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