Another year and another Woody Allen movie. Against the recoil of his well-publicised controversies with the Farrow family, Woody Allen is back with Magic in the Moonlight and looks set to continue the success of his autumn years. With the help of Colin Firth, Emma Stone, the French Riviera and the '20s, Magic in the Moonlight shifts the focus back onto the auteur rather than his contaminated public image.
With 2013's Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen returned to making great movies and he placed anaemic comedies like Whatever Works and Melinda and Melinda back into the catacombs of the '00s. The director has achieved success in every decade since the '60s and released over fifty movies, thus confirming himself as one of the greatest figures in cinema. There are many online lists ranking his greatest movies, as well as his worst, but what movies best represent each of his creative decades?
Take The Money And Run (1969)
Made forty-five years ago, Take the Money and Run is absent of jazz, Diane Keaton, New York and it even misses the classic Windsor typeface that opens all of his credits. Nevertheless, it is a movie that exhibited the comedy of Woody Allen way before the introduction of the stuttering, neurotic archetypes who embodied the tragedy. The film details the childhood, the life and the career of an inept bank robber named Virgil. The mockumentary presages This is Spinal Tap and the comedy inside it works in the same house as Airplane. The physical comedy is relentless, starting with Allen playing a cellist in a marching band who repeatedly needs to sit down as well as conducting a prison break in the rain with a gun made of soap. The eccentricity of this movie is hilariously fresh and marks itself as one of “the early funny ones” that his critics perennially beat him with. The sight of him pulling a slice of ham out of his wallet to share with his girlfriend is a moment I will never tire of seeing.
Virgil: "After fifteen minutes I wanted to marry her, and after half an hour I completely gave up the idea of stealing her purse."
A decade after Take the Money and Run, Woody Allen created not only his greatest movie of the '70s, but his best movie of all. Manhattan showcases the best of what the audiences have come to see as Woody Allen tropes. There's Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, New York rendered in irresistible black & white and a narrative about Upper East Side intellectuals failing to understand and articulate love. From the opening scene with Yankee Stadium, Times Square and Central Park the movie brings us into the intimacy of New York and the complexities of it through a collection of erudite characters. Allen plays the maladjusted 42-year old Isaac who starts a relationship with a highly mature 17-year old played by Mariel Hemingway. Tracy's (Hemingway) naïve and courageous approach to love exposes the flawed, cerebral trysts that every character around her puts themselves through. Everything about the movie is arresting and it is surprising that Allen disliked it so much that he offered United Artists to direct a subsequent movie for free if they withheld its release. Manhattan highlights the problems inhabiting all of Allen's protagonists, and it also offers the antidote: "Not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people."
Mary Wilke: "Well tell me, why did you get a divorce?"
Isaac Davis: "Why? I got a divorce because my ex-wife left me for another woman."
Mary Wilke: "Really? God, that must have been really demoralizing."
Isaac Davis: "Well, I dunno, I thought I took it rather well under the circumstances. I tried to run t hem both over with a car."
Stardust Memories (1980)
Stardust Memories is a movie that confused critics as well as alienating all of my friends I have recommended it to. Allen plays Sandy Bates, a director known for his comedies who intends to make a film that better represents the world around him. In other words: “a serious one”. A hugely self-aware as well as self-reflexive movie, Allen creates a portrait of the artist as a complainer, surrounded by sycophants, theorists and critics. Although at times provocative towards the audience, the movie moves between comedy, philosophical cavils, melancholy and affection aided with black-and-white cinematography. There is a second narrative in the movie that portrays Sandy's conflicted and wistful relationships with three very different women. Dorrie, Isobel and Daisy externalize the anxieties inside Sandy, which leads to a beautiful pathos. The film switches from the past to the present and perhaps it is this aspect of the movie that is at variance with most people. Stardust Memories is chaotic and sad and studious and has the best scene from any Woody Allen movie.
Question Askers: "Some people have claimed that your films are narcissistic."
Sandy Bates: "Yes, many people have said that about me over the years, but I don't think it's true. If I were to say which Greek God I take after, I would definitely not say Narcissus."
Question Askers: "Who would you say?"
Sandy Bates: "Zeus."
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
Like Stardust Memories before it, most people would probably disagree with this choice (see: Hannah and Her Sisters and Husbands and Wives) but Deconstructing Harry is an intelligent concept that is well executed. Allen plays Harry Block, a writer suffering from, well, writers block. He is also a womaniser who has been through three wives and six therapists and they all come out firing with typically acerbic dialogue. The script is incredible and focuses on Harry's friends, family and ex-wives as they seek revenge for him using the intimacy of their own lives for his novels. Fiction and reality intertwine as Harry's psychic state is brought asunder. Ostensibly fictional, the movie at times seems like events that really occurred in Allen's life and in that respect there is a certain tragedy to it all. The movie suggests that Harry, and perhaps Allen himself, can only be coherent through an uncanny unreality rather than in the coarse and real world. Honourable mentions for Cookie, the black stripper who offers to spend the day with him as well as Robin Williams playing an actor who is literally and mentally, "out of focus".
Cookie: "How come you got all this money?"
Harry Block: "I always keep hooker money around, you know, 'cause I once paid by check years ago and the I.R.S. killed me."
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Since 2005 Allen has turned European and explored England, Spain, France and Italy to differing results and with Vicky Cristina Barcelona we are given a throwback. Irregardless of the wine and the Spanish guitar, we are provided with intellectual, middle class people obsessed with passion and love as well as the fall out over it. The old themes are back and strong, and we could be back in Manhattan with Isaac or with Hannah and her sisters for Thanksgiving. We are presented with three women: Vicky, an earnest and educated woman; Cristina, the sexually curious blonde and Barcelona, a city personified through Penélope Cruz's impassioned Maria Elena. Allen examines the life of love once passion has exited. The characters look for new vices, but learn that a summer in Barcelona has a set timeframe. The instinct in movies bereft of Allen's acting is to see which character is playing the Allen-part. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, that is not an issue. The characters are fresh and charismatic, without losing the typical Allen tropes that make his movies great.
Maria Elena: "you're still searching for me in every woman."
Blue Jasmine (2013)
I feel that if Sandy Bates from Stardust Memories wanted to make his serious movie, he would of made Blue Jasmine. Perhaps once Harry Block negotiated his conflict between reality and fiction, he'd go on to produce the same. Blue Jasmine is Allen's 21st century peak and brings with it an American literary weight. Like a modern day Streetcar Named Desire, Allen places the fallen, idle rich into a working class neighbourhood and Cate Blanchett takes the thrown from Mia Farrow and Diane Keaton before her as a classic Allen actress. Blanchett screams, drinks and talks her way through a movie that is profoundly and sadly blue. From Blanchett's pellucid eyes, to the blue tint in each scene and refrain of Blue Moon the imagery and emotion is strong throughout. The humour is there but it's reticent, coming out in piercing lines. The soundtrack is strong and Alec Baldwin, Louis C.K and Sally Hawkins complete a stunning cast. With this movie Allen hits upon a new tone and style that each movie before seemed to be working towards.
Jasmine: "Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown, there's only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming."
Irregardless of the bad movies sticking out of the Allen canon, the endurance and fervour of Woody Allen's prolific outlay is admirable. No other director can charm me with something as simple as the opening credits. On reflection, the majority of his outings exist not as single movies, but of scenes and dialogue and music. They generate an impression that will continue to reappear and elicit in his future pieces. But with the five movies highlighted, Woody Allen engendered refined and culturally acute cinema that are now timeless. With the recent success of Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine it looks like Woody Allen still has the spark and I look forward to seeing what he brings out in the next decade. Maybe by then people will be pining for his "middle, serious ones" rather than "the early, funny ones".