Love him or hate him, Woody Allen is the most prolific
filmmaker of our time. Vicky
Cristina Barcelona“Woody Allen’s comeback film” should be retired for good. That phrase was
placed on 1999’s Sweet and
Lowdown, 2005’s Match Point
and, for some, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. "Comeback" suggests he’s somehow left us. He hasn’t.
To be fair, Allen has produced some of his worst films this decade—with Anything Else, Hollywood Ending and Scoop
standing as the biggest letdowns. But, as Barcelona
wonderfully affirmed, when Allen is at the top of his game he’s still among the
most talented filmmakers in the business. Now 73, Allen's got another film on deck for 2009—the comedy Whatever Works with Larry David. But instead of looking ahead, I want to take a step back and look at Allen's long, illustrious career that has given moviegoers so much laughter and joy; and so much to ponder, debate and analyze. Here is my estimation of his 10 best, keeping in mind that when it comes to the
top three, it’s just personal preference.
10.Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Allen's melancholic comedy on the emotionally vacant, self-destructive fictional jazz guitarist features two of the best performances in any Allen film to date, by two of the best actors in movies today: Sean Penn and Samantha Morton. Penn plays Emmet Ray, a talented but reckless musician who never commits to anything, least of all to a woman; Morton plays the mute woman who finally steals his heart. A whole world of human emotion is written across Morton's expressive face; she never speaks because she doesn't need to. It's a tremendous performance, matched only by Penn's. "I've made a mistake," Penn cries in the haunting final scenes, illuminating one of Allen's harshest recurrent themes: happiness is only recognized after it has passed. Once it's gone, it's gone forever.
9.Match Point (2005)
Match Point restored many's faith in Allen after a series of disappointments. Essentially a retread of half of Crimes and Misdemeanorskey departure to Europe for the first of four efforts. Jonathan Rhys Meyers and
Scarlett Johansson made for beautiful blanks for which he could project his
lofty Dostoyevskian ideals, in a tale about murder and it's devastating mental and moral ramifications. Thematically dense yet consistently compelling, Match Point is the kind of thinking man’s
thriller only Allen knows how to make.
8.Love and Death (1975)
The very best of Allen's "funnier, earlier films," Love and Death showcases Allen's two favorite themes (see title). The absurdist plot centers on a young couple (Allen and Diane Keaton) who plot to assassinate Napoleon in czarist Russia. Garbed in one ridiculous costume after another, Allen's character philosophizes on God, love, death and the meaning of life, in between zany antics and hilarious physical comedy. The balance between big ideas and featherweight comedy is seamless, making Love and Death the perfect segue into the more ambitious and complex films that followed.
7.Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
finely played by Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall. From its Spanish setting
to its playful, sensual love scenes, Vicky
Cristina Barcelona feels like a departure for Allen. But, in truth, the
film is an evolution from Allen’s earlier works—another meditation on
relationships, an exploration of people who find themselves confused by love and afraid of happiness. One thing is certain: there has never been and
never will be another character like Maria Elena.
Rapturously played by Penélope Cruz, she is the film’s indispensable beating
6.Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
While Dianne Wiest deservedly won an Oscar for her
blissfully funny performance as an over-the-top actress (one who prides herself on "never playing frumps or virgins"), Bullets
Over Broadway is one of Allen’s funniest films because of the excellence of its entire cast. John Cusack, Chazz Palminteri, Tracy
Ullman and, miraculously, even Jennifer Tilly play off each other
brilliantly. Allen’s endlessly quotable script (“don’t speak!”) contains key insights
into art and morality, creating that rare, beautiful thing: a hilarious and thought-provoking comedy.
5.Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Allen has long been fascinated by the idea of getting away with murder, the subject of one half of Crimes and Misdemeanors. The terrific Martin Landau plays a successful ophthalmologist who has the woman he had an affair with (Anjelica Huston) murdered because she threatened to destroy his carefully constructed lie of a life. The other half of the film tells the story of a struggling documentary filmmaker (Allen), trapped in a loveless marriage and in love with a woman (Mia Farrow) who does not reciprocate his feelings. Both stories are steeped in loss—a loss of happiness, faith and morality. When the two stories converge at the end, the results are nothing short of powerful.
4.The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Allen has stated a number of times The Purple Rose of Cairo is among his favorite films he’s directed,
and it’s no wonder—it’s his sweetest and most imaginative film to
date. Mia Farrow delivered her best performance in the 13 films she made with
Allen, playing a lonely woman who escapes to the movies to live out her fantasies
through her favorite actors. Even when the dashing Tom Baxter (a young Jeff
Daniels) steps out of the screen and into her life, she keeps her emotions and
expectations in check: “I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional, but you
can’t have everything.” Purple Rose
whimsically builds toward a gut-wrenching, elegiac final shot that reminds us why
we go to the movies in the first place: to dream.
3.Annie Hall (1977)
Annie Hall is,
without question, Allen’s most recognized and influential film to date—and the sole best picture winner in his canon. The film is also one of the best romantic comedies ever, simply because
it takes the time to show all of the moments that happen in a relationship—the wide spectrum of happy and sad, of bittersweet and just plain bitter.From fighting over which movie to see, to laughing
while chasing down lobsters in the kitchen, Allen perfectly encapsulates the delicate beauty found in the highs and lows of a relationship. It doesn’t hurt that his wit and humor
is perfectly matched by Diane Keaton, in her iconic, Oscar-winning performance. Funny with a perceptively intellectual undercurrent, Annie Hall is an enduring classic.
2.Hannah and Her Sisters(1986)
Three delicately written and deeply felt stories are interlaced in Hannah and Her Sisters, a relationship dramedy that stands as one of Allen's best screenplays. Michael Caine plays a man married to Hannah (Mia Farrow) who is in love with his sister-in-law (Barbara Hershey). Dianne Wiest is the family screw-up and former addict who bounces from career to career and relationship to relationship aimlessly. Allen plays Hannah's ex-husband, a resident hypochondriac (what else?). Caine and Wiest deservedly won Oscars, but the entire cast is superb, pulling off the remarkable feat of creating characters that feel like they're part of a family—a wonderful, loving, screwed up, tangled family who depend on each other to survive, whether they like it or not.
Things that makes life worth living: Woody Allen's masterpiece Manhattan. Gorgeously shot in
black-and-white and set against a backdrop of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," Allen’s ode to the city that never sleeps is a profound meditation on love and loss. Allen, Diane Keaton and Michael Murphy play jaded,
self-absorbed adults who over-think and over-analyze every aspect of life.
Mariel Hemingway beautifully plays Tracy, the young girl in love with Allen and
the only character who is honest about her feelings, the only one with the
capacity to love whole-heartedly. The other characters are too delicate, too
bruised, and too cynical. When Tracy tells him “you have to have a little faith
in people” in the film’s touching final scene, our hearts melt a little—love
may be fragile and fleeting, but it’s worth the risk every time. Romantic, witty and
bittersweet, Manhattan is impeccably
crafted, and stands tallest among Allen’s multitude of towering
Honorable Mentions: The wistfully nostalgic Radio Days (1987); the brutally honest Husbands and Wives (1992); the tragically somber Interiors (1978); the futuristic farce Sleeper (1973); and the criminally underrated Small Time Crooks (2000).