A-List: Top Five Woody Allen Movies
By J. Don Birnam
July 30, 2015

She's angry about being placed at #2.

Did you know that Woody Allen released his (approximately) 46th feature-length film, as a director, last week? Irrational Man, as it’s called, did not do well with critics and, perhaps predictably, audiences are staying similarly away. It is somewhat surprising to see the prolific director miss two years in a row (last year’s Magic in the Moonlight was a forgettable jumble), so I suppose we will get another jewel in his next attempt. In the meantime, the release of yet another film in a career that has spanned nearly 50 years is as good an occasion as any to revisit some of the all-time best Woody Allen films.

What emerges is a picture that is both familiar and surprising - as one would expect. the themes about love, anxiety over life and death, and general ennui with the world, appear consistently but creatively across his work. But what is also surprising to find, at least in some of Allen’s later work, is a more sinister angle of the human heart. For all his comedic approach to the vicissitudes of life, Allen is no starry-eyed idealist about the reality of the jealous human heart. Not only is he a pessimist about his (or one’s) own prospects at happiness, he does see wickedness in the souls of men.

Many of the themes in Allen’s movies have been the subject of other A-List columns of late - when it comes to movies about love or movies about New York, Allen essentially wrote the book. Also, few auteurs have a more complex, nuanced, and truthful portrayal of feminine characters. Long before it was a rarity, Allen specialized in complex, strong, and even infuriating female characters. Moving from muses like Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow all the way up to Scarlett Johansson, Allen has been a master at portraying women at there very best and worst - the fears and anxieties that drive them, but also the obsession that they can engender in men. Most of the women in his films are not classically beautiful, but they are attractive because of their free spirit, their charming wit, and their nonchalant and even careless demeanor. In a way, it’s how Allen sees New York itself - impulsive, whimsical, but always magnetic.

So what are some of the runner-ups? I admit that the movie for which he won it all, Annie Hall, is not my favorite Allen of all time. Perhaps I found the Keaton-Allen dynamic a little bit too convoluted. Still, it must be recognized as one of his signature moments, and the movie where the key narrative elements of Allen’s work first makes an obvious appearance.

Of his somewhat older work, I’m also partial to Bullets Over Broadway, a somewhat slapstick-y comedy about a gangster seeking to fulfill the wishes of his needy girlfriend. Featuring memorable performances by Jennifer Tilly and Dianne Wiest (who won her second Allen-directed Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this role), Bullets is entertainingly simple while revisiting the Allen-signature theme: women will make men go nuts and act nuts, we can’t live with them or without them.

From his more recent work, I would be remiss if I did not mention the romantic Midnight in Paris, and the seductively dark Match Point. The former won him his third writing Oscar (a feat accomplished before only by Paddy Chayefsky) and is one of the rare movies in which Allen explores the soul of a city that is not New York. Midnight in Paris is an endearing movie that explores well an idea that may seem obvious but at the same time worth remembering: that nostalgia for the past, while comforting, is also pointless given that the past we revere itself views its present as decaying and romanticizes its own past.

And the latter movie, Match Point, stands out for being among the darkest that Woody has ever made. Here, the seductress also leads her prey into extremes, but the outcome is far from comedic. Although I’m not sure that I love Scarlett Johansson as Allen’s muse, she worked perfectly alongside an eerie and precise Jonathan Rhys-Myers, and becomes one of the few of Allen’s female leads to meet an unfortunate end as the price to be paid for her allure. The true testament to Allen’s mastery comes not only from the brilliant ideas he explores so well, but the many different ways in which he refurbishes his formula to get to a satisfying end.

On to the main event.

5. Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

Before things got really heavy with the film-noir-esque murder in Match Point, Allen explored murder in his more comfortable light-hearted fashion in this lesser-known Allen movie that is a personal favorite. In his last collaboration with Diane Keaton, Allen and Keaton are an Upper East Side couple that unwittingly finds itself embroiled in a confusing and potentially deadly situation. A day after meeting their elderly neighbors, the old woman in the couple dies of a heart attack. But when Keaton sees how cheery the husband is following the death, she becomes suspicious and begins snooping into her neighbor’s affairs. The plot later thickens when she and Allen accidentally come across a woman who is identical to the supposedly dead old lady.

Part caper and part slapstick, Manhattan Murder Mystery deftly features New York City in the background, and funnily weaves in another of Woody’s favorite topics: the frustration that a husband feels for a wife that seems to have become unhinged (Keaton’s suspicions about the neighbors at first border on the paranoid), and the extremes that other husbands (the neighbor himself) may in later life go to rid himself of that nagging wife. The younger couple, then, is investigating essentially what Allen believes could be a realistic future for himself, and it is only the complicit nature of the younger couple’s joint “investigation” that brings them together to stave off this unwanted result…

4. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a filmmaker who has directed more women to Oscars than Woody Allen. We’ve discussed Wiest and Keaton, but who can forget the memorable, over-the-top performance that yielded Penelope Cruz her Oscar for Vicky Cristina Barcelona? Vicky (a then-unknown Rebecca Hall) and her friend Cristina (who else but ScarJo?) decide to travel to Barcelona for the summer. The two of them are hoping to find inspiration (or, for Cristina only, at first, even love). Vicky is down-to-earth, straight-edged, and engaged. Cristina is the opposite: a free-roaming spirit with few cares other than to get in touch with her emotions. What follows is a hysterical, touching, and, frankly, realistic portrayal of what can happen to American women as they encounter and are immersed in cultures that have a different approach to love and sex than our own.

Presaging what would later become his love affair for foreign cities like in Midnight in Paris, in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen romanticizes (without being trite) the intense passionate way of love that characterizes (without being too stereotypical) Iberian culture. In their travels, Vicky and Cristina encounter the tumultuous, tortured love life of two Barcelona denizens, a sentimental Javier Bardem, and his unhinged ex-wife, played by a stunning Penelope Cruz. What follows is a lesson of self-discovery for both women that will mark them forever. Both are taken out of their comfort zone. Both are left with battle scars that will grow to define them. And Allen is very clear in his lack of endorsement of either woman’s approach to life: Vicky was too uptight, but Cristina was too selfish. In the end, neither model works. And Maria Elena (Cruz’s character) is crazy, but also irresistible. Thus, brilliantly with that triumvirate, Allen once more explores the different ways in which women love and attract love. The men, particularly in this movie, are just along for the ride. On top of all that, he makes witty, on-the-mark observations about the silliness of some Americans’ interaction with foreign cultures.

But what stands out is how different and modern this movie feels compared to some of his others. While in movies like Annie Hall, Allen explores old-school love, the grown-up love of the artistic communities of the time, in Vicky Cristina he reinvents and rediscovers the formula to adapt it to modern times, modern anxieties and desires, and modern approaches to love. All the while, he keeps the same underlying point: love is hard, it’s insanity-inducing, but it is simply too hard to resist.

3. Hannah and her Sisters (1986)

Perhaps his most-critically acclaimed movie after Annie Hall, and the one that netted his second writing Oscar, Hannah and her Sisters is the grown-up version, to me, of Annie Hall. While in Annie Hall the characters are silly, sometimes infuriating, but mostly lovable and irresistible, the characters in Hannah may start out as such, but then are revealed to be at times impossible to sympathize with. The story revolves around Hannah (played by Mia Farrow, in one of her last collaborations with Woody), her husband Elliott (the Oscar-winner Michael Caine), and, obviously, her two sisters. Allen himself is Hannah’s ex-husband, a hypochondriac television writer in yet another true-to-life portrayal of the director.

The story centers on two years in the lives of these complex characters - alcoholics, adulterers, depressives, and self-involved maniacs are the people that inhabit this film. When all is told, however, and for all the pain and suffering that they inflict on each other, many of them end up exactly where they began the film, reconciled, or with no greater answers then when they began. Life rolls along with its punches, Woody is telling us, and every crisis may seem life-or-death, but in the end we are all simply in it together, rolling towards a great unknown, a great nothing that is at the same time everything.

2. Blue Jasmine (2013)

Speaking of acting Oscars for women, my second-favorite Woody Allen film of all is unquestionably the haunting Blue Jasmine of a couple of years ago. Netting Cate Blanchett a Best Actress win, and also featuring a touching performance by Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine tells the story of a self-involved, mostly pathetic woman who has to deal with the death of her husband following the revelation that he was a financial criminal. She falls on hard times, from the height of Manhattan wealth society, to living essentially on her sister’s couch in San Francisco, alone and without a job.

The movie is at first a bit light-hearted, criticizing the self-involved and selfish nature of some of the rich socialites it portrays. As it turns out, Allen is an introspective and brilliant critic of privileged American subcultures (Vicky, Cristina, Jasmine).

But as the plot develops, this movie becomes an unforgettable tour de force analysis of addiction, depression, and loneliness. Like many of Allen’s other women, Jasmine is memorable, strong, and with a deep will to live and love. Unlike most of them, however, she is not surrounded by an environment conducive to these desires, and her selfishness proves to be too extreme. For it is eventually revealed that in her pain, she committed acts that made her responsible for her and her husband’s own downfall. So, from being a sympathetic character, Jasmine turns into almost a monster, or at least a pitiful being. Buoyed by Blanchett’s brilliant performance, one of the best of all time, Blue Jasmine reminds us that human nature can be so dark at times that one cruel act can be ruinous, no matter the good intentions or efforts that one may later make to undo them. All the while he makes us laugh, even if nervously, at the light-hearted situations that these deeply flawed characters create for themselves. To do this while never removing his finger from the point of precisely what motivates people, is simply astounding.

1. Manhattan (1979)

But it is undoubtedly the movie that Allen himself once described, accurately, as an improvement on Annie Hall (it all goes back to that movie it seems), that occupies the number one spot today. Clearly paying homage both to the City and to West Side Story, the movie that explored its heart two decades earlier, Manhattan opens with a panoramic exploration of key New York City landmarks. The movie poster itself features the now-iconic scene of sitting on the bench by the bridge (parodied as recently as this month’s Trainwreck). But it is the substance of the movie that, on top of all this, earned it its position as my favorite Woody Allen film of all time. If you’ve been following this space, you may also note that this is the first time I place the same movie on the top of the list on two separate occasions. I guess that must mean something!

Unsurprisingly, the movie features complex women (a brilliant Meryl Streep is Allen’s ex-wife, now a lesbian, and Diane Keaton is his best friend’s mistress, for whom he falls), the hypochondriac, anxious, and existential Allen, love affairs, ex-wives, and betrayals. As the plot develops, the familiar becomes clear: women are difficult, and drive men crazy. Love is an illness, but we can’t resist it. Life is full of questions, and Allen has no clue about its answers. But in the midst of this existential chaos a simple truth emerges: it is so much better to be among the living, and to experience these tortures, than the alternative - that ever present fear of death that envelops him.

This life, any life, is infinitely worth it.