Thursday, June 2, 2011

Woody Allen's Best and Worst Films

Tomorrow, I will be seeing Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris – his 42 film as a director. I have seen 38 of his first 41, missing only his debut What’s Up Tiger Lily? along with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and September (one of these days, I’ll rent those three films and finish off his filmography). Allen is one of the most celebrated American writer/directors in history – he has been nominated for more writing Oscars than anyone else, and won Oscars for Directing and Writing Annie Hall and writing Hannah and Her Sisters, although he never showed up to get them. Of course, when you make 42 films in your career, not all are going to be good, but I think Allen’s track record is remarkably consistent. True, the most recent film on my top 10 is from 1997, and four out of five my five worst are from the 2000s, but I am not one that thinks Allen has completely lost it in the past 10 years. He has just grown a little more inconsistent. I easily could have put films like Match Point (2005), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) or even the extremely underrated Cassandra’s Dream (2008) on a lesser director’s top ten, and been happy with it. Anyway, below are my 10 favorite and 5 least favorite Woody Allen movies.

Ten Best
I had a hard time limiting this to 10 films. I still cannot believe I didn’t have room from Bananas (1971), Sweet and Lowdown (1999), Match Point (2005) or Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), but alas I did not. Here are my 10 favorites.

10. Deconstructing Harry (1997)
Deconstructing Harry may just be Allen’s most personal film. It is about a novelist named Harry Block, who may have brought to mind the great Philip Roth if it didn’t so clearly bring Allen himself to mind. Block is a novelist who uses people in life, leaving them feeling cheated, and then uses their stories in his novels, making them feel even more cheated. No one likes Harry, who is under constant attack from everyone in his life – particularly the women, including ex-wives and mistresses – who say all sorts of horrible things about Block, mainly right to his face. It isn’t hard to imagine that Allen wrote this film about himself, just a few years after the ugly separation from Mia Farrow and the beginning of his relationship with her adopted daughter. Allen throws every criticism at Block that was thrown at himself, and then some. His characters are somewhat hateful, and could be seen as offensive. You could call Allen a self hating Jew after seeing this movie, except that he already has a character call him that in the movie itself. So why is Deconstructing Harry on my best of Woody Allen list? Because it is also hilarious, and somewhat daring. The movie moves back and forth between Block’s real life, and the stories he writes – including a hilarious and grotesque one about a wife who discovers that her husband was married before, and even had kids. But then he killed them and ate them but pleads with his new wife for understanding. Sometimes filmmakers need to exorcise their personal demons through their films, and that is precisely what Allen seems to be doing in Deconstructing Harry, which despite all of its excesses, it one of his best films.

9. Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
Allen’s films are often hilariously cynical, but Everyone Says I Love You is different in that it is unapologetically romantic and optimistic. It is Allen’s musical, done with actors who do not really sing all that well, but Allen lets them gamely try anyway. The songs aren’t truly about musical prowess anyway, but rather are about the emotions they bring up. There are no original songs in the movie, but instead Allen has his characters sing the old standards from Hollywood musicals of yesteryear. The result is utterly charming. The plot is complicated, with Allen’s writer returning from Paris after his French girlfriend dumped him, to his family – his first wife (Goldie Hawn), their two daughters (Drew Barrymore and Natasha Lyonne), her new husband (Alan Alda), and Alda and Hawn’s three children (Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman and Gaby Hoffman). There are laughs throughout the film – some supplied by Edward Norton as Barrymore’s straight laced fiancé and then by Tim Roth, as the criminal Barrymore finds herself inexplicably attracted to. When the emotions start running too high, the characters break into song. There are some movies that you can simply sink into, and no matter what come away smiling. Everyone Says I Love is that type of film.

8. Another Woman (1988)
Allen is rightfully thought of as mainly a comedic director. But Allen has made some straight ahead dramas, and of them all, his 1988 film Another Woman is my personal favorite. Gena Rowlands gives a remarkable performance – completely opposite of her equally remarkable work for her husband John Cassavetes – as a quiet, reserved woman, head of a philosophy department, somewhat happily married (to Ian Holm), who gets along with her husband’s teenage daughter (Martha Plimpton). She takes a small office in order to have solitude to write her latest book – but then quickly discovers that she can hear the therapy sessions of the psychiatrist next door, and eventually cannot resist listening in. What she discovers however, is not really about the other people, but about herself. People do not see her the way she thinks they see her. Her mind, so organized and nimble, begins to cave in on itself as she gets one revelation after another. Another Woman is a thoughtful examination of this woman, and a remarkable achievement for both Allen and Gena Rowlands. You don’t much hear this film compared with Allen’s best work, but it certainly belongs there.

7. Radio Days (1987)
Radio Days is about two conflicting realities in 1940s New York. On one hand, we have the story of a young Jewish boy in Brooklyn (Seth Green), who is obviously based on Allen himself. This story is about the Brooklyn how Allen remembers it while growing up, with his larger than life parents and relatives and teachers (one great sequence has the parents and a rabbi each pulling Green is one direction than another for the privilege of hitting him). Green drifts away listening to the radio in his house which transports him to another world. And Allen shows us that world as well – all glitz and glamour in Manhattan. There is not a real plot here, as Radio Days isn’t about a plot, it is about memory as nostalgia. The 1940s were probably not really like they are presented in this movie – either in Brooklyn or Manhattan – but that doesn’t matter because it is how Allen remembers it. The movie is funny, the Manhattan scenes in particular, but the scenes in Brooklyn; although they are also funny, have an air of sadness as well. Allen has put few emotional moments on screen that feel more real than the scene where Green discovers what his father does for a living. This is an underrated gem.

6. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Hannah and Her Sisters is about, as the title implies, Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her two sisters – Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest). The movie contains three Thanksgiving dinners – one each at the beginning middle and end – and the movie progresses through these two years in their lives in which many things happen. The sisters couldn’t be more different – Hannah is more down to earth and motherly, Lee more free spirited and sexual, and Holly a mess of tics and drug addiction. Then there are the men in their lives – Michael Caine as Hannah’s husband, an accountant who is in love with Lee, Max von Sydow, as an aging artist who has lost contact with reality, except for his relationship with Lee, who is supposed to be his girlfriend, but who he talks down to. Then there is Allen himself as Hannah’s first husband, a TV director, who fears he is going to die. Then there are the girl’s parents – Maureen O’Sullivan and Lloyd Nolan, an old showbiz couple in a constant state of war, but who underneath it all, truly do love each other. The movie is expertly crafted and structured; teetering between comedy and tragedy and ultimately these screwed characters come to find just a little bit of happiness, even in heartbreak. Even Woody’s character, who spends much of the movie in a constant state of depression, and then walks into a theater and watches the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, and is reminded that life isn’t all pain and suffering.

5. Husbands and Wives (1992)
Husbands and Wives is one of Allen’s messiest movies visually. He uses handheld camera work and jump cuts throughout the film because his characters lives are more chaotic and painful than most of the time in his career. The film centers on two couples who are friends – Sydney Pollock and Judy Davis are getting a divorce to allow them a chance to “grow”. They tell their friends, Allen and Mia Farrow – over dinner that it is an amicable breakup, but in reality there really is no such thing, and the hurt and resentment in this couple is real and palpable. The news comes as a blow to Allen and Farrow, who of course, start to reevaluate their own relationship. The film is funny in parts, but most often it is painful and honest. This may just be Allen’s best performance, as a he plays a man who is tempted by a younger woman (Juliette Lewis), and has to decide whether he wants to resist or give into the attraction. Pollock is of no help, because he is seeing a much younger woman himself – an aerobics instructor who loves “me for me”. Yeah, right. Judy Davis’ performance is the best of her career, and is full of pain bile. Husbands and Wives came out just as Allen was breaking up with Farrow in real life, and many people hated it at the time. Looking back now, it is one of his very best films.

4. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
What a wonderful comic fantasy The Purple Rose of Cairo is. Mia Farrow plays a shy, quiet woman who has been going to the same movie over and over again, until one day the hero of the movie, noticing her in the audience again, strikes up a conversation with her from inside the screen. Soon, he has stepped out of the screen, out of the movie, and into her life. The rest of the cast is stuck on screen not knowing to do because the main character is missing. The studio is horrified to discover their characters can think for themselves. And the actor, who is real life is an asshole, is pissed there is another version of himself walking around. What’s more, the “hero” of the movie cannot function in the real world, because of course his life experience is limited to what he did in the movie. The Purple Rose of Cairo is related to other Allen movies about fame and the movies – and is really about the difference between fantasy and reality – fictional characters, and the romance on the big screen does not really exist, and you if you expect them to, you are bound to be disappointed. The Purple Rose of Cairo is a delightful comedic fantasy, but it is one that takes its premise seriously, and the end of the movie is damn near heartbreaking.

3. Annie Hall (1977)
Annie Hall is Allen’s most loved movie, and for good reason. This is Allen stretching himself for the first time, beyond his “earliest, funnier” movies, yet is still just about the funniest film he has ever made. The difference between Annie Hall and his earlier movies, is that characters and their relationship to each other feels more real than the earlier movies. The film is about the failed relationship between Alvy Singer (Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), which starts out so promising, but ends like all relationships in Allen films seem to. There are still brilliant comic moments – Marshall McLuhan being a famous one, Christopher Walken’s brilliant one scene debut as Annie’s creepy brother, Allen walking the streets asking people about sex (and hearing about a giant vibrating egg). This is Allen’s emergence as a real filmmaker – one who could tackle bigger issues about people’s relationship to each other. And it remains one of his very best films.

2. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
I have heard Crimes and Misdemeanors called one of the greatest atheist films of all time, and I can understand why. At the heart of the movie there is a successful doctor (Martin Landau), who has been having an affair with Anjelica Huston, who has now become serious. She threatens to tell his wife about them, which he doesn’t want. He never wanted to leave his wife, his comfortable lifestyle, but simply want to have some fun. He approaches his brother (Jerry Orbach), a gangster, and asks him to “take care of her” for him – everyone knowing what he means. Ultimately, Landau gets away with it, and finds that unlike previous movie and literary characters who get away with murder, he can sleep soundly at night. You can do whatever you want to, as long as you can live with yourself afterwards. The other half of the movie is more comedic, with Allen playing a struggling documentary filmmaker hired to do a film on his famous brother in law (Alan Alda), who he despises, and falls in love with his associate producer, Mia Farrow. The film is about the moral dilemmas that both of these men face, and what they do about them – Landau walks away scot free, with no remorse, while Allen, who has nothing anywhere near as wrong, is still stricken with sadness. It is one of Allen’s most lasting, and quietly profound, movies.

1. Manhattan (1979)
For a few years after seeing Manhattan for the first time, I was a little scared of watching it again, because the first time I saw it, the film struck me as just about perfect, and I was afraid that any additional screening would disappoint me. I needn’t have worried. Allen’s 1979 film is his best and for me, always will be. Allen plays a twice divorced TV writer, who latest ex-wife (Meryl Streep) has come out as a lesbian, and is writing a tell all book about their life together. He is daring a 17 year old (Muriel Hemingway), who adores her, but he is somewhat embarrassed by it. He meets his best friend’s mistress (Diane Keaton), and falls for her, breaking up with Tracy because of it, but eventually realizing, he may have made a mistake. This film is one of Allen’s funniest – with many of his best one liners (“I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics”, “He’s done a great job on you, y’know. Your self esteem is like a notch below Kafka’s”. about God “I gotta model myself after someone”, about orgasms “You had the wrong kind? I’ve never had the wrong kind, ever. Even my worst one was right on the money”, etc). And yet, the film is also perceptive about relationships – even more so than Annie Hall. I liked the relationship between Keaton and Allen, but I love the relationship between Hemingway and Allen, which is not just a stereotypical younger girl, older man relationship but something deeper, and more honest. Also, you cannot possibly fault Gordon Willis’ gorgeous black and white photography, or the wonderful use of Gerswhin’s Rhapsody in Blue to begin and end the movie. The movie is simply put, perfect.

Five Worst
I don’t think my five worst list will shock anyone, except for maybe my choice for number five. Unlike many, I actually kind of like some of Allen’s lesser thought of works – Anything Else (2003) has a wonderful Allen performance (his last great one as an actor), even if Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci are miscast, I thoroughly enjoy Kenneth Branagh’s mugging in Celebrity (1998), thought Larry David made a suitable Allen substitute in Whatever Works (2009), enjoy the black and white photography of Shadows and Fog (1992) and think that Stardust Memories (1980) is hugely ambitious despite its many flaws. Below are the only five films of Allen’s career that I wouldn’t gladly pop in the DVD player tonight.

5. Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex*(*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972)
This was only Allen’s fourth movie, and while it was a box office success, to me it is a film that sounds much better on paper than it actually plays on screen. It is a series of seven sequences based on chapters of Dr. David Reuben’s book of the same name. Included are a segment with Allen as a court jester foiled by the Queen’s chastity belt, a segment with Gene Wilder falling in love with a sheep, a segment with Lou Jacobi trying on women’s clothing, a game show parody called “What’s My Perversion?”, and sequence about an insane sex researcher. Of these five, only What’s My Perversion has moments that are truly funny, and even then only in fits and starts. I did mildly enjoy Allen’s take on the films of Antonioni and Fellini, about a woman who can only climax in public, and the final segment, a sci fi homage taking place inside the male body during orgasm is genuinely funny, with Allen playing a sperm. But overall, the film was a disappointment. Perhaps in 1972, this seemed daring. Now it seems incredibly dated and not very funny at all.

4. Hollywood Ending (2002)
Hollywood Ending is mildly enjoyable at times, as almost any Allen movie is, but it is one that at a fundamental level, I just didn’t buy. It stars Allen as a once great filmmaker struggling for the last decade, who has been given what could be his final chance to direct a studio movie – the stress of which makes him go temporarily blind. To make matter worse, he has insisted on a Chinese cinematographer, who does not speak English, so he cannot tell him what to do. The only person on set who knows he’s blind is the translator, whose English is rough, and tells Allen things that don’t make much sense. For me, there is too much mugging for the camera done by Allen in this movie – too much physical comedy, which is not Allen’s strong suit as a performer or director. Yes, there are some enjoyable moments, but overall, I think Hollywood Ending adds up to nothing very substantial, and worse, it quite simply isn’t very funny.

3. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)
Allen’s most recent film is one of his weakest. Like much of his recent work, the film doesn’t take place in Allen’s beloved New York, but rather in Europe – this time in London, yet his characters are pretty much the same as his New York characters. Josh Brolin plays a struggling writer, married to Naomi Watts, even though they don’t much like each other anymore. She is starting to fall for her boss, Antonio Banderas, who she thinks like her, and he is falling for the neighbor across the street, Frieda Pinto. Meanwhile, Watts’ father (Anthony Hopkins) has left her mother (Gemma Jones) and taken up with a younger woman – a hooker (Lucy Punch). This is the film, more than any of Allen’s others, where I felt like he was simply going through the motions. There is nothing new here, nothing to really draw us into the movie in any real way. It is mildly pleasant, and I did quite like Lucy Punch, and Gemma Jones near the beginning of the movie (as it wore on, she got more and more annoying). When you make a film a year for 40 years, at some point, it must get tiring, and that’s what I felt while watching this film.

2. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)
One thing we know about Allen is that he is in love with movies, particularly the films of the 1940s. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion was his attempt to make a comedic riff on the film noir genre. I did like the look of the film, but the plot never really takes off. Allen works for an insurance company and has helped to make some homes “burglar proof”, but then he is hypnotized by Zoltan (David Ogden Stiers) and sent into those homes to steal valuable jewels. Helen Hunt plays his arch nemesis, who has also been hypnotized, and when they are both under Zoltan’s spell, they think they’re in love. The screenplay lacks Allen’s usual crackling dialogue, and given what he had to play within the noir genre, this should have been a film full of memorable dialogue (I can only imagine what Allen riffing on Dashiell Hammett’s dialogue would sound like, because he’s doesn’t pull it off here). Helen Hunt is miscast (and also clearly doesn’t smoke, which is a pet peeve of mine, when I see actors on screen merely holding a cigarette, instead of smoking it). Elizabeth Berkley, of Showgirls and Saved by the Bell fame, adds nothing either, although Charlize Theron fairs okay. Overall, however, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion quite simply never goes anywhere, never rises to the level that it should have, and could have, gotten to. A major disappointment.

1. Scoop (2006)
Scoop is without a doubt, my least favorite Allen movie ever. Even the other films on my “worst of” list for Allen had moments to enjoy, but Scoop truly has nothing to offer. Set in England, the film is supposed to be a comedic mystery, with Scarlett Johansson playing an American journalism student trying to discover if Hugh Jackman is really a murderer, and then ending up falling in love with him anyway. A murdered journalist, Ian McShane, appears to Johanson to tell her that Jackman is the murderer at the magic show of Sidney Waterman (Allen), who gets dragged along by Johansson into the mystery. The film isn’t funny and it isn’t mysterious, it quite simply painful to sit through. Johansson and Jackman appear lost in the film, McShane plays a role that makes no sense, and even Allen himself, in what is to this point his final film as an actor (although apparently, he will star in his next film) is simply going through the motions. Scoop is the one film of Allen’s career that has absolutely nothing worthwhile in it – he even screws up an homage to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. A complete failure.


  1. I think these Woody lists are great. I am ploughing through the 70 odd on DVD at present.

    Most people tend to agree on his best, I would include Play it Again Sam amongst those. One of the first I ever saw, and it acts as a warm up for Annie Hall and Manhattan. It is set in SF, which for the Woody we know nowadays is not right, but at the time it worked.

    I watched it recently and wondered how it could be staged now, the running gag with the payphone was hilarious at the time, but now would have to be reworked, perhaps with a constant facebook status update.

    Whilst on phones, the evolution of the phone from wallphone to slick smartphone has been a nice sub plot in watching the films

    For the worst, I did have to disagree. I watched Jade Scorpion last night and loved it, as I did Hollywood Ending. Ok you have to suspend disbelief that Woody could bed Helen Hunt, but the scripts are solid, and the story engages.

    I would have to include Scenes from a Mall (for Gods sake he is wearing a ponytail, and he is in LA (see Sam above)) Don't Drink the Water (he does it too late, it would have worked in the early 70s) and Interiors (stock Woody Allen characters, but without humour, totally uninteresting) on the list of worst ever.

    As a Brit, I am would have the English trio included. Too full of Dick Van Dyke cockneys, and you can tell he would rather be in NY.

    But thanks, great read

  2. Thanks for the comments. I did not include Play It Again, Sam on by best list because it was directed by Herbert Ross - the same reason I didn't consider The Front because it was directed by Martin Ritt - Scenes from a Mall wasn't on the worst because it was directed by Paul Mazursky - and for the purpose of these lists, I only wanted films directed by Woody. I also didn't see Don't Drink the Water, which is listed by many as a TV movie. Thanks for your comments.