Woody Allen has been traipsing all over San Francisco lately, filming his 137th feature film, which at best will not completely suck, and at worst will completely suck. I’m sure of this because everything he’s made in the past eighteen years has, more or less, completely sucked, and I’m here to tell you that it’s really pissing me off.
Why? Why am I enraged at Woody Allen’s last eighteen movies in eighteen years (eighteen movies in eighteen years!!)? Because Woody Allen is one of the greatest American filmmakers in the history of cinema, and none of them dang youngsters out there knows it! You’re too busy liking Oz The Big And Loud, The Hobbits Take Manhattan, and Upstream Color. (Okay, that last one is awesome. Read about it and see it immediately.)
Try having a conversation with some punk under 30 about Woody Allen and know my pain. He’s looked upon as a creepy old freak who married his daughter and makes unfunny movies for couples married in the ‘60s to watch on date night. And what can you say in his defense? If you’ve only been watching his movies for a mere EIGHTEEN FUCKING YEARS, what other opinion could you possibly have? Are you supposed to say, “Yeah, but Midnight In Paris was good”? Midnight In Paris was not good. It almost, but not quite, completely sucked. You know it did! Stop defending it! I know you’re trying your damnedest to like it, but to what end? For the benefit of whom? Let it go, my friends, let it go.
Now hold yer dadgummed horses here, I’m not about to say that Allen or any other artists shouldn’t make whatever the hell art they want to make. And if that art involves girls in bathing suits at spring break, so be it. It would be wrong to tell any artist not to make what they want. But I am here to say that Woody Allen should never make another movie! Ever! Woody, for fuck’s sake, will you just stop, already? Please? For the good of the children? Damn! Forget I mentioned children—and for the love of all that’s holy, will you take your creepy old eyes off of Scarlett Johansson?!
So. Cripes. Deep Breath. After having to admit that yes, Allen has churned out eighteen turds in a row, more movies than most directors make in their lifetime, you throw this at the punk in question: “But have you seen anything he made before that?”
No. They have not.
Are you that punk, whatever your age? Do you have but a vague notion that Allen made movies in days of yore, for the ancients to marvel upon? Did you see Annie Hall once, but you can’t really remember it, and anyhow, Vicky Cristina Barcelona was probably just as good? (Baby Jesus just shed a tear at my writing that sentence, I’ll have you know).
Whoever you are, whatever you think you think of Allen, I hereby proclaim that you are not allowed to opine on the man’s work in any way whatsoever until you have watched the following ten movies. And yes, I know! It’s Allen’s fault this has happened. I don’t blame you, you damn punks. I only beg you, watch these ten movies, and then we, all of us, across all nations, can sit Allen down, and beg him not to poke cinema in the eye any longer.
10. BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (‘84)
I know, you’re already in a panic because it’s shot in black and white. Get over it. Black and white is beautiful (seen The Last Picture Show?). More movies should be shot that way. Imagine Avatar in black and white. Right? Now that would take balls. Which just goes to show that Woody Allen once had balls larger than James Cameron’s. You read it here first, folks.
In this one, Allen plays the most hilariously awful talent agent in New York, and gets mixed up with the mob while pretending to be a gangster/comedian’s mistress’ date at shows. Or something. Mia Farrow plays the dame. She wears outrageous glasses through the whole movie and is just generally wonderful.
This is a world Allen knows. It’s all jokes. It’s funny, it looks great, Allen was riding a crest of great movies in this era, everything was working. Well, sure, there was A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, but you don’t need to worry yourselves about that one. Broadway Danny Rose is an overlooked gem.
9. TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (‘69)
Allen’s first movie as a triple threat: writer, director, star. And he knocks it out of the park all the way for a touchdown! It’s a faux documentary about Virgil Starkwell, criminal mastermind, i.e. most inept crook in history. You thought This Is Spinal Tap got there first with the fake docs? Wrong. Christ, you’ve never even watched Spinal Tap, have you? Let’s not get into that right now.
Every scene is a set-up for a joke, if not many, many jokes. It set the stage for everything Allen made up until Annie Hall. A non-stop barrage of one-liners. This might possibly be his flat-out funniest movie. “The men get one hot meal a day: a bowl of steam.”
8. BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (‘94)
From the earliest movie on the list to the latest. This the last great movie Allen made. What happened? This script is fantastic. Everything since feels like he tossed it off in a week.
If you’re weirded out by Woody Allen movies because you’re weirded out by Woody Allen, you’re in luck: John Cusack plays Allen, er, plays the lead in this one, a playwright in ‘20s New York who believes in the integrity of art over all else. Until he gets his play produced with funding—and a lead actress—supplied by the mob.
Everyone is great in this movie. Dianne Wiest, Jim Broadbent, Chazz Palminteri. Even Jennifer Tilly is great. It’s a genius bit of casting. Why put one of the most annoying actresses of all time in your movie and have her do nothing but play up all of her inherently annoying qualities? Allen has a very good reason. You’ll see.
This script for this movie is so great. It takes one idea, the notion of what it means to be an artist, and asks a question: does being one put you in conflict with being in every other way human? In the end, the movie supplies an interesting answer.
7. STARDUST MEMORIES (‘80)
Not a beloved Woody Allen favorite when it came out, maybe because it does everything in its power to skewer film critics and fans of Allen’s earlier work. Not the two best crowds to alienate, perhaps.
But the movie is fantastic. More beautiful black and white cinematography. By this time Allen had become not just a funny guy making funny movies, but a smart, creative filmmaker. The whole thing is gorgeously put together, and is full of shots inspired by the European directors Allen loves so much.
It’s about a movie director, Sandy Bates, who goes to a weekend festival of his movies, at which festival his newest movie, Stardust Memories, the very movie we’re watching, is screened. It’s a nod to Fellini and 8 ½, as are all the shots of the fans, with their weird, distorted faces filling the frame. Much of the movie consists of Bates dealing with the three different women in his life, so if you’re creeped out by Allen as a romantic lead, you’re going to have to suck it up and deal. Even more unnerving are the scenes with his teenage niece. But let’s not let those moments distract us, okay?
This movie also includes space aliens who arrive to tell Bates that they like his earlier, funny movies better, and numerous odd little fantastical moments.
6. HUSBANDS AND WIVES (‘92)
A completely devastating look at marriages falling apart, with Allen and Mia Farrow playing one couple, and Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis playing the other. The latter couple happily announces their impending split, sending the former into a spiral of questions about their own faltering marriage. Things work out unexpectedly for everyone.
This is Judy Davis’s movie. She’d just come off playing two small yet intensely weird roles in Barton Fink and Naked Lunch, both of which she kills in, and finally in Husbands And Wives she gets her chance to own a whole movie. She is incredible. One of my favorite performances by anyone in anything. Also featured is Liam Neeson, who spends a surprising amount of time not kicking ass or fighting wolves.
Now be warned, this was in the period of the ‘shaky-cam,’ which means everything in here is shot hand-held, and may induce seasickness in some viewers. But I know you will persevere, despite the vomiting.
Also? It’s funny! Really.
5. LOVE AND DEATH (‘75)
The last of Allen’s out and out joke marathon movies. After this he’d take what must be the longest break of his career—two entire years!—before releasing Annie Hall. Which we’re getting to.
Love And Death is set in early 19th century Russia, and the main targets of its jokes are the novels of Dostoevsky, the films of Ingmar Bergman, and existentialism. Allen was getting a little headier, it is true, but that doesn’t stop the jokes. After he beds the countess, she compliments him on his magnificent lovemaking skills, to which he replies, “I practice a lot when I’m alone.” Ah, profundity!
He plays a hapless Russian caught up in the war against Napoleon. Diane Keaton is great as his love interest, who regularly out-philosophizes him.
4. THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (‘85)
Allen has said that this is his favorite among his films. It’s another one he doesn’t appear in. Set during the Depression, it tells the story of Mia Farrow, married to a son of a bitch, Danny Aiello, who escapes life by watching movies. She goes to one over and over again, The Purple Rose of Cairo, a typical ’30s style romance showing off the lives of the rich and famous. During one screening, the archaeologist adventurer, played by Jeff Daniels, notices her in the audience, and walks off the screen to talk to her. Romantic entanglements ensue. Not to mention a certain amount of existential grief for the actors left on screen mid-movie.
A very funny and very sad romance. The perfect example of how to make a sweet romantic comedy without resorting to the cheap tugging of your heartstrings. It’s short and simple and, yes, sad, but how anyone could watch this and not fall in love with it is beyond me. After all, the romance at its core is between Mia and movies themselves.
3. CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (‘89)
I don’t know how this movie works. There is simply no way it should. The two stories it tells, they way they fit together, the way the movie ends without actually showing the moment of revelation for the main character, the inclusion at the end of a montage of moments from earlier scenes, none of it should work at all, yet when it’s over, you know you’ve just seen a perfect movie.
The main story is of a well-to-do opthamologist, played by Martin Landau (in his best performance this side of Ed Wood), who decides to end an affair he’s having with an unstable woman, played by Angelica Huston. But she doesn’t want to end it. And so he considers having her killed.
The other story features Allen as a documentary director roped into doing a piece on a wealthy, schlocky filmmaker played brilliantly by Alan Alda, of all people. I thought I didn’t like Alda. Then I saw this movie.
On top of that, Allen’s character is working on his own documentary about an old professor and his thoughts on life and love, which thoughts provide commentary on the people in the movie. Somehow these two halves fit together into one coherent whole. The ending is as profound and heartfelt as anything Allen has done, yet Landau’s character, what he’s concluded, it’s fucking dark. This movie manages to be real and evil and life-affirming all at the same time. How is this possible? Go watch it and tell me. Now. Go!
2. ANNIE HALL (‘77)
Please tell me you’ve seen this one already. Regardless, now go watch it again.
Allen’s first contemporary movie about relationships, and basically the model for every romantic comedy made by anyone since. It’s still just about as joke-packed as his earlier, slapstick movies, but this time the jokes are centered on real people and their relationships.
Allen also went crazy in here with filmmaking tricks. Normally in a movie if you have, say, one flashback, you have to have at least one more, preferably three, because, as you may be aware, three is a magic number. Having one feels wrong. In Annie Hall, Allen uses every trick he can come up with, and uses each only once. There’s: a flashback, a flashback where people in the present talk to people in the flashback, people talking to the audience from a flashback, an animated sequence, a sequence with jokey subtitles, a sequence where Allen and another character directly address the audience, the whole movie is told out of sequence, plus more weirdness I’m forgetting.
The whole thing is built around Diane Keaton’s character Annie Hall and her relationship with Alvy Singer, played by Allen. The movie was originally supposed to be called Anhedonia and included all sorts of other story elements, with the Annie Hall character not being central, but things changed, as they so often do, and the result is Allen’s most beloved movie.
Why should you watch this immediately? Even if you’ve seen it before? Because trust me, you need the eggs.
1. MANHATTAN (‘79)
Woody Allen’s best movie. Don’t believe me? Watch it again. Keep watching it until you understand, you damn punks!
After Annie Hall came Interiors, where Allen tried with all his might to make a movie on the model of his hero, Ingmar Bergman, that is, a movie about a number of couples having big problems in an isolated location where nobody tells a single joke. Somehow Bergman can pull this off. Not Allen. Next came Manhattan. There are jokes.
Manhattan is Allen’s most visually beautiful movie, shot in widescreen black and white. The opening five minute sequence is an ode to New York City that plays out to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue.” With any luck those heartless bastards at United Airlines haven’t soured you on the music and you can appreciate it for what it is: the soundtrack to New York.
What follows is a movie about relationships, like Annie Hall but without all the gimmicks. It’s still funny, but not nearly as wacky. Diane Keaton once again kills. Meryl Streep shows up. I don’t know what more to say. It’s simply great.
That’s it. Watch these ten movies and if you still hate Woody Allen, fine. Go right ahead. You’ve earned the right. But I don’t think you’ll hate him. I think you will 1) fall in love with these movies, and 2) want to beat him over the head with a live badger if he keeps turning out crap.
As a bonus, if you dare, here’s three extra credit ones to check out:
Hannah And Her Sisters ‘86
And if you still need something to watch, take a gander at the finest Clint Eastwood movies in existence. Because what two actors go better together than Clint and Woody? Speaking of which, holy god, Woody needs to write his next movie for Clint! They could play estranged brothers. Better yet, it’s a western! Yes! I just saved both of their careers! Thank you and goodnight.
i think it’s time to watch Husbands and Wives and Crimes & Misdemeanors again. i can barely remember either.
i also think you were too easy on Midnight in Paris. that movie is like someone threw Manhattan and Purple Rose into a microwave with a bowl of fetid smelt. everything about it is completely awful except for the bits that were original 20 years earlier and done much better then. (although i was mildly amused by Adrien Brody’s Dali.)
I watched Annie Hall for the first time about 3years. Completely blew my mind.
Crimes & Misdemeanors struck me as amazing and important years ago, but now doesn’t pack quite as much of a punch. I thought Midnight in Paris was light, easy entertainment. Not bad, but not great. Match Point was very good. Blue Jasmine is better.
By the way, did you forget What’s Up, Tiger Lily? I always thought that was his funniest. I never much cared for Take The Money And Run.
I could quibble about smaller details. Like, I’d put Annie Hall in first place. Too many classic, brilliant moments. And I’d fit in Another Woman somewhere. But it’s a nice list.
Oh, and what about Deconstructing Harry? That was less than 18 years ago, and it’s solid. Also, Sweet And Lowdown is fantastic. Those two deserve praise.
Okay, just checking his filmography: I’d forgotten about Cassandra’s Dream, which I remember liking. Not as anything special or fantastic, but as a good movie. Celebrity was good, too–if you are willing to accept Kenneth Branagh playing Woody Allen. And, since you wrote this in 2012, it looks like you’re dissing Mighty Aphrodite, which wasn’t bad, was it? I haven’t seen it in a long time. Maybe it hasn’t aged well, but it got Mira Sorvino a lot of praise, for one thing.
There are any number of Woody Allen movies that are, in one way or another, not bad. I mean he is Woody Allen, after all. He’s not out there directing Transformers or Grown Ups 2. Nevertheless, I really think he hit a point where none of his films really rose above, at best, ‘okay.’ He writes/directs one movie a year. That’s a lot of movies to crank out. And that’s what he does, he just cranks them out.
As to the ones you love in particular, they just don’t do it for me. (But with 957 Allen moves to choose from, there are going to be some differences of opinion). Celebrity? Ack. Sweet And Lowdown? A few nice scenes and performances. Mighty Aprhodite? Fine performances, great soundtrack, so-so movie. What’s Up Tiger Lily? Clever and amusing, but to me, not one of his best.
Meanwhile, you might need to re-watch Crimes And Misdemeanors. It’s brilliant, it’s uniqely structured for an Allen film, and it works in all kinds of ways it shouldn’t. I think it still packs a big punch.
I rewatched Crimes And Misdemeanors this year, and while I did enjoy it–it is certainly very good–it didn’t seem as impressive as it did to me a decade ago.
I thought Celebrity has style and charm, but is ultimately frivolous. I certianly didn’t love it, or Mighty Aphrodite. I wouldn’t say I loved Sweet and Lowdown, either, though I admire it a whole lot. And I agree that What’s Up, Tiger Lily? isn’t one of his best, but it makes me laugh the most.
I do agree that he’s made many, many bad movies in the last decade and a half. Some of them are painfully bad. Many are just disappointing, because you can see the makings of a much better movie. But some of them are rather strong, and much better than just “okay,” in my opinion.
Anyway, I did say I liked your list. If I were going to make a top ten list, it wouldn’t be so different from yours.
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I agree with some of this list, and very good to see “Stardust Memories” on it. In fact, I’d likely put “Stardust Memories” as #1, with “Another Woman,” “Crimes,” and “Hannah And Her Sisters” all slightly behind. SD takes some source material (Fellini’s “8 1/2”), betters it, deepens it, makes so many wise statements about art, life, and human relationships, throws in characters that are mistaken for being Allen, himself, but aren’t, and plays with viewer’s expectations in a way that few films ever do. There’s dozens of little moments that stand out, such as Dorrie’s psychosis (captured via jump-cuts in which you neither hear, nor need to hear, her words), or Sandy being completely caught in bad habits of his own making, or hyper-realistic flourishes, such as his awkward marriage proposal to Isobel in her dressing room. It’s underrated, and misunderstood. I’m sure you recognize some of this — the question is, do most critics even care?
And while “Manhattan” is in some ways a ‘tribute’ to NYC, as you write, it’s also an excoriation of Isaac, and the illusions that selfish people like Isaac proffer, and merely uses the imago (not ‘image’) of Manhattan to explore this.
Here is my own top 10 list: