Jordan Hoffman July 23, 2013
Woody Allen is my favorite filmmaker. Full stop. There are dozens tied for second place, but he’s the one on top. I love his comedies, I love his dramas and I especially love when the two drift into one another.
If a clip from a lesser-loved Woody Allen movie comes on and someone rightly asks “who lives like that?” I answer, “people in Woody Allen movies do, that’s who.” My emotional life remains fairly stable; I can live precariously through the tortured artists and the poisoned relationships of the higher tax-bracketed, as seen in (most of) his films. I love the Allen persona and I love the way he writes for women. I love the people with whom he collaborates – groundbreaking cinematographers like Gordon Willis and Darius Khondji, as well as his go-to production designer Santo Loquasto and costumer Jeffrey Kurland.
Then there are also the zings. While the Woody Allen screen persona has remained somewhat frozen in time for fifty years (50% neurotic Eisenhower-era enriched New York City Jew, 25% Bob Hope letch, 20% Groucho Marx wiseacre, 5% Chaplin-esque imp prone to sight-gag foibles, though my math could be a tad off) the writing still remains fresh. And the Woody persona will be one of the lasting icons of our time. (Few remember that, for eight years, King Features ran a licensed comic strip called “Inside Woody Allen.”)
Woody Allen has directed fewer than 50 films, but he’s been involved with many more. To rank them all and reach a cool 50 titles, (and to figure out where this week’s release “Blue Jasmine” fits in) I came up with a special game plan.
1.) Anything Woody Allen wrote or directed HAS to be on the list. (Woody didn’t direct “Play It Again, Sam,” but he wrote it, starred in it and the successful Broadway production was key to cementing his persona. It qualifies.)
2.) Anything Woody Allen starred in, but did not write or direct, CAN be on the list if it merits it. (In other words, you’ll be reading about Martin Ritt’s “The Front,” a Rollins-Joffe production, because it is good. Not so much on Alfonso Arau’s “Picking up the Pieces” (2000), Paul Mazursky’s “Scenes From A Mall” (1991) or the TV production of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” (1997) opposite Peter Falk, even though one of ’em – “Mall” – is certainly better than #50 on this list.)
3 .) Cameos don’t count. (Sorry Doug McGrath’s “Company Man” (2001), Stanley Tucci’s “The Imposters (1998) and Jean-Luc Godard’s “King Lear” (1987). All three of you are more interesting that the #50 pick on this list, but let’s be frank, you aren’t Woody Allen films.)
If you disagree with this criteria I politely invite you to pull Marshall McLuhan out from behind a placard to tell me my whole fallacy is wrong. Here we go.
50 – “What’s New Pussycat” (1965)
The movie that took Woody Allen out of the Greenwich Village nightclubs and off the Tonight Show couch is something of a milestone – but it’s also absolutely awful. I hated it as a kid when I was first discovering Woody’s back catalogue and I hated it last week when I revisited it for this list.
Peter O’Toole plays a British playboy who wants to be faithful to his German fiancee (Romy Schneider), but who can resist when every European sexpot keeps throwing themselves at your feet? (Ursula Andress literally falls out of the sky wearing some kind of leopardskin zip-up number.) There are some amusing moments with a badly wigged Peter Sellers as O’Toole’s shrink Dr. Fritz Fassbender and Woody doing very early schtick as Victor Shakapopulis, but it doesn’t cut above the cacophony of an aggressively poorly made and annoying picture. Here’s the thing, though: it was a crazy success (yes, it’s got the Tom Jones song and everything) but Woody hated it. It inspired him to say “never again!” to taking a mere screenwriting job. From here on in, he would direct his own work, so, in a way, we owe the rest of this list to the horridness of this film.
49 – “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” (2010)
There are a lot of people who want to tell you that Woody has been on autopilot since “Deconstructing Harry.” These people are cretins. It is true, however, that Woody’s style of directing is a little. . .unusual. He trusts his casting instincts and will really only give any guidance to performers if they ask for it or if he feels they are doing something wrong. He shoots in long, wide takes and there are times when a little conventional coverage may, yes, help tighten the scene. The fact that Woody has publicized that he likes to shoot quickly so he can be home for dinner or to catch a Knicks game doesn’t do him any favors.
Nevertheless, I refuse to call Woody, even the later Woody, a sloppy filmmaker. Except for this one. It has no life. And it really feels like a retread. Another story of frustrated artists and wealthy people making one another miserable, set in England only because that’s where the money happened to come from. I came out of this one almost convinced that maybe Woody should retire. Of course, he followed this up with “Midnight in Paris,” so what do I know?
48 – “Alice” (1990)
Okay, from here on in, every movie on this list is worth checking out. Though we’re still in a zone where I’m hesitant to jump up and down and call these titles superb.
In “Alice,” Mia Farrow plays a sheltered, rich Park Avenue wife. A trip “down the rabbit hole” of extra marital flirting leads to her reevaluate her life and her goals. The tone is light and the scenes all feel a little worn. Quite frankly, the lazy qualities some ascribe to Woody’s later films first presented themselves with this one. There’s a “magical realism” element in this one that’s a bit half-baked, and I don’t quite buy Joe Mantegna as a jazz-bo. Still, some fun moments and the location photography of “Woody’s New York” is still in its prime.
47 – “Cassandra’s Dream” (2007)
Perhaps my medium-low opinion of “Cassandra’s Dream” comes as a result of its timing. Woody had recently come off of “Match Point,” a sharp morality tale set in London. “Cassandra’s Dream” is, to a large extent, a reprise of similar themes. Is it right to kill a random person to get yourself out of a jam? No, of course not, but could you do it? Well, some yes and some no. Is there any sort of justice? Well, it depends on if you consider bad luck justice. And so on. It’s big fat Russian novel stuff and it’s just been done better. While the Philip Glass original score is moving (and the British dialogue feels sincere,) you are better off sticking with Scarlett Johansson in “Match Point.”
46 – “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” (2001)
This list’s first point of controversy! How could I possible place this dud above the somewhat-similar magic-rich “Alice?” Well there are two things I really like about this lesser-Woody picture. One, the 1940s design and overall look is top notch (this was one of three films shot by Chinese DP Zhao Fei.) Two, David Ogden Stiers plays the heavy, a criminal mastermind / hypnotist named Voltan. How can you not love that?
Third and most importantly, it’s wonderful to see Woody play with genre. Granted, this movie is something of a tossed-together enterprise, but when you have a CV like Allen has you can allow yourself such indulgences. To see him cast himself as a screwball private eye (and with Helen Hunt as his Rosalind Russell sidekick) is to see a guy having a good time. Inasmuch as anyone who plays the eternal schlemiel can have good time.
45 – “Scoop” (2006)
More magicians, more murder, more England. But, this time, Scarlett Johansson in a red bathing suit!
There are some solid zings in “Scoop” but this is light as meringue and there are some who don’t really buy the beautiful Johansson as a clumsy doofus. (I’m on board with whatever she brings. Did I mention the bathing suit?) It’s also funny that this entire movie is, in a way, based off of a throwaway gag from “Broadway Danny Rose.” Still, Woody Allen as “The Great Splendini,” a low-rate prestidigitator living in the UK for some reason (and having to sleuth around stately manners) is, indeed, funny.
44 – “Melinda and Melinda” (2004)
This one makes me feel a little guilty, because I want to like it more. It’s a solid idea, but doesn’t quite crystalize, a little ironic as it is about the craft of storytelling.
Wallace Shawn and, as it happens, two of his costars from Louis Malle’s “Vanya on 42nd Street” are having a late dinner at Pastis in the Meatpacking District. (2004 on film!) They are discussing an event that happened to a friend of a friend and soon dueling versions of the story are created. One is a comedy, the other tragedy. We now shift between the two, which rhyme with one another in clever ways, but what we’re ultimately left with are two halfway interesting stories.
One has to wonder if Woody himself had a flash of an opening scene, didn’t know whether to go smiles or tears and said “eh, let’s try both.” Despite some funny moments (Will Ferrell does well as the Woody persona stand-in) and decent performances (Radha Mitchell in the double role, plus a very agreeable Chiwetel Ejiofor) “Melinda and Melinda” is, unfortunately, more “interesting” than good.
43 – “To Rome with Love” (2012)
Coming off of the success that was “Midnight in Paris,” Woody kept that grand European tour going and went to Rome. The results, unfortunately, are mixed.
Four short films that, really, have absolutely have nothing to do with one another are scrambled together with a epilogue consisting of a crane shot and somebody saying “Roma!”
The section of Alec Baldwin advising his younger self (kinda) in the matters of love has the most heart, but Ellen Page doesn’t quite work as the voracious cauldron of seduction the screenplay calls for. Roberto Begnini (remember that guy?) is amusing as the common man suddenly thrust into celebrity. Woody himself shows up as a failed opera impresario who happens upon his diamond in the rough (or, in the shower.) There’s a fourth section not even worth discussing. The whole thing is amusing, but certainly a letdown after “Paris.”
42 – “September” (1987)
From 1983 to 1987 Woody Allen pumped out five masterpieces in a row. This didn’t exactly come to a screeching halt with “September,” but it definitely hit a minor speed bump.
Steeped in Anton Chekov, this end-of-summer drama set at a country house is somewhat reminiscent of Woody’s earlier (and very misunderstood) “Interiors.” Partially, because it is all shot in interiors! Mia Farrow is recovering from a suicide attempt and this “filmed play” is a heavy final weekend with her best friend (Dianne Wiest) and mother (Elaine Stritch). Neighbors Sam Waterston (a struggling writer, naturally) and Denholm Elliot (a disillusioned intellectual) pop by, as does stepdad Jack Warden, a physicist with the film’s best monologue. Everyone is in love with everyone else, they all have secrets and the whole thing is a real quiet bummer.
The most noteworthy thing about this film is something that happened off-screen. Somewhere out there is an ashcan version of “September.” Woody shot the whole thing with other actors – Sam Shepherd, Charles Durning and, most interestingly, Maureen O’Sullivan, Mia Farrow’s actual mother, in the mother role. (Interestingly, O’Sullivan had just played Farrow’s mother in “Hannah and Her Sisters” quite to great acclaim.)
Well, Woody didn’t like what he saw and and re-did it soup-to-nuts. I can’t think of another example of this happening in film history. Andrei Tarkovsky had to reshoot “Stalker” because of a film lab screwup, but this was by choice. And those tortured artists in Woody’s films are make believe, huh?
41 – “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask” (1972)
We’ve left the slightly wobbly zone and now we’re airborne. Everything from here on in is essential to some degree. “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask” is a great sample set of the “early, funny ones,” a collection of dopey sketches that promise perversion and bring laughs.
The best bit is the last one, in which Woody Allen plays a sperm and Tony Randall is mission control in a man’s brain. As soon as he hears his date is a graduate of NYU he shouts “we’re in!” There’s also a section that’s a wonderful parody of Antonioni-esque Italian cinema. If you’ve ever seen a pic of Woody in hip shades smoking a cigarette, it is from that segment.
40 – “Antz” (1998)
Remember “Antz?” Maybe you do. It was the “Olympus Has Fallen” to “A Bugs’ Life”‘s “White House Down.” Also: a hundred times better.
Written by Paul and Chris Weitz and playwright/performance artist/blogger Todd Alcott, “Antz” is an adorable story in which a Woody Allen ant has to face his fears with the help of his best pal, Sylvester Stallone ant. Christopher Walken ant is the bad guy. Bad ant.
Anyway, there are a lot of zings that are fun for the whole family and what’s best is that it 100% utilizes the Woody Allen persona. This is a great gateway drug for little kids to get into the neurotic, self-deprecating humor of the world’s greatest filmmaker!
39 – “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” (1966)
Something of a deep cut, this post-“What’s New Pussycat” project is one of the stranger entries on the list. Woody took the none-too-spectacular chop-socky import “International Secret Police: Key of Keys” and dubbed in his own ridiculous dialogue. As such a spy picture was transformed into quest to find the secret recipe for the world’s greatest egg salad. As a bombshell dame disrobes she seductively demands “name three presidents!” It’s wall-to-wall absurdism with some non-sequitir musical numbers from period band The Lovin’ Spoonful (one of the few interactions between Woody, a jazz and standards connoisseur, and the less-refined world of rock.) Lovers of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” have an obligation to seek out this gem.
For crazy 60s Woody, this is also a better bet than trudging through the original 1967 “Casino Royale.” While Woody’s few scenes are funny (as are the bits Terry Southern contributed) that Frankenfilm with six different directors is best approached in its own context.
38 – “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” (1982)
“We can’t have intercourse where we eat our oatmeal!”
It’s one of hundreds of thrown-away Woody Allen lines but this one, for whatever reason, is one of my favorites. It’s another story of wealthy, fascinating people having romantic misunderstandings in a charming location, but the hook here is the early 20th century setting. Woody plays a wacky inventor and Jose Ferrer is a noted philosopher. Mia Farrow is once again the center of attention and Julie Hagerty – yes, the woman from “Airplane!” – gives a solid performance, too. God knows why she never caught on, she’s pretty good in this. Despite the Shakespearean title, there’s more in common here with Bergmans “Smiles of a Summer Night.”
37 – “Anything Else” (2003)
When this came out I saw it and shrugged it off as another decent-enough late-era Woody film. Then Quentin Tarantino bafflingly included it on his list of the twenty best films of modern times. I’ll admit, his voucher got me to reevaluate this one, and while I still think he’s a little nuts, I do see that there’s some interesting stuff going on here.
Jason Biggs (!) is a young nudnick-y comedy writer at an emotional and professional crossroads. Woody’s character Dobel is a possible older version of himself – angry, paranoid and not particularly accomplished. “Anything Else” is one of Woody’s few films to directly address a post-9/11 state-of-mind, and there are interjections from Biggs’ in-progress book that have a Godard-ian effect. You, too, should see this one again.
36 – “Small Time Crooks” (2000)
Clumsy, low-rent Woody Allen as a safecracker, shrill Tracy Ullman as his wife and “dumb as a horse” Elaine May for added punchlines. Listen, anything with Elaine May in it should be treasured like gold, but her flummoxed, speech-impeded cluelessness really makes this picture. The mid-story twist is when this strictly walk-up apartment gang strike it rich not through crime but by the success of their baked-goods front operation. The perennially dissatisfied Woody character is miserable as an uptown swell – all he ever wanted was to retire somewhere warm enough to go swimming.
35 – “Celebrity” (1998)
Next time you hear Beethoven’s Fifth you can say, “Oh, that’s the theme from Woody Allen’s ‘Celebrity!'”
Kenneth Branagh stars as the disaffected writer stuck taking cheap assignments, and the only actor who decided that playing the Woody surrogate role meant he should do a Rich Little-style impression. Shot in Black and White and featuring small roles from Leonardo DiCaprio, Melanie Griffith, Bebe Neuwirth, Isaac Mizrahi, Donald Trump, basketball star Anthony Mason and film director Greg Motolla, “Celebrity” isn’t quite the bile-informed takedown of paparazzi and tabloid culture you’d expect from a guy who was a constant salacious headline for a year. It’s another riff on the woes and aspirations of New York’s elite, but set in a slightly different context.
34 – “Don’t Drink the Water” (1994)
First a play, then a so-so film starring Jackie Mason and then, finally, a forgotten made-for-TV picture from the mid-90s. Here’s the thing: it’s hilarious.
Michael J. Fox is a frazzled US ambassador of “Vulgaria” and Woody is the patriarch of a trapped Jewish family on vacation. Julie Kavner (yes, Marge Simpson) is his always right but always nagging wife and Mayim Bialik is the daughter/love interest. Dom DeLuise shows up as a priest. Yeah, I know – you are wondering how the hell you’ve never seen this.
The zings are nonstop, especially when an Arab sheik and his harem of wives enter the mix. “How does he ever get time in the bathroom?” is the question only Woody Allen would think to ask.
33 – “The Front” (1976)
The first and, for many years, only acting gig Woody took after he’d been firmly established as a filmmaker. This was the first major movie to discuss the Hollywood blacklist, featuring many actors whose fellow traveler status cost them their livelihoods during the McCarthy period.
“The Front” plays off the side of Woody’s streetwise everyman persona, not the melancholy intellectual. He’s a cashier at a diner (and occasional numbers runner) who happens to know a bunch of comedy writers who need a fresh face that can present their work. In addition to exposing this odd chapter of American political history there’s some wonderful firsthand insight into the production process of live TV during its “golden age” and a heartbreaking performance by Zero Mostel.
32 – “Whatever Works” (2009)
Part of loving Woody Allen is loving that he can be a little clueless about modern times. He’s a classicist, an old soul and a genius, so he has a right to think that freewheelin’ bohemianism is still par for the course down in Greenwich Village in 2009. (It is, in reality, a section of town thoroughly overrun by corporate NYU and million dollar apartments.) “Whatever Works” was an old script Woody had laying around, originally intended for Zero Mostel, that barely had the cobwebs blown off of it before handed to Larry David to star.
Still, David makes a solid Woody proxy, griping about life’s indignities and wandering around Central Park in a pair of brown shorts. David’s own persona bleeds into the character a bit and it is a welcome addition. Here is a man whose sole desire is just to be left the hell alone, but can’t help meddling in the affairs of a Southern Belle who literally steps off the bus and into his life.
31 – “Wild Man Blues” (1997)
Horrible working conditions in an Appalachian coal mine. Protracted labor struggles in the American heartland. Woody Allen’s dilettantish Dixieland jazz band on a concert tour? One of these things is not like the other, but all are remarkable documentaries by Barbara Kopple.
Everyone knows that Woody is a good-but-not-great clarinetist, but few can make it to his semi-regular uptown club engagement. In a wise marketing move after years of tabloid coverage, Woody allowed (hired?) Kopple to shoot as he marched through the great nations of Europe with his rather plain wife Soon-Yi Previn and protective sister/producing partner Letty Aronson. This is the closest we’ll ever get to seeing what Woody is really like, and the answer is: not that dazzling. But interesting and still funny. The reward at the end is a trip to his none-too-impressed parents. Amidst the discarded Oscars in the nonagenarians’ apartment Woody’s Dad misreads an Italian plaque reading “Grazie, Woody” as “Crazy Woody,” and Mom shuts down the film with an all-too-perfect “enough!”
30 – “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008)
If you are going to kick back and enjoy the lives of tortured romantic souls, it doesn’t hurt that they look like Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Rebecca Hall and Penelope Cruz. And it also doesn’t hurt to set the movie in Barcelona. There’s passion and arguing and big, beautiful paintings and lots of drinking wine outdoors. This among the better examples of Woody’s knack of taking what would be pure soap opera – a “chick flick,” if I may use that ludicrous phrase – and elevating it to something else. There’s no Allen persona proxy here – this a romantic drama whose gorgeous setting, nuanced characters with relatable aspirations and crisp dialogue make it palatable for those of us who’d twitch at the mere thought of watching the Lifetime Network.
29 – “Match Point” (2005)
Among the most nihilistic film on this list, “Match Point” is a “Crime and Punishment” riff set in London high society which proved that Woody’s trademark style was something of a movable feast. It was his first London film – a business concession – but the verdict was clear. Despite Woody’s love and devotion to New York, the spark was in him and not the locations.
As for the story, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a rampaging id – a conniving, murderous social climber that somehow remains sympathetic. With the lights dimmed we are confronted with the fact that inside of us all is a wretched creature who will do any horrible act to capture and retain what we desire – especially if we don’t get caught. Luckily, most of us don’t act on the impulse.
Also, if I may: Scarlett Johansson, blue jeans, the rain. Thanks for that one, “Match Point.”
28 – “Sweet and Lowdown” (1999)
“You love jazz!” said one of the idiot producers in “Stardust Memories.” He wasn’t just whistlin’ dixieland. While we twiddle our thumbs in anticipation of a Django Reinhardt biopic (dude lived a crazy life) we’ll have to settle on this film in which the noted gypsy guitar player is merely idolized by its talented-but-flawed lead character.
Sean Penn’s Emmet Ray is presented as a tall tale with fake interviews sprinkled in (can I get a what-what for Nat Hentoff? Nat Hentoff in the hizzouse!) and his career is romanticized in loving fashion. His romance with mute Samantha Morton is something of a nod to Fellini’s “La Strada,” but Ray isn’t a strong man with a heart of gold – he’s an egoist with a heart of fragile glass. Woody’s longtime collaboration with composer Dick Hyman reaches its natural apogee here.
27 – “Midnight in Paris” (2011)
Tourism bureaus in every nation got the message – invite Woody Allen shoot there. (Alas, “To Rome With Love” wasn’t quite the follow up Italy was expecting, but points for trying.)
Woody’s love letter to Paris, romance and day dreams is ridiculously watchable, and this became the biggest financial success of Woody’s career. It’s roots are the simple fantasy experiments found in his New Yorker short stories like “The Kugelmass Episode.” The Allen proxy (Owen Wilson) is a frustrated writer who is transported back to the parties and company of the Lost Generation. While there he meets the love of his life (Marion Cotillard) who, naturally, is equally disaffected and longs for La Belle Époque. Well, wherever you go, there you are. Bonus points for a joke that means nothing if you aren’t up on your Bunuel.
26 – “Hollywood Ending” (2002)
Leave your scathing comments below. No, this isn’t a formatting error. Yes, I am purposely placing this much maligned film this high on the list. It’s funny. It’s really funny. The scene where Woody flips out at Tea Leoni in the restaurant is fantastic. Every dopey moment when Woody, secretly suffering from hysterical blindness on a movie set, makes some dumbass and predictable joke kills me. Woody’s revelatory punchline of “it looks like a blind man made this!” knocked me out of my chair with laughter and the added cherry of him becoming a hit in France destroyed me. Maybe I’m the only one but I love this idiotic movie.
HEAD OVER TO PAGE 2 TO SEE OUR PICKS FOR THE TOP 25 WOODY ALLEN FILMS.
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