In an annual occurrence as surefire as the Superbowl, Woody Allen's latest movie -- in this case, Blue Jasmine -- is praised as a "return to form," used as a cudgel for critics to beat down the recent clunkers that stand between contemporary viewers and the director's distant triumphs. Few dare describe an Allen film as an unqualified "best in years," but most are happy to mark a revived sense of humor or, if the film in question lacks laughs, praise the director for rediscovered depth. So it is with yesterday's New York Times, in which Manohla Dargis calls Allen's new Blue Jasmine "his most sustained, satisfying and resonant film since 'Match Point.'"
Two years ago, in the Financial Times, Peter Apsden attacked the "return-to-form" phenomenon, dismissing everything Allen had made in the previous two decades. But could the opposite be true? Did Allen ever actually fall off? Could critics' widespread dismissals be a projection of false familiarity with his body of work? Or are they afraid to wholeheartedly praise the man famous for marrying his girlfriend's adopted daughter?
We found the "return to form" phenomenon again and again in reviews of the 20 theatrical films Allen has directed in the past 20 years.
To Rome with Love, 2012 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 43%)
The New Yorker: "Woody Allen's new movie, 'To Rome with Love,' is light and fast, with some of the sharpest dialogue and acting that he's put on the screen in years."
Midnight in Paris, 2011 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 93%)
Movieline: "Woody Allen Returns to Form For Real This Time With Midnight in Paris"
You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger, 2010 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 45%)
The Guardian: "Woody Allen's fourth London film is an elegant return to form"
Whatever Works, 2009 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 50%)
Philadelphia Inquirer: "Whatever Works, directed by Allen from a script he's had in his desk since Annie Hall days, and starring [Larry] David as the surrogate Woody, is easily one of the loosest, most satisfying comedies to hail from the prolific writer/director in a while."
Vicky Cristina Barcelona, 2008 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 82%)
The Economist (blog): "I know, I know -- every time a Woody Allen film comes along, the critics fall over themselves to hail it a return to form, only to apologise afterwards and admit that they got carried away. But 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona', which opens in Britain this week, really is the funny, sad, sharply ironic comeback which few of us believed would ever happen."
Cassandra's Dream, 2007 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 46%)
Boston Globe: "Allen's storytelling is crisper here than it has been all decade, even if he's making shadow puppets out of the forewarnings."
Scoop, 2006 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 39%)
Match Point, 2005 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 77%)
Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert): "The movie, Allen's best since 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' (1989), involves a rich British family and two outsiders who hope to enter it by using their sex appeal."
Melinda and Melinda, 2004 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 53%)
CNN.com: "His latest effort, 'Melinda and Melinda,' is his best in awhile [sic], but still pales next to his brilliant films of the 1970s and part of the '90s.
Anything Else, 2003 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 40%)
Chicago Tribune: "The good news about 'Anything Else' is that it's one of the best, most smoothly executed Woody Allen movies in recent years."
Hollywood Ending, 2002 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 47%)
Christian Science Monitor: "The movie is Allen's most successful in years, even if you don't see it as a self-made commentary on his own career."
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, 2001 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 45%)
New York Post: "As snappy as a felt-brim fedora, 'The Curse of the Jade Scorpion' is Woody Allen's most purely entertaining film in years, a romantic comedy set in a lavishly re-imagined Manhattan of 1940."
Small-Time Crooks, 2000 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 67%)
Film.com: "This is vintage Allen, his powers intact after a string of increasingly cranky, creaky films in the last few years."
Sweet and Lowdown, 1999 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 78%)
Miami Herald: "After years of anxiety-ridden divorce comedies, Sweet and Lowdown just might be the movie Allen fans have been waiting for."
Celebrity, 1998 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 41%)
L.A. Weekly: "Filmed in crisp black and white by Sven Nykvist, structured like a merry-go-round to take in as much contemporary reality as our wits can bear, boasting wonderful performances by Joe Mantegna, Charlize Theron and Leonardo DiCaprio, Celebrity is one of Woody Allen's finest."
Deconstructing Harry, 1997 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 71%)
San Francisco Chronicle: "'Deconstructing Harry' is Woody Allen's strongest and most mordantly funny movie in years, even if it is also his bleakest."
Everyone Says I Love You, 1996 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 79%)
Slate: "Allen's less-successful films have suffered from the tiresome repetition of big existential questions, but the entirely successful Everyone Says I Love You brings to bear on those annoying Big Questions some of his most hilarious writing in years."
Mighty Aphrodite, 1995 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 77%)
Entertainment Weekly: "The casual obscenity liberates Allen's humor, making it laugh-out-loud funny again."
Bullets Over Broadway, 1994 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 96%)
Washington Post: "Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway' is the most substantive, accessible -- not to mention the funniest -- film that the prolific writer-director has made in years."
Manhattan Murder Mystery, 1993 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 92%)
Washington Post: "Happily, these two [Allen and Diane Keaton] stir up stardust memories of his earlier, funnier work, instead of the embarrassing voyeurism of 'Husbands and Wives.'"