Our Favorite Woody Allen Movies
Woody Allen’s 43rd writer/director effort, Blue Jasmine, made its debut in movie theaters across the country this past weekend. 43 is a lot. Allen has made so many films at this point, of different combinations of his Chaplin, Hope, Fellini and Bergman influences, that choosing a favorite out of all of them is both a pointless and important exercise: pointless because there isn’t a right or wrong answer, important because your answer says a lot about what you find funny, and/or moving.
With that in mind, please do not judge these upstanding Splitsider staffers and contributors if they happen to not share the same opinion as yourself, but applaud them for their honesty and unintentional vulnerability in revealing what they found to be their favorite Woodman movie, and why. To paraphrase Harry Block in Deconstructing Harry, we’re all people that know the same truth, our lives consist of how we choose to distort it so we are more fond of Woodman films made before 1981 or after.
Ramsey Ess: Bananas
Which is harder to pull off: comedy or drama? Allen himself would investigate this question himself in 2004’s Melinda and Melinda, but it’s comedy, right? We’re all in agreement here. That’s what makes Woody’s early, purer comedies all the more precious: they perfectly encapsulate Woody Allen’s style of humor at that time, as well as his influences. In Bananas, not only do we get a number of exquisitely executed classic lines and moments, we also see echoes of his comedic idols Bob Hope and the Marx Brothers as Allen shows constant cowardice while being surrounded by a world full of zany gags.
If you compare this film, Woody’s sophomore directorial effort, to his more recent films they couldn’t be more different. Bananas is simply a long string of gags within the story of Woody accidentally becoming the leader of a South American country. While it lacks the emotional punch of his later work, in some ways Bananas will live on just as long as his later classics. Just as mankind will always be able to look at the romance between Alvy Singer and Annie Hall and see a mirror held up to their own relationships, so too will we always be able to see a woman who has been bitten by a snake on her bare breast being chased by a nerdy guy in glasses, eager to suck out the poison, and laugh.
Matt Schimkowicz: Play It Again, Sam
Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam not only sees Woody the writer and actor in transition, but also his most famous character, Woody Allen, going through one as well. In fact, it’s practically the character’s birth. The story of a Casablanca-obsessed film writer and recent divorcee, Play it Again, Sam bridges Woody’s early, funny movies to an artistic run as strong as any, which saw Allen writing, directing, and acting in such films as Love and Death, Interiors, Sleeper, and, of course, his two masterpieces Annie Hall and Manhattan. The film kicked off Woody’s partnership with Diane Keaton, and the addition hoists Woody to new comedic and dramatic heights.
As clunky, awkward, and neurotic as Allen’s character, the appropriately named Allan, the film is a cluster of styles. Adapted from a stage play of Allen’s creation, Play It Again, Sam gets the full treatment, grounding his silly and satirical hallucinations with poignant romanticism and an existential look at relationships. The key elements that Woody would later blend more seamlessly are on display here; though, in a more primitive form. However, what the film lacks in cleanliness, it makes up for in volume of jokes. Woody fires off one-liners even when no one is listening. Woody’s artistic leaps, coupled by his non-stop comedic machine gun, make Play It Again, Sam a massive step forward that set the stage for his later, less funny movies, and I love this one for it.
Bradford Evans: Sleeper
Woody Allen doesn’t speak until 11 minutes into Sleeper. Let that sink in and try to imagine any other post-Silent Era mainstream comedy in which the main character goes that long without talking. Allen originally envisioned Sleeper as a silent movie about a futuristic totalitarian state where speaking is forbidden. While he scrapped that plan and opted to make the film a talkie, there are still large chunks of Sleeper where Allen is doing silent, physical comedy as an homage to heroes of his like Charlie Chaplin, and he manages to pull it off. On top of that, he’s also operating outside his wheelhouse with the film’s sci-fi setting, but he manages to create a low budget futuristic world that actually looks pretty convincing, fusing comedy with sci-fi a full decade ahead of Back to the Future and Ghostbusters. Sleeper is a great example of Woody Allen taking some big creative risks – with the silent or semi-silent sections and the sci-fi setting in particular – and mixing these new elements in with the prowess for fast-paced physical gags he had displayed in his previous movies Bananas and Take the Money and Run.
Phil Davidson: Annie Hall
I should probably start with the disclaimer that I haven’t seen all 43 of Woody Allen’s movies. (Who knows, maybe Cassandra’s Dream is his best film? I guess I’ll never know.) But I’ve seen my fair share, and though it’s not the most daring choice, I have to say Annie Hall is my favorite. I realize that’s akin to saying Led Zeppelin IV is the best Led Zeppelin album, but so be it. Annie Hall is his masterpiece.
The Annie Hall script Allen co-wrote with Marshall Brickman was a departure from the broad, slapstick-heavy approach of his previous films. Annie Hall’s humor is darker, deeper, and sadder – essentially the movie is the life story of a failed relationship – as it explores universal themes about love without being cloying. It’s the romantic comedy you don’t feel the need to roll your eyes at. And though any Woody Allen film is guilty of jokes that are a little too on-the-nose, they are seldom in Annie Hall. It doesn’t get much better than the “I’m into leather” line delivered by Alvy’s grammar school classmate. Allen also told the story using techniques like asides, flashbacks, and fake documentary interviews with characters, which are commonplace today, but were ahead of the curve when the movie came out in 1977. For these, and many other reasons, Annie Hall is my favorite Woody Allen film. Plus it has an early Jeff Goldblum cameo.
Elise Czajkowski: Manhattan
Is there a more enchanting beginning to a film than the iconic opening of Manhattan? As Gershwin plays over black and white shots of New York and our quasi-hero attempts to begin his novel, those first few moments are so quietly funny while establishing the magic and romance of the film. That’s the real gift of Manhattan – the ability to showcase Allen’s pin-sharp humor in a movie that, in lesser hands, could have easily devolved into melodrama or sappiness. Instead, the movie is so light-hearted and ambivalent about morality, with its casual acceptance of extramarital affairs and underage paramours, that even the most dramatic elements can be played for laughs.
After years of making sillier, screwball type comedies, Allen uses Manhattan to address his displeasure at the state of American comedy. His character, a writer for a TV sketch show, quits in a fit of snobbishness to pursue his literary career. In real life, Allen’s way of fighting back against the obvious, boring comedy around him was to resurrect an old-fashioned style. Instead of high-paced, in-your-face comedy, Manhattan is so calm and beautifully shot that it’s almost mesmerizing, which makes every joke pop. It’s a dramatic romantic comedy art film, and it’s very nearly perfect.
Roger Cormier: Stardust Memories
Here’s how I know that Stardust Memories is Woody Allen’s most personal film: 1)I watched the movie; 2)I’ve seen 95 percent of his other movies; 3)He denied that it’s about him. Of course Allen wouldn’t admit to actually being the protagonist Sandy Bates, a famous director that is constantly hassled by comically weird and creepy looking fans that applaud his work, “especially the earlier, funnier movies,” while he is constantly anxious and full of self-hatred because he thinks he isn’t doing enough to help the world. But how could it not be autobiographical? This movie was made in 1980 – the recently concluded decade began with the dare I say zany Bananas and ended with the decidedly laugh-free Interiors and the complex Manhattan.
While most of us can’t relate to feeling uncomfortable and unsatisfied despite constant adulation, earning a ton of money, and choosing between multiple sex partners, we can all relate to feeling sad when everybody insists you should feel happy, to feeling out of step, to feeling like all of the creativity you put out in the world is pointless and total garbage, to being in love with someone we know is wrong for us to keep the self-destruction streak going. Allen is never more relatable than when he shows what is one of the most romantic scenes of all-time to an audience that dismisses it as artsy, unfunny junk, or when aliens (aliens!) set him straight about his rightful place in the world. I think about that scene all the time whenever I think about quitting everything and becoming a farmer. Now I remember that I don’t know the first thing about crops or hard labor. I just know how to watch a man pour his heart and soul into a funny movie and defend it as if I had anything to do with it.