5. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Hannah and Her Sisters is one of Allen’s most successful and notable comedy-dramas, which recounts the interconnected stories of one family over a two-year period, both beginning and ending with a family Thanksgiving dinner. Hannah, played by Mia Farrow, is a successful actress, a beautiful woman, a caring mother, a loving wife, and the lynchpin to her family. On face value everything is perfect, but beneath the surface situations are far more complicated.
Hannah’s husband, Eliot, played by Michael Caine, is deeply in love with her sister Lee, played by Barbara Hershey, whilst Hannah’s other sister Holly, wonderfully depicted by Dianne Waist, is grossly jealous of Hannah’s successes. Meanwhile Hannah’s ex-husband, Mickey, played by Allen himself, is a hypochondriac convinced he is dying of a brain tumour. With all these individuals selfishly existing around her, Hannah is forced to reassess her life. Will she continue to bury her head in the sand or will she discover a new strand of independence?
Hannah and Her Sisters is perhaps Allen’s best example of a strong and full narrative, heavily driven by believable characters, and acted by an ensemble of the crème de la crème of actors. What keeps Hannah and Her Sisters so well grounded and so identifiable is its depiction of a dysfunctional family that radiates a timeless and fairly accurate representation of families internationally. With it’s steady pace and calm contemplative tone, not only do we grow to understand the hardships and mistreatment against one woman, we begin to understand and empathise with the actions of those who perpetrate her, reminding us that we are ‘only human’ after all.
4. Midnight in Paris (2011)
With its semi-surrealist narrative, calm sense of humour and illustrious cast, Midnight in Paris leans towards Allen’s more creative and fantastical works. Owen Wilson is Gil Pender, a successful but frustrated American screenwriter attempting to write his first novel. Whilst on holiday in Paris with his materialistic fiancée, Inez, and her unpleasant parents, Gil decides to escape one evening; he takes a midnight stroll through the cobbled streets of Montmartre. Lost, Gil is approached by a mysterious 1920’s vehicle from out of nowhere, and as if by magic he is hurled back in time to a Paris that Gil fantasises over.
A Paris where he is introduced to the smoky underground jazz bars of the 1920’s, in which he meets the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, literary masters who have influenced Gil’s very own work. Daylight breaks and Gil is awoken, dazed and confused back in the Paris of today. Unsure whether it was all just a lucid dream, Gil curiously returns to the streets of Montmartre the following night with a heavy sense of hope that the 1920’s vehicle will come and kidnap him once more.
As a concept, the idea of Midnight in Paris is so identifiably a Woody Allen creation that it’s impossible to imagine what the outcome would have been if another director had attempted to take its reigns. The charming and light narrative and dialogue along with Owen Wilson’s frail but cool characterisation of Gil the Californian scriptwriter is a reminder of Allen’s more sensitive and somewhat wacky streak both as a writer and director. With a heavy emphasis on modernism, fantasy and nostalgia, Allen’s message is clear: The grass really is always greener.
3. Annie Hall (1977)
Without question regarded by so many as the quintessential Woody Allen film and his best to date, Annie Hall won 4 major Academy Awards in 1978 including Best Film, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress. With its slick stylisation and off beat dialogue, it is the Woody Allen film that so many films have attempted to replicate since. Alvy Singer, played by Woody Allen, is a neurotic comedian living in New York. A year since his break-up from Annie Hall, played by Diane Keaton, Alvy forces himself to relive and revisit the demise of his relationship form its blissful beginnings through to its bitter end, as he desperately tries to discover the reasons why he and Annie ended.
What makes Annie Hall so superb apart from being Allen’s most identifiable film both narratively and stylistically is its attempt to think a little outside the box with moments within the film where Allen speaks directly into the camera as if talking to his audience, entering other peoples stories, even using animation. These little quirks add a sense of narrative magical-realism that work so well and create such a strong sense of personality that like a fine wine, Annie Hall has grown tastier with age and is as relevant now as it was back in 1977.
2. Blue Jasmine (2013)
Allen’s most recent triumph tells the story of a rich and delusional Manhattan socialite, played by Cate Blanchett, whose fall from grace leads to an unbearable state of affairs. Arriving in San Francisco looking every bit the movie star with her designer luggage and clothes to match, Jasmine’s affluent image is nothing but a façade. Bankrupt, widowed, jobless and homeless Jasmine has nowhere or nobody to turn too other than Ginger, her scantly clad adopted sister who lives in a shabby two-bedroomed apartment in San Francisco.
Narratively split between present day and flashbacks of the years, months and days leading up to Jasmines destitution, we grow to understand the reasons for Jasmine’s instability; a cheating husband, step children who hate her, a corrupt business. Jasmine is nothing but a victim. A victim of class. A victim of wealth. A victim of her own judgement. As she desperately tries to cling to a life that once was in a city where nobody knows her shameful past, Jasmine builds a new life built on lies and deceit. But with all lies, the truth eventually unveils.
This almost too painful to watch depiction of the mental and social demise of a troubled woman has become regarded as one of Allen’s finest achievements. With Cate Blanchett winning the Academy Award for Best Actress at this years Oscar’s it is only fair to say that Jasmine will, if not already has become one of the most unforgettable screen characters of all time, and not only a highlight in Blanchett’s career but a reminder of Allen’s ability to create the most puzzling and insufferable characters on screen. Jasmine is a story about the demise of the human psyche and the efforts one goes to create the illusion to those around us that everything is ‘okay’. Although it is not an easy watch, Blue Jasmine is a reminder of how brilliant a director Allen is 60 years on.
1. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
In the shadows of many other great Woody Allen films hides a forgotten classic, The Purple Rose of Cairo. Once again set in New York during the midst of the Great Depression, Mia Farrow plays the frail Cecelia, a struggling waitress with an abusive, cheating husband. The only solace Cecelia has to distract her from her dreary life is the local cinema where she often goes alone to briefly absolve herself from her worries.
As she repeatedly goes to watch the latest film to screen at the cinema, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Cecelia gradually grows madly in love with the onscreen character and hero Tom Baxter, played by Jeff Daniels. Matters take a turn for the bizarre when in return the onscreen character Tom Baxter notices Cecelia amongst the audience, falls in love with her, and steps out of the screen and into the auditorium to join her in the real world. A chase then ensues with both officials and Gil Shepard, the actor who invented the character Tom Baxter, also played by Jeff Daniels, desperately try to locate the fantasy fugitive and his maiden.
The Purple Rose of Cairo is packed with an old-time sense of adventure and romance with a heart-breaking homage paid to the imagination. What works so brilliantly with The Purple Rose of Cairo is Allen’s ability to manipulate his audience into believing and expecting one outcome, but dishing out something entirely unforeseen.
Although this is a somewhat light and easy watch, the tribulations of a seemingly weak and desperately unhappy woman are made all the more treacherous when it is suggested throughout the course of the picture that a happy ending will suffice. Yet, like many Allen films this simply is not the case. The Purple Rose of Cairo stands as one of Allen’s silent but greatest films due to its ability to evoke so many conflicting emotions, from glee to sorrow, and still leave its audience with a dumbfounded sense of wonderment.
Author Bio: Christian is a researcher and writer for film production company Greener Grass Films and is an emerging screenwriter having recently penned the short film screenplay Stripped (2014) directed by Bader Ben Hirsi. His roots are in radio and broadcast journalism having interned as an Assistant Producer at Liverpool-based station Radio City, and as a journalist for GT Magazine in London.