Monday, April 4, 2011

the Directors: Woody Allen

My New Year’s resolution for 2011 was to read at least one classic work of fiction a month.  Fifteen pages into "Lord of the Flies" and my resolution turned into a big fat fail.  Instead, I decided to pick a director each month and watch his or her entire body of work.  And who better to start with than one of America’s most prolific directors?

Woody Allen has made nearly one movie a year since 1971.  They aren’t all great (some aren’t even good) but they’re the work of one of the most original auteurs to ever focus a lens.

In examining Woody’s entire filmography, I discovered a few hidden gems, rediscovered a slew of classics, and rolled my eyes at some real duds.  For better or worse, here is an examination of the career of everyone’s favorite pontificating filmmaker.

(Note: a majority of the facts in these brief reviews were pulled from Eric Lax’s book, “Conversations with Woody Allen”)

1966 – What’s Up, Tiger Lily?
As Woody informs us during the opening scene, he purchased a James Bondian Japanese flick, deleted the soundtrack and added his own dialogue, turning the film into a comedy.  The resulting film is a sloppy, incoherent, and just plain dumb B-movie mess.  Which, I suspect, is exactly what Woody was going for.  (To be fair, Woody doesn’t consider this his first film, but still, it is in no way worth your time.) D+

1969 – Take the Money and Run
Woody plays a bumbling thief who spends his life in and out of prison for failing to pull off half-assed heists.  Although it’s a step up from What’s Up, Tiger Lily (but what wouldn’t be?), Take the Money and Run, and its deadpan humor, doesn’t live up to Woody’s later work.  It is, however, a spirited hint at what is to soon come. C

1971 – Bananas
Woody is off and running as a fumbling dope who somehow gets engulfed with a fascist Latin American militant group.  The opening and closing scenes, commentated on screen by Howard Cossell, are easily the film’s highlights.  B-

1972 – Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But were afraid to ask
Amusing vignettes comically explore taboo sex topics.  It’s hard to choose a favorite: Gene Wilder falling in love with a sheep? A black and white pseudo melodrama about a woman who can only achieve an orgasm in public? Burt Reynolds as the commander inside of a man’s reproductive organ? Oh, and I forgot the giant nipple.  Check it out, you’ll at least like some of the chapters.  B+

1973 – Sleeper
Woody’s first big hit places him as a nerdy store owner who is accidently cryogenically frozen, and woken up several hundred years later to ward off an oppressive government. Sleeper is fun, with some inspired Charlie Chaplinesque gags, but, perhaps most importantly, it marks Woody’s first film with his first muse, Diane Keaton.  B

1975 – Love and Death
This standard Woody Allen deadpan riff casts the director as a bumbling soldier who is convinced by his cousin/love interest (Diane Keaton) to assassinate Napoleon.  Like most of Woody’s films during this period, the humor is either Marxist slapstick or Monty Python satire.  But, despite its closing references to the great Ingmar Bergman (Woody’s favorite director) Love and Death doesn’t really pan out. C-

1977 – Annie Hall
Woody’s most famous film may not be his best, but its damn close.  The multi narrative flick, which chronicles the trials and tribulations of Annie Hall and Alvy Singer, nabbed a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture, over a little film called Star Wars.  Time proves that the latter film may have been slightly more influential to the medium, but that doesn’t make Annie Hall any less delightful.  If, for some odd reason, you haven’t seen Annie Hall, then check it out.  It’s a comedy classic, and one of Woody Allen’s more accessible films.  A

1978 – Interiors
I’ll get this out of the way now: unlike most people, I far enjoy Woody’s dramas to his comedies.  After the success of Annie Hall, Woody went straight melodramatic with this Bergmanesque family drama that details how three grown sisters come to terms with their parent’s divorce.  The look of the film, anchored by Gordon Willis’ astonishing cinematography, is a definite highlight.  Interiors is, arguably, the most bold film of Woody’s career.  Gut wrenching and daring, it is not to be missed. A

1979 – Manhattan
Woody’s first masterpiece is a black and white comedy that begins with a classic opening monologue and never dares to slow its pace. The greatly complicated love story is one of Woody’s most ambitious, thought out ventures. Manhattan is one of the best films of the ‘70s, which, you know, is saying a lot.  A+

1980 – Stardust Memories
This hidden gem has Woody flexing his inner Fellini à la his own version of 8 ½.  A successful comedy director attends a film festival showcasing his work and is overtaken by fans, press, beggars, choosers and so on.  Some found the film too autobiographical and narcissistic upon its release, but I think it’s a fascinating examination into the psyche of an artist’s tortured mind.  As soon as I finished my first viewing, I immediately watched it again. One of Woody’s very best. A+

1982 – A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy
Three couples meet for long weekend at a secluded cabin circa 1900.  Everyone falls for everyone else.  Mildly humorous shenanigans ensue.  Chaos reigns supreme.  Eh.  Light at the end of the tunnel: Mia Farrow.  Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy marked the first film of their often brilliant collaboration.  C

1983 – Zelig
Woody plays Zelig, an impersonator who pops up throughout American history. The film amusingly (and wholly convincingly) mixes actual newsreel footage with fake events.  It’s interesting, but not too memorable.  It should be noted that this is one of Woody’s personal favorite films that he has made.  B

1984 – Broadway Danny Rose
Amusingly layered tale about an ex standup comedian (Woody) who now manages a once-popular comedian vying for a comeback.  Woody suffers from a case of wrong identity when he is mistaken as the lover of the comedian’s mistress (a never better Mia Farrow).  If it sounds complicated, don’t worry, it’s not.  It’s fun and fast, with a subtle resolution.  To reiterate, this film contains, for my money, the best performance is Mia Farrow’s career.  Where’s her Oscar?  A

1985 – The Purple Rose of Cairo
In this clever flick, Mia Farrow sees a fictional film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, so many times that a character from it actually comes out of the screen to be with her.  Despite its satirical content matter, the film is done seriously and with thought.  The result is a well intentioned and well executed gem. The end will surely melt your heart.  A

1986 – Hannah and Her Sisters
Another Woody classic chronicles three sisters as they fall for each other’s lovers and exes.  At times deadly funny, then suddenly deadly serious, Hannah and Her Sisters is compulsively rewatchable and always well regarded.  The entire cast, namely Michael Caine, Max von Sydow and Diane Wiest, are remarkable. A

1987 – Radio Days
Another one of Woody’s personal favorites is this autobiographical film which recounts a lower class family during the Golden Age of radio.  The movie is filled with several inspired scenes, and never fails to hit its mark. It’d be the perfect flick to watch with your grandparents.  B

1987 – September
Six people spend a weekend together in a secluded Vermont home right as summer is ending.  Love falls in, love falls out, all conveyed through emotionally grueling performances.  If you’re going to make a movie as an exercise in acting, then the performances need to soar.  Mia Farrow, as a repressed, aimless woman and Elaine Stritch as her overbearing, offensive mother, are utterly flawless.  And while the rest of the cast isn’t bad, the material they’re given isn’t very compelling. B+

1988 – Another Woman
What a hell of a find Another Woman is, a movie I, quite frankly, had never ever heard of.  Gena Rowlands stars as emotionally repressed writer, who decides to chronicle her suffering marriage and other past relationships in her new book.  Without giving too much away, the film masterfully cross cuts between multiple narratives (we are given moments from her past, from her present, and from her book, which may or may not be fictionalized).  In addition to the impeccable Rowlands, Mia Farrow, Gene Hackman, Ian Holm and virtually every other actor rival the best performances they’ve ever given.  Another Woman is a Woody Allen drama done right, very very right.  I’ve seen the man’s entire body of work, and I can confidently assert that Another Woman is the best film Woody Allen has ever made.  A+

1989 – Crimes and Misdemeanors
Here’s the thing, Crimes and Misdemeanors contains a brilliantly realized drama, in which Martin Landau plots to have his mistress killed after she threatens to expose their affair.  Problem is, the film also contains another subplot, in which Woody plays a documentarian flirting with the idea of an affair.  Woody’s section barely hangs on, seriously detracting us from the superior Landau segment.  Regardless, this is still a great film.  A-

1989 – New York Stories, Oedipus Wrecks segment
You’d think teaming up Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen for an anthology film about New York-set love stories would be a big hit.  Well, not so much.  Scorsese’s segment, about a suffering painter, is a rapidly paced expose into the underground art world. Coppola’s, about a spoiled rich girl, is a total bore.  Which leaves us Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks, about a straight-laced lawyer’s suffering relationship with his domineering mother.  The short film is fine in the beginning, but once Allen’s mother disappears (and ultimately reappears in an absurd manner) the film becomes an eye-rolling waste.  Oedipus Wrecks: C-

1990 – Alice
Alice has the makings of a perfectly good, domestic dramedy, until unhappily married Mia Farrow takes an herb prescribed by her acupuncturist that turns in temporarily invisible. After that, this deliberately paced tail of marriage gone awry turns into an exhausted farce.  If your film takes place in reality, but is rooted in fantasy (i.e. The Purple Rose of Cairo), then you have to have full confidence in what you’re doing to pull it off.  Save its spirited cast, Alice lacks almost any shred of confidence. C+

1991 – Shadows and Fog
Woody’s comedic answer to Fritz Lang’s M, this moody, black and white film, shot entirely on a giant soundstage, follows a slew of villagers around for a night as they hunt down an ominous strangler.  Of course, Woody manages to fit in bouts of adultery, life-after-death puzzlement, and loads of stammering dialogue.  The constant cameos are fun, but the film as a whole is a misfire.  C

1992 – Husbands and Wives
Essentially, Husbands and Wives is about two couples struggling through their failing marriages. But there’s way more going on here.  Woody has said that he wanted this film, in terms of technique, to be raw and dirty, which ultimately suits it perfectly.  Carlo Di Palma’s shaky, constantly moving camera produces the best work for his impressive career.  The editing is jumpy, the continuity is off, the pacing is up and down; but for some reason, it all works flawlessly.  The opening scene of this film, in which the two couples argue during one long, unbroken shot, may very well be the best scene of Woody’s career.  A truly great film.  A+

1993 – Manhattan Murder Mystery
Moving along in the same herky-jerky vein as Husbands and Wives, Manhattan Murder Mystery teams Woody and Diane Keaton for the first time in years, to great results.  The two play a married couple spying on their older neighbor, who may or may not have killed his wife.  The final product is an often exciting, always hilarious whodunit.  Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston give superb supporting performances.  A-

1994 – Bullets Over Broadway
A great, fumbling John Cusack fills the Woody Allen roll as a playwright who sells out to direct his first production in 1920s New York.  The story follows the comedic vicissitudes of pre-production with whimsical fury.  As with most of Woody’s films, the acting is perfect.  In addition to Cusack, there’s Diane Wiest (who won her second Oscar for a Woody-directed performance) as a famous actress with a Betty Davis-sized ego, Chazz Palmentri as a gangster with a hidden, natural talent, Jennifer Tilly as a no-talent shrill, and Jim Broadbent, Mary Louise-Parker and Tracy Ullman rounding out the supporting roles.  Thoroughly enjoyable. B+

1995 – Mighty Aphrodite
What starts out as a typical marriage-in-crisis dramedy quickly becomes something much more worthwhile.  Which is to say, the film is rather stale, until Mira Sorvino comes on screen.  In an Oscar winning performance, Sorvino nails it as a high pitched, aimless hooker with a heart of gold and a head full of hot air. She makes what could be standard Woody fare completely unmissable.  Her foul, profane character is completely unlike any other Woody incarnation.  The result is a shocking, can’t-catch-your-breath performance, rooted in an overall decent film.  B

1996 – Everyone Says I Love You
With a great, varied cast, Woody’s first and only musical to date is a delightfully fresh take on his recycled family-in-turmoil formula.  Every member of the cast (including newbie Edward Norton) is spot on.  The musical numbers are whimsical and poignant, and the denouement is as delightful as anything Woody has put on film.  Genuinely pleasing. B+

1997 – Deconstructing Harry
Here’s a trippy idea: characters from a writer’s old books come back to teach him life lessons, while at the same time being mixed in with actual events from the writer’s life.  The point, I think, is Woody’s demonstration about how life often imitates art, and vice versa.  Also, Woody has said he made this movie as a way to rebuke critical assertions that the characters he often plays in his films are exactly like him in real life.  Regardless, this is an evolving, witty film that you get more out of which each viewing.  A-

1998 – Celebrity
I’ve read a few reviews since watching this film, and to my surprise, Celebrity was universally panned.  The movie, about an incompetent celebrity writer, has a great cast, is shot in gorgeous black and white by genius Sven Nykvist, and is capped with a real thinker of an ending.  All of the criticism seems to stem from one thing: Kenneth Branagh as the lead.  This shouldn’t be an issue, expect that Branagh’s performance is basically a two hour Woody Allen impression.  The fumbling words, the flimsy mannerisms, it’s Woody personified.  Probably would’ve worked out better if Branagh had just created his own unique character.  Or Woody played the damn thing himself.  Oh well, I still enjoyed it. B+

1999 – Sweet and Lowdown
Sean Penn is perfect as ever playing a cocky musician who can’t get anything right – love, women, finances – except his guitar playing.  Woody manages to, of course, sneak in some great one liners, but I considered this a morality tale, rooted in flaking desperation.  Samantha Morton, as Penn’s mute girlfriend, is perfectly cast against Penn’s loud and animated character.  It’s nearly impossible to picture any other actors in their roles. B+

2000 – Small Time Crooks
Woody, in a clear homage to this Take the Money and Run character, plays a bumbling thief who, with the help of some clumsy accomplices, attempts to break into a bank vault by digging a tunnel underground.  An amusing first act is completely ruined when all the main principals involved become fabulously wealthy from the success of a cookie store front, soon finding themselves unable to adapt to the rich and famous lifestyle.  Tracey Ullman, however, is the only redeeming part of the film. C-

2001 – The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Woody often cites The Curse of the Jade Scorpion as his worst film.  While it is in no way up to par with some of his other work, it’s not that bad.  The story, which involves Woody as an insurance claims investigator in New York City circa 1940, gets muddled down by a hypnosis subplot, but isn’t a complete waste.  I particularly enjoyed the reoccurring gag in which Helen Hunt and Dan Aykroyd (who are secretly having an affair) mention Paris in public as their way of covertly hinting that they are thinking of one another.  It’s a cute gesture, hidden in a seemingly forgotten film.  D+

2002 – Hollywood Ending
Hollywood Ending was the personal biggest surprise of Woody’s career.  He thought everything worked.  The story - about an aging film director who is hired by his ex wife (now a studio head) to make a new film, only to go blind a few days before shooting - the cast, the look; Woody thought it all fit seamlessly.  Audiences and critics, however, did not.  In an ironic turn of events, Hollywood Ending did horribly in the States, but was revered overseas, which is exactly what happens to the movie within the movie.  It isn’t Woody’s best, but I have nothing intrusively negative to say about it, either.  B

2003 – Anything Else
Now, in terms of Woody’s worst film, Anything Else is right up there.  Jason Biggs stars as a comedy writer suffering through a tiresome relationship with an attractive, malcontent woman (Christina Ricci).  The film, and Biggs’ constant breaking of the fourth wall, is utterly unnecessary and gets old quickly. The fact that Woody casts himself as a paranoid mentor, who virtually serves no purpose to the overall story, makes the experience that much more grueling to sit through.  Save Darid Khondji’s warm cinematography, Anything Else is skippable in every way. D

2004 – Melinda and Melinda
Here’s a flick that has never been given the credit it deserves.  It’s a movie that crosscuts to different versions of the same story: one as told from the dramatic perspective and the other from the comedic perspective.  The great Radha Mitchell deserved an Oscar nomination for her layered work as the floozy, ever-so-complicated Melinda.  An ever-impressive supporting cast makes this film most definitely worthy of your time.  A-

2005 – Match Point
Match Point is Woody Allen’s favorite film that he has made.  If that doesn’t make you want to see it, then I don’t know what will.  The dramatic film concerns an ex tennis pro who marries into wealth but is secretly having a steamy affair.  Everything about the movie is utterly masterful: the breezy, smooth editing, the layered acting, the dark cinematography, the twisty plot turns; it’s all the work of a master at the top of his game.  A great film. A+

2006 – Scoop
A decent murder mystery, in which a journalism student suspects a wealthy British man of being a serial killer, is completely botched by incorporating ghosts, Woody Allen’s useless character, and too many flat jokes to ignore.  Maybe Woody was startled by the critical success afforded to him after Match Point?  I’m not sure, but Scoop has would-be greatness, which makes it that much more of a letdown.  After this film’s release, Woody realized that it may be time to retire his onscreen persona.  Probably not a bad idea.  C-

2007 – Cassandra’s Dream
Another great, twisty dramatic mystery in the vein of Match Point pits Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell as brothers desperately in need of cash.  When they ask their wealthy uncle (Tom Wilkinson) for some dough, he counters with another offer: that they murder his business competitor in exchange for much more money than they initially asked for.  No need to divulge further plot details.  Cassandra’s Dream is good, really good.  I wish Woody would go back to making these kinds of films. A-

2008 – Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Woody’s latest venture outside of NYC chronicles one summer as Vicky and Cristina fall for the same guy (at different times) and discover themselves along the way.  The film, which earned Penelope Cruz an Oscar for her fiery performance, is perfectly pleasant.  Take the pointless narration out of it, and you have near greatness.  Otherwise, pleasant will have to do.  B

2009 – Whatever Works
Larry David fits pretty well into the Woody Allen role as a genius scientist who has virtually no faith in the human condition.  He falls for a much younger woman and isn’t at all surprised when she leaves him for a man her age.  Corky, off beat and never shy of breaking the fourth wall, Whatever Works puts Woody back into familiar territory after spending his past few pictures seriously testing himself.  The result is nothing more than standard Woody Allen fare, with a far too bow tied resolution.  C-

2010 – You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
This intertwined story about the pitfalls and pratfalls of a family in London is filled with a series of subplots, none of which every really hit their mark.  Anthony Hopkins marries a much younger woman to disastrous results, Naomi Watts falls for her boss, Josh Brolin falls for an attractive neighbor, and on and on.  Woody has said it himself: that a great cast, a great look and a great design can’t save a film that has a weak story.  Case in point. C

2011 – Midnight in Paris
I’m a little weary about casting Owen Wilson in the lead role, but with a supporting cast by the likes of Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen, and Adrien Brody, it’s enough to get me there.  Midnight in Paris will be released May 20, check out the trailer here.

In Summation:
Stardust Memories
Another Woman
Husbands and Wives
Match Point

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But were afraid to ask
Annie Hall
Broadway Danny Rose
The Purple Rose of Cairo
Hannah and Her Sisters
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Manhattan Murder Mystery
Deconstructing Harry
Melinda and Melinda
Cassandra’s Dream

Radio Days
Bullets Over Broadway
Mighty Aphrodite
Everyone Says I Love You
Sweet and Lowdown
Hollywood Ending
Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Take the Money and Run
Love and Death
A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy
Oedipus Wrecks
Shadows and Fog
Small Time Crooks
Whatever Works
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Just Plain Bad
What’s Up, Tiger Lily
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Anything Else

(As of April 4, 2011, What’s Up, Tiger Lily; A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy; Another Woman; Alice; Shadows and Fog; and Manhattan Murder Mystery are available on Netflix Instant)


  1. My partner and I really enjoyed reading this blog post, I was just itching to know do you trade featured posts? I am always trying to find someone to make trades with and merely thought I would ask.

  2. I'm definitely not opposed to the idea. What kind of blog do you run? E-mail me at if you'd like to discuss further.

    And thanks for reading.

  3. A really interesting post, I know now that I definitely need to watch more Woody Allen.

    1. Ahh I love Woody Allen. What are your favorite films of his?

  4. This is fantastic. Makes me want to delve into more of Allen's work.

    1. Thanks man! He's made some truly classic works of art. What's your favorite Allen flick?

  5. Great post and I agree with all of your reviews on his films. It's not easy to have a hit all the time when you make a movie a year, but kudos to him for doing it

    1. Awesome man, so cool we agree here! Yeah, Woody doesn't always make great films, but I definitely give him credit for making them period.

  6. I have to see "Another Woman" now. Some nice insights. My only glaring point of note is your mention of Tracey Ullman being the only redeeming aspect of the disappointing "Small Time Crooks." Let us not forget the great Elaine May.

    1. Ahh fair enough, I could definitely stand to give Small Time Crooks another go. That'll be my homework. Yours is to check out Another Woman!

  7. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy is a bad remake of Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). It's the only Woody Allen which received a Razzie nomination, for Mia Farrow.

    1. Yeah, that one has never done it for me. Funny that their first film together was one of their weakest.

  8. I have this notion in my head that I don't like Woody Allen's films. And yet I can't point to one that I can definitely say that I actually saw. And thus disliked. So where do I start? What should I watch with the suggestion of, "Try this. If you don't like this one, you probably DON'T actually like his films."

    1. Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters are the best, most "Woody Allen" Woody Allen movies. If you don't like those, then I highly doubt you'll like his other stuff. Though his superb dramas (Interiors, Another Woman, Match Point) are totally different from his typical "Woody Allen" type of films.

  9. I'm putting those six on my list and then I'll get back to you.

    1. Cool man. And for the record, I far prefer his heavy dramas than comedies.

    2. I tried the three comedies. I managed about twenty minutes of each.

      I switched to the end of the list - maybe a drama closer to the modern era would work for me. I made it about half an hour into Match Point.

      At least now I know WHY I don't like him though. Angsty/neurotic/hypochondriac humor/commentary just doesn't work for me. Ever. I find it not funny, but rather egomaniacal/selfish/greedy. So when he's on screen, then I'm taken right out of the moment. And when he's not, I still hear it in the writing.

      So, not for me. Back to the other million movies on my to watch list...

    3. Yeah, definitely not for you, but all good. Cool of you to give the movies a shot though.

  10. I can't say I enjoy Woody Allen films so much. I watched Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But were afraid to ask, Annie Hall and Vicky Cristina Barcelona but I can't say I enjoyed them so much. Although my father says that you need be married to enjoy the films so much. Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine are the only ones that I love watching, but I need to see more Woody Allen films. What did you think about Magic in the Moonlight? (What grade it get?)

    1. I'd give Magic in the Moonlight a D+. It's just all fluff, you know? Allen's films are about 50/50 for me. I love some, hate others, and like many.