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Top 10 Woody Allen Films

By Monica Terada · January 4, 2014

Writing this list has presented a huge dilemma in my life. After an entire week of watching only Woody Allen films, of living and breathing nothing but Woody’s jokes, and quirks, and puns, and listening to his high pitched voice, and long-winded monologues and dialogues…well…I feel like I’ve become Woody Allen. I’ve found that my inner voice has become even more annoying than it usually is, possibly more high-pitched as well, and I’ve suddenly begun to question the meaning of existence. Life is bleak, and tough, and meaningless, and the more I think about it, the more I convince myself of the pointlessness of even writing this list. I mean, we’re all going to die at some point, so why should I care about being published before I go?  

Let me explain, Woody Allen is known for two things: his neurotic obsession with the meaninglessness of life, present in pretty much all of his movies, and his marriage to stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn, present in pretty much all newspaper headlines in the country, when the scandal erupted in the 1990’s. The obsession led to a brilliant career in the movie business, and the marriage, to a hopping mad Mia Farrow, Soon-Yi’s adoptive mother and former partner of Allen’s. But decades have passed and Woody and Soon-Yi are still together, and although they look like a grandfather with a random Asian chick in their pictures together, they are seemingly very happy.

But aside from his exciting love life with his stepdaughter, Woody has been cranking out pretty much a movie a year since his first “serious” screenplay, the hilarious, Take the Money and Run, from 1969. So, after much consideration, and soul searching, I’ve concluded that although life may be pointless, I can’t really afford to have that thought right now, especially not before dinner, and on an empty stomach, but even more especially because I’m absolutely terrified of my editor, who would surely kill me before I could even think about the fact that I could die at any moment.

So without any further ado, and without any more “meaningless” thoughts, I present to you the top ten list of possibly one of the most prolific writer/directors out there. With five Oscars, three of which were won for Best Original screenplay, Woody has a massive collection of first-rate movies to choose from, so keep in mind this was not an easy list to construct.  

10. Take the Money and Run (1969)

Falling in love is described as this feeling of nausea that takes over your stomach. Our main protagonist, Virgil (played by Woody), is in love with Louise (Janet Margolin), and wants to gag. This mockumentary style movie is hilarious from beginning till end, and it makes the list because it’s a strong example of Woody’s silly sense of humor. For instance, Virgil plays the cello in a local marching band: how do you march with a cello?

The entire film has a sarcastic tone: the characters are filmed in a serious documentary-style camera framing, and respond in an even more serious manner, but say the most nonsensical things you could possibly imagine. Virgil attempts to rob a bank and gives the bank teller a note that reads, “Please put 50 thousand dollars into this bag and act natural, because I am pointing a gun at you.” But the teller has trouble deciphering Virgil’s writing and argues that it says “gub,” not “gun.” Virgil fails to rob the bank due to poor penmanship.  

It’s especially interesting to watch this film now, after Woody’s career has already been deemed a success. So much of his style is present in this movie, except in a sort of crude and still unpolished form, as can be seen in the park scenes where Virgil falls in love with Louise but nothing very interesting happens in terms of camera action. We can watch the film now and observe how talented he was then and how his talent has progressed and evolved over his lifetime, becoming better and more refined with time.

9. Zelig (1983)

Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) is the man who can become just about anyone he is around. When around a Chinese person, he becomes Chinese; when around a black person, he becomes black. But in becoming everyone else, and never himself, he is no one, because he has no personal identity of his own. In a way, everyone has a little bit of Zelig in them. Zelig represents our insecurities in being ourselves. It is easier to copy others, and hide behind the voice of another, than to express your own personality and be judged because of that. According to Zelig, it’s “safe to be like the others” and he just wants “to be liked.”

Although Zelig explores the profound abyss of our insecurities, it’s told in a lighthearted and hilarious manner. Zelig is known as the “human chameleon” and becomes somewhat of a celebrity all around the world: “no social gathering is without its Leonard Zelig joke,” and even songs are composed for him, such as, the very popular tune, “You May Be Six People But I Love You.” 

Like Take the Money and Run, the story is also told in the form of a mockumentary, but the special effects used in Zelig were considered pretty advanced for its time. Throughout the movie Zelig is seen with important historical figures, such as, Hitler and Babe Ruth. In order to accomplish this, the movie footage had to be made to look like old film clips from the 30’s. For the time, it was a difficult task to accomplish, but the results were quite impressive, and in the middle of one of Hitler’s huge rallies, is Zelig, waving and smiling and looking exactly like a Nazi.

Zelig is a great example of Woody’s silly sense of humor being used to explore deeper issues of human nature. Zelig is analyzed by a psychiatrist, Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), and when she asks him how the changes started to occur, he tells her the story of when he went into a bar on St. Patrick’s Day and wasn’t wearing green: “they made remarks,” he says. It is believed that this is the event that triggered his “chameleon” changes. Woody’s humor is never just silly, there are layers and layers of values in his jokes, and Zelig digs deep into the complexity of his mind.

8. Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

I have the strangest neighbors in the world. I live in an apartment complex where, with the exception of my two roommates, and myself, not a soul speaks English, so, to begin with, communication is very difficult, especially in the laundry room where I’ve just given up on trying to ask Ms. Armengushki how much longer she is going to take with the drying machine. I don’t know if she understood my question, but from what I understood, her answer – after deciphering all of her hand gestures and very puzzling attempts at the English language – was, “No.”

To my left lives a very scary old lady who always, always, always, in every single situation I’ve ever encountered, has this extreme look of pity on her face. Apparently,  her daughter never comes home at the time she is suppose to, and this causes her mother’s face to grieve, so much so that it’s become her permanent look. Every once in a while she’ll knock on my door at like two in the morning and desperately gesticulate that she needs to use the phone to call her daughter…because, from what I understood, she has no reception on her own phone. 

It’s all very strange to me though, and that’s exactly what Manhattan Murder Mystery is about, more specifically, whether or not you are living next to a murderer, and that’s exactly why I love it, because obviously my neighbors might be murderers. Who has never lived next to a possible serial killer?

Larry Lipton (Woody Allen) is boring, and thinks neighbors should mind their own business, and not pry into each other’s affairs, but his wife, Carol Lipton (Diane Keaton), is plucky and audacious, and wants to know exactly how and why their neighbor, Mr. House (Jerry Adler), did away with Mrs. House (Lynn Cohen).  

The murder mystery unravels, of course, with much humor and long-winded dialogue. It makes the list because you could be living next to a murderer and, that I can recall, it’s the only Allen movie that doesn’t question the meaningless of life. 

7. Love and Death (1975)

“But judgment of any system of phenomena exists in any rational, metaphysical or epistemological contradiction to an abstracted empirical concept such as being, or to be, or to occur…”

This quote alone defines the movie. Make sense? Unless you’re a pretentious intellectual who doesn’t like to admit ignorance in any way, shape, or form, it shouldn’t make any sense at all, and that’s why Love and Death is hilarious. The movie makes fun of pretentious intelligence: who has never heard, or read, a sentence similar to the quote above and thought, “What in the world is this person talking about?” It is probably Woody’s funniest movie and may even be one of the funniest movies in the world. Well, maybe not in the world, but Diane Keaton is certainly at her best in terms of funniness.

Keaton plays Sonja, Boris Grushenko’s (Woody Allen) cousin. Boris is in love with Sonja, but Sonja is sleeping with Seretsky…and Alexei and Alegorian and Asimov…and that’s just in the midtown area. Oh, and she’s also married to a herring merchant, but, of course, they don’t sleep together.

The movie is about, as the name suggests, love and death, but not really, that’s just the excuse Woody Allen came up with to include all of his one-liners…and there are tons of them in this movie, so you’re bound to find at least one of them funny. The setting for the one-liners is Russian/France, during the Napoleonic Era, and Boris is a soldier with the Russian army. Together with Sonja, Boris attempts to assassinate Napoleon. Along the way there are tons of laughs from their pretentious philosophical debates and one-liners. It makes the list because it’s Woody’s silliness at it’s peak!    

6. Annie Hall (1977)

Annie (Diane Keaton) is a complicated girl who uses expressions like, “la-de-dah,” and doesn’t want to have sex with her boyfriend, Alvy (Woody Allen). But her boyfriend, Alvy, wants to sleep with her, regardless of the girlish expressions, and the fact that there is essentially no “sleeping,” as opposed to the beautiful, “New York Jewish, left-wing, intellectual, Central Park West…” girl who actually wants to sleep with him. According to Alvy it all boils down to the fact that he would “never want to belong to any club that would have [him] as a member.”

Annie Hall is about Annie and Alvy, and how their relationship eventually comes to an end. Everyone in the movie has an analyst, probably because relationships come to an end. And actually, after watching the movie, I kind of feel like I should get an analyst as well, because I can’t even start a relationship, let alone end one. Also, it sounds kind of cool to say you have an analyst.   

But the movie is also Woody Allen comedy at its most sophisticated and refined form. It differs from his movies of silliness and slapstick, such as, Take the Money and Run and Love and Death. It’s Woody in a more mature comedic tone and includes even political jokes: Alvy says he had dated a girl during the Eisenhower administration and had been “trying to do to her what Eisenhower [had] been doing to the country for the last eight years.”

However, when the time comes for Annie and Alvy to break up, and go their separate ways, “all the books on death and dying are [Alvy’s] and all the poetry books are [Annie’s].” Of course, knowing Woody, how could it have been any other way?   

5. Match Point (2005)

I want to go to an opera. It’s just so beautiful and perfect, and obviously frequented by the most sophisticated and elegant citizens of our world. For once in my life I would like to rub elbows with the cream of society. And actually, that’s how this movie starts. Chris Wilton (Johnathan Meyers) is hired to teach tennis at an exclusive country club and is introduced to all the finer things in life, which includes, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), the daughter of a very wealthy man who rubs elbows with a bunch of other very wealthy men. They all go to an opera together – Chloe, Chloe’s family, and Chris – and it’s the perfect opera. And after the opera, everything in Chris’ life also becomes perfect: he marries money, I mean, he marries Chloe; Chloe’s father gives him money, I mean, a job; and they move into a fantastic apartment with a breathtaking view of everything that’s worth seeing in life, and they can afford it…err, I mean, Chloe’s father can afford it for them.  

But life is not perfect, and that’s probably all because of Dostoevsky. Chris has a mistress (Scarlett Johansson), and right about when the opera is at its highest point, resonating and reverberating like thunder in the background, Chris blows his mistress away with Chloe’s father’s riffle. The murder bears many similarities to the one committed in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which, incidentally, Chris is seen reading in the beginning of this film. I will not give away the exciting details, however. The novel is brilliant, and so is Match Point.

Scarlett Johansson, of course, brings that extra oomph to the movie, especially with those carnal lips. And next on the list is another movie that bears similarities to Dostoevsky’s novel, exploring the idea of guilt after murder, but differing in its conclusion.   

4. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Life is made up of tough decisions, and although I have never had to decide whether or not to murder someone, like the protagonist of this movie, Judah (Martin Landau), placing this movie as number four on the list was a very tough decision. It’s one of my favorites and could have very well been number one.

Judah is having an affair, but after two years, his mistress Dolores (Angelica Huston) demands that all the promises he has made, while in the passion of love, be carried out. These promises include leaving his wife of 25 years. Judah’s reaction is to deny that any promise was ever made: he wants out of this affair. But Dolores feels like she’s invested way too much already, “I will not be tossed out!” she yells. She claims to have given up business opportunities to be with him, and threatens to tell his wife not only of their affair but of Judah’s embezzlement schemes as well. Judah is worried, and this is where the movie gets exciting. He is worried, not about his poor wife, Miriam (Claire Bloom), who will be devastated when she discoverers she’s married to a lying thief, but about his image as a respected and honorable man, his “place among friends and colleagues,” what others will think of him, and how inconvenient that will all be. So he murders his mistress…because it’s the convenient thing to do. And it’s the perfect murder, and the perfect movie, because the audience is shocked that although “the eyes of God are on us always,” evil has triumphed, and the innocent have not.  

Crimes and Misdemeanors makes the list for its brilliant analysis on the gloomy and raw reality of life, which is, happy endings are reserved solely for Hollywood blockbusters seeking to please the hordes, for the rest of us, the Judah’s of the world will get away with their perfect murder…and guilt will not accompany.

3. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

I love Mia Farrow, and I love Woody Allen also, so how could I not love this movie? Farrow’s pale-faced emotions fit perfectly with the satirical tone of Woody’s writing. She interprets a small-town waitress, Cecilia, who’s sweet but spends most of her days in a daze, and can’t manage to remember that the old hag in the booth ordered a “bacon and tomato,” not a “ham and Swiss.” She loves the movies more than her own life, and one day, the movie becomes her own life, and all of the sudden she can’t escape it, which is a good thing because her reality is miserable. Her husband is an oaf of a man who calls her his “ball and chain” and not only whacks her around to “put her in shape,” but whacks around other women as well, only with the others it’s a lighter whacking and on the tush.  

The movie’s magic ironically comes from the magic in the movie within the movie. Reality and fantasy world have decided to mingle, leaving the audience dizzy in reverie. Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), the man in the movie within the movie, decides to step out. We go to the movies to escape our reality, only to find that the character in the movie, Cecilia, has also gone to the movies to escape her reality; only to find that the character in the movie she’s watching, Tom, has also escaped his reality. We are unhappy with our world; the character in the movie is unhappy with theirs; and the character in the movie within the movie is unhappy with theirs. What the hell is left? The befuddled lady who has just witnessed the whole mess of Tom stepping out only wants what happened last week in the movie to happen again this week, “otherwise, what’s life all about anyway?” she questions.

Woody Allen has outdone himself in terms of creativity. The film is full of intelligent wit and the movie within the movie mingles with reality to tease the audience of our world’s cockamamie nonsense. This is, in my opinion, one of his most creative films. So number three on the list!  

2. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

The film presents an astute depiction of mankind’s covetous nature, and Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters (Barbary Hershey and Dianne Wiest) breathe life into Woody’s quick-witted dialogue. Elliot (Michael Caine) is married to Hannah, but lusts for her sister, Lee. Mickey (Woody Allen) is Hannah’s ex-husband and lusts for the meaning of life. Holly, Hannah’s other sister, wants David, but not really, she doesn’t really know what she wants. The film is told in the form of chapters, or vignettes, and in every story someone is after something they can’t, or shouldn’t, have, and although Lee is racked with guilt for being in love with Elliot, her guilt does not present an impeding factor, and that’s precisely why the movie is brilliant. Guilt is what you should feel when you fall in love with your sister’s husband, but as Woody shows, our emotions create a tumult in our lives and eventually we give in to them…and that’s how Elliot winds up in a hotel room with Lee.  

The deeper you dig into each story, however, the more you realize the meaninglessness of life, and the deeper I dig, the more I convince myself of the pointlessness of cleaning the toilet every week. I mean, if my roommates don’t give a hoot, why should I? And as Woody says, “If I don’t go today, I could go tomorrow.” Meaning, we could die at any moment, so what the hell does it matter if the toilet is shinning, or not?

There are so many things going on in each character’s story and the dialogue is so intelligent. Even the topic of the Holocaust comes up, and in regards to that, Lee’s boyfriend, Frederick (played by Max von Sydow), says that the question isn’t why it happened, but why it doesn’t happen more often – given the putrid nature of humanity, of course. It’s a lot to digest, but Woody is a master of human psychology and Hannah and Her Sisters gets second place because it’s a brilliant example of this.  

1. Manhattan (1979)

Manhattan could get number one on the list just for its magnificent opening scene: Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” giving us goosebumps, while beautifully composed black and white images of New York captivate our eyes. And at the end, a display of fireworks light up a dim landscape of buildings. The film is perfectly photographed and makes me want to move to New York immediately, and visit the Guggenheim…because that’s what everyone does in the film.  

But it gets number one, not “just” because of the opening scene, but because of what it’s about: Isaac (Woody Allen) is 42 years old and is dating Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), who has to go home to do her homework – she’s 17 and in high school. But, no, it’s also not about pedophilia. It’s about the fact that Isaac takes Tracy for granted, precisely because she has homework to do, and trades her for Mary (Diane Keaton), a woman around his age. The adults in the movie think and act like they know everything, but in the end, Tracy is more mature than all of them.      

In terms of cinematography, it’s Woody’s most spectacular movie, in terms of music, it’s transcendent, and in terms of what it’s about, well, it won my heart.