As part of their Comic Masters Film Series, the Michigan Theater is showing a select group of Woody Allen’s films all through the month of September and October. I’m ecstatic.
I have seen many films. I have seen good films, bad films, quite a few films I would qualify as “great” and many whose DVDs I wouldn’t even stoop to use as coasters. Through all of the countless hours of worshipping at the flickering screen, I’ve encountered maybe a handful that have stunned me into silence.
After finishing Woody Allen’s 1979 film “Manhattan,” I felt as if I had just seen the end-all be-all of American cinema. This was it. This was the culmination of a truly exceptional decade of American filmmaking, known for the emergence of so many great cinematic talents (Scorsese, Altman, Coppola) and countless extraordinary Hollywood films. More so than even “Apocalypse Now” (1979) or “Raging Bull” (1980) — both fantastic films in their own right — “Manhattan” demonstrates the sheer perfection of the craft that had developed over the course of those ten tumultuous but defining years, beginning in 1969 when “Easy Rider” paved the way for the new generation of American filmmakers to break the mold.
From the pristine black and white cinematography, to the heart-breakingly genuine performance of Mariel Hemingway as Woody’s teenage love interest, “Manhattan” remains one of the few films I can honestly say is perfect. Only Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show” can match it.
And so, I squared off with friends and family alike to debate them on the matter. And, surprisingly, each person I talked to gave me a different Woody Allen film they admired. “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986), “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985) and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) were all named. One friend of mine still thinks “Annie Hall” (1977) is his best, and, for that matter, one of the finest comedies ever made. Another picked “Stardust Memories” (1980), surely his most underrated. And, as I listened to them rattle off the films’ best one-liners, or argue why they thought their respective pick was the best, I honestly couldn’t find any reason to disagree with them.
All of this is because every film Woody Allen has made is at least worth something. A balding neurotic with a diminutive frame and large glasses may seem like an odd choice to be the “high priest” of American cinema. But in a span of 30 years, Woody has made at least a dozen of the finest films to come out of this country. He is the only Hollywood director who has been able to achieve serious artistic and commercial success while remaining largely on the sidelines of the mostly artless empire we call “Tinseltown.” Even the most powerful producers can’t touch him. He has remained, for decades, the one American director — save for maybe Quentin Tarantino — to have complete artistic freedom, and with good reason.
He’s so prolific I haven’t even seen all of his work. Among the films playing at the Michigan Theater are “Sleeper” and “Radio Days,” two of his lesser-known films. So maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a new favorite by October.