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10 Essential Woody Allen Films You Need To Watch

14 June 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Christian Gordine

best woody allen films

There is no beating around the bush when it comes to Woody Allen. Director, actor, screenwriter, playwright and four time Academy Award Winner, he’s done it all. And with his 49th film, Magic in the Moonlight, gracing our screens later this year, it is impossible to ignore a man who has spearheaded American cinema for almost 60 years. But what is it that makes a Woody Allen film just so great?

Failing film school at New York University in 1953 it is hard to imagine the legacy that Allen would go onto establish. Yet it was his contribution to comedy-drama during the 1970’s with the likes of Annie Hall and Manhattan, that not only cemented Allen’s position as a credible and consistent auteur, but introduced a new level of sophistication and grandiose to cinema, definitive only to Allen himself but replicated by many since.

Allen’s strength not only lies with his ability to tell an engaging story – be it rooted in comedy, drama or fantasy – but to successfully and authentically encapsulate the human desire to love and to want to be loved in return. Allen is the quintessential master of visually portraying through films the joys and torments of human relationships.

Throughout his films he has consistently created identifiable characters that not only do we understand, but that we all individually recognize within ourselves. Allen’s ability to create the most natural of atmospheres on screen has earned him the credibility to direct some of the most talented actors of our era. His dry and self-reflective wit expressed both in his acting and writing, his effortless dialogue, and natural but adaptable style has made Allen a celluloid mastermind. And so this essential list to Woody Allen looks at his ten most important works to date, reflecting the many faces of one of America’s finest directors.

 

10. Sleeper (1973)

sleeper

Woody Allen’s futuristic comedy about a nerdish health-food storeowner named Miles Monroe awakens from a coma after being cryogenically frozen for 200 years only to discover that he is at the hands of an oppressive Police State in 22nd Century America. Comically played by Allen himself, Miles Monroe is awoken by anti-government radicals in a bid to use Monroe as a spy to overthrow the governments plans to bring the “Aries Project” into effect.

The scientists who revived the ‘alien’ are captured and killed, leaving Monroe left to his own devices in the unfamiliar world of tomorrow’s future. As he tries to locate the ‘rebels’ he must help, Monroe stumbles upon the ignorant socialite Luna Schlosser, played by Diane Keaton, who in spite of her shallow but coy idiocy, aids Monroe is his attempts to defeat the oppressors and save America from itself.

Sleeper is a comical, self-indulgent, and playfully silly essential Woody Allen that offers a light-hearted commentary to a time in American history when the greatest fear was the infiltration of ‘spies and aliens’ into America. In this case, Allen joyfully points the finger at those who feared the worst. Skilfully adopting a classic sense of comedy with its blend of Buster Keaton meets Charlie Chaplin humour, set in the modern world of tomorrow, Sleeper bridges the gap between Allen’s love of the old and his anticipation for the new. With its comical attack on religion, politics, science and bizarre perceptions of the future, Sleeper is a genuinely different take on a Woody Allen classic, saturated with slapstick comedy, crude one-liners and tomfoolery.

 

9. Radio Days (1987)

Radio Days

A realist comedy, Radio Days is Allen’s personal homage to family life during the Golden Ages of Radio. Narrated by Allen playing a Jewish man named Joe reflecting on his first real love, the radio. Set during the 1930’s, Joe reminisces on the profound memories of his youth and how his love for the ‘talking box’ was very much shared by his dysfunctional but ultimately loving family members alike.

As they live their everyday lives struggling during the midst of the Great Depression, the radio and its glamorous stars are what bounds the family together. On the other hand the rags to riches story of Sally White, an aspiring radio star fantastically played by Mia Farrow, makes for a wonderful contrast of lifestyle during a time where the division between rich and poor was ever prominent in a city forever thriving for the American dream.

Resting heavily on nostalgia and the contrast of the modest lifestyles of the suffering working class, to the glitzy romps of the forgotten celebrities of yesterday, Radio Days pays a sweet reminder to the faded glamour of an era that paved the way for entertainment today. Rather than having a strong character focus, the multiple characters allow for a simple, charming and altogether gentle example of Woody Allen as a director and writer. It is evident that Radio Days factors more as a personal project, more so a film for Allen himself to watch and reminisce rather than for anybody else. A diary entry, crafted with nostalgia and an appreciation for a definitive era in entertainment history.

 

8. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Arguably one of Woody Allen’s more seductive contributions is Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The story centres around two girlfriends and one city: Vicky, the soon to be wed, academic young woman played by Rebecca Hall with a masters in Catalonian culture, and the sexually adventurous, open minded Cristina played by Scarlett Johansson. Barcelona is the final member of the ménage-a-trios with its arts, culture, cuisine and cobbled streets so beautifully captured as if a shot on instagram. Vicky and Cristina decide to spend their summer vacation in the Catalonian capital where a series of events leads them both to meet and separately pursue romantic relations with the charming but aloof artist Juan Antonia, played by Javier Bardem.

As a complicated love triangle ensues between the two friends and the artist, situations are dramatically heightened when Juan Antonia’s mentally and emotionally unstable ex-wife, María Elena, agonisingly played by Penélope Cruz, returns to Barcelona and is forever present and forever in love with Antonia, as he is with her.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a fine example of Allen’s portrayal of the complexities of human relationships and how so very often emotions, lust and infatuation override any human ability to reason and use logic. What makes this Woody Allen film particularly interesting is it’s unexpected but fantastic cast, most notably the fluid and some what genius acting from Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, whose transition from Spanish to English dialogue during numerous scenes, works so well, allowing a new appreciation for not only the actors, but for Allen’s capability to capture the seemingly difficult; two opposing cultures simultaneously and beautifully running adjacent to one another.

 

7. Zelig (1983)

leonard-zelig

An off-the-wall mockumentary about a man named Leonard Zelig, played by Allen, who suffers with a nondescript condition and a burning desire to fit in and be liked, is able to physically and mentally adapt to the mental characteristics and the physical being of strong personalities around him. The documentary follows Zelig as he receives therapy and treatment from Dr Eudora Fletcher, played by Mia Farrow, right through to the intense years where Zelig developed mass celebrity status, incorporating interviews with academics and friends of Zelig, bringing this remarkable character to life.

Narrated as if a 1920’s newsreel with a tinny voice narration, Zelig is arguably one of Allen’s strangest pictures with its believable historical encounters and the use of archive footage very carefully manipulated to coincide and complement the story of Leonard Zelig. It is clear that much deliberated thought went into the craftsmanship of Zelig, and Allen plays the troubled character with such fragile but genius conviction that it is important to regard Zelig as an essential Woody Allen film. Like nothing seen before, it is a daring and humorous picture, one that is often forgotten.

 

6. Manhattan (1979)

manhattan

As Jean Luc Goddard captures Paris so beautifully in A Bout De Soufflé, Allen offers a similar homage to New York City in Manhattan. An undulating conversation runs throughout Manhattan, with Allen once again pouring his own frustrations into the script, his anxieties towards women being a focal point of his character. Isaac, also played by Allen, is a forty-something-year-old man tormented by women. Having a fairly open affair with an underage 17 year old whilst simultaneously struggling to co-exist with his ex-wife, played by Meryl Streep, now in a lesbian relationship and about to publish a book about her disastrous failed marriage to Isaac.

To further complicate Isaac’s anxieties and situation he then meets and falls in love with the prim and somewhat hedonistic Mary, as played by the familiar Diane Keaton, who happens to be the mistress of Isaac’s best friend. A tangled state of affairs, self-righteousness and confusion ensues Isaac as he struggles to break through his mid-life crisis and realise what it is he really want’s from life.

It is very clear to see why so many regard Manhattan as one of Allen’s best films. Aesthetically it is exceptionally attractive, gorgeously shot in black-and-white, showing off the city of dreams. Narratively it’s deceitful, charming, witty, and on times a little neurotic. It is perhaps one of Woody Allen’s most identifiable pictures with his familiar musky jazz composition and sharp narration.

One call for question is Allen’s ease and comfort in portraying a middle-aged man openly engaging in a relationship with a young girl. In Allen’s personal life it has been somewhat of a public matter his relations with younger girls, but what Manhattan achieves today is a reminder of a time when certain topics were simply ignored or brushed under the rug, and further accentuates how far we have advanced since 1978 with a growing sense of equality amongst both sexes.

 

 

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  • debankan sen

    Not a bad list at all but I would’ve personally included Match Point as well, because it was so unlike woody.

    Anyway it is always impossible to pick the best films of someone like wood, and I guess I’m quite happy with the list.

    • Balasubramanian Prasanna

      Am not sure if thats unlike Woody. Do watch Cassandra’s Dream, Crimes & Misdemeanours, Interiors and the likes…he has always had other side, where he has made some really grim films that are almost defeatist. Cheers 🙂

      • debankan sen

        well thanks for your input, I’ll definitely check them out then…still long way to go honestly, it’s just amazing to witness this man’s talent. & it does get better every time 🙂

  • Guest

    I have watched the whole Allen output and from the internet lists Ive seen, this is the best one so far, congrats. I would had left Vicky Christina Barcelona out and include something like Interiors or Cassandra. But anyway, with such a bodywork this is a hard task. I salut you.

  • Roberto Lopes de França

    I have watched the whole Allen output and from the internet lists Ive
    seen, this is the best one so far, congrats. I would have left Vicky
    Christina Barcelona out and include something like Interiors or
    Cassandra. But anyway, with such a bodywork this is a hard task. Great choice for a number one, as it is so underrated and for the second place as well. I salut
    you.

  • Estela Alanís Cárdenas

    I would have included CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS.

  • Ted Wolf

    I have to agree, ditch VCB and add Crimes and Misdemeanors and it would be a nearly perfect list. Although I’ve got a very soft spot in my heart for Take The Money and Run (not a great movie, but darn funny).

  • Timotayo

    An additional note on Woody Allen’s achievements: The collective works filmed with Mia Farrow put her on par with the greatest actresses of the last 30 years, something overshadowed by their explosive breakup. Few actors can point to a collaboration as successful as their work on Zelig, Radio Days, Hannah And Her Sisters, Crimes And Misdemeanors, Husbands And Wives, September, and a great star turn in a rarely-mentioned Broadway Danny Rose…

  • Pavel Dumitrescu

    Annie Hall should’ve been #1.

  • GaryP

    How can you possibly omit Crimes & Misdemeanors

    ??

  • F S

    What do you think of Scoop?

  • José Maria Pinheiro Neto

    man, ya include the worst woody allen movie in this list and forget stardust.But one thing is true,midnight in paris is the most woody allen movie of all,every boring stuff about him and his personal ego are there,its a movie for snob people or beginners in allen’s world.

  • Lou

    Menage-a-trios
    A Bout De Soufflé
    Learn some french first

  • Ted Wolf

    I must agree that crimes and misdemeanors must be on the list of best of woody. I personally loved Broadway Danny rose too.

  • gustavomda

    I love it when I have seen all the movies in a list!

  • gustavomda

    I’d definitely take out Vicky Cristina Barcelona and replace it with Interiors, though

    • Roberto Lopes de França

      Best comment!

  • Hal Dunn

    Hannah and Her Sisters is great! And this is a good list, but Love and Death is a must-see! I would also add Bananas, Play It Again, Sam, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and even the silly Casino Royale.

    • Vid Hribar

      Play it again, Sam wasn’t directed by Woody Allen

      • Hal Dunn

        My bad. Starring and written by Allen.

  • Richard McLin

    What happened to “Match Point” or “Cassandra’s Dream”?

  • Vid Hribar

    Bullets over Broadway? Crimes and misdemeanors? Husbands and wives? And on the other hand, Midnight in Paris can’t be more wrong to be put on his top 10 movies.

  • David Herzog

    VCB – blech. Add The Other Woman, Stardust Memories, Love and Death

  • Jasna Balorda

    A horrible list. Most really good Woody Allen films are actually quite old. Only Blue Jasmine is really good from the newer ones..but – Vicky Christina? Midnight in Paris..seriously????

  • Allister Cooper

    No Match Point? Dude… dude… Wash your keyboard and apologize to your hands for making them type such sacrilege. Match Point was suspenseful as intercourse.

  • Benas Bačanskas

    I saw only 5 of his films, but I already think that the order of his films in this list is quite terrible. I enjoyed Blue Jasmine, but it is really far from being a masterpiece like Manhattan or Annie Hall. Match Point is likely his best 21st century’s work.

  • ijb

    I totally have to agree with most comments here that Vicky Christina Barcelona is very wrong on such a list, almost as it if was a provocation. Of all of Woody Allen’s films, I guess it’s maybe the fifth most boring film in the whole oeuvre. (Even second-rate Allen films such as Tall Dark Stranger, Scoop, Small Time Crooks or Anything Else have more wit and momentum.) However, disagree with commentators missing MatchPoint. Nice and surprising to see it once, but does not hold up to repeated viewing at all, contrary to many, many other Allen films (even those mentioned above), such as Manhattan Murder Mystery, Husbands and Wives, Deconstructing Harry, and most of all the still way underrated Stardust Memories, whose the omission I can only explain by assuming the author has not seen it. Please do. You will be surprised how intelligent and, as other commentators said, wo “unlike woody”. Cheerio,

  • Sean Sweeney

    What a terrible list.

    No Crimes and Misdemeanors? No Husbands and Wives?

    You know he made movies before Annie Hall? The best comedies of the 70s. Instead of wasting your time watch blah like Blue Jasmine and Vicky Cristina Barcelona you might want to educate yourself with his masterpiece Love and Death.

    And frankly Midnight in Paris ahead of Hannah and Her Sisters and Manhattan is just plain lame.

  • Brian Lussier

    There’s no way Sleeper, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Midnight In Paris or Blue Jasmine deserved to be here above Husbands And Wives, Crimes And Misdemeanors or Match Point. Match Point was the last time Allen made a great film. Since then he’s made nothing he hadn’t done better before.

  • Andreas Andreas

    Melinda Melinda???

  • Andreas Andreas

    Another Woman?

  • Klaus Dannick

    CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS!!!

  • Hernan Paz

    Vicky Cristina Barcelona is not bad, but I don’t think it deserves a place among its best. I agree with most of the comments that Crimes and Misdemeanors its one of his best. I will also add Shadows and fog.

  • luke

    personally :
    10. Bananas
    9. Shadows and Fog
    8. Manhattan Murder Mystery
    7. Zelig
    6. Stardust Memories
    5. Midnight in Paris
    4. Manhattan
    3.Husbands and Wives
    2. Hannah and Her Sisters
    1. Annie Hall

  • DyanSwan

    Love and Death should be on this list.

  • When it comes to Woody Allen everyone seems to be an expert. The beauty of his work is the variety he manages to achieve while at the same time hitting common stylistic points and topics. Telling someone to “educate” themselves, just because they prefer recent Woody Allen films than pre-80s sounds pretentious and is a gross lack of recognition. Although it might not be my personal top ten, at least Mr. Gordine had the decency to encompass various Allen periods. And since I highly doubt most of the reputable film critics below have actually taken the time to read the justification he makes, let me confirm that if a person does not identify with the guilt-trip of a middle-aged man, cheating on his wife, chances are “Crimes and Misdemeanors” would not be on their top ten list.

  • Stephus

    His filmography is so huge that he has many must be seen movies. I’d add Melinda Melinda, Deconstructing Harry, and Cassandra’s Dream