It is hard to think of a filmmaker more prolific than Woody Allen. Since the late 1960s, the genius auteur has been writing and directing a film practically annually; always shifting and evolving with the present era and the finest contemporary stars who populate, but one thing Allen has always been is true.
From the moment the iconic opening credits begin to roll, the tingly, infectious charming score strikes up – this is a Woody Allen excursion. He has carved not only an unmistakable cinematic identity, but also a world; a hallmark. In 2015, the great man returns with his 50th film, Irrational
To celebrate the release, we have hand-picked the greatest title from each decade of Allen’s illustrious filmography. Ensure you let us know your choices in the comments section below, but for now it’s onto the list.
1970s: Manhattan (1979)
There is simply no question that between 1970 and 1979 Allen made his most vital and impressive films; the ones which would wholly render his voice and individualism. Remarkable (and remarkably varied) pictures like Love and Death, Sleeper, Annie Hall, Interiors to name but a few were released. It is hard to envisage a motion picture more longingly beautiful and environmentally respectful than Manhattan; one’s personal favouite Allen and indeed a favourite of all-time.
Following Isaac (Allen), a recently divorced television writer in the Big Apple who is currently dating a teenage girl (Mariel Hemingway) for emotionally stability, his world becomes more complex when he falls for his best friend’s mistress Mary (Diane Keaton). Like many Allen films, a principal narrative cog clunking is the idea of love; how silly, complex and downright messy it can be, yet we all want, need or long for it to make us whole. But despite this function, what really makes Manhattan a true masterpiece is its visual formation.
An achingly gorgeous, postcard precise glance at New York show off its towering glory and its backstreets buzzing. Captured in grainy black and white this is experience cinema; a means to be truly transported. You can smell the coffee brewing, you can hear the taxi horns hooting, you can feel the warmth of those bright lights upon your face. It is a genius motion picture.
1980s: Zelig (1983)
Many a fine Allen film arrived a decade later too. The romantic shift from Diane Keaton to Mia Farrow birthed some joyous collaborations including Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days and September. The 1980s also saw the great filmmaker tinkering with storytelling methods and the juxtaposition of genre; smartly experimenting with the skills he had previously developed and attempting to find a unique avenue to venture thematically. Few attempts in this direction were quite as successful as Zelig – his hilarious, bizarre and wholeheartedly original ‘documentary’.
At a mere 79mins (even short for Allen who rarely breaches 90), the film is built around Leonard Zelig (Allen); a strange man who is able to instantaneously look, sound and act like the people he is surrounded by. This baffling psychical ability makes Zelig a global phenomenon and soon he is mingling with various famous faces. Meanwhile, Dr. Fletcher (Farrow) is frantically searching for clues that could denote his ‘disorder’.
Endlessly side-splitting, frequently beguiling and always inventive, this is Allen at his most playful and consequently most powerful. In an era where blockbuster cinema was really surging forwards, and depictions of realism seemed more apparent, here we had Woody goofing around, but doing so intelligently and engagingly. The film is fabulously edited too; incorporating images of Zelig across national newspapers and television newsreels.
1990s: Shadows and Fog (1991)
One’s personal decade of birth saw a significant switch in Allen’s style visually and contextually. Sometimes it paid off beautifully; titles like Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite spring to mind, but there were plenty that sank before attempting to swim – the worst offender being Celebrity, a hideously self-indulgent film which sees Kenneth Branagh attempting (and succeeding) to play a Woody Allen-type embarrassingly. But despite some ups and downs, the 1990s still enabled the director to innovate, and his most successful and disarming release has to be Shadows and Fog.
A hybrid comedy-horror, the film showcases humble bookkeeper Kleinman (Allen) who one evening is awoken by his neighbours who wish for his assistance in tracking down the town’s prolific serial killer who takes his victims by strangulation. As he gets dressed and prepared to aid, the vigilante committee have vanished, leaving him isolated in the cold, dark streets as he hunts to rekindle with the group.
Shadows and Fog is without question one of Allen’s most arresting audio-visual endeavors; despite being consistently funny and populated with that razor-sharp wit we’ve become so accustomed to, the moody lighting, drab colour pallets and expert in-frame camera work really builds a lingering atmosphere. It truly feels like one man lost in the gloomy, dingy alleyways of New York; not the most secure location. It sports a brilliant supporting cast too including Farrow and Michael Kirby, plus cameos from William H. Macy, John Malkovich and even Madonna.
It was also one of our list for Woody Allen’s Underrated Films, check that out here.
2000s: Match Point (2005)
The decline really set in motion once the 1990s had wrapped. Prior to the new millennium, Allen had used his native city as the principal location for most of his films; it had become an additional character. The odd films he did capture Stateside were weak (Anything Else, Melinda and Melinda), so it was time to shake it up.
In the 2000s, he opted to form a ‘European Tour’ and started shooting on location outside of the U.S. Whilst the visuals and cinematography were always dazzling, the stories were weaker and felt heavy-handed. We got pictures like Cassandra’s Dream and further duds as the tour stretched into the 2010s, but not everything was poor. The sublime Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a by-product, but more importantly, we gained Match Point, which one doesn’t think he has topped since.
A scathing, alluring and steamy drama which screens like a rugged film noir, the film depicts Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers); a former professional tennis player engaged to Emily Mortimer’s Chloe. Upon a family engagement, he meets his future brother-in-law’s American girlfriend Nola (Scarlett Johnasson) and the attraction is simply too much to bear. Falling for the seductress, the pair engage in a heated and twisted affair right under the noses of their nearest and dearest. Fireworks soon ignite in devastating fashion.
Spinning and weaving the most sublime web, Johnasson’s spider-woman serves as one of Allen’s finest character creations; a 40s femme-fatale transported to present day London. She steals every scene, smoldering and stunning. Match Point sees the auteur combining his trademark abilities as a sociological decoder whilst cranking tension and suspense thanks to marvelous direction, mise-en-scene and expertly placed music. It feels like a frantically boiling kettle; one that will soon start spurting boiling water and burning those within its vicinity. Urgent, boisterous and essential cinema.
2010s: Midnight in Paris (2011)
As previously mentioned, the European entries continued as we entered our current decade; again with varying degrees of success. Titles such as You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and From Rome with Love felt rushed and exceptionally baggy, and clearly now the pattern has worn thin as he returned to America for the Oscar-winning Blue Jasmine and indeed his upcoming title for which we run this feature.
But before he gathered his bags, passport and visa, Allen had one picture that had to be crafted upon his tour, and it serves as one of his very best; the joyous Midnight in Paris.
Starring Owen Wilson as Gil; a charismatic and nostalgic screenwriter who travels to the French capital with his fiancee’s (Rachel McAdams) family, he wishes to become truly immersed in the radiant culture and heritage of this remarkable city. The sounds, the stories, the art and the identity. Upon a late-night wander through town, Gil is picked up in a mysterious taxi which transports him back in time to Paris in the peak of it’s creative prowess; the 1920s.
In some respects, Midnight in Paris feels like a companion piece to Manhattan; it is a endlessly romanticised portrait of a location – one captured and formed with the utmost admiration and excellence. It is also an absolute riot and imports some of his sharpest writing for many years.
Never is the film more heart-burstingly wonderful than when Gil is out partying with the idols of a long-lost era. We see Salvador Dali, Toulose-Lautrec, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Luis Brunel, Herni Matisse – all icons and masters of their medium; brought back to life in glorious fashion. The cast is equally excellent too with fine work from Marion Cottilard, Tom Hiddleston, Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates and Lea Seydoux.
Irrational Man, Allen’s 50th film, is out Friday the 11th of September. You can read our 4? review here.