Friday Night Seitz

Woody Allen's greatest films

Slide show: In a career with more stages than Coachella, these 10 movies are the director's finest

  • 10.

    10. “New York Stories,” “Oedipus Wrecks” (1989)

    “Oedipus Wrecks” is Woody Allen’s throwback to his lighthearted early features, and a half-hour Freudian sight gag that amounts to the ultimate Jewish mother joke. Allen stars as Sheldon Mills, an accomplished attorney who’s reduced to a stammering overgrown boy by his pushy, tone-deaf mother (Mae Questel, the voice of Betty Boop). She’s the kind of maternal horror show who diminishes him in front of his shiksa fiancée (Mia Farrow) and barges into his workspace unannounced to show childhood snapshots of him running around naked. (“Look at that little behind! Wasn’t he adorable?”)

    When his mom mysteriously disappears during a magic show (the house manager is played by Larry David!), Sheldon is secretly relieved and hopes she’s gone for good. But she reappears as a giant face in the sky, bleating unsolicited advice and making his blood run cold. Pretty soon all of Manhattan is debating whether he should tie the knot with Lisa. After Lisa decides she can’t take it anymore and leaves him, Sheldon is driven to seek supernatural aid from a psychic named Treva (Julie Kavner). At this point a seemingly frothy featurette acquires unexpected weight. Although Treva can’t will Sheldon’s mother out of the sky, she inadvertently helps Sheldon reconnect with his cultural Jewishness — and in the process makes him whole again.

    It’s a perfectly structured one-off, packed with hilarious moments. My favorite might be an early dream sequence in which Sheldon imagines that his mother is dead and that he has to drive the hearse to the cemetery. Her voice bleats at him from inside the coffin, arguing with him about the route and telling him to slow down; even dead, she’s a backseat driver. “I’m doing 30 miles!” Sheldon whines. “Look,” she says, “if you’re gonna be nasty, I’m not going.”

  • 9.

    9. “Zelig” (1983)

    Woody Allen’s most formally audacious feature, “Zelig” is a mockumentary that feels like a brainy precursor to “Forrest Gump.” Allen stars as the title character, a freak of nature who takes on the characteristics of whatever ethnic group, political movement or profession that he happens to be near. (“He married me up at the First Church of Harlem,” Zelig’s wife tells the filmmakers. “He told me he was the brother of Duke Ellington.”) As I wrote in a recent slide show about great mockumentaries, “It’s one of the greatest examples of form following function in cinema history — a film about a human chameleon that is itself chameleonic, deftly recapturing the syntax of laid-back, analytical 1980s public TV documentaries while simultaneously re-creating the texture of Hollywood features, newsreels, newspapers, still photos, handbills and other historical documents from the Jazz Age through the late 1940s.”

    Beyond its technical mastery, there’s a serious message. In the “American Masters” documentary, Allen says that among other things, “Zelig” is a comic statement on the allure of fascism, which fills empty lives with a sense of identity and purpose. This becomes explicit in the section where Zelig resurfaces in Nazi Germany, appearing in newsreel footage behind Hitler at a rally. In “Faking It: The Subversion of Factuality,” authors Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight write that the film also “represents Allen’s distrust of the mass impulses of the American public … [T]he American public are rarely personified throughout the film. They are reduced to the adoring crowds who follow his exploits in the press, dance to the songs created to cash in on his novelty value, and are quick to both reject him as a charlatan and forgive him as a heroic refugee from Nazi Germany.”

    All this and jokes, too. “That Zelig could be responsible for the behavior of each of the personalities he assumed means dozens of lawsuits,” the narrator reports. “He is sued for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages, and performing unnecessary dental extractions.”

  • 8.

    8. “Deconstructing Harry” (1997)

    “Six shrinks later, three wives down the line, and I still can’t get my life together.” So says Harry Block (Woody Allen), the hero of “Deconstructing Harry.” A densely layered film about celebrity, debauchery, the male ego and the interplay of art and life, it’s arguably the best example of the sorts of work that Allen made right after the Soon-Yi Previn scandal — a period that saw his movies getting looser, dirtier and more aghast at American selfishness and stupidity. The film also contradicts decades of artistic caveats by inviting us to imagine that there’s no real wall between Allen and his male protagonists. “All people know the same truth,” Harry says. “Our lives consist of how we choose to distort it.”

    “Deconstructing Harry” might be the sickest Ingmar Bergman homage in a career filled with them — “Wild Strawberries” with an American sleazebag. Allen’s character is a foulmouthed, manipulative, pill-popping alcoholic who prefers the company of prostitutes and hires one (Hazelle Goodman) to join him on a trip to his alma mater. Excerpts from Harry’s fiction are presented as short films-within-the-film. Tobey Maguire plays a young Harry whose soul is mistakenly claimed by Death. Robin Williams plays another version, an exhausted movie star whose life has literally lost focus (there’s a soft spot blurring of his face). Richard Benjamin stars as yet another iteration — an inspired casting choice, considering that Benjamin played Philip Roth’s alter-ego in the 1972 film version of “Portnoy’s Complaint.” One of Harry’s ex-wives (Kirstie Alley) is a psychiatrist who won’t allow his son to accompany him on the college trip because he’s “a bad influence” and because one of his dirty-laundry-airing novels concerned a couple whose marriage fell apart after they had a child together (shades of the Allen-Farrow scandal).

    Most of the major characters are presented in both “real” and fictional versions, but the distinctions become more arbitrary as the tale unfolds. (At one point Harry himself becomes blurry.) The most amusing supporting player is Billy Crystal’s character, a friend who gets engaged to Harry’s most recent ex-lover (Elizabeth Shue) and whose literary counterpart is Satan. Harry’s trip to hell (inspired by a sequence from an early “Annie Hall” script) is one of Allen’s funniest set pieces, a trip to the underworld scored to Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing (With a Swing).” The hero descends via steel-cage elevator. Each floor holds different groups of deservedly suffering sinners: serial killers, the NRA, book critics, lawyers who appear on television. “Floor seven: the media,” the elevator operator says. “Sorry, that floor is all filled up.”

  • 7.

    7. “Husbands and Wives” (1992)

    Life and art intertwined during the shooting of Allen’s marital breakdown drama “Husbands and Wives,” starring Allen and Farrow as a married couple named Gabe and Judy. During production, Farrow learned that her longtime boyfriend and artistic collaborator was sleeping with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. The scene in which Gabe and Judy concur that their marriage is doomed was shot after Allen and Farrow’s breakup; the ensuing scandal sparked months of relentless news coverage. A related subplot about Gabe, a creative writing teacher, flirting with a talented 20-year-old student named Rain (Juliette Lewis), is even more unsettling. When I first saw “Husbands and Wives,” the audience muttered anxiously when Gabe declined to sleep with Rain. The character passed a test that the real Allen failed. We were watching an emotional snuff film.

    But if you can factor out the biographical ugliness, “Husbands and Wives” is a key work — a bleak comedy-drama about middle-aged married couples failing to communicate, growing apart and hurting each other terribly. Gabe and Judy’s breakup is paralleled with the cratering marriage of their best friends, Jack (Sidney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis). Jack takes up with a young, vacuous, astrology-obsessed aerobics instructor (Lysette Anthony, in the film’s only thankless role), while Sally starts sleeping with her colleague, a nice-guy hunk named Michael (Liam Neeson). Davis and Pollack gave performances that rank with their very best (and Davis got an Oscar nomination). The scene in which Sally interrupts a date to argue with Jack on the phone is a tour-de-force of comic misery. (“It’s been three fucking weeks! How did you meet someone so fast?”) The scene in which Jack has a drunken fight with Sam at a party and crashes into two parked cars while trying to drive off is as scary as it is pathetic. (“What am I doing?” Jack moans, looking up at the sky.)

    Shot in grainy yellows and browns with a jittery hand-held camera and stitched together with jump cuts and anthropological narration, this is Allen’s loosest, rawest feature, which at times seems to be having an aesthetic breakdown that mirrors the emotional collapse of its characters. “It’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics,” Sally snarls. “Sooner or later everything turns to shit.”

  • 6.

    6. “Love and Death” (1975)

    “Take the Money and Run,” “Sleeper,” “Bananas” and “All You Wanted to Know About Sex (but Were Afraid to Ask)” are all hilarious, but for my money, “Love and Death” represents the peak of Allen’s “earlier, funny” phase — a gag-a-minute parody of Russian literature and mid-century European art cinema that’s equally influenced by Leo Tolstoy, Sergei Eisenstein, W.C. Fields and Bob Hope. Allen plays Boris, a “militant coward” who tries to stay alive during the war of 1812 while his great love, his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton), is stuck in a loveless marriage to a herring merchant. Then he joins her in a plot to assassinate … Oh, like it matters! “Love and Death” is a fusillade of high culture references and vaudeville shtick, and one of the funniest films ever made.

    The brilliant opening montage charts Boris’ family tree, which includes a mom who measures blintzes on a chalkboard, a dad who owns a “valuable piece of land” that he carries around inside his coat, and Old Gregor and his son Young Gregor. “Oddly enough, Young Gregor’s son was older than Old Gregor,” Boris says. “Nobody could figure out how that happened.” Boris has a dream about waiters emerging from upright coffins and dancing, makes chitchat with the Grim Reaper, courts a countess by waving a bent saber at her during a concert, and tells his fellow soldiers that he thinks serfs should run Russia because they actually know how to do things. (He’s a Marxist of the Groucho sort.) Sonja endures her husband’s death without much fuss. (“Where do you wanna eat?” she asks the mourners minutes after he expires.) She gives in to Boris’ overtures, joins him in his dumb-ass plot, and engages him in philosophical intercourse as well as the other kind.

    “To love is to suffer,” she tells him. “To avoid suffering, one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy, one must love or love to suffer, or suffer from too much happiness. I hope you’re getting this down.”

  • 5.

    5. “Bullets Over Broadway” (1994)

    “Bullets Over Broadway” is a parable of art and commerce told in the bigger-than-life style of Preston Sturges. (Douglas McGrath co-wrote the script.) John Cusack plays the film’s Woody stand-in, David Shayne, a bespectacled young playwright who gets the chance of a lifetime when a patron offers to single-handedly bankroll his play. But there’s a catch: The patron is a gangster named Nick (Joseph Viterelli), and he’ll only pony up if his girlfriend Olive (Jennifer Tilly), a screechy-voiced, talentless shrew, can have a big part. “Let’s avoid confusion,” Nick says. “She’ll get some lines or I’ll nail your kneecaps to the floor.” David accepts the terms and embarks on a long, weird voyage into compromise and disillusionment; he also has a masochistic fling with his leading lady, a pickled grand dame named Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest, in her second Oscar-winning performance for Allen).

    There are so many scene-stealing actors in this picture, and so many scenes worth stealing, that “Bullets Over Broadway” becomes the comedy equivalent of a run on a bank. (Helen’s husky-voiced “Noooo … Don’t speak!” is one of Allen’s funniest recurring bits.) All the characters are riffs on familiar types — filmic and theatrical — except for Cheech (Chazz Palmintieri), the henchman assigned to keep an eye on Olive. He’s that rarity of rarities, a character you haven’t seen before — a playwright in the body of a gangster.

    After declaring that David’s play “stinks on fuckin’ hot ice,” David prods him for suggestions on how to improve it. Cheech snarls out some first-rate notes, and pretty soon he’s David’s secret guru and rewrite man. David writes from the head, Cheech from the gut. Their push-pull relationship represents warring aspects of Allen’s talent: the art-house striver and the cut-to-the-chase storyteller. “I studied playwriting with every teacher, I read every book,” David tells Cheech. “Let me tell you somethin’ about teachers,” Cheech counters. “I hate teachers. Those blue-haired bitches used to whack us with rulers. Forget teachers.” Allen’s most brilliant stroke is that Cheech never consciously realizes that he’s a natural-born writer. He just keeps improving David’s play until he feels as though he owns it, and will kill to protect it.

  • 4.

    4. “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985)

    “The Purple Rose of Cairo” is wish-fulfillment cinema that warns you to be careful what you wish for. Mia Farrow stars as Cecilia, a New Jersey waitress terrorized by her abusive husband (Danny Aiello). Her only relief comes at the local movie house, where she escapes into silvery black-and-white fantasy, obsessively rewatching the same films. One day, during her fifth viewing of the title picture, hero Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) pauses in the middle of a scene, locks eyes with her, addresses her directly, then walks off the screen and into her life. “I just met a wonderful new man,” Cecilia says. “He’s fictional. But you can’t have everything.”

    The rest of the film plays like a merger of Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.,” Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” and one of those sci-fi pictures in which an extraterrestrial or robot learns what it means to be human. Donning the metafictional humorist chapeau that he wore during his New Yorker heyday, Allen has great fun asking what would happen if a two-dimensional character from a glitzy Hollywood film found himself in a grubby, three-dimensional world, deprived of scripted lines, but armed with the personality and moral code that defined him on-screen. “Cecilia, it’s clear how miserable you are with your husband,” Tom tells her. “And if he hits you again, you tell me. I’d be forced to knock his teeth out.” “I don’t think that’d be such a good idea,” Cecilia says. “He’s big.”

    This film might have been a classic even if Allen didn’t complicate things by giving Daniels a second character: Gil Shepherd, the actor who plays Tom. But this twist turns the movie into a conceptually dazzling love triangle, and one of Woody Allen’s deepest works. “Purple Rose” explores the reality-vs.-fiction conundrum more piercingly than almost any like-minded film or play, because all of its plot twists and dramatic confrontations circle back to the same basic question: What will make Cecilia happy? Will she stay with her husband, or choose life with Tom — or with the man who plays Tom? “I love you,” Tom tells her. “I’m honest, dependable, courageous, romantic and a great kisser.” “And I’m real,” Gil says.

  • 3.

    3. “Manhattan” (1979)

    Until I revisited it this week, I hadn’t watched “Manhattan” in about 15 years. I remember respecting it — despite misgivings that I’ll deal with in a second — but I don’t remember it being so devastating. The Gershwin soundtrack lends the whole tale an enchanted feeling, and cinematographer Gordon Willis’ anamorphic black-and-white photography may be his supreme achievement. The film’s panoramic exteriors are spectacular, of course — it’s Manhattan! — but the interiors are just as impressive. There’s a modernist boldness to the way that Allen and Willis use windows and doors and wall seams to slice wide rectangular frames into grey panels.

    Allen contrasts the film’s splendid images and music against the intellectual vanity of his characters, with their buzzy invocations of August Strindberg and Franz Kafka and “The Academy of the Overrated.” Their lives are filled with diversions but largely bereft of humility and true introspection. In one of the film’s signature scenes, the planetarium visit, Woody Allen’s Isaac and Diane Keaton’s Mary yammer about their personal problems, oblivious to the stars and planets shining in the dark. The only scene in which characters drink in the beauty around them is the iconic shot of Isaac and Mary watching the sunrise near the 59th Street bridge. Isaac’s opening narration tells us he worships New York, but once the plot gets going, he never rhapsodizes again. When he talks about the city, he’s usually griping about something: pseudo-intellectuals labeling all of their friends “geniuses,” a neighbor who sounds like he’s “sawing a trumpet in half.”

    For all its richness, “Manhattan” will always have an autobiographical asterisk next to its title because of the affair between Allen’s 42-year-old TV producer character, Isaac, and his not-quite-18-year-old girlfriend, Tracy (Oscar nominee Mariel Hemingway). It highlights Allen’s tres French acceptance of May-September affairs — a proclivity that in 1992 led him to betray his girlfriend Mia Farrow for her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn.

    I don’t think “Manhattan” sentimentalizes the Isaac-Tracy relationship as much as detractors claim, though. It’s clear from the start that Isaac is attracted to Tracy because she doesn’t challenge him, and is drawn to Mary because she does. Isaac destroys Tracy’s idealized image of him in the movie’s agonizing lunch counter scene. He only tries to win her back once Mary has pushed him away and forced him to contemplate what does make him happy — and note that Isaac lists things that make life worth living, he doesn’t cite Tracy herself, but “Tracy’s face.” When he sees her again in the film’s City Lights”-flavored finale, it’s clear that his callousness toughened her up. “In six months you’ll be a completely different person,” he says, pleading with her not to go to abroad. “Well, don’t you want me to have that experience?” she replies. “I mean, a while ago you made such a convincing case.” Isaac’s parting glance mingles childlike hope with sad acceptance, but I don’t think he really loves Tracy. I think he loves the idealized reflection of himself that he used to see in her eyes, just as he loves the idea of Manhattan more than he loves Manhattan.

    Woody Allen is wiser about “Woody Allen” than he is about Woody Allen. For more proof, see slide No. 7.

  • 2.

    2. “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986)

    After “Annie Hall,” the writer-director became increasingly restless, ambitious and distrustful of popular acclaim, and embarked on a period of creative wandering that alternated formalist experiments (“Stardust Memories,” “Zelig”) with big-hearted crowd-pleasers (“The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Broadway Danny Rose”). “Hannah and Her Sisters” fused those impulses and became Allen’s second-highest-grossing film, exceeded only by this year’s surprise hit “Midnight in Paris.”

    Mia Farrow — arguably Allen’s most versatile leading lady — plays the too-perfect title character. Hannah’s husband (Oscar-winner Michael Caine, playing the first of many Woody Allen stand-ins) is cheating on her with her depressive sister Lee (Barbara Hershey), the trophy girlfriend of an arrogant painter (Max von Sydow) who makes such pronouncements as, “If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.” Allen plays Hannah’s ex-husband Mickey, whose obsession with death sparks theological comparison shopping and a despair that can only be doused by the Marx brothers’ “Duck Soup.” Mickey eventually hooks up with Hannah’s other sister Holly (Dianne Wiest, in the first of two Oscar-winning supporting turns for Allen), a coke-sniffing actress who wants to reinvent herself as a caterer but ultimately turns to playwriting, with Mickey cheering her on.

    The film’s breezy pace ensures that you don’t fixate on Allen’s flourishes, which include multiple narrators, white-on-black chapter titles, and an architectural interlude scored to an excerpt from Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” The filmmaker empathizes with his characters but doesn’t cut them many breaks; even Hannah, a brilliant actress and domestic goddess, ultimately comes off as passive-aggressive and clingy. In the “American Masters” documentary, the director says he’s mystified that a movie filled with so much unhappiness could have become so popular. Maybe it’s the soundtrack. No matter how badly Allen’s characters behave, when you hear “You Are Too Beautiful,” you smile.

  • 1.

    1. “Annie Hall” (1977)

    One of a handful of comedies to win a best picture Oscar (beating the juggernaut “Star Wars”) and an eccentric, highly personal work, “Annie Hall” marks Woody Allen’s transition out of likably jumbled gag-fests and into more varied and sophisticated features. The voice-over narration, documentary-style interludes, childhood flashbacks and fourth-wall-breaking gags — such as the endlessly quotable Marshall McLuhan scene — will satisfy fans of films that the extraterrestrials in “Stardust Memories” labeled “the early, funny ones.” (The direct-address bookends link “Annie Hall” to his breakthrough movie, 1969′s “Take the Money and Run.”) But this time Allen is mainly interested in the relationship between lovers who are a great match but can’t go the distance. It’s his first movie with real-seeming people.

    Diane Keaton’s title character, a bohemian ditz, is one of the most fully realized female leads in ’70s cinema, and her la-di-da chemistry with narrator Alvy Singer (Allen) is exquisite. (Allen and Keaton were a couple in the early 70s.) The film’s affection for Annie centers the film, which was originally called “Anhedonia” (the inability to experience pleasure). Allen’s first cut was a rambling two-hour tour of Alvy’s mind, with Annie occupying one small part of it. Allen has credited his editor, Ralph Rosenblum, with identifying the story’s heart — the Annie-Alvy romance — and pruning the rest.

    “Annie Hall” is wise but not cynical. It starts with the premise that most relationships have a lifespan, and that one key to long-term happiness is the ability to accept this. Alvy provokes and enriches Annie, spurring her intellectual and creative development, but after a certain point she grows beyond him and no longer needs him. That’s not a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just a thing; the lovers’ struggle to accept this gives “Annie Hall” its bittersweet power. Few perfect movies are as relaxed as this one.