Annie Hall or Bananas? Blue Jasmine or Sleeper? Our critics Robbie Collin and Tim Robey rank all 47 Woody Allen movies
8. Zelig (1983)
Throughout his career, Allen has downplayed the degree of self-portraiture in his work, but perhaps this ingenious spoof documentary, about a once-famous ‘human chameleon’ who lived in the first part of the 20th century and who could alter his personality and appearance to blend in wherever he went, is the quintessential Allen-as-Allen movie. It’s about the horror of conspicuousness when all you want to do is fit in, and the humour bites down on all kinds of personal and political pressure points. (Allen’s chosen time period and Zelig’s Jewish-American heritage are not accidents.) The special effects, in which Allen is seamlessly inserted into vintage newsreels, are still astonishing, and draw out the aching tragicomedy of Zelig’s plight. He’s the original man who wasn’t there.
7. Husbands and Wives (1992)
It opens with one of Allen’s most vividly written, shot and acted scenes ever, as Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack arrive for dinner and announce their separation plans. The way their best friends, Allen and Farrow, respond – shocked, but also offended – turns this into a rapid marvel of four-way characterisation. This is Allen’s most scorching anatomy of marital bonds, a film so bitter, witheringly frank and unsentimental he entirely reinvented his style of shooting and editing for it.
Jump cuts abound, straight-to-camera interviews break up the plot, and Carlo Di Palma’s handheld camera whip-pans all over the place, seeming to reel from one accusation or gossip-bomb to the next as this foursome all experiment separately with new lovers: perfect catch Liam Neeson, aerobics bimbo Lysette Anthony, impressionable student Juliette Lewis. It’s Woody’s last film with Farrow and feels, even more now, like a brutal post-mortem on their whole relationship: he even makes himself the loser.
6. Manhattan (1979)
Received wisdom has it that Manhattan is a cinematic love letter to New York. But it’s actually the opposite: a thank-you card from New York, via Allen, to cinema – for the alchemical process by which light and shade and music can turn buildings and streets into a miraculous, shared dream of a city. In theory it’s a romantic comedy, though its romance and humour are by turns anxious and wistful, and its characters come weighed down by manifold flaws and neuroses (not least the troublesome May-September romance between Isaac, Allen’s conflicted comedy writer, and Mariel Hemingway’s 17-year-old student).
Instead, it’s the city itself, frozen in time by Gordon Willis’s immaculate black-and-white photography, that nourishes them. Simply by watching the sun rise over the East River, a Gershwin song drifting out of the morning mist, Allen’s tiny worker ant can somehow feel like the king of the colony.
5. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Film is so often an escape route for Allen’s characters that it’s only natural one would eventually make the journey in reverse – hopping down off a cinema screen and into the life of a troubled soul seeking comfort at the movies. Cecilia (Mia Farrow), a waitress slogging through an unhappy marriage and the Great Depression, is halfway through an escapist swashbuckler when its lantern-jawed hero (Jeff Daniels) clambers out of the frame and whisks her out of the door on a romantic caper of her own.
It’s a glorious premise, explored by Allen and his cast to dazzlingly funny ends. What gives the film its existential bite, though, is a two-part acknowledgement late in the game: firstly, that the beautiful solace film offers is a lie, and secondly, that it doesn’t matter. Watching it, you feel (and probably look) like Farrow’s heroine: a smiling face in the dark, lit up, flickering, alive.