1975)
A film that nobody else could have possibly made: a sex-and-slapstick driven farce about war, with a score taken from Prokofiev, parodying the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Love and Death is very probably Allen’s funniest movie, but the comedy is based in the most esoteric, overly intellectual subject matter – the perfect bridge between early, funny films like Bananas and Sleeper and later self-conscious bids for artistic credibility like Interiors. There’s just nothing else like it: where else would you find one of Diane Keaton’s loopiest comic performances in the same film – the same shot! – as one of the funniest-ever parodies of Bergman’s Persona? It’s Allen in the same goofy pitch as his sci-fi parody two years earlier, but far smarter, and with a much stronger control of his material.
3. Manhattan (1979)
Allen’s paean to New York City is his most romantic film, because for the first and last time he didn’t make his subject matter the messy problem of sexual compatibility or infidelity or anything like that. Manhattan is the love story of a man and his city, filled with lush Gershwin tunes and Gordon Willis’s absolutely jaw-dropping 70mm black and white photography that leaves this, by a tremendous margin, the most beautiful of all Allen’s films. Everything that makes it brilliant is right there in the opening narration, as Allen’s character, a frustrated novelist, tries out his new opening sentence: “Chapter 1: He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion. No, make that, He romanticized it all out of proportion.”
2. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
In the midst of a career-long attempt to mimic Ingmar Bergman, Allen made a work of pure genius by accidentally copying Chekhov with the tragic but lovely and lighthearted and ultimately redemptive story of a family and the people around them who bumble through a year full of mistakes and successes. One of his harshest films and one of his most forgiving, with Bergman regular Max von Sydow as the voice of doom and judgment, and Allen himself embodying the little fella who demonstrates that simple triumphs in life are enough to make the world keep going around. The scene where Allen’s Mickey describes his apotheosis watching Duck Soup is one of the truly great moments in his whole career.
1. Annie Hall (1977) “There’s an old joke…” I thought about putting something else here, just to avoid being obvious; but sometimes a thing is obvious because it’s so plainly right. Yes, everyone knows already, but this is surely Allen’s masterpiece: his most consistently successful experiment with narrative form, and surely his most perfectly accurate look at the human condition. Anyone who has ever been in love or on a date can find something to recognise in the movie, whether it’s Allen’s wistful observation that a stalled relationship is like a dead shark, or the famous conversation on the patio where Allen and Keaton try to say whatever makes them sound witty and sexy, as subtitles reveal what they’re actually thinking. Rarely has any film embodied the pain and the ecstasy of romance so simply; not as angry or judgmental as his later films, this is an honest but not unsentimental snapshot of the human beast at its most vulnerable.