20 June 2011

So You Want to Start Watching Woody Allen Films, an Introduction

So You Want to Start Watching _______is an occasional feature here at Riku Writes. It is a guide to anyone unfamiliar with a particular star, director, genre, or time period in films. After a brief introduction, I will provide a sampling of films to watch. Although I will always strive to include the best possible films for each chapter in the series, I will also look to present representative work. I'll say a little bit about each film, all of which will be provided in chronological order. This is the third of the series. In the first I provided an introduction to the films of Humphrey Bogart the second was an intro to screwball comedies in the third I introduced films of the 1970s next was an introduction to Westerns and the most recent focused on Alfred Hitchcock.

With the recent release of Woody Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris, to critical acclaim, I thought it a good time to suggest some of the master's movies to anyone unfamiliar with his work. Even if you have a basic familiarity with Allen, you've probably missed a few of his films here and there, after all, he's made a boatload (and whatta boat!).

As I wrote of Allen in my review of MidnightI've loved this guy since I was a kid and he was a comic. When he started directing, I instantly adored his films, and not just his earlier funnier ones. When he got serious I was on board. He writes them, directs them, occasionally appears them.  

I love enough of Allen's films that a personal top ten would not only be easy to compile but I could in fact manage a top twenty without breaking a sweat, as you'll see below. 

Allen is a prolific filmmaker who has averaged a film a year for the past 40 years. In addition to directing he also writes the screenplays and often, though not so much recently, stars. Allen's primary directorial influences are clearly Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. You could do a lot worse, in fact, I'd defy you to do any better. But he's also influenced by his own comic background which included writing for Sid Caeser, the New Yorker and for his own comedy act. Allen is largely self-taught which is to say he studied at the feet of the master. He is true renaissance man. In addition to his film work, Allen is an accomplished playwright, author and clarinet player.

Allen does not talk down to his audience. He respects our intelligence even if many of us don't respect our own. Allen's typical audience is educated, urban, liberal and perhaps middle aged. He is very popular in Europe, particularly France. His films have never been huge money makers, but Allen has a loyal audience and has done all right for himself and the studios and producers who've backed him. With only a few exceptions, even his films with serious themes are laced with large doses of humor. And with only a few exceptions his comedies are heavily spiced with thought-provoking themes. Most Woody Allen films receive positive critical acclaim and he's done all right in terms of awards though they don't interest him. He's had numerous actors gain Oscar nominations for work in his films with several winning the statuette. 

Most of Allen's film feature bed-hopping adulterers, such philanderers making for more interesting cinema fare than the chaste. Allen does not play well among the deeply religious. He has also explored murder, morality and the very nature of life itself. Like Bergman and Fellini, he has never shrunk from big topics.

Seemingly every actor of note has appeared in a Woody. Unlike many long time directors he has not had a regular ensemble cast. Though for a time Diane Keaton played his female lead and then for a longer period Mia Farrow. In addition to some of the names you'll see below, his stars have included Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Anthony Hopkins, Sean Penn, Hugh Jackman, Marion Cotillard, Jose Ferrer, Will Ferrell, Jim Broadbent, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Ewan McGregor, Collin Farrell, Charlize Theron and Gena Rowlands. To name just a few. Seriously, there are a lot more.

I offer here a mere sampling of his films as a starter set for the Allen novice.  I tried to offer a variety of types spread relatively evenly over the past 40 years. In some cases I've previously written about the film and offer a link to that post. Also the reader may be interested in my post on some of the best one liners from Allen films.

Bananas (1971). Some will undoubtedly disagree with my assertion that this is the best of Allen's early comedies, but there is no arguing that it is representative of Allen's initial directing stage. It is played strictly for laughs and of those there are plenty. Allen stars as Fielding Melish a bit of nebbish (a horny one) who gets caught up in a Cuba-like country with a Castro-like revolutionary. You can read some social commentary in Bananas, but in a film in which Howard Cosell interviews a post-coital couple as if they'd just completed a boxing match, the emphasis is clearly on laughs.

Love and Death (1975). I believe that, though this is straight comedy, it represents the start of Allen's transition into more serious fare. While the overall theme is light, there is foretelling of some of the deeper themes to come in Allen's works (note the word "Death" in the title). Set in Russia during the Napoleonic wars, L&D is as wise as it is witty. Here's an earlier post I wrote about the film.

Manhattan (1979). My favorite Allen film and one of my top ten of all time from any director. I have struggled with writing about it before and will again. It simply is too perfect for me to find the right words for. Shot in glorious black and white, Manhattan is a love letter to New York. It is also screamingly funny. Allen co-stars with Diane Keaton.

Zelig (1983). Not like any other film done by Allen or for that matter anyone else. It is the king of faux documentaries, purporting to be the story of a man (Zelig, played by Allen) who changes personality and even physical appearance to conform to those around him. In the presence of a psychiatrist he is a psychiatrist, in the presence of an African American, he becomes an African American. I wrote this about Zelig a few years ago.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). Michael Caine won a best supporting actor for his portrayal of the philandering husband of Hannah (Mia Farrow). Her sisters are portrayed by Barbara Hershey, with whom Caine's character has an affair, and Dianne Weist. Allen features as an ex of Hannah and the world's greatest hypochondriac who goes through the world's greatest mid-life crisis after a cancer scare. It is a typically grand ensemble Allen cast (Carrie Fisher, Sam Waterston, Maureen O'Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan and Max Von Sydow also appear) with a lot going on. Much of the action is quite funny and much is thought provoking and much a bit of both.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). A film widely shown in philosophy classes, C&M brilliantly asks some very profound moral questions. Martin Landau is wonderful as a respected opthamologsit who ponders having a bothersome lover killed. Waterston is a rabbi and patient of Landau who is going blind. Allen appears as a documentarian assigned to make a film about an arrogant film producer played by Allan Alda. Mia Farrow, who by this time was appearing in all of Allen's films, is the love interest. C&M is the highlight  and finale of the rich 15 year period starting with Love & Death, in which Allen made most of what I consider his best films.

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993). Allen's first post-Farrow film is exactly what the title suggests. Allen co-stars with his old friend Diane Keaton. Also along for the ride are Angelica Huston and Alan Alda. Allen and Keaton are a married couple who suspect that their neighbor is guilty of foul play. There are laughs aplenty and the nagging questions: Did he do the deed? Will they find him out? Are they in danger? Maybe to all three. Will the audience giggle all the way? Definitely. 

Everyone Says I Love You (1996). This is the one and thus far only Woody Allen musical. That's right, he did a musical. The cast is all-star featuring Alda, Drew Barrymore, Tim Roth, Edward Norton, Goldie Hawn, Julia Roberts and a pubescent Natalie Portman. The settings include New York, Vienna and Paris. You will not hear the greatest voices ever recorded but you will have a fun time with the songs and the non-stop laughs. It'll keep a perpetual smile on your face.

Small Time Crooks (2000). I include this pure comedy because it is criminally neglected. Here we have the teaming of Allen and British comic actress Tracy Ullman. They formed a not surprisingly great duo. STC is based on Larceny Inc. (1942) starring Edward G. Robinson. In both cases a gang of crooks start a business close to a bank so that they can tunnel into the vault. And in both films the businesses prosper. In STC, with, as they say, hilarious consequences. 

Match Point (2005). This is one of the few Allen films to be devoid of humor. It is an elegant look at a young man, Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) who through hard work and marrying well, mostly the latter, gets it all. But he is a man who believes it is more important to be lucky than good. He's going to need luck when he starts an affair with a gorgeous blonde (Scarlett Johansson) who is the ex fiance of his brother-in-law. She wants, expects, demands that he leave his wife. As in a number of Allen films a murder of convenience is planned. There are no good guys here. No hero. No justice. But there is a beautifully told story, that, like a lot of Allen's best, will get you thinking.

Okay, so here are my top 20 Allen films, in order: 1) Manhattan, 2) Annie Hall (1977), 3) Crimes and Misdemeanors, 4) Broadway Danny Rose (1984), 5) Zelig, 6) Hannah and Her Sisters, 7) Midnight in Paris, 8) The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), 9) Match Point, 10) Radio Days (1987), 11) Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), 12) Bananas, 13) Stardust Memories (1980), 14) Manhattan Murder Mystery, 15) Bullets Over Broadway (1994), 16) Love and Death, 17) Cassandra's Dream (2007),18) Take the Money and Run (1969) and 20) Scoop (2006).


Charlene said...

Great choices on the top 20! I read regularly but rarely comment since I often feel there's nothing more to say after your thorough essays. I don't have anything to add here, either, but just wanted to let you know I enjoy and appreciate your blog!

Richard Hourula said...


Anonymous said...

theres no number 19!