Another year, another Woody Allen film. The supreme being in the world of ‘socially conscious comedy dealing largely with the lives of the liberal New York elite’ may have become more famous in recent years for his personal life than for his endless capacity for churning out angstily humorous existential wranglings that deal with life and love and everything else, but it goes without saying that Woody Allen remains one of the most talented and important directors of the last hundred years. What follows is a highly subjective top ten of the best of Allen’s oeuvre, which can also serve as a rough cheat-sheet about this illustrious but increasingly banal and frustrating of directors.
Possibly Woody Allen’s weakest film, it’s a political slapstick that somehow manages to be neither funny nor have any kind of political message. Centred around the fish-out-of-water story involving Fielding Mellish (Allen), it goes through a series of misunderstandings, ending up embroiled in the ongoing revolution in the fictional Cuba-like Communist nation of San Marcos. This is early Allen, only his third film, and it shows. Dull, unfunny, and far too reliant on a poor version of the Marx Brothers dialogue that he would later master, Bananas is perhaps an important film in his canon to show how far the director has come in terms of style and feeling.
9. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Right at the other end of his career, at number nine on our list, we have Vicky Cristina Barcelona. While Bananas may be important to show how far the director has come, VCB is important because it shows how inconsequential and dull Allen’s most recent films have become, and VCB is in fact the most recent film on this list. Set in Barcelona, it tells the story of the trials and tribulations of two American women in their encounters with a rugged Spanish artist and his unbalanced ex-wife. VCB is Allen at his most conventional and mainstream. Containing none of the wit and vigour that typifies his middle period, VCB is beautiful people in a beautiful place, arguing about beautiful things and occasionally kissing each other, and is just as dull as it sounds.
8. Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask)
More a series of comedic vignettes than a film, it is the contrast between said vignettes that makes this film so enjoyable. Loosely based on a book of the same name published by Dr. David Reuben, it sets out to put a comedic and intelligent spin on an area otherwise populated with crass vulgarity, and largely succeeds. While some of the sketches are a little on-the-nose (What is Sodomy? involves Gene Wilder becoming amorously attracted to a sheep), the film is by-and-large a success and is the beginning of Allen’s obsession with the psychology of sex and relationships.
7. The Purple Rose of Cairo
Perhaps the only Woody Allen film you could call a romantic fantasy story, PRC is a heartfelt story about the relationship between escapism and cinephilia. The story concerns Cecilia (Mia Farrow), an idealistic waitress who escapes from the shackles of her unhappy marriage by going to the cinema, only to fall in love with the protagonist of the latest film to roll into town – the eponymous Purple Rose of Cairo. Charming and endearing, the film is a celebration of true love and a love letter to true cinema in all its forms.
6. Love and Death
Love and Death marks the turning point in Allen’s career as it shifted between slapstick comedy and philosophical ponderings, as well as being one of his broadest parodies. Spoofing the various tropes of Russian literature, Allen manages to create an inclusive and genuinely laugh-out-loud film in a world of bleak philosophical debate and references to the works of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, etc. Has any other film balanced so successfully on the tightrope between high culture and ludicrous visual gags, often in the same scene? No, is the answer.
The first Woody Allen film to show real promise, Sleeper is a madcap sci-fi adventure in which Miles Monroe (Allen), health food store owner, is cryogenically frozen and awakes in the 22nd century, where the USA is a police state ruled by an oppressive dictator. He ends up working as a robot butler for flighty socialite Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton) while on the run from the authorities. It’s a gleefully anarchic satire ofmthe contemporary mores of 1970’s America and contains some of Allen’s sharpest social observations.
4. Annie Hall
Annie Hall is at number four, which will no doubt be a controversial placing. Often seen as Woody Allen’s greatest film, it is certainly his most successful work. Winning four Academy awards, Annie Hall probably invented the modern romantic comedy, and still stands as one of the funniest movies of all time. Packed with humour, heart and more of Allen’s neuroses than you could shake a psychiatrist at, Annie Hall hasn’t aged at all since it’s release over thirty years ago. Alvie Singer (Allen) is a neurotic comedian trying desperately to navigate the peaks and troughs of a relationship with the confident and exuberantly ditzy Annie (Keaton). The film turns into an examination of Alvie Singer’s life and how that might affect the relationship. This film is the first of Allen’s to display a depth and seriousness alongside the sharp comedy, and is all the better for it.
Zelig is by no means one of Allen’s better known films, but is truly a phenomenal work of art. He uses music, newsreel footage, and ingenious film-making techniques to insert himself into various points of history to show the life history of a man, Zelig (Allen), who has the ability to take on the characteristics of the people surrounding him, making him, in essence, a human chameleon. Made ten years before Forrest Gump, the film is a triumph of film-making, technical ability, imagination, and self-assured brilliance. Only Allen could take such an avant-garde idea and make it as accessible as Zelig is.
Manhattan is the penultimate film on this list, simply because it is so compositionally beautiful. The story is standard Allen – liberal, artsy New York types falling in love – but what marks this film out as exceptional is the stunning beauty of every single shot. While Annie Hall is quite televisual in its style, Manhattan is the film where Allen stretched himself and made a truly cinematic romantic comedy that is more than just a profile of a relationship; it is Allen’s love-letter to New York city itself.
1. Hannah and Her Sisters
A tour-de-force of relationships colliding and crashing in late eighties New York, framed by consecutive Thanksgiving dinners. With an incredible ensemble cast – Michael Caine, Carrie Fisher, Max von Sydow, John Turturro, Julia Lewis Dreyfus, and of course Allen himself – the film is almost a research piece on how the relationships of one extended family can affect all of their participants. Novelistic in it’s structure, Caine is perfectly cast as Elliot, the adulterous husband whom we come to sympathise with; Farrow provides a powerfully understated role as Hannah, his unsuspecting wife – expected to provide the unwilling emotional support for the rest of the family in the wake of the death of it’s matriarch. Mickey, Allen’s character, provides the comic relief without turning into a one-dimensional joker, and the three stories of the film never become confused or unclear. The film is so perfectly structured that all three of it’s main stories are evocative – Elliot’s affair with Hannah’s sister Lee, Mickey’s romantic history and how it affects his present choices, and Holly (another of the sisters) and her drifting careers, from catering to finally settling on writing, which leads to more tensions in the family. It is an incredible film, with an unbelievable cast, by a director working at the peak of his powers.