Woody Allen. Say what you will about his personal life (go on, he can take it), he’s probably the most unappreciated living American director, despite more than 45 years of making classic movies. He’s probably more respected as a screenwriter than a filmmaker, with 14 Academy Award nominations for his screenplays (more than any other writer) and two wins, for Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters. He’s also won Best Director for Annie Hall, and this year he seems destined to get at least one or two more nominations for his latest – and now most financially successful – film, Midnight in Paris, which finds struggling novelist Owen Wilson transported back in time to the heyday of the Parisian night life, interacting with Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald as he figures out his troubled romantic situation.
The film has earned Allen some of his best reviews since 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway, and called attention to the fact that he may be hit-or-miss, particularly miss lately perhaps, but he’s made more classic films than you can shake the mightiest stick at. Despite certain storytelling predilections – he didn’t invent the love triangle but he certainly perfected it – he’s been consistently challenging himself for years with unexpected cinematic techniques that, more often than not, pay off. Midnight in Paris is available on home video, so if you’re just now discovering the film – or Allen’s work in general – here’s this week’s Five Great Movies, focusing on five of the best, but not necessarily the best, films in the comedian-turned-dramatist’s career.
LOVE AND DEATH (1975)
Many people claim to prefer the “earlier, funnier” Woody Allen films over his high-minded later dramas, and it’s hard to blame them. They’re funny as hell. This period ranged from 1966’s What’s Up Tiger Lily?, in which Allen overdubbed a ridiculous Chinese James Bond rip-off with absurdist dialogue, right up to Love and Death, one of his most unusual and hilarious films. Allen was one of America’s biggest comedy figures at the time, which was probably a good thing, since anyone else who pitched an over-the-top satire of Russian novels and Swedish art house movies would have probably been thrown off the studio lot. In the film, Allen plays Boris Grushenko, a Russian pacifist and intellectual who runs off to the Napoleonic Wars after the object of his affection, played by Diane Keaton, gets engaged to a herring merchant. Grushenko’s ridiculous life takes him from the front to gentlemanly duels to a gutbusting attempt to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte.
The highlight may be young Grushenko’s brush with Death in the middle of a field. Says Death, “You’re an interesting young man. We’ll meet again.” “Don’t bother,” Grushenko replies. Says Death: “It’s no bother…” Love and Death is so full of ridiculous puns and broad literary humor that it’s kind of like Airplane! if it was made for liberal arts majors.
ANNIE HALL (1977)
To some folks, Annie Hall is just “that film that won Best Picture over Star Wars.” That’s pretty sad, because Annie Hall is one of the great cinematic romances, and utterly deserving of accolades. Woody Allen had explored his own neurotic romantic thoughts before in the likes of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask and Play It Again, Sam (which Allen wrote but was actually directed by Herbert Ross), but Annie Hall was a revelation: an honest, witty and hypercritical look at the ups and downs of a love affair and all the pain, hope and anxiety that comes with even the greatest couplings.
Allen plays Alvie Singer, a New York comedian who falls for a flighty firebrand named Annie Hall, played by Diane Keaton (who won an Academy Award for her now-iconic performance). Allen’s playing himself, like usual, but Annie Hall feels particularly insightful, as it takes his ultra-subjective view on love and life in general as he endures one tribulation after the other in the search for a woman who, like him, just wants to watch the depressing World War II documentary The Sorrow and the Pity over and over again. Somehow by making the movie extremely personal, he made Annie Hall all the more universal. Alvie and Annie fight lobsters, team up with Marshal McLuhan and fall in and out of love throughout the course of the film, which ends with the accurate observation that falling in love drives us nuts, but damn it, we need the eggs. The longer you live, the truer its message gets. Annie Hall really is one of the classics.
CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989)
As Allen aged, his films got more complicated and, frankly, wiser. Case in point: Crimes and Misdemeanors, a strange and deep drama whose message was completely lost on me when I first watched it as a teenager, when I was unable to fully appreciate the connection between the film’s dual protagonists. Then I got older and revisited this dark story, and discovered to my pleasure that it’s one of Woody Allen’s finest films, and that the connective tissue is stronger than a mere storyline.
Crimes and Misdemeanors tells two stories which, for the longest time, have seemingly no connection. On the Woody Allen side of things, the director plays Cliff Stern, a married documentary filmmaker who falls in love with another woman, played by Allen’s then-wife Mia Farrow. Cliff hates his brash brother-in-law, played by Alan Alda, and lashes out against him in passive-aggressive ways while ineffectually wooing this other woman. Meanwhile, ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau, Oscar-nominated) can’t extricate himself from an extramarital affair with Angelica Huston, and finally pays to have her killed. Yes, the connection is hard to see, but when the two characters meet randomly at the end of the film, and have a frank and mature conversation about their problems, Crimes and Misdemeanors drives home ugly truths about the the harsh connection between personal gain and moral consequence.
HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992)
One of Woody Allen’s harshest and most unappreciated films, Husbands and Wives gained some notoriety because its release coincided with the famed, scandalous dissolution of Allen and Mia Farrow’s marriage. It didn’t help that the film told the story of two characters played by Allen and Farrow, whose marriage brutally dissolves on screen. Allen insists that the film Husbands and Wives isn’t overtly autobiographical, but the film’s portrayal of human weakness and failed personal connections make it so universal that it could be about to any aborted long-term romance.
Allen and Farrow play Gabe and Judy, a married couple who are shocked when their best friends Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis, Oscar-nominated for her performance) announce that they’re separating. Jack gets himself a new trophy girlfriend and Sally, who claimed she was comfortable with the separation, is overcome by jealousy. Meanwhile, Gabe and Judy deal with parallel scenarios as he falls for a much-younger student (Juliette Lewis) and Judy goads Sally into a relationship with a co-worker (Liam Neeson), with whom she herself has a crush. Allen uses an unusual documentary-inspired style to shoot Husbands and Wives, and edits the film in a clipped, unexpected manner that calls attention to the subtle nuances of the characters as they pull themselves both towards each other and apart. Rarely have the intricacies of serious, committed relationships ever been so honestly depicted in a film. Husbands and Wives isn’t Allen’s most famous film, but it’s one of his best.
MATCH POINT (2005)
Woody Allen doesn’t like most of his own films. Even Manhattan, considered by many to be one of his masterpieces, displeased him so much that he tried to prevent its release. He’s famously claimed that of all his movies, only three have actually made him proud: The Purple Rose of Cairo, a great film I almost included on the list, Husbands and Wives and Match Point, which is my own personal favorite of his works. Allen transported himself to England to make this film, a cold and efficient thriller that touches upon his predilections with love triangles but infuses them with a new, raw sexuality and a truly Hitchcockian level of suspense.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Chris Wilton, a former tennis pro who woos a young heiress (Emily Mortimer) in the hopes of a simple, successful life. He doesn’t seem to like her very much. In fact, the object of his passion is none other than her brother’s girlfriend Nola (Scarlett Johansson). But when Nola threatens Chris’s prosperity, he’s forced to make a horrifying, and brilliantly criminal decision. Ruining the film’s twists and turns would be a crime in-and-of itself, but suffice it say that Allen gives his vile protagonist an unexpected humanity, and deftly segues into a dark, surprising finale that’s as disturbing as it is honest. Match Point really is an amazing film.
Not your favorite Woody Allen movies? Shout back with your own picks in the comments, and come back next week for more Five Great Movies!