Thursday Ten: Best Woody Allen Films

Following my Best of the Nineties project, I was a bit “listed” out. And coupled with a busy summer movie season (along with the usual real-life schedule), having time for any worthwhile writing (outside my usual posted reviews and screenplay dabbling) has been scant. But with the transition from the summer movie season to the always exciting festival season approaching has got me in a writer’s head spin. With a slew of mainstream efforts worth looking into (from Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium to Edgar Wright’s The World’s End) along with smaller independent films to look out for (Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess and James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now already reviewed here), the year has proven to be a fruitful one.

Blue Jasmine, already released in New York and Los Angeles, will see be screened in Chicago tomorrow. One of the true great American auteurs, Woody Allen is a national treasure whose body of work towers over virtually any other contemporary director. Allen may not knock it out of the park every time, but with an unrivaled work ethic (Blue Jasmine is the director’s 43rd film since 1969), his misses are often complimented with a subsequent masterpiece.

The selected ten films, like the list I composed for Alfred Hitchcock back in November, are not just highlighted examples of the director’s oeuvre, but just about some of the finest examples of cinema itself.

10.
Zelig (1983)

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Allen’s work spans various decades but it was in the 80s that his creative form took a quantum leap. While Allen’s Stardust Memories saw the director tinker with narrative form, his departure from typical plot restraints was best realized three years later in Zelig. A mockumentary of astounding period detail, Zelig depicts a man’s fluid identity through the course of history. A human chameleon, Allen frames himself as a man pining to assimilate yet reluctantly thrown into a world of celebrity. Allen would return and refine many of the thematic touchstones that comprise the film – nostalgic appreciation for the past, fears and anxieties about celebrity, a losing sense of identity within a melting pot – but the creative spark found in Zelig is so uniquely cultivated that it stands on its own.

09.
Radio Days (1987)

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Prefacing Radio Days is Allen’s warning that he hopes not to romanticize the time and setting of his film (the 1940s), though proceeds to do just that. In an ever increasing digital age, much of Radio Days may play as just another one of Allen’s rose-tinted nostalgic reflections. But Allen’s effort isn’t so much in navel-gazing the 1940s, but rather conveying the sense of community and adoration that defined his formative years. From capturing the beats of lower-class family life to developing a true sense of wonder in listening to the radio, Radio Days expands and contracts. Like listeners of “The Masked Avenger”, Allen is looking to not just provoke your imagination, but make you question the manner in which we latch onto images and sounds. Realized by a vast ensemble cast, Radio Days is the clearest portrait of where Allen comes from and the memories that he holds so dear.

08.
Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

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What makes Allen so alluring is that in spite of his rapid-fire linguistics, attention to period detail or literary citations, it’s that all his films are grounded in universal shared themes and experiences. Bullets Over Broadway is certainly among Allen’s most zany pictures, but the thematic element of an artist unwilling to sacrifice creative integrity in the face of authority has a sincerity that virtually anyone can relate to. Allen’s comedic muscles hardly need to be flexed given the funny-by-design plotting. The comedic well is deep given the scenario: a playwright recieves funding for his work on the condition that he casts a mafia don’s girlfriend in the lead role. But it’s easy to confuse effortless with not trying, but at this point in Allen’s career, he had perfected his craft.

07.
Midnight in Paris (2011)

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A contemporary masterpiece, Midnight in Paris mulls over the troublesome question on Allen’s mind – will my work survive? It seems like a silly question to ask given the volume and quality of his work, but the self-depreciating auteur has never been one for confidence. But as Owen Wilson accepts the role of the Woody Allen-proxy, it’s clear through the palpable intimacy that is felt throughout Midnight in Paris that the director has another classic on his hands. In its simplest form, Midnight in Paris is a cinematic delight. Rich with histrionic characters from the roaring 20s with plenty of literary asides, the film’s success comes from its sprawling sense of wonder and smile-inducing charm. Dripping with the worldview that Allen refined (and at times, recycled) time and time again, Midnight in Paris explores the vulnerability with accepting passages in time and the need to come to grips with the present.

06.
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

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The Purple Rose of Cairo sneaks up on its audience. A novel premise is presented in its simplest terms: the film sees a lonely housewife coping with the strains of the Depression era by watching films. Much like Midnight in Paris, The Purple Rose of Cairo shows Allen paying reverence to the films and art of his formative years. Sincerely relatable to most any movie-goer, it’s a film where Allen displays deft skill in deploying supernatural ideas that penetrate the thickest skin. Allen coup sets you up for a mad-cap comedy about a movie character come to life, only to completely level you with his devastating finale. On its most visceral terms, the sight of Mia Farrow in a vacant movie theater at the film’s close may just be Allen’s most powerful image.  

05.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

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As much as Midnight in Paris may have been teeming with literary allusions and references, Crimes and Misdemeanors registers as Allen’s most literary-influenced. By no means a coincidence, it’s also his most socially conscious and critical of upper-classdom. It’s Martin Landau’s show for a majority of the picture as his character levies the pros and cons of committing murder. Comprising a little over half the narrative, the various thematic elements that shape up Landau’s portion is amongst the most scholarly and philosophically sophisticated Allen has been throughout his films – from his character being named Judah to the significance of his profession, everything about Landau’s character feels ripped right out of a Dostoevsky novel. Aware of the intensity that this provokes, Allen as an actor interjects himself through the drama with his own brand of self-depreciating humor. Perhaps overshadowed by the larger scale of Robert Altman’s work, Allen doesn’t often get credited for the impressive way he weaves actors and actresses together within his work, but Crimes and Misdemeanors (and all the films on this list for that matter) showcases the ease in controlling his various moving parts.

04.
Husbands and Wives (1992)

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Excerpt from my Best of the Nineties list:

Stylistically speaking, Husbands and Wives is Woody Allen’s most ambitious effort. Shot like a documentary, Allen’s typical arsenal of quips and insights are compounded by a visual style that positions the audience as more than mere spectator – the neurosis of the film’s four central characters seep into your consciousness. More personal than any other of Allen’s films, Husbands and Wives captures the tumultuous state-of-mind of those in a crumbling relationship. From the sensations of a new relationship to seeking refuge in an ex, Allen effectively provides a primer of his cinematic thesis into one singular effort. The film’s release came in the wake of Allen’s own controversy, where his relationship with Mia Farrow’s then adopted daughter was made public. With an impending divorce looming, the film’s final sequence involving Allen and Farrow acknowledges the bitter strains in their relationship following the news. Universal yet painfully personal, few films bridged the two ideals better than Husbands and Wives.

03.
Annie Hall (1977)

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For most, it begins and ends with Annie Hall. For many new cinephiles, Annie Hall serves as a true introduction to the director’s worldview. It’s a messy film, almost aimless for its first half until it substitutes its manic energy for one of the finest examples romance gone awry. I hesitate to use the term “romantic-comedy” to describe the film largely because the hyphenated term implies that the romance and the comedy occur at the same time. But the best bits of comedy are often separated from Annie Hall’s romantic components; the same principal essentially applies to the contrary. Annie Hall has the sort of young rebelliousness effort that someone in their early 20s would put out (surprisingly, Allen was just entering into his 40s when he made it). But as Annie Hall progresses, the nuance in capturing slight moments; in developing a true sense of rhythm in romance takes shape. It’s the sort of emotional astuteness that only someone who loved and lost can ever clearly replicate; no other filmmaker has gotten closer to capturing the feeling.

02.
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

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There are a handful of films that I wish to call my own; Broadway Danny Rose is one of those films. For one, there’s the impeccable framing device. Essentially mirroring Akira Kurosawa’s technique in Ikiru, Broadway Danny Rose centers on a table of comics and entertainers talking about talent agent Danny Rose (Allen, in arguably his best performance). Ever the optimist, Danny Rose makes the best out of his crummy situation, booking magic acts at high schools and keeping his clients happy. He’s got one star on his roster, a washed up lounge singer, but it’s the one that keeps him afloat. The narrative is truly an assembly of comic ideas with an attuned sense of sincerity. Allen’ has never been more sympathetic and pathetic. His usual neurosis isn’t grounded by a sense of privilege but out of necessity; he’s a character who wants to please others but is aware that his livelihood is dependent on his ability to please. And competing with The Purple Rose of Cairo and Manhattan for Allen’s best ending, Broadway Danny Rose does away with cynicism by tossing its titular character a bone and redeeming him. If for just a moment.

01.
Manhattan (1979)

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The hardest film to write about on this list happens to be Allen’s best. Words always tend to escape me when describing a film so keenly reflective of my own sensibilities. Manhattan is truly Allen’s great New York film, clearly showing the director’s love for the city with his usual neurosis canvassing the film’s worldview. Like my own idiosyncratic adoration for Chicago, the good glosses over the bad, even if the bad is really bad. And by chance, that’s exactly what Allen’s character goes through in Manhattan. He’s experiencing relationships that ebb and flow based on people’s emotional terms. When seizing the moment, he stumbles and loses control over a situation that he thinks he has a handle on. People enter your life and exit. Some permeate, others fade. It’s simply something that is a part of life, part of growing up in a metropolis, and part of how we’re wired today. And while Allen has explored this sense of permanence and nostalgic reverence at length in prior to and after Manhattan, it’s this film that bottles it all up for synthesis and releases it such grandiosity. The personal flourishes, from encumbered romance to simultaneously feeling lost and at home in a metropolis, make for a cinematic experience that I hold as my own – what Manhattan brings to me, I bring to it.