Response: Woody Allen at His Best and Worst

WhatCulture.com 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.

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