"Look, there's God coming out of the men's room."
First things first, Annie Hall isn't Woody Allen's best film. That would be The Purple Rose of Cairo. It's also not my favorite of his films. That would be Love and Death. So what is it then? Everyone's always going on about it and how great it is. It won four Oscars, it's always mentioned on those lists of the greatest films ever made. It must have something going for it.
It does. It has a ton going for it, not least of which is that it's easily Allen's most accessible film. It's the perfect gateway into his filmography for newcomers. I started with Sleeper, but I like Allen's more eccentric side, so that was a perfect gateway for me. But for your average person, Annie Hall is the best way to introduce someone to the world of Woody. The other issue is that it is also his most referenced, most quoted and most aped film. It is ridiculous how much this film is copied from in modern love stories. The only film that I would even venture to say is a worthy successor to Annie Hall is High Fidelity.
Allen plays Alvy Singer, one of his many thinly disguised versions of himself that serve as the protagonist in virtually all of his films (though he found his true muse in Mia Farrow in the 80s and let her take over protagonist duties on most of his films in that period). When the film begins, Alvy's relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton, in her well-deserved Oscar winning role) has just ended.
The film then uses a non-linear structure to jump around in time, although once it settles in around the twenty minute mark, it tells the rest of the story pretty much in order. Alvy & Annie are the perfect example of opposites attracting, and their relationship is doomed pretty much from minute one, and not just because we already know it's doomed. You can sense it. These two are not right for one another, but we root for them to end up together to fulfill that hopeless romantic desire that maybe even two people who are such polar opposites can work it out in the end.
Alvy's best friend is Rob (Tony Roberts) though they call one another Max for some unexplained reason (it's like the point I made about Harold & Maude, I wonder how many critics would deride such a choice in a modern romantic comedy). Rob is constantly trying to get Alvy to move to California, but just as Woody Allen would never leave New York, so too Alvy never would. I can't say much about the plot, it's pretty razor thin, but that's not a criticism. I don't think a film needs a strong, event heavy plot to work. One of the reasons Annie Hall works so well is that it doesn't rely on a point a to point b structure that can bog down and sink most romantic comedies. And I also don't call this a romantic comedy in a derogatory way. That term has really come to have a lot of repugnance associated with it, particularly in the last decade, but this is the true definition of a romantic comedy, in that it's a funny movie about love.
Allen is the true heir apparent to Groucho Marx, his quick-witted one liners never stop coming throughout the entire film, and while some of them are horribly dated (Ben Shahn paintings anyone), most of them still land with the acerbic wit that made them funny to audiences thirty five years ago. The thing that Woody Allen does better than anyone else though is write fantastic female characters, and he gifted Diane Keaton with a star-making role. He has written and directed more Oscar winning female performances than any other director (five by my count), and while I'm sure it was a great role on the page, Keaton turns Annie into a true free spirit who still has that impressionable streak that she can't shake from her Midwestern upbringing. I'm actually happy for her at the end, because I think she would've been miserable had she and Alvy stayed together. She's definitely younger than him (11 years in real life) and wants to get more out of life than he does, so it's definitely the best possible outcome for her.
Fox just released Annie Hall on blu-ray and it's a great transfer. The only version available before this was the MGM one from the late 90s that was fake anamorphic (they admitted to taking full screen versions of some films and adding black bars to them to give them the appearance of widescreen). This is a substantial upgrade and I wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of the film and the technology. I still have most of the movie memorized as I watched it endlessly in high school, but it's always fun to revisit a film you haven't seen in a while. And if you know someone who has never seen a Woody Allen film, or claims they've never seen one that they liked, watch this with them. They'll thank you for it.