You know, Woody Allen really doesn’t get enough credit. Sure his recent output has been spotty, but even disappointments like Cassandra’s Dream and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger can’t do anything to diminish the expansive humanity of his deeply personal canon. Then he releases a sweet confection like Midnight in Paris and it seems like we’re smack in the middle of his ’70s and ’80s glory days with Allen mapping the frayed nerves of his jittery characters like a Borscht Belt Ingmar Bergman. But whereas the dour Swede — and Allen’s idol — approached relationship dynamics and philosophical dilemmas with a grimly severe attitude, New York City’s favorite bespectacled son can see the tragic comedy in the unanswered questions of existence. And somehow his nebbish-y sense of humor makes the asking all the more profound. So, in light of Midnight in Paris’s release, a bunch of us here at EW decided to pick our favorite Woody Allen movie and ask you yours. I know, why don’t we ask an easy question, like “Which of your children is your favorite?”
Believe me, I find it a tough call too. Annie Hall certainly has some of the funniest moments ever committed to celluloid (Christopher Walken, is there any monologue you can’t deliver to perfection?), while the final close-up of Mia Farrow’s gamine face in The Purple Rose of Cairo is among the most heartrending. Manhattan’s “Rhapsody in Blue” prelude remains by far Allen’s most eye-popping opening, while Radio Days and Shadows and Fog close with equally impressive visuals. I find the Duck Soup-inspired revelation at the end of Hannah and Her Sisters endlessly life-affirming, but I’m drawn also to the hopeless existential void of films like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point.
But when it comes right down to it, when I’ve sifted through all the more obvious, established classics, I’m left with the Woody Allen flick that’s had by far the biggest impact on my life: Manhattan Murder Mystery. You read that right. I’ll always adore this little-discussed 1993 love letter to the Big Apple, Allen’s Hitchcock homage about a middle-aged couple on the rocks who revive their marriage by investigating their possibly murderous next-door neighbor. By rights, Manhattan Murder Mystery should take its place alongside Rosemary’s Baby as a story about the mysterious happenings that take place behind apparently ordinary apartment doors. As a kid growing up in Florida, though, it was a city symphony of Empire State pleasures — outdoor book fairs, musty repertory cinemas, and cozy mom-and-pop eateries — that I suspect first made me want to live and work in New York. Who knows if I’d even be here to write this post if it hadn’t been for Manhattan Murder Mystery?
Other EW staffers had to weigh in, of course, so here are a few of my esteemed colleagues’ picks:
Chris Nashawaty: Zelig. I think it’s his most underrated movie, and technically it’s mindblowing. Way ahead of its time. We don’t think of Woody Allen as a special f/x guru like George Lucas or James Cameron, but the way he fashions scratchy old news reels and seamlessly inserts his Zelig character into scenes with great figures and events from history is amazingly convincing. Filmmakers have all these high-tech toys and gizmos today, but I don’t know if they could make it look any better than Woody did back in 1983.
Jill Bernstein: Love and Death. It’s Airplane! with a history degree — and joke-for-joke one of the funniest movies ever made.
Keith Staskiewicz: I really, truly want to be cool and say something like Zelig or Crimes and Misdemeanors, but for me the answer is and has always been Annie Hall. It is simply the best romantic-comedy ever made. That is, at least until the world was introduced to the humane and challenging oeuvre of a certain Katherine M. Heigl.
Joseph Brannigan-Lynch: Manhattan. I feel like the more you love something, the harder it is to explain why. That’s how I feel about Manhattan. Yes, the writing is razor-sharp and the cinematography is divine. The Gershwin montage could be the greatest opening to any film. But I think Manhattan stays fresh with every viewing because there are very few movies that honestly depict adult relationships. These characters are overpoweringly self-interested but they don’t make choices that are in their best interests. In Manhattan, love is as fickle and harmful as it is sweet and life-affirming. In spite of his justifiable cynicism, Woody concludes the film with the thought that, “Not everyone gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people.”
Jeff Labrecque: Sweet and Lowdown. By far the sweetest Woody Allen movie for my money, with two of his best acting performances ever: Sean Penn and the immaculate Samantha Morton, who never utters a word.
Darren Franich: I love the classics, but my favorite Allen film is more recent. Match Point is funny, romantic, and even a little bit Hitchcockian, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a charmingly amoral social striver who will do anything to keep his big Thames-overlooking apartment. It’s the rare film that gives Scarlett Johansson something to do besides be insanely magnetic — her transformation over the course of a movie from a literally glowing sex symbol to a scared, doomed everygirl looks more tragic every time I watch the movie.
PopWatchers, it’s your turn. What is your favorite Woody Allen film?