Total Recall

Total Recall: Woody Allen's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Blue Jasmine director.

by | July 25, 2013 | Comments

Woody Allen

He’s never been a blockbuster filmmaker, but with more than a half century in Hollywood under his belt — and dozens of movies along the way — Woody Allen‘s consistently prolific output stands as a continuing testament to the ability of brainy, low-budget cinema to find an audience, even during an era in which superheroes, sequels, reboots, and remakes seem to exert an ever-stronger grip on the box office. Love him or hate him, Allen’s one of the few directors left who can film people sitting around talking and turn it into a wide release — and with his latest, Blue Jasmine, arriving in theaters this weekend, we knew now would be the perfect time to pay tribute by looking back at his best-reviewed efforts. Call your therapist, because it’s time for Total Recall, Woody Allen style!


10. Crimes and Misdemeanors

After suffering relatively lukewarm reviews for 1987’s September and 1988’s Another Woman, Allen enjoyed a rebound — and picked up a pair of Academy Award nominations — for 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, which found him writing, directing, and starring alongside Martin Landau in a rather pensive drama that interweaves the stories of an adulterous opthalmalogist (Landau) and a struggling filmmaker (Allen) for whom love and romance are fraught with difficulty (or even danger). Calling it “A relative of Hannah and Her Sisters in its duplex structure and of The Purple Rose of Cairo in its bitter theme,” the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley bestowed praise befitting Crimes‘ parallel narrative, calling it “two movies in one, a blend of Allen’s satiric and pretentious dramatic styles.”


9. Midnight in Paris

While it would be inaccurate to say that Allen’s work went unappreciated during the 1990s and aughts, critical accolades were no longer in such ready supply, and his box-office profile — which never approached mega-blockbuster heights even during his 1970s and 1980s peak — lost more than a bit of its luster. But things turned around for 2011’s Midnight in Paris, a late-period smash that brought Allen some of the warmest reviews (and the highest grosses) of his career while telling the the fantasy-infused comedic tale of an ennui-addled screenwriter (Owen Wilson) who heads out for a melancholic walk on the streets of Paris and ends up taking much more of a journey than he bargained for. “Woody Allen seemed to have lost his fizz as a filmmaker of late,” observed Jason Best for Movie Talk, “and then he uncorked the sparkling Midnight in Paris, a comic fantasy with all the effervescence of vintage champagne.”


8. Bullets Over Broadway

One of Allen’s more critically successful late-period movies, 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway found him stepping completely behind the camera in order to tell the tale of a naive 1920s playwright (John Cusack) whose budding Broadway career threatens to derail itself almost before it’s begun, thanks to the cascading series of compromises forced when he accepts financial backing from a mobster who insists his talentless girlfriend (Jennifer Tilly) be given a role in the show. Sadly met with indifference at the box office, Bullets made a direct hit with critics like Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle, who called it “Woody Allen at his best — a gem of a Broadway fable with a crafty premise, a raft of brilliant actors at the top of their form and a bouncy, just-for-pleasure attitude.”


7. Manhattan

Following the Oscar-winning Annie Hall, Allen reunited with Diane Keaton for their sixth collaboration, 1979’s Manhattan, the story of a neurotic TV writer caught in a(n admittedly unlikely-seeming) love triangle between a teenager (Mariel Hemingway) and an intellectual (Keaton). Adding another pair of Academy Award nominations to Allen’s growing stack (including one for Best Screenplay), it rounded out his 1970s hot streak with typically neurotic flair — and another round of unbridled love from critics like Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out New York, who wrote, “This is a deeply self-critical film about immaturity and the gift of real love. Many films can be said to put an epitaph on the decade, but few remain as relevant.”


6. Annie Hall

The word “iconic” gets thrown around a lot more often than it should, but this movie fits the description — a film that so perfectly expresses its creative principals’ gifts that when you say “Woody Allen and Diane Keaton,” the picture that leaps to mind for most film fans is a black-and-white still from Annie Hall. Keaton’s career was already well on its way in 1977, but her performance here rocketed her into Hollywood’s upper echelon, earning her a Best Actress Oscar and heaps of critical accolades for a performance of a character who’d form the (often misunderstood) template for countless quirky-but-lovable leading ladies in subsequent rom-coms, and she wasn’t the only one who enjoyed recognition for the film; Allen picked up a pair of Oscars of his own (for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay), as well as heaps of praise from critics like TIME’s Richard Schickel, who observed, “Personal as the story he is telling may be, what separates this film from Allen’s own past work and most other recent comedy is its general believability.”


5. Love and Death

The second in a string of Woody Allen/Diane Keaton movies that started with Sleeper and included Annie Hall, 1975’s Love and Death found the duo starring in a satire on Russian literature that used the story of a reluctant war hero (Allen) and his equally reluctant bride (Keaton) to offer a cockeyed, tightly scripted take on Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Eisenstein, melding satirical philosophical debates with visual homages only a film buff could truly love — and became one of the more unlikely hits of the 1970s in the process. As Vincent Canby argued for the New York Times, “Besides being one of Woody’s most consistently witty films, Love and Death marks a couple of other advances for Mr. Allen as a filmmaker and for Miss Keaton as a wickedly funny comedienne.”


4. Zelig

Allen’s early years found him bringing his unique style and sense of humor to bear on a wide variety of mediums and genres, from sci-fi to Russian lit. With 1983’s Zelig, Allen delivered a suitably smart, poignant take on the mockumentary format, using his screenplay’s nominal focus — the life of a fictional ardent conformist named Leonard Zelig — to offer more of the subtly intelligent commentary on modern American life that his audiences had come to expect. Arguably more interesting, however, were the techniques Allen employed to insert Zelig into a series of historical situations, from batting practice with Babe Ruth to the Nuremberg rally with Adolf Hitler; among its many award recognitions was a BAFTA nomination for Best Special Visual Effects. As for the film itself, Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian echoed the sentiments of many of his colleagues when he deemed it “A masterpiece: a brilliant, even passionate historical pastiche, a superbly pregnant meditation on American society and individuality, and an eerie fantasy that will live in your dreams.”


3. Broadway Danny Rose

Slight, quirky, and wry, 1984’s Broadway Danny Rose is vintage Woody Allen, in terms of form as well as function. While it starts from an absurdly broad premise, following the hapless adventures of a borderline incompetent talent agent (Allen) whose clients have little talent to speak of, there’s a sweet, somewhat sober message underneath all the shenanigans, with a final act that underscores the value of loyalty and forgiveness — even in the face of violent mobsters and opportunistic lounge singers. While Broadway‘s rather modest narrative scope was matched by middling box office grosses, it earned substantial admiration from critics like Janet Maslin of the New York Times, who called it “one of Mr. Allen’s more modest films but also one of his very best” and enthused, “Mr. Allen works with such speed and confidence these days that a brief, swift film like this one can have all the texture and substance of his more complicated work.”


2. Sleeper

After the impressive commercial performance of 1972’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), Allen opted for a follow-up with a somewhat larger scale: Sleeper, a futuristic comedy about a health food store owner (Allen) who’s cryogenically frozen after dying during a gall bladder operation, thawed out 200 years later, and becomes an unlikely leader in a resistance movement — while falling in love with the woman who briefly thought he was a robot (Diane Keaton). Billed as a “nostalgic look at the future,” Sleeper offered a humorous counterpoint to the dry sci-fi epics of the day, predicting (sadly accurately, some would argue) that technological advancement wouldn’t be able to stem the rising tide of pure human foolishness. Mused Filmcritic’s Christopher Null, “Pound for pound and minute for minute, Sleeper may just have more laughs in it than any other Woody Allen movie.”


1. Husbands and Wives

The perils of romance, the wisdom of long-term commitment, and the foibles of the modern American male — they’re all themes that will be quite familiar to anyone who’s seen more than a couple of Allen’s films (let alone any of those inspired by his work). So it’s saying something that 1992’s Husbands and Wives was greeted with such critical acclaim, despite the fact that its sad portrait of two turbulently self-destructing marriages looked a lot like Allen pictures previous. Although Husbands‘ theatrical release was overshadowed by the messy end of the real-life relationship between Allen and his long-term muse Mia Farrow (who co-stars here as his dissatisfied wife), dooming it to disappointing grosses, it found favor with critics like Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, who — while admitting that it was “less a drama than a series of overly chewed-on observations” — argued, “as Woody’s angst-a-thons go, this one is singularly lively and well acted.”

In case you were wondering, here are Allen’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. Annie Hall — 91%
2. Manhattan — 91%
3. Crimes and Misdemeanors — 89%
4. Hannah and Her Sisters — 88%
5. Love and Death — 88%
6. Zelig — 86%
7. The Purple Rose of Cairo — 85%
8. Husbands and Wives — 84%
9. Midnight in Paris — 82%
10. Radio Days — 82%

Take a look through Allen’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Blue Jasmine.

Finally, here’s the Woodman doing standup on British TV in 1965: