As Eric D. Snider asked recently on twitter, “Why’d we decide that THIS Woody Allen movie marked the occasion for a film-by-film retrospective?” He has a point, given that Woody Allen’s output of a film each year ought to have sparked retrospectives much earlier than this, but given my vast inexperience with Allen’s catalog, why am I rushing to rank his best films now? It’s likely because Blue Jasmine has been hailed as Woody’s best film in nearly two decades, and though it’ll be at least a week before I see it myself, I certainly want to agree with them. I’ve kept my chin up about Blue Jasmine since it was announced Cate Blanchett was headlining it, so it’s something of a victory of faith that it seems to be turning out alright.
As for my own personal history with Woody Allen, I regret to say that I don’t have much of one yet. In a couple years I’ll talk about that amazing week back in 2013 when I sat down for a major crash course in Woody Allen’s filmography. As massive a catch-up as it was, my knowledge of his work is still at least 50% blank. With so little time, I could only manage the ones I knew – or at least had been told – were his greatest. For the most part, I was not disappointed.
I should first note that two much greater writers have tackled Woody Allen’s entire filmography, ranking all his films from Worst to Best. While Jordan Raup at The Film Stage stopped at the 43 films Woody has directed, Jordan Hoffman at Film.com took it one step further and ranked 50 Woody Allen films, including those he wrote and a few he starred in. I’ll leave it to your own prejudice to what degree Antz should be considered a Woody Allen film, but I’m in awe of the effort that went into these lists. What’s more, they both agreed upon what Woody Allen’s best film is. If you take a look at Alex’s recently updated Top 200 Films of All-Time list, you’ll see his own rankings of his top 7 Woody Allen films, and he seems to agree with the Jordans on what the best is.
It’s here where I am happily surprised to find myself diverging from the pack with a different #1 choice. As for the other nine slots… well, my list certainly hasn’t been held in solid form. Over the past week films have fluidly floated up and down, on and off the list until they roughly took the form you see below. Though I’d say Allen’s style has a way of often merely amusing me rather than interfacing on a gut emotional level, there were a few I ached to leave off the list.
Crimes and Misdemeanors is a major touchstone for many Woody Allen aficionados, and though I was a bit put off by the jarring dissonance between the comedic and seriously dramatic portions of the film, that dissonance quite often provoked much thought on how an optimistic world can ignore justice. Allen would revisit this territory sixteen year later with Match Point, a much darker hearted, bleakly sensual investigation of extramarital affairs gone most horribly wrong. It also gets points for starting Allen’s (currently) 3-film long collaboration with Scarlett Johansson. And much as I’m tickled by Midnight in Paris, it just cleans up narrative threads way too tidily in its hasty finish for me to profess real love. Still, Corey Stoll’s Ernest Hemingway is a brilliant comic invention that still pull big laughs out of me.
The list of Woody Allen films I didn’t get to see this summer is even longer, having not seen five of his first 6 films. I saw What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, but can we really call that anything more than a cute little sketch? Of his dramatic Bergman-esq. features, I missed Interiors and September, both of which I hope to visit somewhere down the road. 80s films like Zelig, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Broadway Danny Rose and Radio Days didn’t latch me on quick enough, and I simply didn’t see his late-90s films because of time constraints. As for 21st century Allen, am I really missing all that much by opting out of Curse of the Jade Scorpion?
Film Misery’s Top 10
Greatest Woody Allen Film
Entering old age hasn’t exactly done great favors for Allen (says the immature 21-year-old writing this), many of his more recent films lacking the spastic energy of his earlier films. With Bullets Over Broadway, though, he was able to harken back to his farcical early features without devolving into pointlessly silly antics. Following a by-turns overconfident and panicked upstart playwright, John Cusack serving as the most effective proxy for Woody Allen’s onscreen persona, complication ensue over a talentless actress, an oppressive mob influence, Dianne Wiest’s bawdy boisterous lead actress and Chazz Palminteri’s surprisingly ambitious low-level enforcer. How all these cogs form into such a completely entertaining whirligig of a film is beyond me, and even Allen seems to be keen to how randomly the components at play fit together. It’s a film about art going desperately out of control, and it’s both an entertaining and ominous sign of how Allen might’ve lost a handle on some of his more recent features.
It took me until writing this piece to realize that this is Allen’s modern day version of Alice in Wonderland. A woman unfulfilled in her relationship with her husband, Mia Farrow’s eponymous character seeks out an herbalist who has a rather unorthodox method of treatment. This sets off a drug-fueled evaluation of Alice’s own sexual history and unfulfilled desires, and though it’s a pretty simple artifice to hinge the story on, it’s one that pays off in waking dreamlike scenes, like the one where Alice confesses the inauthenticity of her marriage and Alec Baldwin’s sincerely amusing cameo as Alice’s ghost lover (Alec Baldwin: Ghost Lover™). At times it does fall into outright silliness, the scene of Alice accidentally seducing all the men at a party being the key example, but it finds footing in Alice’s own aimless emotional wanderings, ever in search of conviction in her life, until the film’s resoundingly positive ending.
A Woody Allen lover of the oldest (or just older) generation could not appreciate Vicky Cristina Barcelona in the same way I do, this being my teenaged introduction to Woody Allen. Like many, I was drawn in by lesbian sex scene between Scarlett Johannson and Penelope Cruz, but it’s Javier Bardem who remains the brooding sensuality pulsating through every frame of the film. It may be the warm tones of Barcelona, but having immersed myself now in Allen’s history, nothing quite matches the yumminess on display here. Each of these characters seem caught up in the warm summer haze, following their instincts better, worse, but ultimately just for the sake of experience. The unfulfilled nature of every onscreen relationship clue us into Allen’s own present theory on the subject of love. “It’s a great story,” Vicky says once, with an underlying bitterness at how impossible the unreal love affairs they partook in that summer were.
Woody Allen’s flights of fantasy catch me at some distance, because any fantasy element can tend to spell out the morals of the film all too cleanly. Such was the case with Midnight in Paris and a slight bit with Alice, but something about the way Allen deals with unreal events is just charming. When a screen character jumps off the screen, there isn’t a reaction of disbelieving horror. The audience and still onscreen characters have such a nonchalant workmanlike banter that plays this crazy event as, to quote Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, “just something that happens”. It helps that what the film is saying comes with the full force of its cinematically clinging heart, as well as Mia Farrow’s desperately fantasizing lead performance, amongst her very best with Allen. All the minor characteristics that make her so insignificant in the scheme of a depression ridden world make us love her and root for her all the more.
Allen’s most affectionate tribute to NYC has been making the rounds this year, mostly by pure happenstance. The Great Gatsby‘s expert use of Gershwin and Frances Ha‘s clear, but not indulgent, homage to the film’s style have drawn plenty fresh eyes to this key work of the director. Those references, however, evade the honest nature of Allen’s post-Annie Hall dialogue on the wavering complications of romanticism. As many who are put off by Allen’s romance with a 17-year-old girl will be taken aback by the bright maturity of Mariel Hemingway’s performance, her beguilingly beguiled face entirely deserving of the title “things worth living for”. While Manhattan may start out as some elegy to a city, it’s more sharply focused on the brightening of new horizons and decadent frustrations of old ones, like the sunrise over a darkened Queensboro Bridge. Occasionally that kind of message might come across too overtly, like a disjointedly constructed conversation between Allen, Yale and… a skeleton. Those moments aside, Manhattan is both one of Allen’s most optimistic yet solemn bits of filmic poetry.
Stardust Memories is the Post Tenebras Lux of Woody Allen movies, an obscure reference which will only make sense to a very narrow handful of readers. This film doesn’t need the comparison to establish its place amongst the most arresting kind of obscurity, in that it rests not on the line between his Bergman-esq dramatic works and his early comic farces, but in a literally vast, isolating field between them. This is not Woody Allen in crisis between these two modes, but more an odd dialogue between the two. Jaggedly captivating in its dramatic gestures, particularly those pinned on Charlotte Rampling’s carnal yet nervy Dottie, but then quite hysterically silly as it takes a left turn into daydreams, aliens and magic. Most often when a director tries to have the best of both worlds it devolves into a narratively and tonally disjointed mess, but all the wry self-criticisms Allen partakes in here make it all the more fascinating a contraption.
Allen would certainly rather not discuss the narrative ties between his work and his personal life, but Husbands and Wives is probably the most overt articulation of thoughts and feelings that were still present in much of his past work. Adultery and relationship collapse isn’t some jarring anomaly is Allen’s world, but a consistent state of being that he handled with relative normality before. Here, however, he seeps unnervingly into the devastating consequences of marital shakeups, Judy Davis’ character being the only one not participating in some act of betrayal, and showing the most nervy degradation because of it. The intentional disjointedness of its editing and shaky cinematography helps to ground Allen’s often humorous style in a raw, discomforting reality that reflects the end of Allen’s own marriage far too clearly to be ignored as coincidence. What makes it such a searing work is how it feels like we’re peering through the curtain at a personal catastrophe.
Is it some criminal act that this is merely at #3? Possibly, but without it I wouldn’t have procured such an acute fascination with Allen’s early work. This was the start of Allen’s strongest period of dramatic discovery, while still existing full-heartedly in the comedic vein of his first films. Showing the rise and fall of a romance, not simply a relationship, Allen cuts between dry patch and first love with an inconsistency that refuses to pin the relationship down as an inevitable failure or a romance of the century. It’s Allen meta-cinematic flourishes that not only give it such a jaunty, even jolly, sense of fantasy, but comment on the importance of fantasy and exaggeration to make a relationship flow. Allen and Diane Keaton’s titular Annie cannot reflect on the past by themselves. They have to quite literally share their fantasies with each other, distorting reality ever so slightly without dissolving into camp. The film’s been chided by those who, sight unseen, don’t understand how a comedy could beat Star Wars for Best Picture. If they’d only crawl from out of their caves they might realize Annie Hall is a more imaginative film than any space epic could ever be.
I imagine this placement will come as more of a shock than anything else on this list, but no other film by Allen surprised so significantly as this under-appreciated drama. Its title may mislead some into thinking it a trite tale of marital betrayal, but it’s actually quite the opposite. Gena Rowlands hands in perhaps the strongest performance of a Woody Allen film as a middle aged writer whose unintentional eavesdropping on a young married woman with depression gets her analyzing her own love life and decisions. Rather than tackling it through a fractured narrative ala Annie Hall, Allen initiates the present Rowlands in her own dialogue with the past, woozily distorting matters of “truth” as irrelevant to her own guilt and regret. It may be Allen’s most successful emulation of Ingmar Bergman, but it’s also work entirely of his own dramatic crafting and almost certainly an influence on filmmakers working today. It wouldn’t surprise me, for example, if Francois Ozon has a copy of Another Woman featured prominently on his shelf.
The present pinnacle of Woody Allen’s career (unless he astonishes us all with a late career masterstroke) remains this softly spoken familial cascade, focusing in on the relationships around and between three sisters, with Mia Farrow’s Hannah as their foundation, but oddly not their centerpiece. Hannah’s ornery nature is sharply accentuated by the cool sensuality Barbara Hershey’s Lee exudes, as well as Dianne Weist’s top-form performance as the shrewdly manipulative Holly, a wild card who nonetheless earns our sympathies by way of her chronic neuroticism. While the women remain firmly planted, the men seem to bounce frantically between them, Hannah’s husband (Michael Caine) lusting after Lee, Hannah’s ex-husband (Allen) questioning the entire purpose of life in signature Woody Allen fashion, and Lee’s boyfriend (Max von Sydow) criticizing the lot of them.
While all these intersecting lives and conflicts may otherwise risk rampantly overrunning each other, Allen cuts through the middleground with a rather novelistic chapter approach, making Hannah and Her Sisters one of the most poetic and writerly films ever made. After 44 features ranging from entirely flaccid to painfully raw, outrageously silly to crisply humourless, it’s liberating to know Allen’s made such a thoroughly condensed masterpiece.