Today’s Top 10 comes from New Jersey resident Phil Fava, a longtime Scene-Stealers sitegoer, and it’s perfectly timed. He’s writing about a filmmaker who is so prolific that he has both canonized masterpieces (“Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors”) and Academy Award winners (“Bullets Over Broadway,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Mighty Aphrodite”) littered throughout his filmography. And then there’s everything else. This is a great list of some movies that mostly fall into that last category, at least accorsing to Phil’s general-consensus-o-meter. If you have a list of your own you’d like to contribute, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Here’s Phil:
As I eagerly await the release of Woody Allen’s newest film, “Whatever Works” (starring Larry David and opening this weekend in LA and NY), I can’t help but get all enthusiastic again about my favorite filmmaker. And nothing gets me riled up more than a game of Woody Allen apologetics, in which I defend the genius against allegations of sexual misconduct and artistic deficiency. It’s an easy job, to be frank. So, why not instigate the game myself? Here is a list of the top 10 most underrated Woody Allen films in the world according to me.
10. “Melinda and Melinda” (2004)
Four people meet for dinner in a Manhattan restaurant and debate the intrinsic nature of the universe. Two playwrights, one of whom is played by Wallace Shawn, are at the center of the dispute, and each takes the same scenario and spins it into a story of their own; one is comedic and the other is dramatic. And there’s “Melinda and Melinda,” starring Radha Mitchell and Will Ferrell among others, as the characters in the stories being told. The set-up device is simple and takes a back seat to the two stories which are told in turns. At the very least, the film is worth watching to see Will Ferrell in the comedic thread as the Woody Allen prototype. It’s a really funny performance in and of itself, and the dialogue is so vintage Woody that coming from a stammering, nebbish Will Ferrell makes it ten times funnier. The dramatic storyline is what you’d expect from Allen, who can write dysfunction without blinking. All in all, it’s a solid piece of work. There’s nothing groundbreaking here but most of it works really well. And Will Ferrell in the Woody Allen role? Come on. Where else can you hear Will Ferrell deliver a line like, “Yeah, but if you’re somebody who’s nobody, it’s no fun to be around anybody who’s everybody”?
9. “Manhattan Murder Mystery” (1993)
Other than a brief appearance in “Radio Days,” Diane Keaton hadn’t set foot on the set of a Woody Allen film for 14 years when they were reunited on screen in “Manhattan Murder Mystery.” In view of the scandal with Mia Farrow and Soon Yi Previn from the previous year, Keaton suddenly became Allen’s choice for top female billing in his next film. It worked out for the best, though. I’d go so far as to say that this pairing of actors was worth the protracted custody battle and media scrutiny exacted upon Woody and Mia! I mean, it yielded this film, which is as funny as anything Allen has done. It also reunited him with Alan Alda, who could not have been better in “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Anjelica Huston? Well, to tell you the truth, her work in the aforementioned “Crimes” was one of the only things in the film about which I wasn’t insanely happy. But she’s a lot better in this. She’s less melodramatic and the fast-paced dialogue she and the other three leads have to deliver is pretty terrific. When all’s said and done, Woody Allen does dialogue. The mystery plot doesn’t really matter, and there’s only about as much overall tension worked up in this outing as any award show. In other words, the stakes here are not life and death. And, if they are, they’re not played that way.
8. “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” (1982)
If “Sleeper,” “Love and Death,” and “Manhattan” were able to conceive a child, “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” would be their cinematic offspring. I like to think of this film as Woody’s throwback to his movies of yesteryear made with the skills he acquired as a filmmaker after directing films such as “Annie Hall” and “Interiors.” It’s a lighthearted romantic comedy, for sure, but it has a setting, supernatural elements, and a screwball sensibility that place it alongside his earlier works. And you know what? It’s the best of them. He was still young enough to be a believable love interest of his female costars and yet experienced enough to craft a fully successful, competent film of this nature. Involving the romantic entanglements of a cast of characters including Mia Farrow, Tony Roberts, and José Ferrer, the film takes place over the course of a weekend at a summer home in upstate New York owned by Andrew (Allen) and Adrian (Mary Steenburgen). It’s a lot better than his early fare and it’s nice to see Woody not doing all of the comedic heavy lifting as a member of an ensemble cast. The rivalry between Ferrer and Roberts is great, and the screwball stuff works better than it ever did in “Sleeper.”
7. “September” (1987)
Can Woody Allen set an aesthetic tone for his films or what? “September,” his golden-hued follow up to “Hannah and Her Sisters,” touches on a few of the same issues as its predecessor but with a different tone, setting, and with a complete absence of comedy. It’s a dramatic, serious meditation on unrequited love and broken parent/child relationships taking place over the course of a few days in yet another summer home. Farrow and her best friend (played by Dianne Wiest) are two parts of a love quartet including two of Farrow’s neighbors, Sam Waterston and Denholm Elliott. Staying the summer with Mia, in addition to Wiest, is her mother (Elaine Stritch) and her retired physicist boyfriend (Jack Warden), the latter of whom engages Waterston’s Peter in a discussion of cosmic indifference and evolutionary randomness by candlelight after a storm shuts off their electricity. The performances are excellent across the board and function especially well within the isolation of the picture. There’s a vibe of loneliness in the movie and I can’t remember a single scene taking place outdoors. The aesthetic I previously mentioned is very conspicuous; the interior of the house really has an omnipresent golden hue. It’s such a solid, functional drama with great performances–mostly filmed in long, unbroken shots like so many of Allen’s works–that it deserves much more than to be shrugged off as it has. The set up is basically a theater exercise, but the delivery and payoff are totally redeeming.
6. “Everyone Says I Love You” (1996)
I’ll say it right off the bat: I don’t like musicals. Who does, though, to be honest? Other than the great films that seem to be musicals incidentally (“The Wizard of Oz,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”) and the few good pure musicals (“Singin’ in the Rain”), they’re not something I go for. They’re mostly phony, uninspired and, while I’m not that much of a cynic, far too saccharine for my taste. The whole “Let’s sing about what we’re doing, feeling, thinking, and what’s happening next” thing is really disruptive. But Woody Allen tackling the genre? I’m so in. “Everyone Says I Love You,” starring Edward Norton and Drew Bayymore, is a terrific entry in the vast, multifarious catalog of Allen films. It’s a classic Woody Allen romantic comedy with elaborate, wonderfully executed musical numbers almost peppered in. The great thing about this musical is that the songs were pre-existing and, as such, don’t do much more than vaguely indicate character’s emotions. They don’t telegraph the plot. They don’t serve as lame exposition. They’re just great pieces of music performed by many different actors in equally adept performances. Watch out for a young Natalie Portman!
5. “Zelig” (1983)
When one thinks of the seminal mockumentary of the 1980s, what comes to mind? My guess is “This Is Spinal Tap.” And that’s fine. Lots of people have a perpetual hard-on for the picture and treasure it. But I hate to break it to you, kids–the mockumentary of the 1980s just so happens to be “Zelig.” Using stock footage, staged interviews, and the kind of special effects that give meaning to the term, Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis put together a marvelous, inexcusably forgotten masterpiece. Yeah, I said it. The subject of the piece is the fictional character Leonard Zelig (Allen), a man whose physiology demands constant adjustments in physical appearance and personality depending on whose company he’s keeping. For instance, when he’s around a doctor, he looks and acts like a doctor. And on it goes. It’s an astonishing technical achievement and is due a greatly heightened degree of appreciation. While some people’s mockumentary needs are met by “Spinal Tap” and the slew of subsequent Christopher Guest productions, we know what the real deal is. I do, anyway.
4. “Anything Else” (2003)
What an unjustly maligned movie this is! The basic argument of its detractors concerns its vague similarities to “Annie Hall” (which they fail to realize are similarities to all Woody Allen films) and their contention that Jason Biggs’ performance as Jerry Falk is a mere impersonation of Woody. Well, as someone who’s seen all three “American Pie” movies, I can tell you that Jason Biggs is not doing an impersonation of anyone. He’s been a stuttering, awkward, insecure neurotic since he stuck his dick in a pie in 1999. The difference here is that Woody’s dialogue has intellectual content and a level of sophistication in its humor slightly above that of dessert copulation. But this isn’t about “American Pie”; this is about “Anything Else.” And you know what? It’s a great movie. Christina Ricci is hyper-neurotic and unforgivably sexy as Jerry’s girlfriend Amanda, and Stockard Channing is pitch perfect as her mother. Her escapades with a coke-snorting horse whisperer are particularly entertaining. Woody, too, puts in the kind of performance as Biggs’ slightly deranged mentor that puts himself to shame in 2006′s “Scoop,” a movie that gets a deserved bad rap. While it is a pure romantic comedy at heart, much of the interaction between Allen and Biggs is darker and concerns the kind of deeper existential issues prodded in most of Allen’s films. Leave it to Woody to use a struggling relationship as a springboard for the meaning of existence.
3. “Deconstructing Harry” (1997)
I’m going to submit that this is the funniest Woody Allen movie, period. And it’s not funny in that very specific, highbrow, Woody Allen-kind-of-way. It’s funny on its own terms. It’s the product of an old master’s attempts to fulfill the comedic needs of a younger generation, and the results speak for themselves. Allen plays Harry Block, an author suffering writer’s block (not so subtle) who’s been invited to an honorary ceremony at the college that expelled him years before. Much could be said of the film’s apparent autobiographical content signified by its many failed relationships due to infidelity and betrayal and so on. But there are deeper truths here than those merely reflected in the director’s life. The humor here is so vulgar at times that it’s hard to believe Woody Allen was behind the lens, but that’s what makes it so effective. It is a perfect synergy of intellectual banter and crude sex jokes. And yet…the business about functioning better in art than in life remains intact, untarnished by the comedy. Same goes for all the insights, for that matter, which ring true en masse. I know it may seem like this entire recap/explanatory passage is about me being tickled by Woody Allen saying dirty words, but it isn’t. Had the movie been a stark drama with the same aphoristic integrity, I’d be telling the same story, here. But it isn’t. It’s really fucking funny.
2. “Husbands and Wives” (1992)
With shaky, hand-held camera work and seemingly arbitrary yet deliberately choppy editing, “Husbands and Wives” hardly holds any titles in the technical achievement branch of cinematic appreciation. But this artistic choice (it doesn’t sound any less pretentious when read aloud) happens to serve the film extremely well. It also makes a lot of sense, since it’s basically a totally sincere mockumentary not being played for laughs that uses voice-over narration and interviews with the characters. Those technicalities of production aside, the performances here are really terrific. And I don’t just mean Judy Davis’, whose turn as the cold, rigid intellectual Sally is hilarious. This film contains what might be Woody’s best piece of acting, period. He’s so restrained and surprisingly not neurotic, here, that I suspect his other, more high energy performances are indeed exaggerations of his personality (as he often declares). Sydney Pollack is really hilarious, too, in the most brutally honest way. The scene with him outside the party with his young, astrology-enthused aerobics instructor girlfriend is one of the funniest and most cringe-worthy I’ve seen. Another plus to this film is that you get to see a post-“Cape Fear,” pre-Scientology Juliette Lewis in a nice supporting role as the student/love interest of Woody’s character, Cliff.
1. “Stardust Memories” (1980)
This film, which came out one year after his universally lauded masterpiece, “Manhattan” (not to mention three years after his other universally-lauded masterpiece “Annie Hall”), could only really be expected to fall short. In the wake of such critical success, Woody decided to scrap any shred of easily digestible, logical narrative and make a film brimming with absurdity. While “Annie Hall” certainly had surrealistic elements to it, a clustered narrative, and presented scenes of pure imagination, it was relatively easy to follow. Alvy Singer’s constant breaking of the fourth wall had a way of keeping the fantasy sequences in check. But in “Stardust Memories,” the line between reality and fantasy is almost blurred entirely, right up to the end, with fantasy sequences taking place within larger fantasy sequences and so on. It’s definitely a film that requires repeated viewings to (almost) fully understand, but it’s so rich that each revisit is equally rewarding. Taking a cue from Fellini’s “8 ½,” “Stardust Memories” is about a disenchanted filmmaker named Sandy Bates (Allen) who has ceased to make comedies in view of human misery. He’s invited to the Jersey shore for a film festival of his past work, and during his stay, events of such humor and insight and madness and beauty take place, the cold shoulder this film has received is incalculable. From his encounter with alien life to childhood memories to a scene with his past girlfriend Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling) during which Louis Armstrong’s “Stardust” is played, the film is just alive. It has beautiful black and white cinematography by Gordon Willis and a fantastic soundtrack mostly comprised of Django Reinhardt. It’s also interesting to note that it marks the first in a series of what many perceive to be the definitive Woody Allen film, which includes jazz music and that ubiquitous credit sequence (“Annie Hall” was mostly devoid of music and “Manhattan” was 100% Gershwin). All in all, what this film lacks in straightforward storytelling and direct emotional impact, it makes up for in copious artistry and imagination.