Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Four

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#4 — Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986)
It’s perhaps foolhardy to make any sort of definitive statements about a favorite film in a directorial career as lengthy, prolific and studded with great works as that of Woody Allen. If anything, the relative consistency of his voice throughout the years, in philosophy if not always in genre or worthiness, only makes it more difficult to pinpoint one peak with an elevation above the others. Still, readily as I’ll tout the excellence of any number of other Allen films, none of them fills with pure elation in the ingratiating artistry of filmmaking in quite the same way as Hannah and Her Sisters.

There was no surprise to the film. It had been nearly a full decade since Allen had established himself as a formidable cinematic creator with Annie Hall and it was an especially fruitful span for him, with film after film standing, at the very least, as something meriting deep consideration and evaluation. Perhaps the only real addition to Allen’s style was a certain novelistic quality to the work, which was accentuated by the series of title cards that introduced individual segments like chapter headings (“The anxiety of the man in the booth,” “Lucky I ran into you”). There was a different sort of sprawl to the work, as Allen tried to wrap all of the anxieties, conflicts, loves, suspicions, resentments, pains and pleasures of an extended cast of characters into a single work. He didn’t always work about tying threads together, but there was a sense of cohesion nonetheless, a feeling that these stories belonged together because of some deeper spiritual bond. All people are always questing–for meaning, for passion, for togetherness, for acceptance–and it is the persistent nomadic need that unites everyone.

Allen himself often dismisses Hannah and Her Sisters as a missed opportunity because he feels he caved in by allowing the characters some version of a shared happy ending, albeit one with a characteristic glumness of reestablished complacency in some quarters. I think the glimpse of hopefulness that the film allows is actually one of its strengths, liberating the piece from Allen’s notoriously pessimistic worldview in a way that allows for the true levels of emotional complexity that shape the world and the unique equilibrium achieved across lives that are simultaneously terrifically long and tragically short. The heart wants what the heart wants, the man once said, but it also adapts and moves on with surprising ease. Obsessions soften and evolve until they’re as inscrutable as a bad haircut in an old photograph. Today’s fixation is tomorrow’s forgotten notion.

Hannah and Her Sisters was one of the first films that demonstrated Allen’s capability to assemble a top-flight cast and it may be the instance when he worked with the full scope of his actors most effectively. Besides the thoroughly deserving Oscar winners Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest, Allen gets extraordinary work from Barbara Hershey, Max von Sydow, his then love Mia Farrow, Lloyd Nolan and Maureen O’Sullivan. It’s also one of Allen’s best performances, playing a perfectly conceived version of his regular onscreen avatar, spinning the sort of hypochondria that had previously (and would subsequently) be the fodder for jokes into a storyline about a genuine medical scare that stops his patented nervous stammer in its tracks as he deals with mortality in a deeper, more thoughtful manner. I should note that it coheres nicely with my own personal philosophies in that the character Allen plays discovers the joy and purpose of living through watching a screening of Duck Soup.

The film is also Allen at his smartest and funniest, snapping off a bursting bundle of brilliant lines of dialogue, with even the perfectly crafted jokes always grounded in character and delivered with natural aplomb. Allen may be the only writer in the history of film who could fit both Nietzsche and the Ice Capades into the same gag. In so many ways, the films Allen made from Annie Hall up to Hannah and Her Sisters were different stabs at being funny and truthful without always being comedic. If that’s the case, Hannah is the final thesis, the proper culmination of a true artist’s give and take as he refines his voice. The film coneys the richness of life by acknowledging it and, on some level, conceding that it is beyond our understanding. God, it’s beautiful.

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