Top 10 Underrated Woody Allen Movies

by Phil Fava on June 16, 2009

in Top 10s

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 eric@scene-stealers.com. 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.

ferrell mitchell melinda10. “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”?

keaton allen manhattan murder mystery9. “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.

a midsummer night's sex comedy 19828. “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.”

september 1987 allen 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.

everyone says i love you norton barrymore6. “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!

zelig 1983 allen5. “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.

anything else 2003 ricci biggs4. “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.

shue allen deconstructing harry3. “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.

husbands and wivws 1992 judy davis2. “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.

stardust memories 19801. “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.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 hellohawk June 16, 2009 at 10:26 am

Nice list! Clad you had September on here, an underrated gem. One question: where is Love and Death? I don’t know how “underrated” it is, but I don’t heat people talking about that movie enough. It’s one of my faves by him.

Reply

2 Eric Melin June 16, 2009 at 11:33 am

It’s hard to quantify, but I would say “Love and Death” is pretty well regarded to be one of his better films. Top 5 or at least 10 for sure…then again, “Husbands and Wives” is on this list and it received 2 Oscar noms (Judy Davis, screenplay)…

Reply

3 steven chang June 16, 2009 at 12:36 pm

great list! as a woody allen fan, i agree with most of this… but what about broadway danny rose? way, way under-rated. maybe it’s the fact that it was the first allen film i ever saw… but it still holds up pretty well to the rest of his work in my opinion.

Reply

4 Reed June 17, 2009 at 8:12 am

Great list! I think people often fail to recognize how prolific Allen is. I’ve only seen three of these, but each of them is superb. I especially like when he riffs on a classic theme or film. The three I’ve seen:
Deconstructing Harry – riffing on Bergman’s Wild Strawberries
A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy – riffing on Bergman’s Smiles on a Summer Night
Everyone Says I Love You – one of just a handful of musicals I’ve enjoyed. A unique way to do it and a great way to have people breaking into song in a way that makes sense.

Reply

5 Will June 17, 2009 at 8:38 am

I love the list, but what about “Play It Again Sam”? I know that it wasn’t directed by him or based in his beloved NYC, but it’s a great Woody Allen film for many different reasons, mostly due to the fact that he’s getting advice from Bogart and the fact that it was his first collaboration with Diane Keaton and one can see echoes of what that collaboration would lead too. I also thought “Small Time Crooks” was another underrated Woody Allen film that should not have gotten as much bad press as it did.

Reply

6 Will June 17, 2009 at 8:40 am

Oh, I also forgot to mention “Shadows and Fog” and “Purple Rose of Cairo”

Reply

7 James June 17, 2009 at 9:26 am

I am probably in the minority when it comes to readers of this site, but I don’t see why people care so much about Allen’s films. While I will say that Woody Allen is a talented writer, I have to disagree your entire list as saying these movies are “Underrated”. Most of his movies IMO are overrated, with the exception of a few great lines of dialogue here and there. But then again, this is your opinion. I just wanted to know if I was alone in my thoughts (on a site that seems to have the majority of the population not be screaming fanboys and morons).

Reply

8 Eric Melin June 17, 2009 at 9:54 am

It should be noted that I disqualified “Play it Again, Sam” when Phil was writing this list because I wanted to stick to movies that he wrote and directed. “Purple Rose of Cairo” is such a great film, another one that I would say was too critically acclaimed to be underrated, but obviously that’s a matter of dispute as well.

James, I appreciate what you are saying in one respect. Allen’s status as an auteur is pretty unparalleled for someone who has made as many mediocre films. But his sheer output has ensured that many of them were amazing, and even if you don’t relate to his movies, you have to admit that his storytelling style and clear voice has influenced tons of filmmakers. I challenge you to watch “Annie Hall” again and pay attention to the myriad devices he uses (animation, breaking the 4th wall, flashbacks/forward, etc.). He is a lot more sophisticated than many of his detractors give him credit for and has a lot more going for him than a couple good lines of dialogue per film. That said, he misses almost as much as he hits these days…

Reply

9 Jon Sholly June 17, 2009 at 4:34 pm

I’d also like to nominate “Interiors” as number 11 if I may. That said, it may be well regarded these days. I dunno. . . Anyways, it’s a really great movie and Maureen Stapleton is totally awesome in it.

Reply

10 Eric June 18, 2009 at 10:11 pm

I’m with James. I’ve only made it through 1 Woody Allen movie,The Mighty Aphrodite. After that I thought “There’s 95 minutes of my life totally wasted”. I have had some formal education in theater & film & get that he’s unique. But I just do get the reverance or appeal.

Reply

11 Phil Fava June 20, 2009 at 6:19 pm

Awesome feedback.

Eric, I’m surprised you didn’t “flay me wide open” for the comments I made about “Spinal Tap.”

Reply

12 Thomas June 21, 2009 at 5:49 pm

I was beginning to think I might be the only person who thinks “Stardust Memories” is among Allen’s best. I’ve watched it maybe ten times over the years and I haven’t tired of it.

Reply

13 hardy June 22, 2009 at 3:25 pm

theres a great movie called “sweet and lowdown” where sean penn plays a virtuoso jazz guitarist. i’m not sure how well known it is but i really enjoyed it

Reply

14 Phil Fava June 22, 2009 at 3:41 pm

“Stardust Memories,” “Manhattan,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” and “Hannah and Her Sisters” often duke it out for the top spot on my all-time Woody Allen list. I think it depends on whichever one I’ve seen most recently. But yeah, SM is terrific. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Reply

15 Ryan A October 16, 2009 at 2:42 pm

If you are a fan of Woody’s then you must know about Jan Hrebejk. Hrebejk is a Czech filmmaker who grew up idolizing Woody Allen. His first major film, Divided we Fall was nominated for an Academy Award for best Foreign Film.

His latest film to come out to America is Beauty in Trouble, a comedic love story about a beautiful, sex-addicted mother who must choose between her passionate convict husband or a wealthy Czech expatriate.

The Los Angeles Times calls it an “instant classic”, Variety calls it a “multicharacter drama masterpiece.” Buy it from http://www.menemshafilms.com/ and recieve free shipping until December 18th.

Reply

Leave a Comment

 

Previous post:

Next post: