Recently Woody Allen's work has been, shall we say... not his best. Not bad, hardly sparkling; at times it feels as if he's making movies for making movies' sake. The spark of genius may have faded but there are a world of Allen moments touched by geniune genius that remind us of his talents. As proof, we've compiled 18 reasons why Woody is one of the finest comedic directors of all time. Putting the past 15 years to one side for a moment, allow us to begin with an example from his oft-forgotten debut, What's Up Tiger Lily? and end with another from 1994's Bullets Over Broadway. Prepare to laugh, cry, and laugh and cry at the same time. In a good way, of course.
Film: What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966)
Grabbing clips from Japanese 007 clones International Secret Police and dubbing American voices over them might not sound like the beginnings of the most prodigious comic director ever, but looking back on this underrated gem, it really is very, very funny. Lines line "Taxi! Kidnap us please, and step on it" alongside sight gags here, there and everywhere make what could look like a bad Whose Line Is It Anyway? sketch flat-out hilarious.
Still, despite all that, we haven’t chosen a clip of the main film to illustrate why we love Woody Allen in this instance – instead we’ve gone for the final few minutes. Sit back and watch one of the best end credit sequences ever...
Film: Take The Money And Run (1969)
Long before The Office, This Is Spinal Tap, The Rutles, and, of course, Zelig, there was the great-grandaddy of mockumentaries, Take The Money And Run. The first movie Allen solely directed (What’s Up, Tiger Lily? Naturally sharing the credits with the original director Senkichi Taniguchi) it’s the forerunner for all his hysterical, manic 'early, funny ones', chock full of scenes nigh-on guaranteed to make you giggle as Woody’s inept crook Virgil Starkwell fails to rob anyone and swiftly gets thrown in jail.
Starkwell gets into chokey when he attempts to rob a bank with a poorly-written piece of paper,* *and it just so happens to be one of the funniest scenes in the film. And yes, the narrator is indeed Jackson “Bluto from Popeye” Beck – a man who should narrate every movie, ever. Even if it doesn’t need narration.
Film: Bananas (1971)
Bananas has so many beautiful little moments to enjoy, it’s a genuine headscratcher trying to point you in the direction of just one. There’s the sublime attempt to help someone park their car, Woody’s own attempts to nab a spot; Sylvester Stallone’s brief cameo as a mugger on a subway train; and the immortal re-enactment of every man’s greatest fear: trying to buy a nudie mag in front in a newsagents full of other people. “Say, Ralph, how much for a copy of Orgasm? Orgasm! This guy wants to buy a copy!”
But despite ostensibly being about a neurotic consumer products tester going to the tropical (and fictional) country of San Marcos, taking part in a revolution and becoming president, it’s not a scene from the revolutionary period that we love most. It is, of course, the courtroom scenes, which have so many jokes crammed into two minutes that you may well need to pause the clip to fit the laughs in. The self-cross-examination alone... priceless.
Film: Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex... (1972)
If you’re expecting anything other than the “What Happens During Ejaculation?” scene to be our favourite skit from Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask, expect... again. Or, um, that is to say: you’re wrong, because it is.
Sure, there’s the giant boob attack and Gene Wilder falling for a special, fluffy, sheepy acquaintance of his, but there is no other scene we could possibly love more than one where Woody Allen plays a neurotic sperm being fired out of a penis.
It just doesn’t get better than that - in terms of famous comedic directors dressing up as parts of the human body, at any rate. Especially when the black guy asks what he’s doing there... somehow, it gets funnier every time. It's sublime, hilarious, and every so slightly creepy.
Film: Sleeper (1973)
Woody Allen’s Miles Monroe is a health food owner in 1973’s Greenwich Village. Cryogenically frozen, he wakes up 200 years later to discover a totally new world – one where America is a totalitarian police state, people have robotic butlers, and beautiful socialite Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton) could well be the worst poet in the world.
Here Allen takes his sci-fi setting and uses it to poke merciless fun at contemporary society’s self-obsession, mixing in a healthy does of slapstick, sight gags and ludicrously large vegetables. He also takes the time to have fun with sci-fi classics from the Orwellian and Wellsian stable (it’s a pretty impressive stable) as well as pseudo-revolutionary fervour.
You might expect us to love the giant banana skin routine and Woody in a massive inflatable suit (and we do, we really do), but above all else there's the “informations from the past” scene that beats them all. Watching ABC’s Wide World Of Sports now, just for a few seconds, still feels like punishment. Yeesh.
Film: Love And Death (1975)
If Sleeper was Woody’s poke-in-the-eye for science-fiction, Love And Death is his rapier swipe at Russian epic novels. To be honest, those Russian epic novel bastards had it coming, being so Russian and epic and whatnot. Thank God Woody took ‘em down a peg or too, really.
Anyway, the plot centres on Allen’s cowardly pacifist Boris Grushenko, who gets conscripted into the Russian army in an attempt – of course – to dissuade his cousin, Sonja (Diane Keaton) from marrying someone else and instead sleep with him.
In so doing, Grushenko has more than a few mock-philoshopical debates with Sonja, pays homage to the likes of Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, and witnesses some pretty amazing humourous anachronisms – his signature glasses being the most obvious. Perhaps the double-speak scenes should be favourite, but there’s something about this flirting scene that never fails. When he whips out that sword... there just aren’t words enough to describe it.
Film: Annie Hall (1977)
Annie Hall was originally conceived as a murder mystery, but after being persuaded that those bits didn’t work, Woody took them out, leaving himself with – as chance would have it – the definitive romantic comedy of all time. That’s Woody Allen for you... even when he’s correcting a cock-up he can still hoover up four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and a little golden bald man for Diane Keaton as Annie Hall herself.
Annie Hall is undoubtedly a masterpiece, heralding a distinct change of direction for Allen – gone were the goofy gagfests, here were the thoughtful, introspective, more mature comedies. That said, there are still plenty of wisecracks throughout the film from one-liners like “Hey, don't knock masturbation. It's sex with someone I love,” and fantasy moments like the Marshall McLuhan cameo, not forgetting the opening and closing monologues, Alby’s younger days... we could go on and on. The scene of scenes, however, has to be subtitled balcony scene. Or the lobsters scene. Or the...ah, just watch the movie.
Film: Manhattan (1979)
Allen’s most beautiful, most personal film, it’s a shock to discover than when Allen saw the rough cut of Manhattan, he offered to do his next film for free if United Artists kept Manhattan on the shelf. Quite frankly, this is almost unbelievable, as Manhattan remains one of Allen’s greatest triumphs, a love letter (of sorts) to his hometown and a delicate mix of acute observations and gorgeously shot sequences.
As for a favourite moment from Manhattan, it's definitely the sofa-bound monologue asking “Why is life worth living?” (an Empire classic scene from years gone by), though the ending credits and the opening sequence definitely deserve a mention too.
Film: Stardust Memories (1980)
When you make a movie that gives columnists, critics and the movie-going public both of Woody’s pretty damning barrels, you can’t expect to be showered in critical acclaim and haul in the big bucks at the box office. But that was never the point with Stardust Memories. It served as Allen’s attempt at his own taken on Fellini’s 8 1/2, complete with retrospective recollections of past loves and so much angst you almost choke on it.
In this way, Stardust Memories remains one of those amazingly divisive movies, but it contains moments so wonderful that they can’t be ignored, even if the rest of the piece brings you out in hives. After all, this is the movie that includes the line about Allen’s character not making movies “like his early funny ones”, a moment so self-referential there’s no way you can believe Allen’s claim that this was pure fiction. As for our favourite bit, we’re going for the opening scene: Charlotte Rampling + Woody Allen + Louis Armstrong. You can’t not.
Film: Zelig (1983)
There just aren’t enough films shot to look like 1920s black and white film newsreels, are there? Thank God then for Zelig, one of Woody’s most high concept comedies, and arguably one of his funniest.
The premise is that Allen is an entity called Zelig, a being with no personal shape of its own, instead prone to taking on the appearance of any larger ego nearby – and with an ego like Zelig’s, this happens unsurprisingly often.
Jumping through history like a neurotic Forrest Gump, it’s a bizarre and brilliant film full of the one-liners and asides you were longing for in Interiors and the like. A particular highlight has to be the Nazi period, which is... as twisted as you’d expect, really.
Film: Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
A glittering New York fable told in a silvery black and white, Broadway Danny Rose tells the tales of – you guessed it – Danny Rose, played by – you guessed it again – Woody Allen.
A bumbling mess of neuroses, jitters and awkwardness, Danny Rose is a likeable but incredibly incompetent talent agent, the punchline to all his friend’s jokes, and a general nincompoop. Simply put, he is a wonderful comic creation. To show you a bit of this, here's when Mia Farrow’s Tia sees Danny’s apartment for the first time. After all, don't we all need a valium the size of a hockey puck sometimes?
Film: Hannah And Her Sisters (1986)
Critically acclaimed and very popular at the box office, Hannah And Her Sisters achieved the rare feat of winning the Best Supporting Actor and Actress Oscars for Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest’s work, like Julia before it in 1977 and The Fighter after it.
The story itself sees Woody’s character somewhat in the sidelines as the film's ensemble cast tells the tale of a complicated New York family’s complicated lives, with three main arcs set around a Fanny and Alexander-like family gathering, Thanksgiving.
Though Roger Ebert might have said it was "the best movie [Woody Allen] has ever made", we’re still not so sure – Annie Hall and Manhattan put up a damn good fight in our books. That said, many set-ups are undeniably brilliant, such as the rifle scene and its ensuing debate on the meaning of life. And Groucho Marx’s place in it, of course.
Film: Radio Days (1987)
Boasting 150 characters, dozens of storylines, subplots, flashbacks, cutaways and digressions, this highly cinematic love letter to the golden age of radio is a loving nostalgia trip full of memorable performances and clever little parodies.
As well as doing all this, Radio Days also managed to be a financial and critical hit, more than doubling the original outlay and receiving Oscar nods in the screenplay and art direction category come March 1987.
As for a specific clip to direct you towards, that’s a tough call. There’s the girl down the well scenes, but let’s pick Diane Keaton singing "You'd be so nice to come home to". We dare you not to fall in love with her. Double dare you, in fact.
Film: Crimes And Misdemeanours (1989)
Allen triumphantly returns to form in this fantastic black comedy about two separate adulterers: Martin Landau’s Judah Rosenthal, a ophthalmologist who bumps off his one-time lover, and Woody Allen’s Cliff Stern, a documentary director trying to avoid temptation on set.
What laughs, you’re thinking. Seriously though, there are a lot somehow, with both stories tied together by Allen’s razor sharp script and Sam Waterston’s Rabbi Ben.
Murder, retribution and original sin might not make for humourous jumping-off points in anyone else’s hands, but in Allen’s you’re watching a black comedy so deliciously well-crafted that it’s impossible not to agree: this is an excellent piece of work. Plus, those one-liners: “The last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty” – they just can’t be ignored. Of course, the scene of scenes is the final one, so unless you’ve watched it already, you might want to wait till you have before you click this. (SPOILER WARNING)
Film: Alice (1990)
For his twentieth film, Allen created a loose interpretation of Federico Fellini's Juliet Of The Spirits, and in so doing brought us an audacious, bizarre work, in some ways a fanciful fable and at the same time a cynical appraisal of love.
Mia Farrow stars as the eponymous Alice, an upper-class New York housewife who suffers strong pangs of back-based Catholic guilt as she finds someone other than her husband (William Hurt’s Doug) really rather attractive.
Some invisibility herbs, office sex and plenty of other affairs later and the film’s become some sort of magic-realism, meaning of life, self-affirming comedy. And another Woody Allen movie it should be compulsory to watch.
Film: Husbands And Wives (1992)
In a shocking piece of Hollywood sensitivity, this studio-backed Allen piece was released just as Woody Allen and Mia Farrow were breaking up over his relationship with his ‘stepdaughter’ Soon Yi Previn.
It’s a damn shame, because this film deserves not to be remembered for coinciding with a tumultuous event in Allen’s personal life, but rather for being a pitch-perfect black comedy about manners, matrimony and essays called Oral Sex In The Age Of Deconstruction.
So many lines chime with Mia and Woody’s real-life goings on that it’s nigh-on to impossible to ignore them, alas (see: "Do you ever hide things from me?" "No, do you?") – so perhaps it’s best to just enjoy the movie for all its nuances. Plus, Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis are a joy to watch, adding to a movie that’s arguably Allen’s best since Hannah And Her Sisters.
Film: Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
A couple of interesting facts about Manhattan Murder Mystery: First of all, its light, carefree plot came from ideas originally set appear in Annie Hall. Secondly: it was made while Allen was having a custody battle with Mia Farrow over their three children, making its light tone all the more peculiar. Thirdly: Despite enjoying rave reviews, basically no-one saw it – perhaps Allen’s personal life started to affect his appeal at the box office... but that’s just a guess, mind.
The film itself is a silly, tightly-plotted hour and a half of nonsense, with Diane Keaton shouting and screaming at Allen while Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston politely nail their roles. Huston especially. Wow.
Film: Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
The Farrow farrago now seemingly forgotten, Hollywood welcomed Woody back into their arms with the success of Bullets Over Broadway, a crime-drama that sets out to give Hollywood a kiss on the cheek and make a few people laugh along the way too.
This is consummately done with the now almost expected Allen ensemble trick (Here’s to you John Cusack, Jim Broadbent, Chazz Palminteri, Jennifer Tilly and the oscar-winning Dianne Wiest), and an plethora of brilliant gags here, there and everywhere.
Allen was back, and he was funny. Lovely stuff. The premise – that of a play produced by mobster who demands his ditzy girlfriend plays the lead – is secondary to Woody’s wit and Cusack’s admirable attempt to beat Allen in the Allen role. He can’t, of course, but you can’t blame him for trying.