Woody Allen has written, directed and starred in a host of great films since he announced his arrival in Hollywood during the 1960s. Jose Solis takes a look at the director’s finest work.
Woody Allen has been making a movie a year since 1969. This means that more than any other filmmaker this side of the studio system, he has developed an almost workman relationship with the movies, seeing them no longer as tortuous endeavors, but as commodities he can deliver with precision and utmost efficiency. Year after year we see how the Woodsman has dealt with his obsessions: relationships, existentialism, New York City, mortality and the movies, often revisiting them on infinite occasions, as if trying to find a deeper truth. Using self-deprecating humor, artistic elitism and fast paced, slapstick dialogues he is one of the few modern American filmmakers who has earned the “auteur” label. You can always tell when you’re watching “a Woody Allen movie”.
Of course, a career with more than forty films means that he’s had his ups and downs. During the late 90s, Allen entered a period of mediocrity that had some wondering if we were witnessing the downfall of a genius. However, once again Allen surprised us by finding new life in the old continent. By moving his productions from his beloved NYC to Europe, Allen injected a refreshing energy into his work that’s had him achieve new levels of brilliance and depth. In 2011 he directed Midnight in Paris (out on DVD in the UK Feb. 6) which not only became his highest grossing movie ever but also earned him his first Oscar nomination as a director in more than fifteen years and provided him with only his third Best Picture nominee. What better time to look back at his exciting career and celebrate his best work?
10. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Match Point might have been the movie that announced his comeback, but it was this little gem from 2008 that reminded us that nobody explores relationships like Woody. Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall play two American tourists who visit Barcelona during the summer, only to discover sides they never knew they had. Part travelogue, part existentialist comedy, Vicky Cristina Barcelona also showcased Juliet Taylor’s (Woody’s go-to casting director) genius by having her give Penélope Cruz the part of a volatile artist. Cruz’s scenes with Javier Bardem, who plays her ex-husband, generated sparks that evoked the feisty nature of Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani, and rightfully won her countless awards, including the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
9. Zelig (1983)
Years before the mockumentary became the aesthetic style of choice, Woody explored the life of the fictitious Leonard Zelig (played by Allen himself), a strange man with the even stranger ability of transforming into the people who surround him. This chameleon man mingles with the likes of Al Capone, Adolf Hitler and Charlie Chaplin, in footage that becomes more impressive taking into consideration that it was done before the digital revolution. Allen’s ability to craft a movie so authentic that you could almost be fooled into mistaking it for reality, achieves new depth when realizing it’s also the most melancholic chronicle of twentieth century history ever made.
8. Interiors (1978)
Woody Allen began his career as a funnyman. He wrote jokes for newspapers and eventually achieved fame as a stand up comedian; simultaneously he was cultivating a peculiar cinematic taste that had him love not the funniest movies but the dark Ingmar Bergman. When he came of age, as an artist, Allen decided it was time to pay tribute to his hero and made Interiors, a family drama that feels like a lost masterpiece from Bergman’s filmography. Diane Keaton, Mary Beth Hurt and Kristin Griffith play sisters dealing with a complicated family situation. A stunning Geraldine Page plays their mother giving a performance that lingers dangerously between high art and camp. Despite Allen’s reservations about making a dramatic film, this is one of his most iconic works, with the earthy color palette of cinematographer Gordon Willis making a statement that serves both as a memento mori and an elating reminder of the power of beauty.
7. Midnight in Paris (2011)
Early during this film’s plot we learn that its protagonist (Owen Wilson playing the Woody surrogate) is obsessed with what other characters call “golden age thinking”, meaning he feels nostalgia for a time that occurred before he was born. This applies to Woody himself in countless ways (if nor take a look at his delicious Radio Days) but in Paris it had him showcase one of his most playful sides, as he plays with the concepts of time travel, whimsy and romance. Paris has rarely looked this lovely and the film features some of the greatest performances on any Allen movie. Corey Stoll is a revelation as Ernest Hemingway, Adrien Brody makes use of his finest comedic skills on a tiny role and Wilson tapped into a profound nostalgia he’d never achieved before. For strict entertainment purposes, this might be the most pleasurable movie in Allen’s career.
6. Hannah and her Sisters (1986)
Woody borrowed the structure of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander to tell the story of three sisters (played by Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest) and their conflicts over the span of a year. Proving his ability to handle huge casts, Allen effortlessly weaves his characters’ joys and disillusions into a plot that feels essentially simple. The film is a particular joy to watch because of the way in which Allen uses the surroundings to tell a story. During one of the most moving scenes we listen to Hannah’s mom (played by Maureen O’Sullivan) talk about her life, while the camera pans on a hallway decorated with her old pictures and mementos. Once again the director reminds of the brevity of life but this might’ve been the first of his movies in which he decided to play the “hope” card right until the very end.
5. Love and Death (1975)
Originally meant to be a film about two New Yorkers who discover their neighbor murdered someone, Love and Death only came into fruition when Allen reached a creative block in his project and distracted himself with a book on Russian history. The result was the finest film of his early comedic era: a parody of Russian literature in which the main characters (played by Allen and his then muse Diane Keaton) discuss existentialism as they plot to kill Napoleon. Every scene is a delight and the film’s overall bittersweet tone announced what was coming next in his career. Oh and when he finally got to making the movie about the New Yorkers, almost twenty years later, it was the fantastic Manhattan Murder Mystery.
4. Manhattan (1979)
This film features one of the most iconic opening sequences in cinema history, as we see a montage of New York City images, shot in glorious black and white by Gordon Willis, accompanied by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. After establishing that his movie will be a love song to the city he was born in, Allen shows us the complicated life of one of its inhabitants: Isaac, a forty something played by Allen, who has innumerable problems in his relationships but always relies on New York for solace. The impressive harem of actresses at Allen’s disposal includes Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton and a luminous Mariel Hemingway butt he star of the film is the city itself. The black and white cinematography might seem misleading to people who visit NYC for the first time, but the intensity of Woody’s love for his town, makes sure it’s the version they remember.
3. Stardust Memories (1980)
One of Woody’s most controversial movies had him do his own version of Fellini’s 8½, in which he plays a famous filmmaker under constant attacks from his fans and the media, who want him to do funny movies instead of tackling darker material. That this was the same thing happening in Woody’s life is no coincidence, given that he’s one of the most autobiographical working directors (to this day he has never directed any adaptations) and even if he denied that the film had any coincidences with his life, it works as a perfect embodiment of his transition as a great director to a master of the form.
2. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
During the Great Depression audiences flocked to the movie theaters as a way of escapism, what would happen then if the movies themselves needed an escape? In this magical tale of loss and redemption, set during the Depression, Woody has a movie character (played with witty effervescence by Jeff Daniels) jump out of the movie screen to fall in love with a lonely housewife (Mia Farrow) who longs to live inside the movies. The eternal dilemma of how a fish and a bird can live together attains sublimity under Allen’s direction which highlights the power of art without undermining the aesthetic perfection of life itself. Farrow shines in a performance that evokes Giulietta Massina; her smile truly breaks your heart.
1. Annie Hall (1977)
Annie Hall marked Woody’s first step as a cinematic force of nature and the conflicts behind its creation are best conveyed in all the title changes it went through. Coming from a strictly comedic background made this dramedy an extremely risky choice in Allen’s career and he tried to balance its content with audiences’ perception of him by calling it either It Had to be Jew or Rollercoaster Named Desire. Ultimately Woody chose to simply name it after its lead character (played by Diane Keaton), a ditzy but lovable woman who falls in love with Allen’s character, Alvy Singer. The film chronicles their stormy relationship and is juxtaposed with Alvy’s memories and anecdotes (some of which have the parodic content of his previous directorial efforts) making it the perfect combination of drama and comedy. Annie Hall has the always self-deprecating director open his heart to audiences instead of hiding behind the safety mask of laughter, the result being something that borders on magic realism. The complexity of romantic relationships has rarely been dissected with such bittersweet precision and the screenplay’s quotability has made it an essential element of popular culture, to the point where we might wonder how people dealt with heartbreak before Annie Hall.
Over to you – what are your favourite Woody Allen films?
Written and compiled by Jose Solis.
Jose is a professional writer and film critic who contributes for web and print publications in the USA, the UK and Costa Rica. You can read more of Jose’s work at his site Movie Kick Ass or follow him on Twitter @Josekicksass.
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