Sunday night represented yet another milestone for Woody Allen in a career already overflowing with them, when the 78-year-old director received the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2014 Golden Globes.
Rightfully dubbed by the late Roger Ebert as a "treasure of the cinema," Allen's résumé is incomparable: 23 Academy Award nominations, 4 wins, 6 wins for his actors, 9 BAFTAs, 2 Globes, 5 WGAs, a Palme des Palme from Cannes, and a lifetime Golden Lion from Venice. Despite the endless parade of honors, one can sometimes get the sense that Allen is an underrated figure in the American canon. He is considered appropriately godlike as a screenwriter, but his prowess as an actual director is sometimes overlooked or under-appreciated.
His astonishingly industrious creative pace is probably a contributing factor to this -- anytime you assemble 44 films in 44 years there's bound to be multiple disappointments scattered throughout. Also, his relationship with his actors and his personal filmic style is so confident, assured, and unobtrusive that he is often labeled a "hands-off" director -- true to an extent, but wrongheaded if you assume that means all he does is just turn on the camera and hit record. In reality Allen is an incredibly assured director and his films almost always exhibit technique of the highest caliber.
Another cause for praise is the fact that, in an industry that is seeing intelligent, complex roles for its women disappear at an alarming rate, no other male filmmaker has ever written and directed the fairer sex with as consistent an excellence as Allen. Moreover, he's as iconic in front of the camera as behind it: "the Woody Allen role" has become a veritable archetype, a catchall term for any nebbish, neurotic leading man who somehow inexplicably retains his sex appeal. The sheer number of iconic performances, scenes, jokes, and moments he is responsible for is staggering. And his insights on family, relationships, sex, death and the other weighty issues of human life are invaluable. If men like Spielberg and Scorsese are the great American filmmakers, perhaps ultimately Allen is the great American philosopher.
Here's a list of his ten greatest achievements:
#10 -- The ticking, stammering cadences of Allen's main characters are so synonymous with the director himself that it's often hard to stomach his dialogue when delivered by other actors. Kenneth Branagh is one of the world's most convincing Hamlets, but he's utterly lost as Woody's surrogate in Celebrity; the same can be said for Will Ferrell (Melinda and Melinda) and Josh Brolin (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). Not so with John Cusack, who absolutely nails it in 1994's Bullets Over Broadway, burying himself into the familiar, prototypical Allen lead role in a way that suggests the rhythm and style of the Woodman's comic delivery without being a slave to it. The film itself is a comic marvel, featuring not only Dianne Wiest's Oscar-winning appearance, but also career-best performances from Chazz Palminteri and Jennifer Tilly.
#9 -- When examining the renaissance of Allen's later years, many are keen on Midnight in Paris (which won Allen his third screenplay Academy Award) or Cate Blanchett's seismically powerful turn in this summer's Blue Jasmine, but I'm partial to 2008's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the best film amongst his European forays. Sumptuously-photographed and featuring a crackerjack, Oscar-winning performance from Penelope Cruz, VCB is Allen operating at the peak of his abilities. It's a movie whose vibrant exterior masks a deeper, more somber tone.
#8 -- Woody gets existential in 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors, weaving together two seemingly unrelated plots--one comedic, the other dramatic--as a means of examining the darker recesses of man and his capacity for guilt. Martin Landau received an Oscar nomination for his role of a suburban, distinguished dentist who actually harbors a horrible secret. Allen himself and Alan Alda inject much-needed levity into the proceedings with supporting, comedic roles. Allen explored similar terrain again in 2005's Match Point, a very solid film it its own right but one that witnesses Allen struggling to present its philosophical nihilism as powerfully or as devastatingly as hes does here.
#7 -- Take the Money and Run is the film that started it all in 1969. Shot in the mockumentary aesthetic (a style which he would plumb again in Zelig fourteen years later), it probably remains Allen's funniest film in terms of sheer silliness. Take the Money and Run clocks in at a slim 85 minutes, but contains a laugh-count of probably twice that number. So many classic gags--the best of which showcases Allen trying to play the cello in his town marching band.
#6 -- Allen loves to turn the Nostalgia Meter to 11 on occasion (see the wistful recreation of the Jazz Age in Midnight in Paris or the golden era of AM in Radio Days), but never more convincingly or movingly that in 1985's The Purple Rose of Cairo. Featuring Farrow in the best performance of her career, Cairo also possesses one of the smartest conceits of any Allen film: a fictional movie character literally walks out of the screen and into reality after falling in love with Farrow's lonely, Depression-era housewife. This is one of Woody's own favorites.
#5 -- Allen does Dostoevsky in 1975's Love and Death, moving his trademark persona from modern-day New York to the foothills of rural Russia at the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars. High-brow references to Russian literature, history, and culture intersect with a host of slapstick set pieces. This is a film that makes your face hurt from laughter. Love and Death is also a key film to note when mapping the direction and creative trajectory of Allen's overall filmography, acting as sort of a gateway between his earliest comedies and the more mature, intelligent reflections contained in his late-'70s and '80s masterworks. Also, wheat.
#4 -- Stardust Memories was entirely misunderstood and underappreciated upon first release in 1980. Audiences and critics alike were still riding such highs from Allen's many 1970s gems that they were taken aback by the more scathing, standoffish tone presented herein; Allen's depictions of his fans as a carnival of grotesques, clamoring unctuously for "his early funnier ones," hit them too close to home. As repeatedly as the director insisted that Stardust's protagonist Sandy Bates was not to be taken as a carbon copy of his own personal outlook, when watching the film viewers only saw Allen, not a character. Regardless of its icy reception upon release, there's no denying 3 decades later that this film is a gem. Stardust Memories is a film that grapples openly and poignantly with the notions of fame, celebrity, and the creative process, and features some of Allen's most visually arresting direction to go with a bevy of hilarious lines. Long dismissed as an 8 ½-lite display of navel gazing, years later its clear that Stardust Memories is actually more the worthy of sharing a space with the iconic Fellini work that inspires it.
#3 -- Ranking the final three Allen films of this top ten is a Herculean task; all three of these movies are so moving, so perfectly constructed that to elevate any one over the others is the very epitome of splitting hairs. All are rightfully considered not only Woody's best, but amongst the best films in the history of American cinema. My opinion on which one constitutes my favorite seemingly varies every day, but as I stand now I'll give the bronze medal to Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). Brilliant, insightful, overflowing with empathy and compassion and clever wit, it netted Oscars for Michael Caine, Wiest, and Allen's script. Allen is rarely as confident as he is with Hannah--the jokes are smarter, the plot's machination's fresher, the indelible memory of his characters' lingers longer.
#2 -- What praise can you possible offer Annie Hall that hasn't already been said ten times over? Pretty much the first pick when it comes to everyone's favorite Woody Allen movie, it justly won the 1977 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Actress, and Screenplay, and remains one of the funniest comedies ever made. Diane Keaton is a total revelation as the eponymous heroine, sending a million cinephile's hearts aflutter and becoming an American fashion icon for that unforgettable hat and tie combo. The lobsters, the cocaine sneeze, Seems Like Old Times, Christopher Walken, "I forgot my mantra"--every scene, every line, every frame is a treasure. Love is too weak a word for how I feel about Annie Hall. I lurve it, I loave it, I luff it. With two f's.
#1 -- And then there's Manhattan. Woody Allen's 1979 masterpiece isn't just a tale of love and loss in the big city, it's a valentine to the big city itself. Allen's opening scene, an intoxicating montage of New York City that builds to a crescendo of fireworks alongside Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," is probably the purest and most romantic single display of affection in his career. At day's end, Allen's foremost muse has always been the 212.
Manhattan's black and white imagery, gorgeously captured by Gordon Willis, is inarguably the most beautiful cinematography in film history. As for the plot itself, it's one of Allen's best. Allegiances are forged and then broken. Relationships are sparked and then tested. Love is lost but the wisdom and grace of experience remains. Mariel Hemingway anchors the storyline with an ineffable charm that betrays her young age, and floors you in the film's final frames. All together now: "You have to have a little faith in people."
Thomas McKenna is an aspiring writter & blogger. Previously he was an editorial fellow at the Huffington Post.
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