CONSIDERING the sheer number of movies Woody Allen has written and directed (over 40—and he's still going), it's not surprising his batting average is so spotty. But Allen didn't start consistently making truly bad movies until 2000's Small Time Crooks kicked off a string of uninspired schlock, salvaged by a few hints of brilliance in the darkness (Match Point, Midnight in Paris).
Before that happened—and before the questionable choices in his personal life fell under public scrutiny in the early '90s—Allen was unmatched. Cinema 21 is showing five of his best, or at least best-known pictures in original 35mm—it goes without saying they're worth leaving the house to see, particularly as Allen seems to be the only director in the world who isn't interested in repackaging his old material for home viewing with all the outtakes and commentaries that have become de rigueur.
Cinema 21's selections all come from the writer/director's "middle period," which means we don't get the sheer hilarity of his early stuff. There aren't any obscurities in the bunch, either (1975's Love and Death and 1980's much-maligned but magnificent Stardust Memories are both begging for reappraisal—some other time, perhaps). The one that absolutely needs to be seen on the big screen is Manhattan, shot in beautiful, widescreen black and white by Gordon Willis (The Godfather). Allen supposedly hates this movie, but it's truly great. It also, in retrospect, announces his icky proclivity for underaged girls—Mariel Hemingway plays the saintly, untarnished 17-year-old that Allen's character is heedlessly defiling. Manhattan deals with romance, but in a fundamentally unromantic way; these are self-centered, self-serving people, and the film's seemingly happy ending gets bleaker and bleaker the more you think about it.
1986's Hannah and Her Sisters and 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors are similarly both winning and cerebral, each exploring the good and bad qualities of human nature in Allen's wonderfully offhand way. Michael Caine makes Hannah a total delight, but it's Martin Landau's pampered, well-to-do ophthalmologist in Crimes that's among the most intriguing characters Allen's ever depicted. Driven to the brink by a mistress (Anjelica Huston) who threatens to tell his wife everything, Judah Rosenthal (Landau) finds himself contemplating very dark deeds. He discovers he's capable of committing evil, but also capable of being redeemed, and Allen's light touch makes the material absolutely involving without being too brow-furrowing. The movie's pretty fucking funny, too.
The slightest of the bunch is 1985's The Purple Rose of Cairo, a Depression-era period piece in which Jeff Daniels walks off a movie screen to woo Mia Farrow. Like Midnight in Paris, the magic is not explained, and like Manhattan, the permanency of romance is seen as a charade. Unlike Manhattan, however, Allen turns a seemingly tragic ending into one that contains the possibility of earned, legitimate happiness. Purple Rose is a trifle with hidden, surprising weight.
Lastly, there's 1977's Annie Hall. What is there to say about Annie Hall? It's Annie Hall. You've seen Annie Hall, right? If you haven't seen Annie Hall, go see Annie Hall.
Actually, go see all of these. Even if you've seen all five of these countless times already, there isn't a single minute of film that you won't enjoy seeing again, or for the first time.