Making a film once a decade, like the Terrence Malicks of the world, is all well and good, but what's truly impressive is making a film virtually every year for 40 years, and, generally speaking, consistently making pretty good ones. And that's what Woody Allen's managed to rack up since his debut as credited co-director on "What's Up, Tiger Lily?"
The comedian (born Allen Stewart Konigsberg), got started as a comedy writer when he was a mere 19 years old, and spent the next decade as a stand-up, before finding success as a playwright and, eventually, in Hollywood -- as a term, rather than a place: Allen's always avoided the West Coast where possible. Since then, barely a year has gone by without a new project from the director, with some even bringing two, and, while the last decade has seen something of a drop in quality, Allen's still able to attract outstanding casts: you haven't really made it as an actor until Allen's asked you to appear in one of his films.
The director's latest, "Midnight in Paris," was widely received when it premiered in Cannes last week as one the director's best films in years (our review certainly thought so) and to celebrate, we've decided to run down every single one of Allen's directorial efforts. There are so many films that we've had to split it into two parts: today brings 1966-1990, while tomorrow will bring 1990-2011.
We've also asked some famous friends/recent interviewees for their thoughts on Allen, which you'll find interspersed throughout the piece. You may not agree with some of the grades -- indeed, one knock-down drag-out fight erupted in Playlist HQ about the "Interiors" write-up -- but there'll be something in here for even the casual Allen fan. Check them out after the jump (Part two of our retrospective is here).
“What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” (1966)
Allen receives credit for being an auteur, a filmmaker with a distinct voice and very specific, abstract political views on the relationships between others. But he began modestly, with the aim to make people lose their composure in a flood of laughs, and in his early years, it’s startling how easy that seemed. Allen didn’t “direct” most of “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?,” but the film is an early, brilliant precursor to the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” school of film appreciation. Using footage from two films in a Japanese series called “International Secret Police,” Allen recontextualized and redubbed key moments to turn the spy film into a search for the perfect egg salad recipe. It’s a cinematic mixtape, in other words, a fan-edit of sorts with Allen routinely popping in to remind us that he was the questionable choice by the studio to re-edit spy film footage. While more of a stunt than an actual film, the picture remains almost impossibly funny today, a testament to how prescient Allen would be in regards to the evolution of film comedy. [A-]
“Take the Money and Run” (1969)
Somehow obscured by Woody’s more serious and/or outlandish films, this solo directorial debut could, pound for pound, be the funniest film he’s ever made. Told in the format of a fake documentary, a creative decision well before its time, “Take the Money and Run" follows the story of Virgil Starkwell, a criminal who robs banks in lieu of a successful professional life in the, ahem, legal sector. As Virgil stacks up ignominies, we see the first stirrings of Allen’s romantic side, with a genuine relationship that develops amongst the madcap slapstick with Janet Margolin’s Louise. 'Money' manages to have this human center but still emphasizes the gags at the heart of the picture, in some ways establishing a template that would later be credited erroneously to “Airplane!” Allen would go on to make pictures with more weighty ideas and concepts, but bits like the botched stickup attempt (“Does this look like ‘gub’ or ‘gun’?”) and the rainy prison escape with a gun of soap are some of the funniest moments ever committed to the medium. [A]
Opening with one of his all-time best set pieces – the assassination of a foreign dictator being covered by a Howard Cosell and edited at a brisk, dare we say experimental clip – "Bananas" is ultimately not the most rewarding of his early, wacky films, although it is still a lot of fun, combining moments of sublime silliness with more observational New York living stuff. The former, which involves Allen becoming the leader of a fictional South American country in order to impress a girl, is less successful than the latter, and seems to be based on a combination of his short story writing and somewhat surrealist stand-up routines. The latter, which makes up much of the movie's first act, is more of a goldmine, and includes a hilarious break-up sequence when Allen and his paramour discuss "giving" and "receiving" endlessly. "Bananas" never reaches the gonzo highs of "Love and Death," and as such, feels a little flat, although with international unrest a perennial favorite, it has aged better than "Sleeper." And, yes, that's Sylvester Stallone in an early scene as a subway mugger. [B]