Why do we ask artists to pick favorites from among their own work? It’s an emotional question for the artists themselves, above all, and thus expectedly irrelevant to objective merit. So it’s curious that a certain amount of fuss has been made over Woody Allen’s recently disclosed list of his top six favorite Woody Allen films, mainly because it lacks his signature piece, “Annie Hall.” But isn’t it natural for Allen not to love “Annie Hall” most, given that “Annie Hall” probably needs his love the least? It’s on the list with or without him even placing it there. Not to mention that Allen comes across as self-aware enough in the rest of the interview to have calculated that the only way a list of top Woody Allen films, even one by Woody Allen, could be controversial and newsworthy would be if “Annie Hall” was conspicuously missing from it.
I find myself hating on Woody Allen films more often than not, which really isn’t fair. When I worked on a screenplay several months ago, it was “Annie Hall” that influenced me most. (How very original of me.) But I’ve been meaning to make amends, so in light of his presently faint level of newsworthiness, now seems as good a time as any. Let me present:
My Top 2 Favorite Woody Allen Films
(It’s not that I can’t think of six. But as almost everything has already been said about almost every one of his films, I can only think of two that I still feel inspired to write about. And no doubt including “Annie Hall” here is now passé.)
1. Manhattan (1979)
Allen’s prior repulsive and felonious sexual history was outshone into obscurity after Soon-Yi, but I’d like to point out that in “Manhattan,” his 41-year old character’s relationship with the 17-year old Tracy (played by Mariel Hemingway) was apparently based on his own real-life relationship with Stacy Nelkin, whom the (early-40s) Allen dated when she attended New York’s Stuyvesant High School.
This isn’t the sort of detail that endears me to Allen or this film. Strangest thing, then, that “Manhattan” actually makes my list because I found it empowering to women. (And by “women,” I mean “myself.”) I saw “Manhattan” when I was very young and cynical (youth and optimism are actually inversely-related for me), and Diane Keaton’s character Mary Wilkie was the first heroine I’d seen portrayed as charming and adorable for being, well, brainy. Not brainy in a nuclear-physicist Bond heroine sort of way, or in a naive but with idiot savant brilliance sort of way, but in a way best defined by adjectives that are often covertly prefixed with an “overly-”: cerebral, opinionated, talkative, perhaps even pretentious. If anything, I’d seen those qualities associated with a certain type of intimidating sex appeal, but never before with sweetness or likability.
Sadly, Mary Wilkie’s nuanced, authentic character, and the personal importance it once held for me, only made me more enraged with Allen when I saw “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” which is stocked with female characters so comical and asinine that I wondered if Allen had actually started hating women. But maybe he hasn’t lost his touch. Maybe I’ve lost mine. While watching “Vicky Christina Barcelona” for the first time, I remember asking a male friend of mine incredulously, “Do women actually come across like that??”
“Some do,” he replied.
2. Match Point (2005)
I can overlook “Match Point’s” philosophical musings on luck and justice that Allen recycled from “Crimes and Misdemeanors” because, as The New Yorker reviewed, “‘Match Point’ is, at its core, the latest version of a story that has served as a bedrock of fiction for almost two hundred years: a young man from the provinces storms the big city with boldness and sexual charm and then gets in trouble.” Allen might as well have named his protagonist Julien Sorel.
Still, the story in “Match Point” is an old one, and its elements are getting stale. Lust more often than not comes across as a contrived plot device. Sure, we know that infidelity occurs, even amongst those with the most to lose from it, and it often seems that filmmakers are relying on that collective awareness when they hinge catastrophic outcomes on illicit affairs. But they should really stop. The poor decisions of politicians and celebrities might be common knowledge, but they are rarely seen as sympathetic by the public. They actually just seem incredibly stupid.
But lust and infidelity made sense in “Match Point” – and that is hardly faint praise. Allen was a genius for casting Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Scarlett Johanssen, and not just because both are beautiful (e.g., I once read the chemistry between Nicole Kidman and Jude Law in “Cold Mountain” described as “two ice picks being smashed together.”) But in “Match Point,” Rhys-Meyers and Johanssen’s sexual intensity succeeds in elevating lust into as legitimate a motive as reason or common sense. And once Allen figured out how to do that for his characters, he could pretty much get away with making them do anything.