Allen town: Toronto International Film Festival 2010

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Every time a new Woody Allen film arrives (a near-annual event since 1969) the same old, lazy complaints (“It’s not one of his best”) arrive faster than you can say “pontificate.”  Yet 10 or 20 years later it seems that somehow many of those uncelebrated films seem to become “one of his best.” See Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Husbands and Wives (1992), or Sweet and Lowdown (1999).

With his latest entry, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (opening locally Fri/1), Allen delivers another pitch-perfect mini-guide to the hilarious horrors of growing old … something Allen (according to the director himself, speaking at his Toronto International Film Festival press conference) wouldn’t wish on anyone. What looks and feels like a whimsical rom-com about aging is, in fact, a sobering and even paralyzing blueprint of what exists in most relationships or marriages. Don’t let the fun and breezy vibe of quirky narration deter you. Not only is there more of a bittersweet edge to Allen’s familiar archetypes, but the UK-produced film works as a perfect counterpart to Mike Leigh’s latest monument Another Year (2010). I wouldn't be surprised if Stranger's Gemma Jones earns an Oscar nomination for her performance in what will surely be one of the year's most truthful films.

After talking to a handful of critics at the TIFF this year about their unimpressed or indifferent reactions to Woody Allen’s latest, I feel it’s important to take a moment to revisit exactly what Allen has made over this past decade of films. Wrapping up his fourth full decade of prolific filmmaking, he has somehow stayed surprisingly strong in such a bipolar industry.

Here's a quick guide to the brilliance of Woody Allen during the Y2Ks.

1. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) While it's wonderful to see directors like Noah Baumbach, David O. Russell, and Wes Anderson making cinema inspired by Allen, he can still beat all of them at his own game. Showcasing defining roles for Rebecca Hall and Scarlet Johansson as well as juicy parts for Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz, the film also features gorgeous cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe (of Pedro Almodóvar fame) that punctuates this realistic-romance to transcendental heights. Woody + Almodóvar = blissful chronic dissatisfaction.

2. Match Point (2005) and Cassandra's Dream (2007) Who would have ever guessed that making films in the UK would reawaken Allen's serious side? Of course, there were hints; see also: Interiors (1978) and Another Woman (1988). While Match Point was perhaps overly hyped and Cassandra's Dream utterly dismissed, both of these morality tales contain profound character studies, hauntingly performed by Jonathan Rhys Meyer, Colin Farrell, and Ewan McGregor. Both are well worth revisiting. Who says people aren’t making movies about the new Depression?

3. Melinda and Melinda (2004) While this masterful deconstruction may have left audiences cold the first time around, what shines so brightly about this gem is how deftly the same story being told both from a comedic and tragic perspective slowly starts to blend into one. Radha Mitchell was robbed of an Oscar nod here and Will Ferrell delivers one of the all time best Woody impersonations.

4. Small Time Crooks (2000) When Woody Allen’s character in the 1980 masterpiece Stardust Memories, Sandy Bates, is approached by his fans, they often make the comment “I love your work … especially the earlier, funny ones.” Well, if you wanna talk about one of Allen’s funniest films, it’s right here. Not only do Tracey Ullman, Jon Lovitz, and Michael Rapaport deliver laugh-out-loud performances, nothing will prepare you for Allen’s girlfriend in the film -- she's played by Elaine May, director of The Heartbreak Kid (1972) and Ishtar (1986). The two of them together light up the screen.

5. Anything Else (2003) Rounding out the top five is this overlooked treasure championing both Christina Ricci as a neurotic 20-something and Stockard Channing as her newly reenergized single mother. While it could be said that Jason Biggs is a bit too awkward, both Danny DeVito and Allen shine in what even Quentin Tarantino ranked as one of the best films of the decade.

Throw in the hilarious little rainy day ditties such as the match made in heaven Whatever Works (2009) with Larry David and the ScarJo-starring, surprisingly sweet if not a bit silly Scoop (2006) and you’ve got one helluva great decade. I understand that sometimes it’s easier to move on from your favorite artists of the past to find the hot new Hollywood or Sundance sensation. But to paraphrase Preston Sturges’ Sullivan's Travels (1941): don’t forget about the clowns and buffoons who attempt to lighten our burden a little with laughs while putting a mirror up to the society around us. All that … plus a little sex too, of course.  
 
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University and programs Midnites for Maniacs, a monthly series at the Castro Movie Theatre that celebrates dismissed, underrated, and overlooked cinema. 

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