Total Recall: Woody Allen's Best Movies
We count down the best-reviewed work of the Blue Jasmine director.
He's never been a blockbuster filmmaker, but with more than a half century in Hollywood under his belt -- and dozens of movies along the way -- Woody Allen's consistently prolific output stands as a continuing testament to the ability of brainy, low-budget cinema to find an audience, even during an era in which superheroes, sequels, reboots, and remakes seem to exert an ever-stronger grip on the box office. Love him or hate him, Allen's one of the few directors left who can film people sitting around talking and turn it into a wide release -- and with his latest, Blue Jasmine, arriving in theaters this weekend, we knew now would be the perfect time to pay tribute by looking back at his best-reviewed efforts. Call your therapist, because it's time for Total Recall, Woody Allen style!
After suffering relatively lukewarm reviews for 1987's September and 1988's Another Woman, Allen enjoyed a rebound -- and picked up a pair of Academy Award nominations -- for 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors, which found him writing, directing, and starring alongside Martin Landau in a rather pensive drama that interweaves the stories of an adulterous opthalmalogist (Landau) and a struggling filmmaker (Allen) for whom love and romance are fraught with difficulty (or even danger). Calling it "A relative of Hannah and Her Sisters in its duplex structure and of The Purple Rose of Cairo in its bitter theme," the Washington Post's Rita Kempley bestowed praise befitting Crimes' parallel narrative, calling it "two movies in one, a blend of Allen's satiric and pretentious dramatic styles."
While it would be inaccurate to say that Allen's work went unappreciated during the 1990s and aughts, critical accolades were no longer in such ready supply, and his box-office profile -- which never approached mega-blockbuster heights even during his 1970s and 1980s peak -- lost more than a bit of its luster. But things turned around for 2011's Midnight in Paris, a late-period smash that brought Allen some of the warmest reviews (and the highest grosses) of his career while telling the the fantasy-infused comedic tale of an ennui-addled screenwriter (Owen Wilson) who heads out for a melancholic walk on the streets of Paris and ends up taking much more of a journey than he bargained for. "Woody Allen seemed to have lost his fizz as a filmmaker of late," observed Jason Best for Movie Talk, "and then he uncorked the sparkling Midnight in Paris, a comic fantasy with all the effervescence of vintage champagne."
One of Allen's more critically successful late-period movies, 1994's Bullets Over Broadway found him stepping completely behind the camera in order to tell the tale of a naive 1920s playwright (John Cusack) whose budding Broadway career threatens to derail itself almost before it's begun, thanks to the cascading series of compromises forced when he accepts financial backing from a mobster who insists his talentless girlfriend (Jennifer Tilly) be given a role in the show. Sadly met with indifference at the box office, Bullets made a direct hit with critics like Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle, who called it "Woody Allen at his best -- a gem of a Broadway fable with a crafty premise, a raft of brilliant actors at the top of their form and a bouncy, just-for-pleasure attitude."
Following the Oscar-winning Annie Hall, Allen reunited with Diane Keaton for their sixth collaboration, 1979's Manhattan, the story of a neurotic TV writer caught in a(n admittedly unlikely-seeming) love triangle between a teenager (Mariel Hemingway) and an intellectual (Keaton). Adding another pair of Academy Award nominations to Allen's growing stack (including one for Best Screenplay), it rounded out his 1970s hot streak with typically neurotic flair -- and another round of unbridled love from critics like Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out New York, who wrote, "This is a deeply self-critical film about immaturity and the gift of real love. Many films can be said to put an epitaph on the decade, but few remain as relevant."
6. Annie Hall
The word "iconic" gets thrown around a lot more often than it should, but this movie fits the description -- a film that so perfectly expresses its creative principals' gifts that when you say "Woody Allen and Diane Keaton," the picture that leaps to mind for most film fans is a black-and-white still from Annie Hall. Keaton's career was already well on its way in 1977, but her performance here rocketed her into Hollywood's upper echelon, earning her a Best Actress Oscar and heaps of critical accolades for a performance of a character who'd form the (often misunderstood) template for countless quirky-but-lovable leading ladies in subsequent rom-coms, and she wasn't the only one who enjoyed recognition for the film; Allen picked up a pair of Oscars of his own (for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay), as well as heaps of praise from critics like TIME's Richard Schickel, who observed, "Personal as the story he is telling may be, what separates this film from Allen's own past work and most other recent comedy is its general believability."