Link has a slideshow-style article listing, supposedly, the five best and worst films of Woody Allen’s career. Being an extreme Woody Allen devotee, I could not let this pass by without comment, so here we go.

Woody Allen has directed 42 films in his career. I’ve watched every one, many of them multiple times. As much as he is maligned as “inconsistent,” the truth is that it’s rare to make the number of great films he has. This may be apocryphal, but Steven Spielberg supposedly once said that a great director is someone who makes two masterpieces. (Though, as he pointed out, Akira Kurosawa made ten.) That’s accurate–such big name directors as Orson Welles, Spielberg himself, Tim Burton, and Sidney Pollack are respected names throughout the industry while directing only one masterpiece each while Francis Ford Coppola has dined out for over 35 years now on having made two. Allen only appears inconsistent because of his astonishing productivity. Where the great Peter Weir has directed ten films since 1980, Allen has directed 34, with another scheduled for release this year. His mediocre films are also often treated as disasters instead of mediocrity. The article provides a great example of this phenomenon, listing To Rome with Love (USA/Italy/Spain 2012) as one of his worst films and noting it as perhaps the greatest disappointment of his career for being a decent-but-unspectacular follow-up to his incredible (and incredibly successful) Midnight in Paris (Spain/USA 2012). It’s not a bad film, really, but it’s disappointing following an Allen masterpiece, and he’s constantly being held to those standards, owing to that impossible run he had in the mid-’70s where every film he made was absolute gold.

Allen’s best films are a pretty clear group to me: Annie Hall (USA 1977), The Purple Rose of Cairo (USA 1985), Love and Death (USA 1975), Deconstructing Harry (USA 1997), Match Point (UK/Luxembourg 2005), and Midnight in Paris. It’s a group of six masterpieces, and while I would put them in the order I just wrote, I wouldn’t quibble about the order. I’m aware that most people put Manhattan not just on that list but at the top of it, but I’m not impressed with Manhattan on any level–it’s mediocre as far as I’m concerned, and Allen himself doesn’t think it’s any good, either. Crimes and Misdemeanors (USA 1989) is a good film, but I think it’s often been overpraised based on people wanting to list a drama among his best films and nobody having watched The Purple Rose of Cairo.

His worst films are also a clear group of six: Whatever Works (USA/France 2009), What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (USA/Japan 1966), Celebrity (USA 1998), Another Woman (USA 1988), September (USA 1987), and Hollywood Ending (USA 2002). I’ve already explained why To Rome with Love was listed, even though it shouldn’t have been. Cassandra’s Dream (USA/UK/France 2007) and Anything Else (USA/France/UK 2003) were both actually pretty good films, though not very memorable, and their presence is best explained by a desire to follow the popular narrative that Allen’s career had fallen apart this century until Midnight in Paris. Earlier, the author had dismissed a masterpiece in Match Point and the excellent Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Spain/USA 2008) as merely “strong showings” in order to force reality into that narrative, and listing these films as his two worst is just taking the narrative even further.

It’s not a terrible group for his top five films except for the top spot, but the list of his worst is an awful example of narrative-driven criticism of the type that should always be avoided.


2013 Oscar Nominees

Here are this year’s Oscar nominees.

There are not many surprises, but there are a few. The amount of love for Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, USA 2012) was something of a surprise, though it had been quite well-reviewed and certainly looks to be an actors’ film, which always helps at Oscar time. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, USA 2012) shouldn’t be much of a surprise given the director, but it had such a small impact on the public consciousness that it wouldn’t have been surprising to see it shut out, or at least held only to a nomination for Jamie Foxx or Christoph Waltz. The biggest surprise to me was that Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, UK 2012), an obvious piece of Oscar bait, was shut out. I was unfortunately not surprised that by far the best film I saw all year, Looper (Rian Johnson, USA 2012), was also shut out.

Most of the more popular categories are going to come down to a race Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA 2012) and Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, USA 2012), and by not nominating Below for Best Director, the Academy tipped its hand that it thinks Lincoln is superior.

Movie Review: “Soylent Green” (Richard Fleischer, USA 1973)

Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, USA 1973) is one of those rare films that became so much a part of popular culture that the film itself disappeared under its own mythology, like The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, USA 1939). People who not only have never watched the film but never would do so can quote, “Soylent green is people!” So, the question is, is there anything to the film underneath that mythos?

Unfortunately, the answer is that there really isn’t. The film is promoting a conservationist worldview, presenting a future where overpopulation and global warming have removed essentially all semblance of nature. Foods like beef and even lettuce are so rare as to be obtainable only by the very rich, replaced by plastic-looking, tasteless, mass-produced foodstuffs. Usable farmland has become so rare that farms are guarded “like fortresses.” There are so many people crowded into the cities that the film’s hero, Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston), literally walks on top of sleeping homeless people on his way into and out of his home. Faced with this problem, cannibalism eventually became the only remaining answer to feed the populace, leading to the climactic discovery that the latest superfood, Soylent Green, is made of the dead bodies of retired old people. The point is about as obvious as possible, which is often the case with futuristic science fiction.

It’s a frightening vision of the future, especially as presented in the frankly brilliant opening montage by Chuck Braverman of still photography taking us from the “good old days” through a couple hundred years of human “history” perfectly, emphasizing the theme of advancing technology leading to pollution and overpopulation. However, the film’s vision is also one so over the top as to be unbelievable to the point of satire. If, say, Glenn Beck or some similar global warming denialist were to make a film to make fun of the future that they see environmentalists predicting, this is what it would look like. Twenty-nine years later, there are also some odd issues with the vision that are rather funny, as with most futuristic films years later. The film is set sometime after 2022 (the novel was actually set in 1999), which is announced as when Soylent Green, which is being described as “new,” was invented. Obviously, the dooms it foresees have not come to pass and do not appear too close to coming to pass even as we near its date. The funniest problem is one from the novel that I came across that’s not in the film: this dangerously overpopulated United States has a population of 344 million. The population is just shy of 315 million now in the real world.

However, the problem is that the entire film is relying on the shock value of the discovery that Soylent Green is made of people, which of course everyone knows going in now. Most of the plot is a whodunit mystery as Thorn investigates the death of a wealthy, powerful man whose death appears to others to be an accident but he suspects (rightly) was a murder. Even this mystery is uninteresting, as the film is so busy setting up its subplots that it doesn’t bother to add any interesting intrigue or create any connection with the investigation or the related characters. Those subplots are also generally uninteresting. In a development that has nothing to do with the rest of the film’s vision and seems quite bizarre, women are now employed as “furniture,” which is to say live-in prostitutes who belong to the apartments where they live, offering their services to any man who enters. One of the major subplots is a romance developing between Thorn and one of these prostitutes, and the only point of this subplot is to tell us about this development. Another subplot is explaining a close personal relationship between Thorn and his live-in research assistant, Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson). The only purpose of this subplot is to give us a way to see how Soylent Green is made at the end, and it spends far too much time for how small of a plot device it really is.. Altogether, we get an awful lot of time spent on things that add little to the experience.

Visually, there really isn’t anything notable about the film. To its credit, it doesn’t overuse special effects to augment its vision of the future, which keeps it from looking as hokey as it could. However, Fleischer and cinematographer Richard H. Kline don’t do anything particularly interesting in use of color, editing, lighting, etc. It’s not terrible in this manner, but it’s also not interesting.

The film does actually give a couple of actors the chance to do something: Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson. Mostly through their relationship with each other, they get the opportunity to show emotions of deep love, appreciation, and sadness. However, unsurprisingly, only Robinson proves up to the task. There are some bizarre moments where his performance breaks the rhythm of scenes, probably owing to his well-known near-deafness that led to constant new takes as he learned the timing of his co-stars by rote, since he could not actually hear them speaking, but otherwise he is his usual brilliant self. Sol Roth is an ill-defined character, but it’s impossible not to like him because of Robinson’s performance, which also encapsulates just how much the world has lost and how strongly the two men feel for one another, even though his counterpart is a brick wall. Heston, for his part, does attempt to show some emotions, even tearing up in one scene, but his attempts are laughable.

Fred Myrow’s score deserves a note, because it’s quite an excellent score that heightens tension again and again where the film otherwise doesn’t quite deliver. It doesn’t draw attention to itself often, but it works excellently.

All told, it’s not a very good film. It’s generally competent, but not interesting. It was probably worth a watch once upon a time, before its ending became common knowledge, but it’s not really worth the trouble anymore.