This year Woody Allen turns 80, and for the last half a century he’s been one of the most famous – some would say notorious – film makers alive. Everyone probably has an idea of what a Woody Allen movie is like – self deprecating monologues about love, life, New York, being Jewish, and the sad fact that we’re all alive, but don’t really know why or what to do about it. Call it the modern divine comedy.
But if you haven’t really seen any of his movies, there’s a problem. Which one do you watch? Woody Allen has been churning out movies with the regularity of a metronome since 1965. In fact he hasn’t skipped a year since 1981, which means there is a whopping 49 feature films to choose from. Where do you start? Perhaps you could binge-watch them like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, but apart from the logistical difficulty of finding all of them (directorial completeness is a notable weakness of Netflix), it would take you a long time to find the pearls. Because to be frank, if you make a movie a year, there are going to be some duds.
So here’s my short guide to Allen movies, which I must severely caveat by stating that I’ve only seen a dozen or so and will be listing from amongst those, so there will be gaps.
Classic Woody Allen
If there is one Woody Allen movie that both fits all the stereotypes – nervous bespectacled man tries to find love with quirky, sometimes neurotic, but always beautiful women in upper middle class New York – and at the same time is a showcase of independent film making mastery, it is Annie Hall. The movie follows Allen as comedian Alvy Singer and his romance with Diane Keaton in full-on Charlie Chaplin guise. I’m sure that’s not the technical term, but I believe her male dress choices started a fashion trend in the early seventies. The movie is essentially a showpiece of smart, off the cuff, dialogue between the main actors, a cross between the Richard Linklater Before-trilogy and the Marx brothers. Allen uses a box of tricks to tell his story, from directly addressing the camera Frank-Underwood-style, to running subtitles showing what characters really think as they talk, but it never feels gimmicky.
If you can only see one, make it this one. And if you’re in the mood for similar ones, check out Manhattan.
Zany Woody Allen
Not that any part of Allen’s body of work is without humor, but he sometimes pushes things a little further than usual. My two favorite examples here are the Sci-Fi slapstick Sleeper and the succinctly named Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex – But Were Afraid to Ask. The first tells the absurd story of a cryogenically frozen jazz musician who is brought back to life 200 years after his death to help start a revolution. Bizarre futuristic outfits, inventions and overall shenanigans ensue. The second is a series of sketches that have to be seen to be believed, culminating in one starring Burt Reynolds as a switchboard operator in the brain and Allen as his stormtrooper, during a sexual encounter.
Criminal Woody Allen
Whereas many of Allen’s movies deal with the neuroses of his well-to-do New Yorkers as they go about their afairs (illicit or otherwise), he has also been fascinated by the point where these passions casually turn into crimes. Most memorably in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. In the first a man having an affair has his mistress murdered and discovers that when all is said and done, living with a crime on your conscience isn’t nearly as hard as it is made out to be. In the second – which also happened to be first Allen movie I ever saw that didn’t star the man himself – we follow Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a social climber who marries into wealth and then does all he needs to do to maintain it.
Traveling Woody Allen
In recent years, Allen seems to have gotten the travel bug and has made his way to Europe many times. After Match Point, set in London, he has ventured to Barcelona in the wonderfully lucscious Vicky, Christina, Barcelona, to Italy in the underwhelming To Rome with Love, and to France in the Owen Wilson starring Midnight in Paris. The latter tells the tale of a failing screenwriter who stumbles upon a portal – or a Peugeot to be more exact – to the 1920s where he spends his time with the greats of that age: Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, etc. It has that one quality that makes so many of Allen’s movies special. It’s the magic, that momentary flight of fancy, that lifts these stories from the neurotic musings of the main characters to something lighter, to a moment of cinematic whimsy, if only for a minute.
So there you have it. My quick guide to Woody Allen movies, as chosen from the movies I happened to see. Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t just one type of Allen movie, and if you still can’t make up your mind, just pick his last, the excellent Blue Jasmine, set in lovely San Francisco, which earned Cate Blanchett the Oscar last year.