Woody Allen’s career has been a strange one. As a director he goes all the way to the heyday of the so-called American auteur-the 1970s-and he has won his fair share of critical accolades. Public outpouring of love for Woody Allen has not been as forthcoming, of course. Even Annie Hall was hardly a runaway blockbuster. Woody started out making deceptively silly movies before Annie Hall and Manhattan turned him into a “serious director.” So jarring was the leap between something like Bananas to Manhattan to most people that there still exists this ridiculous bifurcation between Woody Allen’s “funny” movies and his “serious” comedies. (We’ll put such direct dramas as Interiors and Another Woman aside for the moment.) Of course, anyone looking closely at movies like Sleeper and Take the Money and Run can find serious themes throughout; in fact, Sleeper should be taken far more seriously than Interiors which is basically just third rate Ingmar Bergman.
10. Shadows and Fog.
Maybe it’s because I love black and white B-horror movies and German expressionist cinema or maybe it’s because I’m a big fan of Franz Kafka or maybe it’s because Madonna is only in it for about two minutes, but I absolutely love this movie. From the simply stunning 380-degree sequence in the bordello to the hilarious sequence involving Woody’s problem with the drink, this is without question one of Woody Allen’s most ridiculously underappreciated movies. Most people have probably never even seen it, not because it was the recipient of the typical underwhelming marketing campaign of a Woody Allen movie but because it was slammed by critics who-just as they did with Zelig-failed to understand that serious doesn’t necessarily equal BIG. This is a small movie, but with many big ideas. Netflix it for sure.
9. Hannah and Her Sisters.
It may be hard to believe it now, but at the time this movie came out there was actually talk of creating a new Pulitzer Price category for screenplay based on the brilliance of Woody’s screenplay for Hannah and Her Sisters. Yeah, I know, but still it’s a cracking good piece of Woody moviemaking. Michael Caine got all the attention, but I really prefer the subplot about Woody’s character trying to come to grips with death. Apart from Broadway Danny Rose, I think Hannah and Her Sisters contains Woody Allen’s best acting performance ever.
As funny a science fiction film as Battlefield Earth. Only Sleeper was intended to be funny. Woody Allen masquerading as a horny android, I mean what more could you want? Well, how about Woody slipping and doing pratfalls on a gigantic banana peel or holding a human nose hostage? Yeah, if you’re scratching your head wondering what in the heck this movie is about, it’s time to turn off Grey’s Anatomy and Netflix Sleeper.
7. Love and Death.
The pre-serious Woody Allen. And yet here is a film that is influenced by everything from Ingmar Bergman to Tolstoy. You want to tell me this movie isn’t every bit as serious as September? My favorite scene in Love and Death is the one where Woody is forced to take part in a duel and he shoots into the air only to have the bullet come straight back down and hit in the arm.
6. Purple Rose of Cairo.
Yeah, it’s kind of like smashing together Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis and Frank Capra, but somehow that mismatched combination works. It’s got an unbeatable premise-what would happen if a movie character stepped out the screen and into real life-but then it ups the ante by introducing the idea of the actor who plays that character being a completely separate entity. There is so much going on in Purple Rose of Cairo that it has to be viewed multiple times to get all the nuances.
5. Annie Hall.
I’m telling you right now that Manhattan didn’t make the list. I consider Annie Hall to be leagues above Manhattan which is just a little too cold and show-offy to me. But make no mistake, Annie Hall deserved that Oscar. It’s really difficult to pick the funniest scene in this movie: is it the subtitled conversation, the flashback to the Alvy’s school days, Alvy driving a car, Annie driving a car, or what? This movie is wall to wall funny and that ain’t not good.
4. Radio Days.
Considered one of Woody Allen’s lighter comedies, this would made a terrific companion piece to A Christmas Story. It has the same feel for the period, it centers around a similar kind of kid-though transplanted to a big city Jewish milieu-and it’s almost as funny. It’s a nostalgic look back at a simpler time and while it avoids some of the bigger issues that Woody Allen confronts in other movies, it may very well be his most enjoyable. Besides, it is worth it for the sequence that pays homage to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast alone.
3. Broadway Danny Rose.
There are two reason to Netflix this one: Mia Farrow and the sequence with the Thanksgiving Parade floats spewing helium. First, Mia Farrow. When you look back on it now, I think Mia Farrow gives Meryl Streep a run for the title best actress of the 80s. Almost all-maybe all-of her work was done in Woody’s movies, and while Broadway Danny Rose is absolutely her best work ever, think back to her performances in Hannah and Her Sisters, Zelig, Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days and Crimes & Misdemeanors and how can you argue that she was any less impressive than Streep? My favorite scene in any Woody Allen movie, however, is the chase scene through a big warehouse holding helium balloons. When bullets start flying all the characters begin talking in high-pitched helium silliness. It’s classic.
2. Bullets Over Broadway.
This one tackles the age old bifurcation between art and commerce in which the expectations are completely upended. The idealistic, liberal, seemingly committed artist who seems as though he will never sell out-played by John Cusack in what increasingly appears to be not that much of a stretch-turns out to possess far less of the heart of an artist than the killer gangster played by Chazz Palmintieri. This one is also worthwhile for the best performances so far from Jennifer Tilly and Dianne Wiest.
Far more than just my favorite Woody Allen movie, this is one of my top five movies of all time. What Forrest Gump does as a gimmick is an integral thematic component of Zelig. Unfortunately, most critics couldn’t get past the brilliant technological achievement of putting Woody Allen seamlessly into old newsreel footage from the 30s and 40s. But when you get past that and you see what Woody Allen is really tackling here, it takes your breath away. Zelig is a man with no identity of his own so he must take on not only the physical characteristic but the personality of those around him. He is a complete cipher who constructs a personality based on needs and expectations. In a very real way, everyone you know is Zelig.