Ladies and gentlemen, there is a Woody Allen double feature festival afoot in DC (at the DCJCC, appropriately). Which is awesome, and you should go but ALSO this gives us an opportunity to round-up our movie team and have them submit some of their favorite Woody Allen gems up for consideration and discussion. This story already ended some friendships in the sense that we discovered SOME OF THE MOVIE TEAM does not like Allen and subsequently, they are dead to us. So, there’s that. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments and see you at some of the screenings or in line for the upcoming Blue Jasmine, right?
And now, in no particular order, some of his finest work (according to us)
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994)
Since Woody casts himself in many of his films and some of them are iconic, it is easy forget that he’s also terrific with period pieces. Bullets over Broadway comes from a relatively low point in Allen’s career – he wouldn’t make Mighty Aphrodite until the following year – but here he finds two of his best characters. Bullets over Broadway centers on a terrible playwright. It’s 1929, and the playwright (John Cusack) has the right pedigree but none of the skill. He’s making a play for a gangster, who just wants a part for his girlfriend, and it’s the bodyguard (Chazz Palminteri) who’s caught by the theater. The stage space stirs within him, and soon he’s giving the Cusack notes, and they’re practically working together. It’s an interesting pairing – pretense clashes with talent – and since this is Allen, he finds hilarious ways for the bodyguard to influence the playwright. Bullets over Broadway ends on a sad note, but it’s a testament to Allen’s skill that you get the sense that the bodyguard would be the next Arthur Miller, if only given the opportunity. -Alan Zilberman
ANNIE HALL (1977)
With every comedic legend, there’s a period where they experiment to figure out exactly what their voice for their career will be. For Chaplin, he figured it out in the Mack Sennett shorts. For the Marx brothers, they discovered in it their stage show. For Woody Allen you can see his evolution in his earliest films.
Allen started out solely interested in telling jokes with his first film What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, the precursor to Mystery Science 3000. His earliest films feel very fragmented, yet comedically enjoyable, even if they’re lacking much of any substance. With his first five films, there’s a metamorphosis happening. Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, Sleeper and Love and Death all have a comedic voice to them, but did so little narratively.
Then in 1977, Allen made what I would consider his masterpiece, a film in which he found his voice, without compromising the humor, segmented story and overall ambition that was clear in Allen, with Annie Hall.
Annie Hall is incredibly ambitious, telling a romantic comedy unlike any previous, filled with oddities like animated segments and breaking the fourth wall. These moments are jarring, yet feel perfectly right with Allen’s style. It’s almost as if his entire career up until then had been building to Annie Hall.
Over 35 years later, it’s still impressive to see how much Annie Hall has influenced comedies and film in general. Films like (500) Days of Summer and When Harry Met Sally… surely wouldn’t have been as great without Annie Hall. Even Rian Johnson, director of Brick and Looper has stated that Annie Hall is the film that made him want to become a director.
People still to this day complain about how the Oscars “got it wrong” in 1977, calling this the Best Picture over Star Wars. Is Annie Hall better than Star Wars? Maybe not. But what a hell of an important film to lose to. – Ross Bonaime
Sometimes, in 2013, it is easy to forget just how much Allen LOVES Ingmar Bergman. And who could blame you? His recent outings have been all frolicky and Scarlett Johannson-ful enough that recalling a darker time in Allen’s oeuvre is (almost) hard. And then, you should see Interiors. The story of three sisters (Diane Keaton (fresh off of Annie Hall) plus Kristin Griffith and Mary Beth Hurt) who rally around their recently abandoned Mother (a regal Geraldine Page) is a master class in quiet despair. The opening shot is worth the admission price alone and IS pure Bergman: a series of beautifully composed shots, all static, of a family’s space and possessions, it sets the tone just so for one of the most economic (melo)dramas ever made. From the start you know: every shot will count, and also, and this is something to respect in an Allen movie, EVERY WORD WILL COUNT TOO. Page’s character is a designer, one that aims for the kind of cool sophistication and precision in interiors that people desperately want in their homes, hoping it would translate to their (interior) lives, and watching her unfurl in this sea of cool grays and blues is all the more effective. Adding to said effect is the increasingly obvious messiness of everyone else’s (personal) interiors, which the cast handles in a way that makes this movie worthy of a mandatory-acting-school-viewing status. There is a total of eight characters in the film (no cameos, no comic relief, no Allen winks in supporting casting) and everyone is perfect. Not good, not ok, not great-perfect. The daughters (a poet, a movie star, and a permanently-undecided one) are all a cool mess, their significant others a tangle of stupid male needs and the Father, who set this whole thing in motion by running away with a woman he met on a cruise ship (how 70s!) is both the sanest and obviously the potentially most unhinged of them all. Everyone is standing on the very edge of a deep end, and he has possibly already taken a dive. Revisit this one. – Svetlana
SWEET AND LOWDOWN (1999)
I’ll admit I don’t really have strong feelings about Woody Allen one way or the other, and haven’t seen much of his work. But one exception on both counts is 1999′s Sweet and Lowdown, about a fictional 1930s jazz guitarist named Emmet Ray. It’s modest, creative, lyrical, funny, and the ending quietly sneaks up on you to pack one of the deepest emotional punches I’ve ever experienced in a movie.
The film’s central pillar is Sean Penn’s performance as Emmet, which — along with his other turns in Milk, Mystic River, Dead Man Walking and the like — highlights his inhumanly astonishing ability to disappear into both the personae and physicality of wildly diverse characters. Emmet is a gangly ferret of a man, a boozing womanizer in love with his own carnivalesque grandeur. Samantha Morton’s shy, mute, but immensely big-hearted Hattie is the one woman who can stand him for extended periods, and the two establish a juvenile but genuine romance until Emmet decides a man of his artistic calling should not be tied to one woman and breaks the relationship off.
Sweet and Lowdown rightly earned both Penn and Morton Oscar nominations. And Allen narrates the fictional narrative with documentary-style “interviews” with real-life critics and biographers, a maneuver he used in other films that brings both a sense of loving commitment to the music and a timeless, everyman expansiveness to the tale. But its Emmet’s final, simple, terribly cry — “I made a mistake!” — that will stick in your gut. Sweet and Lowdown is about the unbearably poignant and universal human tendency to sabotage our own happiness for reasons that seem perfectly sound in the moment. But it’s also about that darker question: would the artistry for which we’re remembered be as great if we didn’t inflict so much pain on ourselves? – Jeff Spross
VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (2008)
I am an unabashed fan of Vicky Christina Barcelona. I saw it twice in the movie theatres, own the DVD, watch is regularly, that kind of fan. Many say that the new era of Allen really kicked off with Match Point (blessedly, SCOOP is mainly ignored), but to me, it is this sex-as-tourism comedy that truly announced that he is BACK. In a big way. It is the perfect summer movie if there was one, all tousled hair and neurosis, countryside bike rides and curious make-out sessions. It also features a new ideal for an Allen cast (and no Allen), a sort of a Almodovar-meets-Woody melange of American up-tightness (even the Americans who DON’T think they’re uptight are) and Spanish fire that has a ball on the screen. The story involves two friends (Vicky and Cristina) on a vacation of their lives in Barcelona. One is tall and dark-haired and therefore sensible (Rebecca Hall, perfectly slightly-awkwardly beautiful), engaged to a nice man and with a nice New York life ahead of her at the end of the summer. The Other one is small and (fake) blonde and therefore impulsive (Scarlett Johansson, perfectly blah in my opinion), not attached to anyone or anything. They stroll around the beautiful city, having picture perfect lunches and semi-deep conversations and then, one night, everything changes. Javier Bardem, all swagger and (pure) sex, saunters over to their dining room table and asks them, point blank, to spend a weekend with him. And they do. I mean, OF COURSE they do, it IS Javier Bardem after all. Before you know it, they are entangled in a world of art and wine and classic Spanish guitars and crazy (sexy) exes (represented by Penelope Cruz, in a role she was born to play: all hair and eyes and mouth, eating up the whole screen when she is on it) and things, needless to say will never be the same. Allen is a master of a comedy of manners, and this is his cherry on top of a sundae. If you can’t go on vacation this (or any) summer, go on this virtual one.-Svetlana
I worked in video stores from the age of 15 to 18. Video. VHS. One was an independent mom and pop but mostly mob run store, the other was the not so secretly conservative Blockbuster Video. I would watch at least one tape each night and fall asleep to a second. I attempted to see every Academy Award winning films from the 90s. This is why I popped in the tape of “Mighty Aphrodite” around 1 a.m. on a school night. Good decision.
Allen’s mid-90s comedic story of a prostitute/porn star/mom interwoven with a Greek chorus telling the tale of Oedipus is an oddly universal tale. Allen plays the role of Lenny. Helena Bonham Carter plays the role of Amanda, Lenny’s wife. They adopt a very intelligent son. They want to find the mother. Mira Sorvino plays the role of Linda, the prostitute/porn star/biological mom and since it’s a Woody Allen film, future lover of Lenny.
This isn’t my favorite Allen film (Sweet and Lowdown holds that title), his best (Annie Hall because ‘cmon) or even most ambitious (his last seven years of movies), but it’s an excellent piece of commercial art made by a veteran filmmaker who was still trying. He’s still trying.
Excellent weekend afternoon viewing. -Brandon
Woody Allen as played by Kenneth Branagh. Leonardo DiCaprio is his first post-Titanic role. Black and white in 1998. It doesn’t work yet it’s highly entertaining. It has all of the elements that make Allen an easily parodied figure, but not as much clever dialogue we’ve come to expect. Maybe he set the bar too high. Maybe a film about celebrities behaving badly isn’t very personal. Maybe the use of EMF’s “You’re Unbelievable” in the trailer was a sign that any film that uses EMF’s “You’re Unbelievable” doesn’t need to exist.
Regardless of what you think of the film, it is neat to think of how many VHS covers of this work ended up in teenage girls bedroom shrines to Leo. -Brandon
Woody Allen as played by Larry David. A curmudgeon once again beds an early 20s, lost and in need of a father figure, gorgeous woman. And he’s still a curmudgeon.
It’s not as good as any Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, but it’s still worthy of a Netflix viewing. This is Allen making something sorta commercial with mostly successful results.
Allen likes to play the clarinet. This is him rehearsing, and enjoying, playing a song on clarinet that he’s played 100 times before. -Brandon