Why I Love Woody Allen
"He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion...no, make that: he - he romanticized it all out of proportion. Yeah. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin."
Woody Allen is one of the great comedians, writers, performers and directors of the 20th Century. He is, along with David Lynch and Sofia Coppola, one of my favourite film makers. I have previously written about why I love Manhattan Murder Mystery - my favourite Woody Allen picture - but I felt since Moses Farrow has cleared the good name of Woody, it was time to appreciate his amazing career. (If you haven't read Mose Farrow's incredible piece about how the accusations against Woody are bullshit, do so here.) Woody Allen started his career as a stand-up comedian, and a remarkably good one at that. Woody's early movies are incredibly funny, particularly Sleeper and Bananas. He could have spent his entire career making these brilliant comedies, but instead he decided to be one of the best film makers period, infusing his humour with subtle emotional depth and a real gift for storytelling.
There are so many great Woody Allen films that it is hard to pin down my favourites, but I will attempt to do so nonetheless. Listed below are my pick for the fifteen best of his impressive career, in chronological order. .
1. Bananas (1971)
Bananas is just straight up funny. "I once stole a pornographic book that was printed in braille. I used to rub the dirty parts." Bananas' style will be familiar to anyone who has read Woody's dazzlingly funny books - Getting Even, Without Feathers and Side Effects - and the film is full of lines so good that you are kind of depressed that you will never be able to be that funny. Bananas is a humble movie, from a film making perspective, but as a comedy it is formidable and powerful. A great place to start your journey with Woody Allen.
2. Play It Again Sam (1972)
One of the very few movies starring Woody but not directed by him, though he did write the screenplay, based on his play of the same name. Play It Again Sam is a wonderful fantasy movie, similar in concept to the Purple Rose of Cairo. Woody plays a man who needs help with relationships, and he imagines what would happen if Humphrey Bogart - particularly Bogart from Casablanca - were there to give him advice. "That's quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn't it?" "Yes, it is." "What does it say to you?" "It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of Man forced to live in a barren, Godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror and degradation, forming a useless bleak straitjacket in a black absurd cosmos." "What are you doing Saturday night?" "Committing suicide." "What about Friday night?" Anyone who loves Bogart and Woody Allen, you NEED this movie in your life. This marks the first time Woody and Diane Keaton starred in a movie together.
3. Sleeper (1973)
Woody's best straight up comedy, full of immaculate lines, and science fiction concepts that not only feed incredibly well into the comedy but actually stand on their own as intriguing genre fiction. "I haven't seen my analyst in 200 years. He was a strict Freudian. If I'd been going all this time, I'd probably almost be cured by now." Sleeper follows Woody's character Miles who is frozen for two hundred years, leading to waking up in a dystopian police state. Sleeper, like so many of Woody's best films co-stars Diane Keaton. The script was also co-written with Marshall Brickman who co-wrote Annie Hall with Woody, as well as Manhattan Murder Mystery. The relationship between Keaton and Woody foreshadows some of the poetic beauty of their work in Annie Hall.
4. Annie Hall (1977)
Oh God, where to start with Annie Hall? It is one of the most beautiful romantic comedies ever produced, and is something that pretty much every romantic comedy since has had to try to live up to. I love the scene where Woody's character asks Annie Hall to kiss before dinner so that they can digest their food better without the awkwardness later on. I love the batshit crazy scene with Christopher Walken who tells Woody about his disturbing fantasies. The opening monologue is one of the great openings to any of Woody's movies: "There's an old joke - um... two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of 'em says, "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know; and such small portions." Well, that's essentially how I feel about life - full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly. The... the other important joke, for me, is one that's usually attributed to Groucho Marx; but, I think it appears originally in Freud's "Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious," and it goes like this - I'm paraphrasing - um, "I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member." That's the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women." OH and Jeff Goldblum is in it, with one line: "I forgot my mantra." The line "You're what Grammy Hall would call a real Jew," is one of the most awkward, laugh out loud funny moments in any movie. Diane Keaton is so funny, sweet and beautiful in this movie. She is someone whom you would love to spend time with. Their chemistry on screen is the most electric of any of their movies together.
5. Manhattan (1979)
Manhattan follows up Annie Hall with arguably the most visually striking movies of Woody's career, with stunning cinematography by Gordon Willis, shooting New York city in gorgeous black and white. Manhattan is in retrospect "problematic," given the plot of Woody's character falling in love with a 17 year old girl. This is something that should be seen in context. The themes of the movie are about overcoming cynicism with innocence and optimism. Those getting angry about Woody's later movies like Whatever Works involving older men with young women should have a look at Manhattan and realize that it is not confirmation of Allen's deviancy, but instead a running theme that has far more to do about the battle between cynicism and optimism, than it does the sexual desire of young women. This monologue expresses this well: "Why is life worth living? It's a very good question. Um... Well, There are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. uh... Like what... okay... um... For me, uh... ooh... I would say... what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing... uh... um... and Wilie Mays... and um... the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony... and um... Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues... um... Swedish movies, naturally... Sentimental Education by Flaubert... uh... Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra... um... those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne... uh... the crabs at Sam Wo's... uh... Tracy's face..."
6. Stardust Memories (1980)
"To you, I'm an atheist; to God, I'm the loyal opposition." Stardust Memories is, along with Interiors, one of the first movies where Woody started to make movies that were not restricted by comedy. Sure there are some very funny lines, but it is a movie that is just as dramatic as it is comedic. In this sense it is much more successful than Interiors, which while compelling in its own right, lacked the spark that makes Woody's best dramatic material sing. By being at once a reaction against the tag of simply being a comedian who makes movies, and by proving that it is possible to be visually interesting, thematically and emotionally complex, AS WELL as being very funny, Stardust Memories is among Woody's very best movies.
7. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
"God, she's beautiful. She's got the prettiest eyes. She looks so sexy in that sweater. I just want to be alone with her and hold her and kiss her and tell her how much I love her and take care of her. Stop it you idiot, she's your wife's sister. But I can't help it. I'm consumed by her. It's been months now. I dream about her, I - I - I think about her at the office. Oh Lee, what am I gonna do? I hear myself moaning over you and it's disgusting. Before, when she squeezed past me at the doorway and I smelt that perfume on the back of her neck - Jesus, I - I thought I was gonna swoon. Easy! You're a dignified financial advisor. It doesn't look good for you to swoon." Hannah and Her Sisters is, along with Stardust Memories, one of the best Woody Allen movies of the 1980s. It is so wise and insightful about romance and relationships. It stars many great acting talents, including Mia Farrow, Woody, Diane Wiest and in perhaps the greatest performance of his career, Michael Caine. It is an effortless melding of drama and comedy and bears repeat viewings. Up there with Annie Hall, Manhattan and Midnight in Paris as a gorgeous and romantic film.
8. Radio Days (1987)
Roger Ebert, in describing why Radio Days is such a good movie, wrote the following:
"Radio Days is so ambitious and so audacious that it almost defies description. It's a kaleidoscope of dozens of characters, settings and scenes - the most elaborate production Allen has ever made - and it's inexhaustible, spinning out one delight after another." What a wonderful turn of phrase, Roger had, and I agree wholeheartedly: this is a joyous, wonderful movie. I love Julie Kavner here, AKA the voice of Marge Simpson. She was also brilliant in the Billy Crystal romantic comedy, Forget Paris. Radio Days makes you nostalgic for a time you never lived through, and because it's so well observed makes the viewer identify with and feel like they did grow up in the 1940s in New York. Woody is the narrator, and you can't help but believe that this is an autobiographical tale.
9. Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
I have already written about why I love Manhattan Murder Mystery so much. You can read what I had to say here. In summary, I believe it is a wonderful what if? Imagining what would have had happened if Annie Hall and Alvy Singer had stayed together in that great picture. Throw in an excellent murder mystery format and you have my very favourite Woody Allen movie.
10. Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
I always liked Sean Penn, and he seems to be a genuinely good guy in spite of some dodgy behaviour, but it wasn't until I saw Sweet and Lowdown that I loved him. It is no secret that Woody adores Jazz, and this is a story that reveres the genre. It is full of great music, and while the guitarist played by Sean Penn is fictional, he feels like he is the real deal throughout. Thank a lot of this on Sean Penn who embodies Emmet Ray in a powerful and convincing fashion. Shout out to Samantha Morton here who is down right adorable.
11. Whatever Works (2009)
Larry David and Woody Allen together. Yes, you read that right. WOODY ALLEN AND LARRY DAVID! Whatever Works was originally written as a vehicle for Zero Mostel whom you may know from his incredible performance in Mel Brooks' The Producers (the good one). Larry delivers a stunning monologue to open the movie: "I happen to hate New Year's celebrations. Everybody desperate to have fun. Trying to celebrate in some pathetic little way. Celebrate what? A step closer to the grave? That's why I can't say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works. And don't kid yourself. Because its by no means up to your own human ingenuity. A bigger part of your existence is luck, than you'd like to admit. Christ, you know the odds of your fathers one sperm from the billions, finding the single egg that made you. Don't think about it, you'll have a panic attack." I love Zero Mostel but I can't imagine his doing this speech better than Larry David. Larry is someone who can rightly be called perhaps the best comedic writer of his generation, with two colossal successes to his name: Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. As mentioned earlier, there were some concerned voices about the plot of Larry's character becoming romantically involved with a much younger woman, but it is incorrect and unfair to think that this is an expression of sexual perversion or the domination of a young woman by an older man. This is about how young people, who are without cynicism, can shine a light into an older person's life. This is another play on the material covered in Manhattan, where an aging cynic is turned around by being around a young, optimistic person. Whatever Works is very funny, sweet and one of Woody's best movies of the 2000s.
12. Midnight in Paris (2011)
Some people think that Woody Allen stopped making good movies in the 80s. Well, they are dead wrong. No-one has had as many comeback movies as Woody, which should confirm the fact that he never stopped making good movies. This is not to say that every Woody picture is great, but there are more than enough to let you know that he is still a relevant, vital artist. Midnight in Paris won the Oscar for best screenplay, and for good reason: it is as funny, romantic and beautiful as anything Woody has done. Starring Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard, it is one of the wisest movies about art and culture. There are so many wonderful scenes here. A couple of my favourites are the scenes with Ernest Hemingway and when Wilson suggests the idea for The Exterminating Angel to Luis Buneul, who is mystified as to why the people can't leave. Midnight in Paris is a dazzling, brilliant movie about art and it's ability to allow us to transcend the mundane realities of day to day life. "We all fear death and question our place in the universe. The artist's job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence."
13. Blue Jasmine (2013)
Oh look, another Oscar! Cate Blanchett won the Best Actress Academy Award for a role that is perhaps her greatest in a long career of excellent performances. Blue Jasmine has some sweetness to it - I'm thinking Bobby Canavale's character here - but mostly it is a cutting indictment of the greed and criminality that led us all to the very bottom of the economic barrel. Blanchett is so good here that it's quite astonishing. Her end, as an homeless, desperate and broken woman is possibly the most powerful ending to any Woody Allen film. If you want to see a film full of great performances and a script that is as good as anything Woody has done, WATCH THIS MOVIE.
14. Irrational Man (2015)
Irrational Man is one of the most pointed and devastating comedies of Woody's career. Its humour is quiet and subtle, but it's there in large quantities. I have loved Joaquin Phoenix for some time - especially in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master and Spike Jonze's Her - but I don't think he has ever been better than he is in Irrational Man. Anyone who has spent time around would-be intellectuals or pretentious college lecturers, should have a damn good time with this movie. Irrational Man recalls in large part Crimes and Misdemeanors, for how it explores morality and actions that step outside of normal behaviour. Dark and beautiful, Irrational Man is the dark horse in this Woody Allen race, and you should hopefully like this movie as much as I do.
15. Cafe Society (2016)
God I love Jesse Eisenberg! Ever since I saw him in my favourite comic book movie of all time, Batman V Superman, I loved him. Having now seen The Social Network, I can confidently say that he is one of my favourite actors. He is, along with Steve Carell and Kristen Stewart, just wonderful here. If a new director directed and wrote a film as good as Cafe Society, they would be hailed as a tremendous new talent. It is a movie that has the wisdom of age behind it, but its insight into love and life has an optimism that is youthful in quality. "Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." But the examined one is no bargain."
With the vindication of Woody Allen's reputation, I no longer feel compelled to include a disclaimer about separating the art and the artist. I believe that Woody Allen is a good man. More importantly though, he is a great artist. His movies will live for decades and people will look back on his work and be as wrapped up in them - in their ability to speak on love and life - as we are today. Thank you Woody Allen for making my life so much better with your talent.