Yesterday, we surveyed some of Woody Allen’s worst efforts over the course of a career that spans nearly 50 years of filmmaking. But Allen has made a lot of great movies, too. On the occasion of "Magic in the Moonlight" hitting theaters today (read our interview here), here’s a survey of his finest work.
Many people may point to "Take the Money and Run," "Sleeper" and "Love & Death" as the crème de la crème of Allen’s "earlier, funny ones." But it’s "Bananas" that stands above the pack – an uproarious excursion in which a products tester travels to Latin America on vacation only to adventitiously become the nation’s leader, spearheading a rebellion against America. Written by Allen and longtime friend Mickey Rose, the film finds brilliance in full-fledged silliness. Part Chaplin, part Bob Hope, and part Marx Brothers, this is the moment Allen’s bumbling buffoon persona began seeping into the American consciousness.
"Annie Hall" (1977)
Yes, this is a predictable selection. Allen’s most widely adored film is also his best. You’d be hard pressed to find anything else in his filmography as technically inventive and narratively influential as "Annie Hall." The million dollar question, of course, is why has this film endured through the annals of time and cinema. There’s no definitive answer, but perhaps we should look no further than the chemistry between Alvy and Annie. There is nothing particularly special about their romance – except for the fact that it represents a universal human connection. "Annie Hall" tells the story of two people falling in and out of love. Not coincidentally, it coincides with Allen falling out of love with making pure comedies. This was the pivotal turning point in his career where he decided he wanted to more as an artist than just make people laugh.
If Allen had it his way, "Manhattan" never would have seen the light of day. Upon screening the film in 1979, he was mortified by what he had produced, and begged United Artists not to release it (rumor has it that he even offered the studio a deal in which he’d make two movies free of charge). But Allen’s wishes never came to fruition, and we’re all the better for it. The director’s magnum opus is a compendium of picturesque images bound together by love – or, more accurately, how all of us wish to fall in love. George Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue" underscores one of the best opening sequence in all of film history. The rest of the movie follows suit: Gordon Willis’ immaculate cinematography; the park bench sequence under the Brooklyn bridge; a rainstorm that forces Isaac (Allen) and Mary (Keaton) to seek refuge in the Hayden Planetarium; Mary’s pronunciation of ("Van Gaagh") and denunciation of Bergman; the "I have to model myself after somebody" line in reference to god by Isaac; Mariel Hemingway’s face. It’s these qualities that make "Manhattan" worth revisiting time and again.
"Stardust Memories" (1980)
As polarizing as it was upon its release, "Stardust Memories" remains Allen’s most divisive film to date. Riffing on Fellini’s "8 ½," the story revolves around a famed director who is no longer satisfied with working in the genre he’s thrived in. As he goes to a film festival celebrating his achievements in cinema, he contemplates his life, career, and future while encountering a sundry of personalities – admirers, journalists, past lovers, publicists, etc. The film is vaguely autobiographical, of course, and those who watched "Stardust Memories" in 1980 took its disparaging depiction of the protagonist’s fans as a personal insult. However, this foray into surrealism is an extraordinarily realized portrait of artistic stagnation, and a brief glimpse into Allen’s thought process before entering what would be his best decade as an artist.
"Broadway Danny Rose" (1984)
For a lengthy period of his career, Woody Allen was represented by esteemed managers Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins. In the PBS doc on Allen, Rollins recalls nights where they literally had to "push him onto the stage" to perform his standup act. So in many ways, "Broadway Danny Rose" – which revolves around a forlorn talent agent doing everything in his power to satisfy his talent – is a love letter to the two men he’ll forever be indebted to. Moreover, the film boasts a wonderfully out-of-type performance from Farrow, who is cast as a sleazy, chain-smoking lover of a jealous gangster – the type of character you’d expect to see in a Martin Scorsese mobster picture.
"Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986)
When people talk about Allen’s inimitable ability to write roles for women, they’re usually talking about "Hannah and Her Sisters." Bookended by Thanksgivings meals, this ’80s classic tells a story of three wildly different sisters, all of whom (over a 12 month span) experience new kinds of love. Between Hannah (Farrow), Holly (Dianne Wiest), and Lee (Barbara Hershey), Allen manages to create a triumvirate of complex women composed of identifiable fears and desires. Unprecedented for Allen – a serial melancholist – is the almost optimistic ending of this film. A year transpires, and all parties involved have learned a great deal about themselves and what they want out of a partner. By the end, "Hannah and Her Sisters" convinces us that perhaps love – in all its iterations – is possible to find and maintain.
"Radio Days" (1987)
Inspired by his childhood memories, "Radio Days" plays like Allen’s "Amarcord." It tells the story of radio’s Golden Age through an ordinary Brooklyn family. Replete with a soundtrack of songs from his upbringing, the seminal neurotic claims "each of those songs suggested a memory." And that’s exactly how the film plays – as a series of lovingly constructed memories strung together by a family’s shared affinity for the radio. This wouldn’t be the first or last time Allen dabbled in extreme nostalgia – but it may just be his strongest case for cherishing the things and people that are closest to our hearts.
"Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989)
If you examine the films of Woody Allen close enough, you’ll notice that he’s essentially telling the same story on repeat with only slight variations in characters and locales. Sure, the plots are often wildly different — but when it comes to Allen, plot is rather insignificant when matched against the themes he habitually re-explores. The philosophical issues at play in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" are ones of lust, love, morality, and mortality. Somehow, Allen manages to seamlessly intertwine a story about a documentarian hired to create a special around a narcissistic TV producer (Alan Alda) with an ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) struggling to prevent his mercurial mistress (Angelica Huston) from exposing their affair, thus jeopardizing his longstanding marriage and medical practice. When these two separate lives cross paths, the film bends but does not break. It’s an equally funny and frightening piece of cinema.
"Husbands and Wives" (1992)
"Husbands and Wives" is more than just another anecdotal romantic film chronicling the lives of carnally-conflicted adults. Behind the prose is a relationship between Farrow and Allen unraveling before our eyes. During the film’s shoot, the controversy surrounding Allen’s relationship with his adopted daughter Soon Yi arose, which led to a separation between the director and star, not to mention rape accusations, and more ugly layers to a scandal that has yet to subside today. However, the sadness, joy, and anger that Allen and Farrow experienced together can be found in the margins of "Husbands and Wives." Employing a mobile, hand-held camera, Allen is almost masochistic in the way he fearlessly unveils the problems that have plagued every relationship he has experienced. Later in the movie, when Farrow and Allen’s characters realize they no longer can coexist together, they reminisce about the good times they once shared. It’s a scene of such pain and beauty that it’s hard not to assume they’re just talking about themselves.
"Midnight in Paris" (2011)
For a while there in the 2000s, many of us wanted – like the central of conceit of this film – to escape the reality of Allen’s current output and escape into the past of his earlier movies. During the aughts, save for "Match Point" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," the Woodsman had lost his wits, beaten down by personal strife and lacking the passion he once had in abundance. Thankfully, that erroneous notion was destroyed in 2011, when "Midnight in Paris" reminded everyone just how clever he can be. Venturing into fantasy, Allen’s story of a struggling writer traveling back to 1920s-era Paris where he talks through his professional and personal issues with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein is a literary dream come true. Of course, Gill (played by note-perfect Owen Wilson) must return to present day, where he (along with the audience) begins to understand that romanticizing the past – although momentarily comforting – can only be a brief detour in our lives, not the final destination.