Friday, 29 November 2013

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Woody Allen But Were Afraid To Ask: The Top 10, Part 1

Woody Allen is undoubtedly one of the most prolific and hard-working filmmakers in the history of cinema. But outside of a few set-in-stone classics and recent successes, there is a tendency for his work to solidify into one big homogeneous mass in popular perception. Like his literary contemporary Philip Roth, he has been accused of regurgitating the same preoccupations over and over again, but this is to miss the point: Both artists may remain obsessed with love, sex, and death (and after all, how many other themes are there?) as filtered through the lives of New York intelligentsia, but they have kept their concerns fresh and enlightening by consistently altering their stylistic approaches.

For those yet to discover Allen's genius, here are ten of his best films:

10. Husbands and Wives (1992)

Filmed and released at the peak of the tabloid frenzy surrounding Allen's estrangement from Mia Farrow and relationship with her stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Previn, this wrenching chamber-drama is good enough to transcend the history of its creation.

At the start, one affluent upper-middle class Manhattan couple, played brilliantly by Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis, announce that they are separating to another couple with whom they are friends (Allen and Farrow). They claim that it is no big deal, that they have simply grown apart, want different things, and have decided to be grown-ups about the situation. But, of course, soon the skeletons start tumbling from the closet, and our self-pitying urbanites are falling in and out of love.

As in the best of Allen's middle-period work, he compassionately satirises the ideal of sexual sophistication that the baby-boomer generation claimed for itself, exposing the deep-seated emotional anxiety and confusion that more frequently characterised their time. Ever concerned with restyling his perennial concerns, he borrows from the cinema verite innovations of John Cassavetes, the camera hovering intimately as the characters pace around their book-strewn apartments in long, unbroken takes. 

9. Love and Death (1975)

Only a very unusual mind, equally at home and equally uncomfortable among high culture and slapstick, could conceive of a dysfunctional marriage of the two like this freewheeling parody of gloomy Russian literature. Miraculously, he turns out to have been on to something after all: quite possibly the only comedy, and a terrific one at that, expressly designed for people with degrees in the humanities.

Razor-sharp references abound to the family sagas of Tolstoy, the metaphysical frenzy of Dostoevsky, and the existential dread of Bergman. And it's also oddly sexy, with its abundance of corsets and couples volleying flirtatious philosophical platitudes at one another.

Like the recent smash-hit Midnight in Paris, it only really works if you're in on the literary joke, but here Allen overcomes the self-indulgent inertia that eventually sank that much gentler story by focusing on landing big laughs.  

8. Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

There's more 'meta' than 'murder' in this shaggy-dog suspense story about restless Carol Lipton (Diane Keaton) finding relief from her too-comfortable marriage to the complacent Larry (Allen) by investigating a neighbour whom she suspects of having murdered his wife.

It's a movie that takes the movies themselves as its principle energy and inspiration: Keaton and Allen's relationship transplants their friction from Annie Hall into the claustrophobia of middle-aged marriage, and the plot's concern with ordinary people's morbid delight in the intricacies of murder is straight out of Hitchcock. Most outrageously of all, the ingenious ending tries to best Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai by having the famous climax inside a funhouse hall of mirrors unwittingly re-enacted by the characters within a cinema, whilst the original scene is reflected all around them by an assortment of antique looking-glasses. Altogether it's totally, unapologetically ridiculous, and hugely entertaining.

7. Zelig (1983)

Woody Allen might be a genre unto himself, but as a filmmaker he's not especially renowned for breaking new ground, so much as he is for appropriating ideas from a diverse array of artistic movements and then applying them to his distinctive sensibility. Zelig, however, marks something of an exception, being first and foremost a highly successful technical experiment.

Using authentic archival newsreel footage, as well as cinematography designed to emulate 1920s reportage, Allen constructs a fake documentary examining the peculiar life of the mysterious Leonard Zelig, a man born with the chameleonic ability to involuntarily and perfectly imitate whoever he encounters. To trick more credulous viewers, he also weaves in commentary by contemporary intellectuals such as Susan Sontag (thereby also scoring serious cool points). Now it can be seen as a precursor to Forrest Gump and the advent of the mockumentary comedy sub-genre. And between all the cinematic wizardry, Allen finds time to make some thoughtful, cautioning observations about the human need to belong, and the consequent dangers of conformity. 

6. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

This under-seen mid-80s fantasy is one of Allen's most swooningly romantic and unexpectedly moving pictures. Like Manhattan Murder Mystery, Allen's subject is the movies, but his approach is more melancholy, exploring the gulf between the beautiful dreams peddled by most of mainstream cinema and the ugly realities of life.

Mia Farrow stars again, this time as Cecilia, a New Jersey waitress living with a deadbeat husband during the Great Depression, and obsessed with escaping to the local theatre to watch the eponymous Hollywood romance and forget about her disappointments. One day, the hero of Rose, archaeologist Tom Baxter (a frighteningly young-looking Jeff Daniels) steps out of the screen, having become fascinated with this woman who comes to watch the same movie day after day, and Cecilia embarks upon an affair with a fictional character. It sounds too silly to work, but Allen's sensitive, ambivalent depiction of cinema as perhaps both a source of comfort and one of the tools of our oppression makes it soar.