I declare that Woody Allen is one of the best writers/directors in film. Not just comedy, but in film altogether. I've seen people dismiss his films because of incidents in his personal life which is a ridiculous thing to do. Why is he great? As a comedy writer, he is way way up there. One can judge from the various prose, plays and films he has written. His ability to write dialogue is unmatched. His scripts are tight, well constructed, and are always full of surprises. Like any filmmaker, he has his hits and misses but he manages to keep writing script after script ever year.
As a director, Allen's ability to bring out great performances by actors is noteworthy. Why do you think his films always manage to have who's who of actors? I've used the following analogy before. He is more like an orchestra conductor than a director. Actors take huge leaps in their portrayal of his characters. Now why do they do that? I'm sure each one of them will have his/her own reasons.
One aspect of Allen's direction is never discussed and that is his shot compositions. I have yet to see an unnecessary shot in his films. There're no clever eye catching camera movements. Don't get me wrong, his films have several, very clever and genius camera works, but they never attract the viewers attention away from what's important on screen, the performance. He is a minimalist in his shots with very little close-ups, inserts, and fast cutting. A lot of his scenes are simply master shots. His camera is almost never in the actors way. Quite ingenious the way he blocks the camera and actors to create smooth and seemingly effortless performances. It's difficult for me to remember crafty amazing shots or angles in his movies by themselves. They are there, no doubt, but none can be singled out like that long take from 'Citizen Kane'. However, the moments those particular shots or angles were created for are quite vivid, and, I think, that's the way it should be. For example, there is a great sequence in 'Manhattan Murder Mystery' where a shootout takes place behind a movie screen with lots of mirrors. It's a breath taking sequence with fine camera movements and angles, but the impact of the scene goes beyond the technical construction creating a sequence that shows us how life is imitating art.
There are several books written on Woody Allen's film direction and writing style. I'd rather discovered things my way. Although I have read interviews with him. I must admit I didn't like his films some years ago. It all changed after watching 'Sweet and Lowdown'. Still have a few of his films remaining to watch, but I'm getting there.
Here's something a lot of people wonder as to why Allen plays himself in his movies. Why does he have to be in the movie? Ahh, a good question indeed. But listen to my take on that. Think of 'Seinfeld', all four main characters are great and all, but would the series have worked without George Costanza? If you really think about it, all the movies that Allen's been in can only work because he's the glue that holds everything together. His presence makes all the other premises, situtations, and plots acceptable no matter how over the top they maybe. My explanation makes sense to you?
No doubt Woody Allen's a genius. His films are very intelligently designed with real, yet over the top, characters, unusual, yet familiar, situations, and all tied together with a chain of wit. He is one of the greatest American filmmakers...period.
A suggestion about watching Allen's films. Multiple viewings. Although, like any episode of Seinfeld, every time I try to watch his movies to analyze shots and compositions, I find myself, each time, captured in the story.
Below is a list of films I recommend starting out with (if you are unfamiliar with his films). Happy viewing.
1) ANNIE HALL
2) INTERIORS If I'm not mistaken, his only dramatic feature.
5) ZELIG If you think 'Forrest Gump' was the first movie to use existing footage technique, you need to see this.
9) RADIO DAYS
13) MIGHTY APHRODITE
14) SWEET AND LOWDOWN Sean Penn's best performance on screen.
A site for all things Woody Allen.