It’s honestly difficult to pick a time frame when Woody Allen was at his best. He has been relatively consistent throughout his career. There have been patches where he is bland at best, but those tend not to last more than a couple of films, at most.
1982. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy
It is the early 1900s and distinguished philosopher Leopold, Jose Ferrer, and his much younger fiancée, Ariel, Mia Farrow, are going to spend a weekend in the country with Leopold’s cousin Adrian, Mary Steenburgen, and her crackpot inventor husband Andrew, Woody Allen. There are a few guests coming as well. Over the course of the weekend, old romances reignite, new romances develop, and everyone ends up sneaking off behind everyone else’s back.
The plot is loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night and was the first film Allen made with Mia Farrow. Midsummer is good. It’s not great, but neither is it as bad as some critics have suggested.
Woody Allen plays Leonard Zelig, who, in an effort to be liked, takes on the physical characteristics of the people he is around. He physically becomes like them. It is presented like a 1920s news reel, with archival footage and re-enactments.
Another mockumentary. This one pales in comparison to Take the Money and Run, in my view. Granted, I am in the minority where Zelig is concerned. The whole idea of a person changing to be like and accepted, I feel, a psychiatrist would have a major field day with. For example, in one of the scenes, Zelig is hanging around with a couple of overweight African-Americans and he starts to become one himself. The redeeming quality of the film is the style it was filmed in. Bravo, Gordon Willis.
1984. Broadway Danny Rose
Danny Rose, Allen, has made a career out of representing untalented performers, including Lou Canova, whose career is on the rebound. At the singer’s insistence, Danny Rose masquerades as Tina’s boyfriend (Mia Farrow) to divert attention from the affair he is having with her. Tina’s ex-boyfriend is extremely jealous and, believing Tina’s relationship with Danny to be real, he orders a hit on Danny, who now finds himself in danger of losing both his client and his life.
A gem of a movie. One of the Allen films you should own. In fact, you should own them all. Another film shot in black and white and it is all the more glorious as a result.
1985. The Purple Rose of Cairo
For me, Woody Allen films are best when he is in them. In recent years, I’ve gotten used to Allen not being in his films and The Purple Rose of Cairo was the first film of Allen’s that I liked that he wasn’t in. The film stars Jeff Daniels and Mia Farrow. Daniels stars as a fictional character who notices that Mia Farrow is always in the audience during showings of the film. He steps out of the film to find out why.
1986. Hannah and Her Sisters
Hannah tells the story of an extended family over the course of two years and how the fabric of their lives is woven together.
Michael Caine and Diane Wiest both won Best Supporting Oscars and Allen won for Best Screenplay. Most people would consider either this or Annie Hall his seminal film. The problem is, you are missing so much more if you just watch these two films and no others. So, while I love Hannah and Her Sisters, know that there are more films of Allen’s to discover than just these two.
1987. Radio Days
A nostalgic look at a family’s life as it revolved around the radio during its golden age.
Thierry de Navacelle’s book, On Location with Woody Allen, documents the making of the film. It provides a marvelous insight into how Allen shoots his films and I highly recommend it. The book is almost more interesting than the movie.
Lane, Mia Farrow, is recovering from a failed suicide attempt at her house in the country. A widower befriends her, and her mother and a friend come to stay with her hoping to help Lane’s recovery.
Woody Allen began experimenting with longer takes, which he would use to greater authority in Husbands and Wives. September is famous for being shot twice. After editing the first film, Allen trashed it, rewrote and recast the film and did it again, though to no greater effect.
Gena Rowlands stars as a philosophy professor who accidentally overhears the private analyses of a stranger. The woman’s regrets and despair awaken something personal in Gena Rowland’s character.
Two subpar dramas in a row. Allen was in a Bergman state of mind and borrowed heavily from Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.
1989. Crimes and Misdemeanors
Another of Woody Allen’s seminal films, Crimes and Misdemeanors is a mixture of comedy and drama. The film follows two characters, Judah Rosenthal, played by Martin Landau, and a smalltime filmmaker named Cliff Stern, played by Woody Allen
Judah is having an affair with a flight attendant named Delores. After it becomes clear to her that Judah does not plan to leave his wife, she threatens to tell on him. Juda’s brother hires a hitman, who kills Delores. Meanwhile, despondent over his failing marriage, Cliff falls for Halley, Mia Farrow. In the end, fate and happenstance mix to bring Judah and Cliff together.
This is a well-loved film and Martin Landau does a good job as Judah. The more comedic aspects of the Cliff subplot, particularly with Alan Alda’s character, who is an arrogant but successful TV producer, don’t mesh well with the more serious Landau thread.
Alice Tate is an upper-class New York housewife, who spends her days shopping, getting beauty treatments, and gossiping with her friends. She is married and has two children who are raised by a nanny. She finds herself attracted to a musician but feels guilty about these feelings. She visits an herbalist who gives her ancient herbs to act on her feelings for the musician.
A nice little piece. Alice won’t rock your world but it’s still a fun little romantic film.