Top Ten Woody

Woody Allen

Ever since I posted my top ten Robert Altman films, I meant to do the same for Woody Allen. Now, with this article making the rounds and Blue Jasmine opening in Boston soon (possibly his best-reviewed film since this one), it’s an ideal time to deconstruct his filmography. Sometime in the late 90s, I could proudly say I’d seen all his works except for about five. That number’s now at a dozen, and I’m considering trying to watch them all (even Anything Else!) in the next year. For now, my ten favorites (and I’m only counting features he directed):

broadway danny rose

Woody as small-time talent agent is one of his more inspired onscreen professions, but this unusually melancholy comedy really takes off whenever a nearly unrecognizable Mia Farrow appears as a Long Island mob princess—an unlikely role for her, but one she impressively disappears into.


John Cusack’s not the best Woody surrogate (though he’s far from the worst), but everything else regarding this screwball period romp is divine. Dianne Wiest’s overtly theatrical ingénue, of course, is one of Woody’s best characters ever, but the sublimely ridiculous parts inhabited by Jennifer Tilly, Tracey Ullman, Chazz Palminteri and Jim Broadbent all aren’t too shabby, either.


Possibly his most divisive late-period film, I understand how its vulgarity and relentless craftiness may seem off-putting to some, but I applaud those qualities and marvel at his “fuck it all, this is who I sometimes am” attitude that’s refreshing and bold in face of all the toothless comedies he’s churned out since.


7. RADIO DAYS (1987)
Truly a sentimental favorite since it was the first Woody film I ever saw due to incessant cable airings a year after its theatrical run. Although nostalgia’s a topic Allen rarely utilizes (with the exception of Midnight in Paris and another title further up this list), he’s a master at employing it for all the best reasons while still carrying a healthy dose of skepticism, full well knowing that the past isn’t always as ideal as one remembers it.


6. LOVE AND DEATH (1975)
Farrow may have essential roles in three (arguably four) titles on this list, but like most people, I still believe no one was a better foil for the director than Diane Keaton. The last of his early madcap comedies, this funhouse mirror reflection on Russian literature and Swedish cinema would be nothing but a series of silly gags without Keaton, who’s just as funny as (and often more so than) Allen.


One of Allen’s most structurally disciplined efforts (its closest rival just missed this list), it also has one of his strongest ensembles, from Michael Caine, who serves as Woody’s dramatic inverse to Dianne Wiest as his distaff one. Farrow’s character seems only present as a titular figurehead until you realize, subtly, how crucial that is in a cast full of Woody variations.


Rarely has he blended melodrama and hilarity so seamlessly. On top of that, he places them within an inventive, entertaining framework. It’s his ultimate comment on the act of watching movies, the nostalgia of wanting to be in the movies and the sober realization in trying to reconcile the desire of what should be with what is. Everyone talks about the 1970s as Allen’s most fertile period, but the run from Zelig to Radio Days (in which this appears) is nearly as remarkable.


3. SLEEPER (1973)
Hands down, his funniest picture, nearly up there with Airplane! in its laugh-per-minute ratio. The delightfully absurd premise (mensch wakes up 200 years in the future) allows Allen extended reign over an endless assortment of visual, aural and conceptual gags. By the time he and Keaton reenact a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire (with Woody as Blanche) or attempt to clone a man with only his nose at their disposal, you’ll fully comprehend why, when he began making more dramas, some people wished he’d return to comedies like this.


2. MANHATTAN (1979)
It’s not surprising that an artist as neurotic and self-loathing as Allen initially hated this film and (unsuccessfully) asked the studio not to release it. Visually, it’s his most striking and iconic work (and begs to be seen on a big screen), but it also encapsulates all of his strengths (humor, grace, sense of place) while perhaps not ignoring some personal weaknesses (messy emotions, taboo objects of desire such as 17-year-old girls). It’s also the closest he’s ever come to pure poetry—especially the “Rhapsody in Blue” intro, the famed 59th Street Bridge scene, and the magisterial, pulse-racing final five minutes.

annie hall

1. ANNIE HALL (1977)
I know, a totally predictable number one, but unless you’re a contrarian, how could it possibly be anything else? From the lobster scene to the childhood home under the roller coaster, from Marshall McLuhan to the Truman Capote “impersonator”, from “la-di-da” to “we need the eggs”, this is the film to show viewers who “know nothing of” Allen’s work. Dozens of efforts later, it’s still the one he’ll likely be most remembered for.


Other worthy Woody Films I Could Not Squeeze into this Top Ten: Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Zelig.

Woody Film I’d Like Most to See Again for Reassessment: Stardust Memories.

Unseen Woody I’d Most Like to See: Interiors, Cassandra’s Dream, Whatever Works.

Woody Anyone Can Live Without: Small Time Crooks (except for Elaine May), What’s Up Tiger Lily (a fun concept that quickly wears out its welcome), To Rome With Love, Scoop.

My (Fake) Sight & Sound Film Poll Ballot

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Once every ten years, British cineaste rag Sight & Sound conducts a critics’ poll of all-time greatest films. With the latest edition’s results imminent, here’s what my ballet would look like if I had one. The poll requires participants to list only ten films, which is a preposterous thing for any film geek to consider (but most of us love doing it anyway).

In chronological order…

1. SUNRISE: A TALE OF TWO HUMANS (F.W. Murnau, Germany, 1927)
A majestic summation of what silent cinema could accomplish, and almost by default, since technology rendered this particular aesthetic obsolete shortly thereafter. Although of its time in a visual sense, it endures because it depicts an age-old conflict of morals without moralizing, instead expressing the simple, pure joy of being alive and sincerely in love.

2. BRINGING UP BABY (Howard Hawks, USA, 1938)
As I wrote when I recently saw it, the essential screwball comedy and a strong candidate for best all-time film comedy: every single scene faultlessly jam-packed with punchy, witty dialogue, every last joke hitting its target with agility and grace, every ounce of dazzling chemistry between Hepburn and Grant effortlessly sparkling.

3. VERTIGO (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1958)
Because every ballot needs at least one slot for Hitchcock. Because 50+ years on, it still speaks volumes about how we’re all voyeurs (especially moviegoers). Because this is James Stewart’s best onscreen persona: curious, driven, and tormented. Because odd blonde goddess Kim Novak still beguiles and comes off as enigmatic as Marilyn.

4. PLAYTIME (Jacques Tati, France, 1967)
I’ve haven’t seen this in awhile given that it’s the one of two films I have to watch in a theater, never on TV (the other is by Stanley Kubrick—guess which one). No other director viewed film as a multi-dimensional canvas in the way Tati did here, taking physical slapstick to new heights of cerebral sophistication without forgetting to be funny.

5. MCCABE & MRS. MILLER (Robert Altman, USA, 1971)
One could say Altman turned the western inside out with this revisionist take on the genre, but what he actually did was radically alter how one could tell a story by dropping the audience into the thick of it as if they were Warren Beatty’s McCabe, a stranger in a town not yet fully built. A rich mess of overheard dialogue, muted lighting and Leonard Cohen songs all cohere into something transformative, a new way of comprehension via textural and poetic detail.

6. ANNIE HALL (Woody Allen, USA 1977)
I viewed this again two weeks ago and as a romantic comedy, it holds up nearly as well as BRINGING UP BABY, but with a twist: it takes the earlier film’s greatest attributes and so finely refracts them through Allen’s sensibility that the result is like a perfect dramatization of one of his stand-up routines. And it might’ve been nothing but wacky comic navel gazing if not for Diane Keaton’s input and inspiration, which gives the film its soul.

7. THE LAST OF ENGLAND (Derek Jarman, UK, 1987)
Because in his truncated life, Jarman did more than arguably any other contemporary filmmaker to combine and recontextualize disparate genres and formats. Because he introduced us to Tilda Swinton. Because this scathing, explosive attack on a country ravaged by Thatcherism retains all of its power a quarter century on. Because he gave a voice to the queer and the HIV-positive at a time when they were ignored.

8. BEAU TRAVAIL (Claire Denis, France, 1999)
Claire Denis’ idiosyncratic take on Melville’s Billy Budd is a brilliantly conceived, gorgeously framed Rubik’s Cube of a film that’s also a rigorous, kinetic paean to the male form. As it pieces together a purely visual language, at its center, the wiry, wound-up Denis Levant can barely conceal a mounting intensity the film keeps bottled up until it’s released in an unexpected, euphoric finale.

9. MULHOLLAND DR. (David Lynch, USA, 2001)
Constructed from scraps of a rejected television pilot, Lynch’s weirdly emotional mindfuck of a film fearlessly explores connections between dreams, reality and the movies and all the sublime and more-often-than-not terrifying possibilities that surface as those things overlap. I can’t imagine another film I’d want to watch on endless repeat—just thinking about the opening mélange of skittering images and swing music gives me goose bumps.

10. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (Wes Anderson, USA, 2001)
Despite often citing it as my favorite film, I almost didn’t include it here since MOONRISE KINGDOM gave me hope that Anderson may surpass it someday. Then I considered the film’s insane, jewel-box attention to detail, its cast of enchantingly flawed characters and the fact that with each viewing, I’ve taken away more from it. I haven’t seen it since 2007, so I’m speculating that it still holds up. With good faith, it earns a spot here.

Because all-time top ten lists are ridiculous and because I can’t resist, here are ten more I wish I could include on this ballot: The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ In the Rain, Rosemary’s Baby, Young Frankenstein, This is Spinal Tap, High Hopes, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, The Sweet Hereafter, There Will Be Blood.