Jordan did it and I’m unoriginal, so counting down from ten here are my picks:
10. Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives
09. Colin Farrell in Cassandra’s Dream
08. Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters
07. Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona
06. Geraldine Page in Interiors
05. Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo
04. Martin Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors
03. Gena Rowlands in Another Woman
02. Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris
01. Barbara Hershey in Hannah and Her Sisters
1991, Woody Allen
After making a departure through the ’80s with much more personal, bleaker stories, Woody Allen made a return to the kind of madcap hilarity that started his career with the delightful 1991 picture Shadows and Fog. Set in a small, European-feeling village in what is clearly an earlier time, Fog has the townspeople in a panic over a serial strangler on the loose. Allen himself takes on the leading role of Kleinman, a nebbish bookkeeper who is part of a vigilante group trying to apprehend the dangerous stalker of the night.
Kleinman wanders the streets alone, coming into contact with many other characters across this large and endlessly entertaining ensemble. Along with the vigilante group, there’s a whorehouse with prostitutes played by the likes of Lily Tomlin, Kathy Bates and Jodie Foster, the town doctor played by Donald Pleasence and workers at a local circus, primarily the troubled lovers played by Mia Farrow and John Malkovich. A lot of Shadows and Fog centers around the intersecting paths of Kleinman and Farrow’s Irmy, as the two of them intertwine with the other colorful creations and even the killer himself at the end of the line.
After spending so much time in his own head, dissecting himself and his own relationships for the large part of the ’80s, it was really nice to see an Allen film where he’s just doing his best to have an enjoyable time. What he creates is something that does feel a little minor in his overall career but isn’t made any less fun while watching as a result of it. With a great cast and plenty of memorable lines that had me cracking up constantly, Shadows and Fog is simple comedic Allen working on an expert level.
It’s not as everlasting as something like Broadway Danny Rose in its charm, but it is a well-paced and incredibly well-shot 85 minutes of pleasure. Surrounded in his canon by two much more serious endeavors, Alice and Husbands and Wives, Fog has gotten lost in the shuffle over the years when people are looking back on Woody’s career but it deserves at least a small mention as one of his most purely enjoyable pictures.
1990, Woody Allen
Woody Allen had dealt with combining the fantastical with the real world before in the magnificent Purple Rose of Cairo, but with Alicehe employs the technique towards one of his more somber overall pictures. Once again starring his former muse Mia Farrow, the film centers on an upper-class Manhattan housewife as she considers having an affair with a handsome man (Joe Mantegna) she encounters when picking her children up from school. Motivated by friends to go and see a faith healer named Dr. Yang (Keye Luke, in what would be his last film appearance), she is given herbs which give her the motivation to strike up a romance with this man and begin to reconsider her life at large.
Alice starts to question her marriage to the dull and narcissistic Doug (William Hurt), her friendships and her career, as she begins trying to break into the television industry by pitching scripts to her friend in the industry Nancy (Cybill Shepherd). Along with this attempt to find a sense of clarity and understanding in her current life, Yang’s herbs also force Alice to reflect on her past relationships as well, particularly with her former lover Ed (Alec Baldwin) who just may have been the love of her life. Alice is all about taking this character who has been in a rut for as long as she knows and trying to bring her out of it, and Allen takes an interesting approach in bringing her to that place.
While he does employ conventional methods such as dramatic shifts in her day-to-day life and changing relationship dynamics, the fantasy elements of Alice give it an interesting touch. Which Allen was able to blend the fantasy and reality with fluid ease in Purple Rose of Cairo (and later with the recent Midnight in Paris), I have to say that I don’t think he did as well with it here. The fantasy sequences are done well on their own, particularly the ones centering around Baldwin’s character, but they don’t feel like they belong at all within the context of the more somber and reflective overall tone of the picture. The script is ingeniously written here, but it’s in his direction where it falters somewhat to create a more seamless design.
Working with Woody almost always resulted in a great performance from Mia Farrow and that’s no exception here, with this being one of the best of their collaborations together on an acting level. She really commands the whole picture, none of the actors are given much in the way of big money scenes to try and steal any moments from her, and she captures it all with the right combination of delicacy, naivete and vanity. I’m not sure if I was ever rooting for Alice to succeed, but I was always interested in seeing if she would.
While the film does lose itself a bit and as with most Woody films that run over 95 minutes it does get pretty long-winded in the final act, it all comes around to a particularly beautiful ending that left things on an unexpected high note which I really appreciated. Alice might not stand as one of Allen’s finest pictures or even one that’s particularly memorable when looking at his overall career, but I still found more than enough to appreciate within it.
Likely my next two viewings, since they’re expiring from Netflix.
1987, Woody Allen
One of Woody Allen’s most nostalgic pictures, Radio Days takes a look back at a family living in New York in the early 1940s and how memories can become attached to something as simple as a radio. Allen himself narrates as an older version of a character named Joe, who we see as a child in the form of Seth Green, recalling back to his childhood and the memories of his family. Radio Days is structured as a series of vignettes, with each story revolving in some way around the family’s radio or around the celebrities who starred in the productions that were featured on it.
Allen has always been one to look back fondly on eras long past, and this is one of his most heartfelt explorations into a time that we can no longer grasp onto. He shows us how the simple act of hearing a song can take you back to a certain part of your life and while here it’s all due to the family radio, that sensation is a universal one that anyone can relate to; whether it’s with music or with movies, we all attach memories to certain things and hearing them can hit a gamut of emotions.
A lot of Radio Days is a lighthearted affair, but Allen makes sure to give attention to the fact that sometimes these memories can be filled with much more than just heartwarming reflection. In one particularly somber vignette, the family gathers around the radio to hear the true life story of a girl who is stuck in a well as the authorities try to rescue her before it’s too late. Allen mixes the bitter with the beautiful in a seamless fashion here, as this is easily one of his most briskly-paced features.
He has worked in vignettes before and a lot of the time they end up being a mixed bag, but Radio Days has such a charming, natural fluidity to it that there’s never a moment that feels like a noticeable step down from any of the others. With segments that feature Woody’s trademark blend of humor and heartache, it all flows naturally in the way that only he is capable of really pulling off. The cast is of course impressive and is loaded with tons of Allen regulars, either in their first appearance with him or in a reunion with the great writer/director.
Julie Kavner and Michael Tucker are superb as the young Joe’s parents, while Dianne Wiest gives further example as to why she was one of the director’s best muses as his aunt Bea. Radio Days is also the only film of his to ever feature both Mia Farrow and Diane Keaton. The former delivers one of her best performances as Sally White, a cigarette girl who is used and abused by the radio elite as she attempts to make it to the top and get her name out there. The latter, on the other hand, shows up for a brief cameo as a singer near the end and yet in a few short minutes she is somehow able to create what feels like a real human being with a full heart and complex emotions.
There are plenty of other noticeable faces throughout the picture, such as Danny Aiello and Jeff Daniels, but the true star of Radio Days is ultimately Allen himself, as he constructs one of his most beautiful and intelligent pieces of cinema. At this point I’ve seen 25 of Woody’s pictures and I have no hesitation in placing this firmly in the top 5 of them. Radio Days is without a doubt one of his finest pictures, and is certainly one of his most underrated.
Film #263 of The 365 Film Challenge.
1985, Woody Allen
Several of the most acclaimed directors over time have presented films that they utilize as their personal love letters to cinema. The Purple Rose of Cairo is Woody Allen’s most direct approach to this, and it may be the finest example of a director going for that theme that I’ve seen. In 1930s New Jersey, down-on-her-luck Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is amazed when she goes to the cinema and the screen character Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) walks out of the screen and takes her away. It’s an inventive and entertaining premise full of potential, but what Allen is able to do with it was unexpected and quite emotional. As studio heads and Gil Shepherd, the actor who portrays Tom, try to get Tom back into the screen, Cecilia is taken on a journey of self-discovery, all through this theme of cinema’s ability to take you away from your troubles.
The basic set-up is a brilliant idea in and of itself, but it’s one that easily could have fallen apart in the hands of a less capable director. The genius of the premise alone speaks to the fact that Woody is one of the most creative, impressive minds we’ve seen in cinema but it’s in the execution that he once again demonstrates that he’s one of the most skilled filmmakers to ever come forth in American cinema. It’s a great idea but without the talent to back it up that could have been the entire film, just a one-shot premise that gets lazy as it goes on. Instead, Allen takes the idea and uses it to get to the real root of his picture, the gorgeous theme about the escapism of film. It’s a love letter told in a fluid, beautiful and incredibly empathetic way, with a likeable and well-rounded lead character.
Cecilia could have easily come across as this loose flake of a woman, but the way Allen writes her makes her this heartbreaking woman who is just looking for an escape from her awful situation. She is in a loveless marriage where she is abused and cheated on, has no job and no way out (setting it during the Depression was a stroke of genius), but she finds herself being fought over by two men she had fallen in love with from seeing them on screen. In the hands of a less capable writer there could have been a lot of misogyny here as she is pushed around by and from man to man, but Allen keeps it feeling so true to this character and her motivations all the way through. As much as I love Allen’s work with actresses like Diane Keaton and Diane Wiest (who turns in a nice small performance here as a lady of the night), my favorite muse of his is always going to be Farrow. He was so great at writing to her skills as an actress and here the two of them create a character who is so good-natured and kind, it’s impossible not to root for her right from the start. The whole film all I wanted was to see her be happy. It’s a real shame how her career has turned since their split, because she was such a great talent when they were together.
It’s interesting watching the film now, in 2012, a year after Woddy having released Midnight In Paris, as the two films seem to have parallel ideas. Paris is about looking for the beauty in what you have in your real life, not trying to escape into nostalgia because when you look deep enough things are the same as they’ve always been. Cairo, however is all about the power of movies, how no matter what awful things are occurring in your life you can always use films to escape and transport you away, even if it’s only for a little while. What’s interesting about Cairo though is how it keys into that same idea that when you look deep enough into anything it can turn out to be just the same as anything else. The movie star that you fall for because he’s handsome and charming can be just as much of a bastard as the man in your bedroom. It’s that final moment though, with Cecilia returning to the cinema when she’s brought back down to an even lower depth than when she started, that we see the true beauty of Allen’s love letter. On Cecilia’s face, we see her smile, her heart light up as she escapes from all of her troubles in the pure, simple delight of watching a great film. Sometimes you just need to let yourself be taken away.
Film #131 of The 365 Film Challenge.