Robert here, back with another entry in my series on great contemporary directors.
Maestro: Woody Allen
Known For: witty comedies about life, dramas about love, often though not exclusively set in New York
Influences: Early comedy owes much to cartoonist Jules Feiffer, drama much to Ingmar Bergman.
Masterpieces: Anything I write here is going to get me in trouble. But let me say I agree with the popular sentiment that Annie Hall is most of all. Also Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors and maybe The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Disasters: Disaster is such a strong word and there are several that may (yet may not) qualify.
Better than you remember: And for everyone there's at least one Allen film that the world seems to loathe but you love. For me it's Scoop (recently).
Box Office: Annie Hall is tops with 136 mil.
Favorite Actor:You may think it's Diane Keaton (7) or Mia Farrow (13) but in fact Woody Allen's favorite actor is Woody Allen, having starred in 17 Woody Allen movies.
Woody Allen is nothing if not a victim of his own prolificness. Anyone who steps up to the plate as much as he does is going to strike out a lot. But the hits he gets are often home runs, or at least triples (someone help me before I stretch this metaphor out any more). My standard for this series has been to ask whether a director has made at least two notable quality films in the past ten years. And though it's fair to say that he's been missing more than hitting lately, Woody Allen certainly meets that standard. The two films of note here, of course, are Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona, though I also find Scoop to be just as good as both of them. I mention that not because I can really make a case for Scoop, but to point out how Allen's "bad" films even have worthwhile elements that speak to people. And so there are people who think Melinda and Melinda was great or who champion Whatever Works or Cassandra's Dream. The question with each new Woody Allen film isn't whether or not it'll be wholly embraced by the critical community and play for awards but also whether it'll be a small gem that you and you alone seem to appreciate.
Allen's career has been much discussed, especially in the 70's 80's and 90's. His thoughtful New York comedies, his sentimental love notes to jazz and early cinema, his Bergmanesque dramas have all been analyzed and analyzed again. To focus on his recent career is to focus on a man abroad, outside a city more closely associated with him than perhaps any other modern man. The two previous aforementioned films of note came from England and Spain respectively. Thematically they are about the nature of passion and how it is rooted in the seductive call of the foreign away from the warm and safe loving embrace of home. This is what Woody Allen thinks about when he's in Europe. While the man's heart clearly belongs to New York City, it is obvious that his experiences flirting with locations that belong to the hearts of others has breathed a new tilt into his career with interesting results.
A brief note about Allen's "lesser" films of recent years. While they may not have achieved a critical consensus, they still explore classic Woody Allen territory, touching on issues of love, loneliness, crime and guilt. They still feature quality acting and classically glamorous cinematography. It's comforting that Woody, if not consistently great, is still consistently Woody. And that's why we keep coming back and rooting for another hit. It's why his movies are still embraced and anticipated and rolled out at high status film festivals. It seems odd to suggest that perhaps more than any working director, Mr Allen's bad films are almost always worth seeing. Yet it requires a special kind of talent to accomplish that and it's worth celebrating. Allen's next film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger premiered in Cannes to pretty good reviews and will arrive for our consumption soon. If you're not excited for that, the next film after his next film will feature French First Lady Carli Bruni and is hotly anticipated for the fact. That's the thing about Woody Allen. There's always another shot at greatness around the corner.