A D & Jeremy Talk about Movies—Extra: Ranking Woody Allen

My last movie talk with Jeremy (about Midnight in Paris) made me want to rank Woody Allen’s films. Jeremy of course hemmed and hawed, but over a Millirahmstrudel I broke them down into:

  1. Masterpieces
  2. Near Masterpieces
  3. Delightful
  4. Problematic
  5. Forgettable
  6. Bad
  7. Unseen

Jeremy agreed to go along with this, albeit with certain objections.

1. MASTERPIECES

Deconstructing Harry (1997)

Jeremy: At least we’re starting on a high note.

A D: This will be regarded, in time, as one of his best films. Once audiences learn to appreciate the misanthropy.

Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

A D: This one, too, has aged really well.

Jeremy: It’s tough to get tired of it. And I’ve tried.

A D: Have you—

Jeremy: Don’t speak!

Husbands and Wives (1992)

A D: This one got overshadowed at the time—understandably—but it’s held up marvelously.

Jeremy: Oh yes, we forgot Scenes from a Marriage when we were mentioning his “remakes,” didn’t we?

Jeremy: I am always reminded of Ben Stiller’s parody version, too:

A D: That’s awesome.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Jeremy: I have a weakness for this one. Is it also the last Allen film to serve as a compendium of his enthusiasms?

A D: Arguably, Sweet and Lowdown does this.

Jeremy: Granted. I miss it, regardless.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

A D: A perfect film.

Jeremy: Perhaps. But if it came back today, and saw what was being done in its name, it would never stop throwing up.

Zelig (1983)

A D: I always forget about this one, for some reason.

Jeremy: Who?

Stardust Memories (1980)

A D: This might be my favorite Allen at the moment.

Jeremy: It’s Allen at his most auteurist and self reflexive, at least until Harry (which isn’t quite the same visual treat). I like it a lot, though find it pretty flawed. It’s just that the flaws are also self-critiques, to some extent. So they work.

Manhattan (1979)

A D: Maybe his greatest? It feels that way, every time I see it.

Jeremy: Yes, when I see it, perhaps. When I’m not seeing it, I revert to Annie Hall. Which is the easy and lazy choice. But Hall still tickles me even when I’m not watching it. Even though Manhattan has Wallace Shawn …

A D: In his first film performance, no less.

Jeremy: Oh boy, that’s great. That’s great. Just great. Really great. You’re really quite a guy.

Annie Hall (1977)

A D: I recently missed seeing this projected. What was I thinking?

Jeremy: Keep talking. I’ll read your subtitles and tell you.

Love and Death (1975)

Jeremy: I wouldn’t put Love and Death here. It’s a Near Masterpiece, perhaps, or maybe simply Delightful. Depending on my mood.

A D: I can see Near. Justin [our friend] and I have always been overfond of it.

Jeremy: I saw it later in my Allen viewing. And appreciated the Bergman jokes, at the time. And of course I like its style, construction, etc., far more than many of the later films. But.

A D: But—take it off, and one thing this list still makes apparent: Allen’s run of masterpieces stretches from the mid-70s to 1997, and isn’t over in the late ’80s, like many critics claim.

2. NEAR MASTERPIECES

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

A D: I need to see this again. It’s easily the recent Allen that most impressed me.

Jeremy: I need to see it the first time. If Myrna Loy were in it, I would already have indulged.

Scoop (2006)

A D: It’s possible this is only a Delight, but I feel like praising it highly, since so many disregarded it upon release. But it has some of his best writing as of late, and a brilliant performance by Ms. Johansson (an actor I’m not too enamored with).

Jeremy: Allen seems to have used her better than most.

A D: Scoop’s a simple comedy, but it’s a gem.

Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

Jeremy: The last Allen, barring Melinda, to play with form?

A D: It depends on how you mean that. Vicky Cristina Barcelona and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger both feature ironic voice-over narration. But, yeah, formal innovation is something that Allen’s moved away from as of late—and something I miss in his filmmaking.

Everyone Says I Love You (1996)

Jeremy: That one’s Delightful at best.

A D: It’s light, but it’s also near perfect, I think.

Jeremy: It has some lovely moments. Maybe. But the rot is setting in.

A D: It’s a souffle (and his first film shot in Europe?).

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

Jeremy: Merely a Delight. At best.

A D: Just wanted to see if you were still paying attention.

Another Woman (1988)

A D: This one has a lot of the clunkiness that dooms both September and Interiors, but here it works. Largely due to how strong Gena Rowlands is in the lead.

Jeremy: Allen often lives or dies by his performers. Which is why I am always confused by his tendency to cast blank slates, in his recent work, and not work with them to get any particular sort of performance.

Radio Days (1987)

Jeremy: Delightful, but no masterpiece, not even a Near one.

A D: This one we’ll have to disagree on; I rather adore it.

Jeremy: I like it very much, but I do not find my liking of it persuasive enough to rank it higher.

A D: The ending’s what seals it for me. Plus the presence of Wallace Shawn.

Jeremy: I always get a little misty-eyed when Diane Keaton shows up. But that’s a canny cameo, not great filmmaking.

A D: Canny filmmaking?

Jeremy: Canny casting, cabrone.

Sleeper (1973)

A D: Something often forgotten is that Allen’s some kind of a physical comedian. He’s extremely athletic, and uses that well in his roles. Sleeper shows that off more clearly than most.

Jeremy: One of the points he has in common with Godard, who never did make enough use of his own excellent capabilities as a slapstick comedian. It’s a shame WA and JLG’s collaboration(s) didn’t indulge in such hi-jinks.

A D: Yeah, they just sat around and talked, mostly.

A D: But this reminds me that I need to see Godard’s King Lear again, and soon.

Jeremy: It’s the only movie to star Woody Allen, Jean-Luc Godard, Julie Delpy, Norman Mailer, Burgess Meredith, and Molly Ringwald. But it should also go on our list of self-erasing films: you can watch Godard’s Lear as often as you like, but you’ll always have to see it again for a refresher. It doesn’t stick.

3. DELIGHTFUL

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Jeremy: Problematic. I remember no Delight. No despair, no delirium—but also no delight.

A D: You sourpuss. I think the Hemingway monologue alone—OK, that plus the conceit—was enough to charm me.

Jeremy: So make a “Charming” category. I’d put it there, sure.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)

Whatever Works (2009)

A D: I know you (and most) won’t agree with me, but I think Tall Dark Stranger and Whatever Works are—conceptually, at least—pretty brilliant. And something of a pair (actually a trio, with Vicky Cristina).

Jeremy: Of these, I’ve only seen Whatever. I’m not sure I see the conceptual brilliance you speak of. But it’s another charmer, sure.

Match Point (2005)

A D: I don’t like this one as much as many critics did, but I can’t argue that it’s confidently made, and an extremely handsome production.

Small Time Crooks (2000)

Jeremy: Problematic. It’s harmless and I don’t want to throw stones, and of course it has Elaine May, but …

A D: Can’t it remain a Delight just for May’s sake?

Jeremy: Fine. But one day I will call upon you to do me a favor in return.

Mighty Aphrodite (1995)

A D: Cute, as I (dimly) recall. It has a chorus!

Jeremy: And the chorus breaks into Cole Porter at one point. A winner.

Jeremy: If there’s a souffle here that I will defend strictly as a souffle, this is it. It holds up. Glossy but somehow unbland.

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

A D: I never liked this one as much as others, or Allen himself (who once called it his favorite). I don’t know why. It has everything going for it, but I was never able to connect with it. There’s probably something wrong with me.

Jeremy: I am fairly fond of it, but it isn’t Allen’s best film, not by a long shot, and it troubles me the most, ideologically, I must say. Perhaps what’s wrong with you is that you can’t set this latter issue aside as well as the culture-at-large.

A D: Oh, I like that reading.

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

A D: See, I actually prefer this one to Purple Rose, mainly because the frame device is so well executed. Plus, I prefer Mia Farrow’s performance here.

Jeremy: The only problem with the frame device is that there isn’t more of it. Danny Rose seems the ideal candidate for this category, the epitome: it is, simply, a Delight. It’s ambitions are that high and no higher.

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982)

Jeremy: Problematic at best.

A D: Really? It has Mia Farrow and Tony Roberts. And sex (my favorite Allen star).

Jeremy: Part of the Problem is that there is more sex in the title than in the film. Which brings us to …

Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972)

Jeremy: I don’t remember being too delighted by this, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

A D: It has Gene Wilder in it! (And more actual sex.)

Jeremy: For Gene, I turn a blind eye. But one day I will call upon him for a favor in return.

Bananas (1971)

A D: Slight, but it has some good gags (and Louise Lasser).

Jeremy: Thank god he soon stopped making this kind of movie, though.

Take the Money and Run (1969)

A D: This was the first Allen I ever saw, and I’ll always be fond of it. The cello/marching band bit is a classic (see 2:41–5:07, below).

A D: OK, here’s a real stretch. I always wondered whether Tori Amos was referencing this film, in her song “Mr. Zebra”—specifically the line, “She thinks she’s Kaiser Wilhelm.” … Probably not.

Jeremy: This is my fault for making that sideways Sandman reference above, isn’t it? I am truly sorry. Let’s move along.

4. PROBLEMATIC

Shadows and Fog (1991)

A D: I know I saw this, but I don’t really remember it. Madonna is in it … ?

Jeremy: So why isn’t it Forgettable?

A D: Because it should be better. Woody Allen does expressionist cinema … and yet.

Jeremy: And yet, he didn’t actually have a script ready.

A D: Precisely.

Alice (1990)

A D: I wanted to like this more than I did, mainly for Mia Farrow’s performance. And the production design, which is extraordinary.

Jeremy: I don’t remember the design. But I can’t call it Forgettable, because I remember how disappointing I found it.

September (1987)

Jeremy: I am not condemning September to the inferno of Badness only out of respect for your judgment. Clearly there must be something in it that I could not see.

A D: The cinematography! And the production design, some of the best I’ve ever seen! (The house is actually a soundstage.)

Jeremy: I saw it on VHS, I think. Or maybe just on a busted TV. Or maybe with the wrong eyes. So there. But, actually, what bothers me about September is the script.

A D: Which is largely wretched, I agree. Still, the performers do their best with it. Denholm Elliott is charming!

Jeremy: They were probably all pretty terrified they’d end up like the first batch to act in it.

[Jeremy is referring to the production’s most unusual aspect: Woody Allen shot the film twice:

According to Mia Farrow’s autobiography What Falls Away, Woody Allen filmed two or three versions of every scene, took all of the footage into the editing suite, cut the film together and then decided that he hated it. He then rewrote the entire script, fired and recast virtually every major part, and re-filmed the entire thing. This meant that he doubled his production costs and came in well behind schedule. Allen was reportedly keen to do it all again for a third time.

And there was even an earlier version before that, with Christopher Walken in the Sam Waterston role. Allen supposedly didn’t shoot much before recasting.]

Jeremy: I think a lot of the movie–as naturalist, studio cinema–is indeed lovely. And I remember it also has a wonderful trailer, oddly enough.

Jeremy: But this is largely because there’s no talking in it.

Interiors (1978)

A D: I rank this one more highly than most, but, just like with September, I can’t disagree that it’s problematic. Still, it has Gordon Willis’s cinematography. And it’s the Woody Allen film where Woody Allen learns to make Woody Allen films. It’s the necessary transition between Annie Hall and Manhattan.

What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966)

A D: In that April Sight & Sound article I keep mentioning, Brad Stevens points out that Allen’s first film was an act of appropriation. He’s always been one to base his films on other movies.

5. FORGETTABLE

Cassandra’s Dream (2007)

A D: It’s pleasant enough, and it has a Philip Glass score, but it’s hardly urgent viewing. (Nor is the Glass score urgent listening.)

Jeremy: Try listening to all of Music in 12 Parts in one go, and you’ll find there’s little urgency to anything else, either.

Melinda and Melinda (2004)

Jeremy: I go back and forth on whether this is Bad. But I guess it’s Forgettable, if I can’t remember it well enough to complain more …

A D: That’s my feeling, too. And, once again, it has Wallace Shawn, however briefly.

Jeremy: Sure, but so does Southland Tales.

A D: STOP MENTIONING RICHARD KELLY. He is for another day.

Sounds from a Town I Love (2001) (TV)

Jeremy: It’s nice to see Tony Roberts in an Allen film again, even if only for five seconds.

A D: And the fact that the film is a total write-off. Still, he made it in, what, a single day?

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)

Jeremy: I liked this one far more than Small Time Crooks, but can’t argue that it’s easily forgotten.

A D: I think the central 30 minutes are wonderful.

Jeremy: Every moment when we get to listen to “In a Persian Market.” In fact, let’s do that now.

A D: It’s a Masterpiece!

Celebrity (1998)

A D: I didn’t dislike this one as much as others did, but I won’t argue that it’s good.

Jeremy: At least it has a Look. Which gives it a peculiar gravitas it doesn’t ever earn.

Jeremy: Why haven’t his films since had any real visual style to speak of? Even a bludgeoningly obvious one like Celebrity’s?

A D: Vicky Cristina is more distinctive, visually, than the other recent ones.

New York Stories (1989) (segment “Oedipus Wrecks”)

Jeremy: I’d maybe promote this to Problematic.

A D: Sure. I remember it dragging, though.

Jeremy: The concept buoys it longer than it might deserve, in my memory.

A D: It’s a good concept. Then again, I also remember being so disgusted by Coppola’s contribution to the project (“Life without Zoe”) that I couldn’t see straight. In any case, Scorsese’s short (“Life Lessons”) is the winning one, if only for the wall-to-wall Procol Harum.

Jeremy: Agreed. Ah, I miss Scorsese.

A D: We’ll have to rank his films next. Masterpieces: After Hours, King of Comedy

Jeremy: No complaints so far.

A D: Anyway, I should watch the Allen again. Can YouTube help us?

A D: … Not as much as I’d like.

Jeremy: Bet it’s much funnier in the original Swedish.

6. BAD

Anything Else (2003)

A D: That one I’d watch again (that terrible trailer notwithstanding). I like the time-travel reading.

Jeremy: I haven’t seen it. What’s the reading?

A D : Without giving too much away, Jason Biggs’s character experiences something at the end of the film that Allen’s character earlier said happened to him, when he was young. So you can read the film as Allen’s character mentoring his younger self, to not make the mistakes that he made.

Jeremy: That’s cute.

A D: I read about it at the IMDb comments board.

Hollywood Ending (2002)

A D: Hollywood Ending, easily my least favorite Allen film (it’s the only one I’ve actively disliked), at least has a brilliant piece of physical comedy in it (the shot where Allen falls off the soundstage).

Don’t Drink the Water (1994) (TV)

A D: That one was harmless enough, but I recall not enjoying it much when I saw it.

7. UNSEEN

Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story (1971) (TV)

A D: I keep hoping that the Internet will deliver this to me. Though I’m not expecting a lot.

Jeremy: When I grow up, I want to be a Man of Crisis. Speaking of which, I know he didn’t direct it, but doesn’t Wild Man Blues (1997) deserve mention? I do like that one.

A D: Oh, yeah, it’s great. A Near Masterpiece, perhaps. (And it’s by Barbara “Harlan County U.S.A.” Kopple!)

Jeremy: It’s more like a Woody Allen movie than a lot of these others. And it’s also canny—occasionally lacerating—PR.

A D: I suppose, then, we should also mention Play It Again, Sam (1972). And The Front (1976). Play It Again has the virtue of being the first Woody Allen / Diane Keaton / Tony Roberts collaboration.

Jeremy: Just like Wild Man rewrote and/or exposed elements of his current persona, Play It Again did contribute something to WA’s mythos, I suppose, in the day.

A D: As for The Front, it’s a minor film, and cloyingly written (it’s too much a “message picture”), but well performed and pretty handsome. Allen seems bored but doesn’t disgrace himself—though it’s Zero Mostel who steals the picture.

Jeremy: It’s tough for anyone to go beyond the Zero.

[Next Monday, A D & Jeremy talk about The Tree of Life; the Monday after that, X-Men: First Class. See you there!]

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Jeremy [M. Davies] is the author of the critically-acclaimed film-centric novel Rose Alley, and an editor at Dalkey Archive Press in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

A D [Jameson] is the author of the prose collection Amazing Adult Fantasy, the novel Giant Slugs, and a lot of film and book reviews. He lives in Chicago.

Other Installments:

  1. Source Code, Friends, Woody Allen, The Man from London, Sucker Punch, Zardoz, Tron, Willow, and Shoot ‘Em Up
  2. Source Code, Moon, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
  3. Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, all films Kenneth Branagh, Sleuth, Joseph Mankiewicz, Thor, and superhero movies (every one)
  4. Midnight in Paris (and other recent Woody Allens)
  5. Extra: Ranking Woody Allen
  6. The Tree of Life
  7. Extra: Linda’s Voice-Over Narration in Days of Heaven
  8. X-Men: First Class

21 thoughts on “A D & Jeremy Talk about Movies—Extra: Ranking Woody Allen

  1. Not to be a Polly Positive but I gotta say if I ever made 1 ‘near masterpiece’, let alone 9 ‘masterpieces’ I think I could die pretty proud of myself. Hell, if I ever made a 10th as many movies as Allen’s made, regardless of quality I’d be proud. Dang.

  2. For what it’s worth, FilmJunk conducted a poll last week, asking people their favorite Woody Allen film. The results:

    1. Annie Hall — 36.6%
    2. Manhattan — 15.2%
    3. Match Point — 10.1%
    3. Sleeper — 10.1%
    5. Crimes and Misdemeanors — 8%
    6. Vicky Cristina Barcelona — 7.6%
    7. Hannah and Her Sisters — 6.2%
    8. The Purple Rose of Cairo — 3.3%
    9. Bullets Over Broadway — 1.4%
    9. Husbands and Wives — 1.4%

  3. It’s the circumstances in which you first see a film that can affect how you rate it. For which reason, my personal top five would probably be:

    1: Hannah and her sisters
    2: Radio Days
    3: Broadway Danny Rose
    4: Manhattan
    5: Purple Rose of Cairo

    • Hi Paul,

      I think that’s often true, but in my case, I mainly watched them all at once, in June 2001 (and did so in chronological order). Before that, I’d seen maybe Take the Money and Run, Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex…, and Small Time Crooks, none of which are particular favorites of mine now.

      I’m glad to find someone else who likes Radio Days as much as me (if not more)! But you’ll have to explain to me Purple Rose‘s appeal—it continues to elude me… (I should visit it again.)

      Cheers,
      Adam

      • Adam, I just realised, reading this and Amber’s comments below, how much it is Allen’s nostalgia that I love, and these are the films that for me most perfectly capture the flavour of the past. And as Radio Days captures that time of gathering to listen to the radio, so Purple Rose captures that time when everyone went to the cinema. When he leaves the past he always seems to leave behind his biggest inspiration.

        • That makes sense. I don’t know what I like most about Allen’s films, but I suspect it’s his formalism. Which is a kind of classicism. Which is a kind of nostalgia…?

  4. I’d mostly agree with these, but (like Paul) I’d move Purple Rose up. It’s not his best, but I love it. I feel sort of the same way about Everyone Says I Love You, though it may just be the Groucho Marx dancers in Paris scene that I love so much. Which is why I’m so excited to see Midnight in Paris. I think I love Allen best when he’s immersed in his own nostalgia. But Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Manhattan are the movies I can watch over and over and over again. Maybe Broadway Danny Rose, too.

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