Woody Allen has been putting out close to a film a year since the 1970s, and while some of his films are among the funniest and most poignant ever put to celluloid, the sheer amount of his work means a lot of it, perhaps even most of it, isn’t worth the effort. Still, there’s something to be admired about an artist who refuses to slow down, and this artist in particular has certainly earned that right.
Piece de resistance: Stardust Memories
Many of Woody Allen’s films use a classic picture from one of his cinematic heroes as a jumping off point. In this case, Stardust Memories is a clear homage to Federico Felinni’s 8 1/2, and like that film, Memories is about a filmmaker with a severe case of director’s block, working on a movie that isn’t going as he planned and subsequently calling into his question his entire life and career because of it. But even as Memories takes it’s central conceit from another film, it’s also perhaps the most personal film of Allen’s career. The filmmaker in question (played by Allen himself, naturally) is trying to make a serious, intellectual film, all the while the studio, the press and even his fans keep asking when he’s going to make some more of his “old, funny movies.” Coincidentally or not, Memories itself is arguably the single funniest film Allen ever made. He allowed himself some incredible freedom both as a filmmaker and a comic, though even at its most surreal, Memories has a built-in self-deprecation that keeps it from drifting into pretension. Instead, the bizarre asides and meta-filmmaking serve only to enforce the film as the most adventurous and enjoyable Woody Allen has ever made.
Annie Hall is Allen’s most famous film and certainly one of the most influential the filmmaker has to his name. It was with this film Allen took the romantic comedy genre away from broad humor and happy endings into a reality anyone in (or out of) a relationship would recognize. It isn’t always pretty, but it always feels true, and there’s plenty of solid comedy along the way to make the melancholy go down a bit easier. Sleeper was one of the “early, funny movies” the audiences were demanding more of in Stardust Memories and it’s easy to see why. It’s slapstick, for sure, but slapstick in a smart way, like the best of Buster Keaton or Groucho Marx. There’s also some pretty slick satire mixed in, so Sleeper appeals to the high-brow and low-brow alike. The Purple Rose of Cairo is simultaneously the most purely fantastic and also one of the most purely sad films in Allen’s catalog. The romance between Jeff Daniels and Mia Farrow (and the extraordinary circumstances that bring them together) are infinitely charming, yet the film couldn’t be more heartbreaking. It’s a film that simply works on every level, and it remains a testament to Allen’s ability to articulate emotion like few other filmmakers can. Crimes and Misdemeanors portray two very distinct sides of Allen’s obsessions that succeed in reinforcing one another rather than canceling each other out. One half of the film is more comedy-centric, while the other is almost pure tragedy, and instead of forcing these separate worlds to collide with one another, Allen takes the more difficult but satisfying route - letting them run parallel to one another, commenting on one another and ultimately justifying one another.
Broadway Danny Rose makes it easy to see why people fall for Woody Allen. His sad-sack agent is so charming, so sincere, you can’t help but love him even as you pity him. Mia Farrow also gives a great performance completely against type as a brash but falsely confident foil to Allen’s hangdog sad sack. Sweet and Lowdown, like many of Allen’s best films, finds a way to make you like and feel for its protagonist despite his many and significant flaws. Sean Penn’s master guitar player is so angry, obnoxious and self-absorbed you want to hate him. But when we probe his life we see him for what he really is: a broken man trying desperately to fend off his own loneliness and depression. It’s a testament to Allen that we care about, even root for him to succeed in the end. Like Sleeper, Love & Death is silly, but it does silly very well. There’s little of the emotional intensity of Allen’s later films, but as the title suggests, Allen is commenting on some weighty themes, even in light of the wonderful absurdity going on around them. Deconstructing Harry walks dangerously close to the line between great Allen film and forgettable Allen film, but somehow manages to never quite fall in. Instead, Harry ends up being a delightfully surrealist play on art, relationships and the ever-present melancholy that prevails all of Allen’s films. The ending sequence set in Hell is one of Allen’s finest moments.
Almost everything you’ve heard about Allen films is true. His strictly serious films (Interiors, September, Another Woman) are to be avoided at all costs. They have no sense of humor at all, which is incredibly strange coming from one of the funniest people on the planet. Later Allen comedies (Mighty Aphrodite, Anything Else, Melinda and Melinda) are pretty awful in their own right. He tended to get caught up in very similar themes (older men dating much younger women, mostly) and repeated himself endlessly, which wouldn’t be so bad if the films were funny. They’re not. Of course, Allen has had some late-career successes too. Vicky Christina Barcelona isn’t up to par with Allen’s best work, but it’s considered a comeback for good reason. And his latest, Midnight in Paris, returns to the charming surrealism of his greatest works. So don’t write him off just yet: Even at 76, Woody Allen still has a few surprises left in him.