Woody Allen has written and directed more than 40 feature films—the latest, Blue Jasmine, opens today—which proves that what he really loved about Bergman, Fellini, and the other European directors he idolized was not their style so much as their work ethic. With that many titles to choose from, everyone will have different best and worst lists. Here are the ones I’ll never stop watching and a handful that I don’t care if I ever see again.
1. Broadway Danny Rose and Annie Hall
I refuse to choose. This is a dead heat. Two entirely dissimilar movies, and each one is a masterpiece. Annie Hall has the lobsters, brother Duane, and Marshall McLuhan—and Annie herself, one of the most enchanting heroines in any movie. Broadway Danny Rose has the comedians in the Carnegie Deli, Lou, the helium scene, Danny’s clients, especially the balloon man, and “Star, Smile, Shine.” It is simply the best portrait of small-time showbiz hustlers ever made. A.J. Liebling would have loved this movie. It is also impossibly sweet, funny, and heartbreaking all at once.
2. Love and Death
A funny movie built around great Russian literature—who would have thought? Not that you need to know the first thing about Russian lit to enjoy this nimble, laugh-filled movie: Sonia and her delicious dishes made of snow, the father with his “little piece of land,” “Welcome Idiots,” and all of it done to a great Prokofiev score.
3. Take the Money and Run
The funniest gangster movie ever—just the thought of Virgil Starkwell’s parents seeking anonymity behind the big glasses attached to the big noses and fake mustaches makes me laugh. And every time I mistype gub for gun, I want to go back and watch this again.
4. Match Point
Ice cold, no jokes, and one of those movies where you know no good will come of any of what you’re seeing on the screen and yet you can’t stop watching. It’s nasty and dark, and it’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking.
5. Radio Days
Nostalgia is a hard thing to do well. Adding a little vinegar doesn’t hurt. Maybe Allen’s Rockaway childhood in New York City wasn’t quite like this, but his ear for dialogue was sharp before he was out of grade school. Woody’s mom: “Pay more attention to your schoolwork and less to the radio ... Our lives are ruined already. You still have a chance to grow up and be somebody.” And then, a few moments later, Woody’s dad registers what his wife has said: “Whadya mean our lives are ruined already?” Mom: “I don’t mean ruined ruined. We’re poor but happy. But definitely poor.”
6. Bullets Over Broadway
Sometimes Allen retools a hackneyed plot and the bones show through—not this time. The mobster buying stardom for his moll works because the great Chazz Palminteri is the mobster, and Jennifer Tilly has the whiniest little voice on the planet, and because Dianne Wiest is the best Broadway diva ever. Two words: don’t speak.
7. Deconstructing Harry
Most movies about blocked creativity peg right into the red on my annoyance meter, but this one is so funny I would loan it money. Even the throwaway lines are priceless, as when the wife explains that her husband was an ax murderer before they were married:
Wife: The man purchased an ax.
Friend: A nax?
Wife: And you know Max, he’s nothing with tools. He can’t even hang a picture.
8. Vicky Christina Barcelona
We’re told that voiceover narration in movies always masks bad filmmaking, that it’s some sort of crutch. Not here. The narrator tells you practically the whole story, and somehow that doesn’t detract, maybe because you can’t stop staring at Barcelona or the four beautiful people falling in and out of love or because of lines like this one: “If you don’t start undressing me soon, this is going to turn into a panel discussion.” One of the most sweetly melancholy movies about love ever made.
9. Midnight in Paris
The blocked writer again. The through-the-looking-glass trope used in Purple Rose of Cairo and a couple of other Allen films again. And it doesn’t matter. If Champagne were a movie, this would be it. The genuine and inexhaustible effervescence carries you right through the sketch-comedy set-up, and Owen Wilson stands in for Allen about as well as anyone ever has. He’s genuinely charming. Hell, most everyone in this is pretty darn charming. And then there’s Stephane Wrembel’s uncanny knockoff of Django Reinhardt to keep everything afloat.
A clever idea, but that’s all. A short movie that seems long.
2. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex …
Weirdly (weird because they’re always anchored in a specific time and place), Allen’s movies don’t date. This one does. But I’d keep the episode of Gene Wilder and the sheep.
3. Whatever Works
No, it doesn’t.
That leaves out a lot. Where, you might ask, are Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan, Manhattan Murder Mystery, or Bananas? Nothing against them, they’re just not my favorites. While writing this, I considered making several lists, like a list of Allen movies I admire but don’t like much (Manhattan, Husbands and Wives) or movies I like for just one thing (Mighty Aphrodite for Mira Sorvino, To Rome With Love for the man who can only sing in the shower, Stardust Memories for the Fun Train). Even movies I don’t care if I ever see again usually have something worth remembering (Bebe Neuwirth and the banana in Celebrity). Very few are honed into wholeness the way Match Point is, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth watching. Like the guy in the joke in Annie Hall, I need the eggs.