Total Recall: Woody Allen's Best Movies
We count down the best-reviewed work of the Blue Jasmine director.
The second in a string of Woody Allen/Diane Keaton movies that started with Sleeper and included Annie Hall, 1975's Love and Death found the duo starring in a satire on Russian literature that used the story of a reluctant war hero (Allen) and his equally reluctant bride (Keaton) to offer a cockeyed, tightly scripted take on Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Eisenstein, melding satirical philosophical debates with visual homages only a film buff could truly love -- and became one of the more unlikely hits of the 1970s in the process. As Vincent Canby argued for the New York Times, "Besides being one of Woody's most consistently witty films, Love and Death marks a couple of other advances for Mr. Allen as a filmmaker and for Miss Keaton as a wickedly funny comedienne."
Allen's early years found him bringing his unique style and sense of humor to bear on a wide variety of mediums and genres, from sci-fi to Russian lit. With 1983's Zelig, Allen delivered a suitably smart, poignant take on the mockumentary format, using his screenplay's nominal focus -- the life of a fictional ardent conformist named Leonard Zelig -- to offer more of the subtly intelligent commentary on modern American life that his audiences had come to expect. Arguably more interesting, however, were the techniques Allen employed to insert Zelig into a series of historical situations, from batting practice with Babe Ruth to the Nuremberg rally with Adolf Hitler; among its many award recognitions was a BAFTA nomination for Best Special Visual Effects. As for the film itself, Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian echoed the sentiments of many of his colleagues when he deemed it "A masterpiece: a brilliant, even passionate historical pastiche, a superbly pregnant meditation on American society and individuality, and an eerie fantasy that will live in your dreams."
Slight, quirky, and wry, 1984's Broadway Danny Rose is vintage Woody Allen, in terms of form as well as function. While it starts from an absurdly broad premise, following the hapless adventures of a borderline incompetent talent agent (Allen) whose clients have little talent to speak of, there's a sweet, somewhat sober message underneath all the shenanigans, with a final act that underscores the value of loyalty and forgiveness -- even in the face of violent mobsters and opportunistic lounge singers. While Broadway's rather modest narrative scope was matched by middling box office grosses, it earned substantial admiration from critics like Janet Maslin of the New York Times, who called it "one of Mr. Allen's more modest films but also one of his very best" and enthused, "Mr. Allen works with such speed and confidence these days that a brief, swift film like this one can have all the texture and substance of his more complicated work."
After the impressive commercial performance of 1972's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), Allen opted for a follow-up with a somewhat larger scale: Sleeper, a futuristic comedy about a health food store owner (Allen) who's cryogenically frozen after dying during a gall bladder operation, thawed out 200 years later, and becomes an unlikely leader in a resistance movement -- while falling in love with the woman who briefly thought he was a robot (Diane Keaton). Billed as a "nostalgic look at the future," Sleeper offered a humorous counterpoint to the dry sci-fi epics of the day, predicting (sadly accurately, some would argue) that technological advancement wouldn't be able to stem the rising tide of pure human foolishness. Mused Filmcritic's Christopher Null, "Pound for pound and minute for minute, Sleeper may just have more laughs in it than any other Woody Allen movie."
The perils of romance, the wisdom of long-term commitment, and the foibles of the modern American male -- they're all themes that will be quite familiar to anyone who's seen more than a couple of Allen's films (let alone any of those inspired by his work). So it's saying something that 1992's Husbands and Wives was greeted with such critical acclaim, despite the fact that its sad portrait of two turbulently self-destructing marriages looked a lot like Allen pictures previous. Although Husbands' theatrical release was overshadowed by the messy end of the real-life relationship between Allen and his long-term muse Mia Farrow (who co-stars here as his dissatisfied wife), dooming it to disappointing grosses, it found favor with critics like Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman, who -- while admitting that it was "less a drama than a series of overly chewed-on observations" -- argued, "as Woody's angst-a-thons go, this one is singularly lively and well acted."
In case you were wondering, here are Allen's top 10 movies according RT users' scores:
1. Annie Hall -- 91%
2. Manhattan -- 91%
3. Crimes and Misdemeanors -- 89%
4. Hannah and Her Sisters -- 88%
5. Love and Death -- 88%
6. Zelig -- 86%
7. The Purple Rose of Cairo -- 85%
8. Husbands and Wives -- 84%
9. Midnight in Paris -- 82%
10. Radio Days -- 82%
Finally, here's the Woodman doing standup on British TV in 1965: