Despite my occasional jaded cynicism, I am a pure romantic at heart. My relationship history is virtually non-existent, but you show me a great love story and my heart instantly melts. Most of the romances we see in the movies and read about in books are pretty awful, but when a genuine love story makes its way on to the screen, I almost invariably connect with those films in a deeper emotional way than I do with movies that are more “serious” and that I may score higher in terms of their grade. Two of my three favorite films are romances (Annie Hall and Chasing Amy), and the flirtation between Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction is still an unforgettable part of number three. Woody Allen just made his 42nd movie (I’m going to go ahead and let that sink in for a second), the wonderful and whimsical Midnight in Paris, which is the second film in my series of Best Picture Nominee reviews, and without wanting to jump the gun, it may be safe to say that this is Woody’s best movie since Hannah and Her Sisters or even Manhattan. The man may be 76 years old, but he’s still got it and there still aren’t any American filmmakers with a career as consistent and prolific as Woody Allen.

When engaged couple Gil Pender, successful Hollywood writer and aspiring novelis, (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams), Gil’s young and bourgeois fiance, visit Paris with Ines’s parents, their relationship is put to the test when Gil’s desire to adopt a bohemian lifestyle as a writer in Paris clashes with Ines’s wishes for Gil to return to Hollywood and continue working in movies even though it’s killing him artistically. Their relationship only becomes even more strained when a midnight walk along the Parisian streets takes an oddly surreal turn when Gil finds himself transported to 1920’s Paris and rubbing elbows with literary and artistic luminaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and more. While Ines is pushing him to live a more conventional lifestyle by day, Gil is living his nostalgic, romanticized fantasy by night. When Gil meets the alluring Adriana (Marion Cotillard) and begins to fall in love, his loyalty to his fiance and the world she wants him to inhabit is put to the test.

Maybe it’s because I’m a huge classic literature nerd and I have the same romanticized visions of 1920’s France full of expatriated Americans that Woody Allen shares, but I adored this film. The writing is the most inciseful and directly hilarious that Woody Allen has been in years. His recent films have had this simmering darkness and even though I thoroughly enjoyed Vicky Cristina Barcelona, there was something in it that seemed to lack that joyous and melancholic spark that defined his earlier pictures. Midnight in Paris doesn’t suffer from this problem. It’s opening shots of Paris set to gorgeous jazz instantly recall the iconic opening of Manhattan (and this time the opening monologue rolls during the credits crawler), and the characters engage in the artistic-intellectual conversations that were a hallmark of earlier Allen pictures; although now Allen has looked back on his occasional pretentiousness and pokes some fun at the more pedantic nature of some of his film’s conversations.To top that all off, you get a wonderful look at a man struggling between safe and secure love, finances, and societal approval against a desire to be true to his self artistically. If the film has any one major flaw, it is that Ines doesn’t seem as well developed as some of Allen’s other female heroines. Allen normally writes the best female characters (which is why so many of them win Oscars), and Ines simply doesn’t live up to those high expectations.

As always, Woody Allen assembled a stellar cast to bring his script to life. If it weren’t for Owen Wilson’s career-defining drawl (as opposed to Allen’s thick New York accent), this could have easily been a young Woody Allen role. Owen Wilson must have watched a ton of Woody’s older films before shooting this film because he successfully evokes that neurotic, intellectual energy that Allen brought to these types of parts and Owen Wilson also brings a sensitivity that had been lacking in some of his earlier roles. Oscar winner Marion Cotillard was a delight (as always) as the bewitching Adriana. She’s a French talent that’s been getting plenty of exposure since winning her Oscar for La Vie en Rose, and she deserves it. I can’t blame Gil for falling in love with Adriana when she’s as gorgeous and intriguing as Marion Cotillard. Rachel McAdams made due with the material she was given, but as stated before, it was a light role. Corey Stoll was a fantastic Hemingway whose uber-masculine intensity often became the film’s deadpan comic relief. Adrien Brody also made a small part as a boisterous Salvador Dali when Gil had dinner with Dali, Man Ray, and Luis Bunuel. Katherine Bates also made a fine Gertrude Stein.

Woody Allen’s films have often been as much a visual tribute to the cities where they take place as they have been sharply scripted stories, and Midnight in Paris is no exception. Much like Vicky Cristina Barcelona captured the stunning beauty of Spain and Manhattan was Allen’s loveletter to his hometown, Midnight in Paris is a stunning ode to the city of lights. Not since David Lean captured Venice in all its glory for Summertime has a director so fully captured the magic of a city. This is easily Allen’s most visually distinct film since the black and white magic of Manhattan. Whether it’s night-time strolls along the Champs-Elysses, the grandeur of the Eiffel Tower, the elegance of the arc d’Triomphe, or the modernism of the Louvre, Woody simply captures the romanticized feel of the city. It also doesn’t hurt that the period costume work is simply fabulous and makes me want to start dating a flapper and wear 1920’s suits. It’s another gorgeous film from one of the best screenwriters and directors of all time.

I’ve long since stopped debating in my mind about whether or not Woody is the greatest American director of all time. His only real competition at this point is David Lynch, but David makes his films far too rarely and with too much intentional obscurity for me to ever derive the same kind of simple pleasure that I get from watching a Woody Allen picture. Woody’s films make you think but also hit you on an emotional level and for every burgeoning intellectual or simple movie lover out there, Woody will always hold a special place in your heart. He may be sort of despicable on a personal level, but that doens’t dilute his genius one iota. This is Woody’s best film in ages, and if you haven’t taken a stroll through Midnight in Paris, do yourself a favor and watch it. It is the romance of the year (if not the last several years).

Final Score: A

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