Tuesday, December 1, 2015

My Top 10 Favorite Woody Allen Movies

Left to right: Woody Allen and Meryl Streep in Manhattan
Love him or hate him (I'm more in the former camp), Woody Allen has remained one of the most prolific and distinguished directors in American comedy. From his earliest days writing for Your Show of Shows to his later successes with films such as Annie Hall and Manhattan, he has made an enviable career with a film-a-year schedule that means that he has more misses, but his hits aren't without mention. Today marks the multi-hyphenate artist's 80th birthday, and with that, I am going to share my personal Top 10 favorites. Keep in mind that while I have seen 24 of his films, that's only half of his impressive total - meaning that I likely haven't seen all of the greats. If I'm missing one that's more obscure, please feel free to reference it in the comments section.

1. Annie Hall

There was never going to be a different top position. The impact of Annie Hall transcends my love of Oscar culture and influences how I write and think. It may not be the first Woody Allen movie that I have seen, but it was the one that got me to become a fan. It's a romantic comedy that serves more as an outline for the strangely plagiarized formats of "comedians riffing on life" that has populated the TV world in the past decade. Even then, this is Allen playing into his tendencies very well, mixing his old favorites such as stand-up and slapstick; with the new experimental portion that would come to define his output in the 80's. It's my favorite movie of all time for a reason. Beyond the never better Diane Keaton, it's a film that explores love and all of its baggage with humor, drama, and artistic nuance that is unlike anything anyone else has done. There's a reason it's still regarded as the director's best work.

2. The Purple Rose of Cairo

When dissecting Woody Allen's work, you can find two golden eras for the director. There was the Diane Keaton era, and there was the Mia Farrow era. While I tend to prefer the Keaton era more for the exuberant creativity that the duo brings to each other, there was magic in The Purple Rose of Cairo that gives them a run for their money. The premise is simple: a woman (Farrow) goes to the movies and one day discovers that the actors are escaping the screen. Coming during the director's most experimental phase, it manages to be one of his most heartfelt tributes to forgotten culture (see also: Midnight in Paris) while also being accessible to general audiences. Farrow gives an excellent performance and this is easily the epitome of what Allen could achieve in abstract premises. 

3. Stardust Memories

In various interviews, Woody Allen has gone on record as saying that he squandered his career. If you're like me, who had enough trouble making a Top 10 when there's at least 18 great options, that's insane. However, the director claims to have been very keen to Stardust Memories, which kicked off his 80's output with his version of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2. What gives the film an edge is that despite its surrealism, it feels like the most personal film that he's ever made. He's constantly coming to terms with people asking why he wasn't funny anymore. This very well could just be press trying to understand why Allen did the serious Interiors after Annie Hall. Even then, this film seems to have become underrated despite reflecting the existentialism and neurosis of Allen come to the surface as he deals with some of his most visually creative work to date. 

4. Sleeper

Let's face it. Woody Allen is a comedian. At most, you could see him do dramas. Yet one of his rare forays into genre film making results in one of his greatest and most madcap films during the 70's. With a premise that sounds very similar to Futurama, Allen wakes up in the future to find that the world has changed drastically. It's an excuse for him to show off his slapstick skills as he deals with mutated vegetables and an orb that gets you high. It's one of those creative ventures that reflect the young filmmaker's gift for absurd commentary while also being able to master his neurotic shtick that would define his career. While it's one of the director's best, it's also arguably among the best sci-fi comedies of all time. It may not say a lot about our modern times, but it has highbrow sex jokes to spare if that's your thing.

5. Take the Money and Run

I know that this list may seem a little unorthodox to most people's lists. My absence of Manhattan is likely to offend someone. However, there's a reason that the 70's mean a little more. It's because it's where I started. It does seem fortunate then that by coincidence, this was my first exposure to Woody Allen's work, as it was his directorial debut (What's Up, Tiger Lily? does not count). If you need to wonder about how much potential he had, look no further than this film. It has a lot of everything that he would perfect in the time to come. With a partial mockumentary style introducing the film, he turns the heist genre on its head as he plays a nerd with a run of bad luck. It's likely that he's made more cohesive stories, but his energy with the joke deliveries has rarely been more raw and exciting. 

6. Deconstructing Harry

While I do believe that every decade has had a few Woody Allen classics, it's easy to argue that the 90's was his writer's block period (partially for the obvious allegations that were made public during this time). Having exhausted his experimental phase of the 80's, the 90's felt more adult and existential for the director. However, it did manage to churn out this classic that takes the genre of frustrated writer and turn it into an examination that features an all star cast. It's a meta film that serves as a mid-life crisis version of Stardust Memories. It may not be as fresh and exciting, but the creativity is nonetheless there and gives Allen some of his strongest fodder to work with. The subject isn't new, but his approach definitely is.

7. Love and Death

This may very well be the greatest Woody Allen film that nobody ever talks about. Where general fans can reference most of the other titles, Love and Death seems to be absent. If nothing else, it is by far one of his nerdiest entries ever as he satirizes Russian literature while also throwing in several Ingmar Bergman visual references. Featuring the always reliable Diane Keaton, it's a film that packs in the familiar slapstick with highbrow intellect. Even though I know very little about Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, it's easy to admire the audacity to make a film like this, especially since it feels almost like Allen's one man march to make "The Marx Brothers Reenact War and Peace." It's wonderful and an early example of how literate and creative Allen's work could be.

8. Crimes and Misdemeanors

It was the late 80's, and the trend of Woody Allen moving on to the next phase of his career was in full swing. While he had explored more mature dramas years earlier in Hannah and Her Sisters, this film better embodied the comedian's changing idealism as a person. While there's the familiar affair sand existentialism that you'll find in a lot of his films, this one managed to be grounded in some solid midlife crisis drama. It was Allen coming to terms with his identity as a Jewish man trying to understand the value of Groucho Marx (of whom he constantly referenced, including in Annie Hall). In a sense, this was the last grasp of "Classic Era" Allen. After this, his work would be more mature and less manic. It would still be there, but it wasn't the same. Also, it features a great cast as per usual, including Alan Alda and Martin Landau in great performances.

9. Blue Jasmine

To say that Woody Allen ever stopped making good movies is to argue against there still being leap years. Yes, it does seem likely that we're never getting something as profound as Annie Hall ever again. However, it's also to ignore the artisan that he's evolved into post-millennium. Whether it's Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, or Midnight in Paris; he still continues to find new ways to entertain. Among these latter day films, Blue Jasmine remains the best for a variety of reasons. Beyond Cate Blanchett's performance, which ranks among the best of Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow, it's a film that is sharp with with and the deeper struggles of older generations trying to feel self-worth in the 21st century. It's also one of his greatest casts, especially with Sally Hawkins, Andrew "Dice" Clay, and Bobby Cannavale giving performances that perfectly blend drama and comedy. There's never a dull note in this film. It's lightning in a bottle, even for a director who has at least 20 masterpieces to his credit.

10. Bananas

Can I just say how great this film is from a production standpoint? Yes, it has Woody Allen getting mugged by Sylvester Stallone. Maybe the juvenile comedy isn't as strong as it is elsewhere (then again, they didn't have Howard Cossell narrating sex), but this comedy about an uprising is impeccably crafted. From its opening satirizing a televised murder of a dictator, the film is creatively challenging in ways that Allen has rarely been since. The opening credits are an astounding achievement. Marvin Hamlisch's score is itself an underrated masterpiece in comical scoring. I know that Allen has made films that are more profound and deep, but few actually compare to the production that is Bananas. Did I mention its political satire is actually really good, too?

What did I miss? Mind you, it's hard to narrow this list down and even harder for late comers to see all of Woody Allen's films in a timely fashion. I plan to see them all... eventually. For now, this is the best of what I have seen. What's your personal favorites? Feel free to share in the comments.

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