Ranking WOODY: A subjective list, compiled
[semi]objectively --- updated 12/2017! ---
by MATT KNUDSEN
-First Published 11/30/2011
So two things happened over Thanksgiving weekend that compelled me to finalize a post I’ve been stewing over for a very long time:
1. I finally got around to watching the [brilliant] American Masters documentary on Woody Allen that Robert Weide directed for PBS. It’s an epic, exhilarating and comprehensive account of one of the great (if not THE greatest?) American filmmaking careers. Honestly, the last time I had such a blast watching a three and a half hour film it probably had the words “Lord” and/or “Rings” in the title.
2. Last week my friend Dan sent me a link to an “article” written by two editors of The Projector blog at Yahoo Movies that includes their respective rankings of Woody Allen films by quality in what they refer to as “definitive lists”.
So, my exhilaration at having just had my Woody Allen batteries recharged following a great screening of a truly phenomenal documentary, coupled with my anger and frustration at having read (and seethed about) two lists that I felt were offensively off the mark… Well, I figured it was high time I chimed in about a subject matter I actually do harbor strong (and emotionally-charged) opinions about. I’m not necessarily more qualified to filter my opinion through a list like this than those guys. But, like them, I’ve seen all of these films multiple times and I edit a blog. So in that regard I suppose I’m at least as qualified to impose my list on the world as they are…
Rules: The list is comprised of the 46 theatrically-released films for which Woody Allen has received a director’s credit. Those Yahoo yahoos include WHATS UP TIGER LILY? But, seeing as that’s not even an original film but rather a strange, re-dubbed Japanese film interspersed with cut scenes of Woody’s commentary, I chose not to recognize it as a qualifying entry. As there was no mention of the “film” in the Woody documentary, it appears that he doesn’t even really recognize it as part of his filmography either. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a frequently hilarious and unique piece of experimental pop art. I definitely recommend checking it out if you never have. But for the purpose of keeping this thing clean and streamlined the rules will break down as follows:
-Short films (such as his contribution to NEW YORK STORIES) are not recognized.
-Made for television films and series (such as DON’T DRINK THE WATER or CRISIS IN SIX SCENES) are not recognized.
-TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN is Woody’s 1st film.
-WONDER WHEEL is his 46th.
SO, without further ado, here is my opinion of Woody’s oeuvre in descending order of quality:
1. Manhattan (1979) - The first three and a half minutes are better than most film’s entire running times.
2. Stardust Memories (1980) – My heart palpitates just thinking about the amazing Charlotte Rampling, lying on the carpet, reading, glancing up... Her trademark glance is so iconic they made a whole documentary about it!
3. Interiors (1978) – One of those films that literally made me rethink my definition of the word “art” after the first time I saw it.
4. Annie Hall (1977) – “We need the eggs”. ‘nuff said.
5. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) – "God is a luxury I can't afford."
6. Husbands and Wives (1992) – Dark, sad, cynical, brutal, BRILLIANT stuff. God bless Judy Davis.
7. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) – Any movie where Sam Waterston plays a lothario is alright by me. Juliet Taylor really cast the hell out of this one and the film won two acting Oscars to prove it.
8. Sweet and Lowdown (1999) – Samantha Morton’s reaction, the first time she hears “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” is pretty much how my face must look every time I watch this movie.
9. Celebrity (1998) - Watch the DiCaprio sequence again and tell me this isn’t one of the most ferociously funny and daring tightropes Woody ever walked. Kenneth Branagh is the greatest Woody surrogate of all time. Full stop.
10. Love and Death (1975) – Far and away the best of the “early funny ones”.
11. Deconstructing Harry (1997) – Woody goes to hell and holy shit is it bracing (and profane).
12. Bullets Over Broadway (1994) – The one to drop on the person who “doesn’t like Woody Allen movies”. Smart, sweet [surprisingly violent], and sublime…
13. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) – The cinematic equivalent of re-reading an old lover letter from the one that got away.
14. Shadows and Fog (1991) – Woody dives headfirst into Kafka territory and Carlo Di Palma challenges Gordon Willis for black and white photographic superiority in Woody-world (he fails, I mean we all saw MANHATTAN, but it’s still a helluva try).
15. September (1987) – Not the INTERIORS follow-up the world wanted, but the one it deserved. Somewhere Checkov grinned, broadly.
16. Blue Jasmine (2013) - Woody cribs, lovingly, from Tennessee Williams, trains his camera on San Francisco for the first time, and gives Cate Blanchett the gift of an instantly-iconic, tragic heroine.
17. Mighty Aphrodite (1995) – “Achilles only had an Achilles heel. I have an entire Achilles body!”
18. Match Point (2005) – A bleak, startling, sexy overture to the third act of Woody’s career and an elegant opening to his “European period”.
19. Another Woman (1988) – A forgotten gem. Who would have thought that Gene Hackman could be so effective as a romantic lead or that Woody could channel Cassavetes so impressively?
20. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) – Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem speak Woody’s words like seasoned veterans… in two languages!
21. Melinda and Melinda (2004) – “…if you’re somebody who’s nobody, it’s no fun to be around anybody who’s everybody.”
22. Bananas (1971) – “I object your honor! This trial is a travesty. It’s a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham.”
23. Everyone Says I Love You (1996) – The long-awaited Woody musical is everything we could have wanted, complete with Cole Porter (natch), Groucho mustaches, and a flying Goldie Hawn.
24. Sleeper (1973) – “Sex and death – two things that come once in a lifetime. But at least after death you’re not nauseous.”
25. Take the Money and Run (1969) – Buñuel may have invented the mockumentary but Woody perfected it- and in his first film, no less.
26. Zelig (1983) – Woody and Gordon Willis engage in an ambitious cinematic experiment and nudge the zeitgeist (ever so slightly) in the process.
27. Broadway Danny Rose (1984) – Woody pays homage to his vaudevillian beginnings and Mia Farrow gets to play against type (uproariously).
28. Café Society (2016) - Buoyed by the irrepressible chemistry of Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg and handsomely lensed by Vittorio Storaro (how is it Woody made 44 films before working with the man?) the film surprises as one of Woody's 21st century bests.
29. Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) – Woody and Diane Keaton reunite onscreen for the first time in fourteen years (yes I'm aware she was in RADIO DAYS) and the results are [of course] hilarious. Why have they not worked together since?! Do your job Juliet Taylor!
30. Irrational Man (2015) – Woody's obsession with calculated murder, guilt, and Dostoyevsky grafts flimsily onto a paper-thin romantic bauble set in an around a New England liberal arts college. The cast is game (particularly Parker Posey) and the ending is a stunner but the film is a mostly trivial affair..
31. Alice (1990) – Woody sets Mia adrift in mystical territory but Alec Baldwin rights the ship and saves the movie with a healthy does of supernatural “Baldwiness”.
32. Wonder Wheel (2017) - “What the hell does the kid see when he just stares into the flames? Is it the eternal power of the universe? The conversion of mass into energy? The Furies at work? Whatever his motive, it is not appreciated.”
33. To Rome With Love (2012) - Venturing back into anthology territory for the first time in decades, Woody fumbles with three trivial, uneven shorts. But he hits the fourth one so far out of the park it makes you wish he had focused the entire film on it.
34. Midnight In Paris (2011) – A semi-silly conceit and some glaring examples of miscasting (Juliet Taylor, what happened?) are mostly redeemed by a sublime Marion Cotillard, adorable “cameos” from an endless stream of Lost Generation luminaries, and a prologue that plays like a franco-MANHATTAN homage.
35. A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) – Goofy and forgettable but goddamn is it a good-lookin’ piece of fluff. Probably the unofficial beginning of the second act of Woody’s career and the first film of the “Mia Period”.
36. Radio Days (1987) – Woody and nostalgia make for strange bedfellows. I always felt like he made this film for the small minority of people who thought the Coney Island flashback sequences were the best part of ANNIE HALL.
37. Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex *But Were Afraid To Ask (1972) - Uneven goofiness abounds but the last twenty minutes are worth braving the first sixty for.
38. Magic In The Moonlight (2014) - A clever conceit, a handsome cast, ideas to spare... Yet somehow this minor distraction is shockingly deficient of charm.
39. Small Time Crooks (2000) – A weird, lazy mashup of what appears to be two completely disparate narrative ideas shabbily cobbled together. But, as my mother has always maintained- it’s worth watching for Elaine May.
40. Whatever Works (2009) – Larry David deserved better than a dusty old script pulled out of mothballs and rushed into production. It’s not too late to make up for this by casting him again… in something better.
41. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) – A bona fide success in regard to the period detail. A bona fide failure in regard to virtually everything else.
42. Cassandra's Dream (2007) – Not exactly what Dostoyevsky had in mind. When even a Philip Glass score isn’t enough to salvage your movie you know you’ve made a misstep.
43. Scoop (2006) – “I was born into the Hebrew persuasion, but when I got older I converted to narcissism.”
44. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) - Woody has certainly squandered good casts before but perhaps never as egregiously as he does here. I felt like I needed to apologize to Juliet Taylor for Woody after this one.
45. Anything Else (2003) – In 2009 Quentin Tarantino called it one of his top twenty favorite films since 1992. I think he and I were watching two different movies.
46. Hollywood Ending (2002) – um, hm, uh, oh boy… hmm, oh man… yikes. Yikes. Yikes!
-Woody made the 4 best films of his career (in my humble opinion) back to back between the years 1977 and 1980.
-He made his 2 worst films (in my even humbler opinion) back to back in 2002 and 2003, respectively (ouch).
-Woody has made 8 films with the word “and” in the title and 5 of them are in my top 10 (no, I’m not counting ‘cassANDras’s dream’).
-His most underrated film is most certainly STARDUST MEMORIES, followed closely by CELEBRITY.
-His most overrated film is most certainly MIDNIGHT IN PARIS by a landslide. 150 million dollars and counting in global box office receipts and a screenplay Oscar. What?! What movie was I watching? I mean it's cute and fun but it's clearly "lesser-Woody". A distant second would probably be RADIO DAYS.
-Woody has been nominated for:
7 Best Director Oscars - (4 from films in my top 10)
16 Best Screenplay Oscars- (6 from films in my top 10)
But (amazingly) he has only 4 wins (director and screenplay for ANNIE HALL, screenplay for HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, screenplay for MIDNIGHT IN PARIS).
I believe that Woody has had 7 legitimate muses in his film career as defined by the amount of times he wrote significant roles for these women in multiple films. One could, of course, make the argument that his only two “true” muses were Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow and it’s hard to argue that point, at least mathematically. But I’ve ranked the women whom I consider to be his muses here in descending order of film appearances (because I HAVE that sort of time) for everyone to draw their own conclusions by:
Mia Farrow- 12
Diane Keaton- 7
Diane Wiest- 5
Julie Kavner- 5
Judy Davis- 4
Louise Lasser- 4
Scarlett Johansson- 3
-No one rips off Fellini as elegantly, respectfully, or honestly as Woody Allen. As such, it’s fun to chart the parallels:
SWEET AND LOWDOWN = LA STRADA
CELEBRITY = LA DOLCE VITA
ALICE = JULIET OF THE SPIRITS
RADIO DAYS = AMARCORD
TO ROME WITH LOVE = THE WHITE SHEIK
THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO = NIGHTS OF CABIRIA
STARDUST MEMORIES = 8 ½
I know one can draw similar parallels between his films and Ingmar Begman’s as well but I’m not familiar enough with the Swede’s catalogue to even pretend to be able chart Woody’s homage[s].
Honestly, lists like this are inherently silly, subjective, solipsistic, and arbitrary. But they’re fun to make, they inspire conversation, and they show an appreciation for someone’s entire body of work. This list is a small and trivial example of my appreciation for Woody’s film catalogue. The PBS documentary, on the other hand, is a solid, comprehensive, and moving love letter to the man’s career.