Any list of essential Woody Allen films would find Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)—the most financially successful of his career—somewhere near the top. As filmmaking, it’s less dynamic than Manhattan (1979) or Stardust Memories (1980), being more in line with Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) as brilliantly scripted and acted, but fairly utilitarian in terms of filmic style. (Having said that, there’s no such thing as a Woody Allen picture that doesn’t have a handful of images that startle in their beauty. Here, it would be the architectural tour of New York City cut to the overture from Madame Butterfly and the striking images of the city throughout the movie.)
Not being as dynamic as certain other Allen films is not especially a criticism, though, since this fragmented story of Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters (Barbara Hershey and Dianne Weist), along with the men in their lives (Michael Caine, Allen, Max von Sydow), achieves the kind of perfect balance that comes along maybe once in a filmmaker’s career. It works as comedy. It works as drama. It works as social commentary. But most incredible of all, it somehow never cheats any single story, moving from one to the other without a sense of losing any single thread for too long. The most surprising aspect is that Allen pulls this off despite the fact that his sequences as a comedy writer despairing over the futility of existence (the answer to which is pure Allen, by the way) are only loosely connected to the rest of the film. It’s simply an amazing balancing act.