The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960, Richard Murphy) [r]
* Jack Lemmon is great in unusual, surprisingly serious comedy (despite its title) about WWII boat serving as an interesting counterpoint to Operation Petticoat, made a year earlier.
The Wages of Fear (1953, Henri-Georges Clouzot) [A+]
Unbearably intense thriller about, of all things, the transportation of trucks full of nitro-glycerine is an unforgiving, claustrophobic masterpiece. Yes, I know you’ve seen Hitchcock and all the grisliest horror films and you love torture porn and you hate subtitles. But it doesn’t fucking matter; by the end of this, you won’t just be on the edge of your seat, you won’t be sure where the seat even is.
Waiting for Guffman (1997, Christopher Guest) [r]
A decade and a half after Spinal Tap, Guest steps up to the director’s chair for this winning, low-key faux-documentary in the same vein with many of the same cast members. This one follows the talent gathering and organization of the 150th anniversary celebration for a small town in Missouri. Guest himself gives the best performance of the picture as the director. The film is rather feathery but does manage a few key moments of greatness, especially at the finale (watch for the “boring Mars” routine).
Walk the Line (2005, James Mangold) [hr]
Biopic of Johnny Cash doesn’t stray far from the formula for such things, but it’s a winner because Cash’s story is so entertainingly dramatic. Joaquin Phoenix is strong and subtle as one of American music’s most complex and iconic figures. But as June Carter, Reese Witherspoon is even more remarkable: driven, honest, grounded, utterly believable. They both sing beautifully but the focus is on their gradually blooming romance, quite rightfully. It’s just crazy and moving enough to be impossible to make up.
Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005, Steve Box & Nick Park) [r]
It cannot sustain the manic energy and personality of the wonderful shorts, but this feature film debut for Aardman Animation’s classic characters is still a lot of fun, the story hinging on a local vegetable-growing competition that’s hampered by the disappearance of various foods that seems to be the work of a gigantic rabbit. Overreaching at times, particularly at the finale, but solid.
WALL-E (2008, Andrew Stanton) [r]
More a giant special effect than a cartoon, for better or worse. A charmingly anthropomorphic robot roams the now-deserted planet cleaning up garbage, only to run into a hot young thing named Eve, sent to probe Earth for surviving fragments of life. The first half of Pixar’s ninth film and Stanton’s second is a rather affecting appropriation of Chaplin’s City Lights, with virtually no dialogue, its story told in purest form. That the film sacrifices this promise after a while (in favor, sadly, of hamhanded moralizing science fiction with awful character animation of its human characters) is only to be expected, but it’s still rare to find such passionate attempts at art in modern studio pictures, animated or not.
Wall Street (1987, Oliver Stone) [c]
It’s an Oliver Stone movie, so it’s a piece of infuriatingly vapid fraudulence under the pretext of presenting a time and place As It Actually Was, in this case the world of the NYSE during the Reagan years. The script is groan-inducingly awful, with characters who exist strictly to give speech after speech explaining exactly what they think and exactly how damned convicted they are about it, usually while shouting and breaking things.
Waltzes from Vienna (1933, Alfred Hitchcock)
Among the many strange things about this extreme outlier in Hitchcock’s career is that it’s a half-assed musical comedy filmed like a skillful, suspenseful film noir. A story that doesn’t deserve such deft craftsmanship is presented with what feels like lunatic frenzy, hyperactive about silly offhanded things like the first couple getting up to dance at a performance and bakers melodically tossing bread about; and actors (the shirll Jessie Matthews above all) who deserve no such lovely treatment are made pawns in dizzying visual experiments that have nothing to do with anything. Hitchcock’s last film before basically taking control of his career, and his longing to return to thrillers is plain.
WarGames (1983, John Badham) [r]
Hacker comedy, er, thriller with laughable perceptions of 1983 computer usage is now a bit more prophetic than one might have expected. Resourceful teenager Matthew Broderick — accompanied by hot Ally Sheedy — accidentally logs into a government computer and starts a nuclear war! The film is a boyish stock of paranoid sci-fi nonsense, but it is a blast to watch and features an injection of personality in the form of a bizarre detour involving John Wood as a hang-gliding psychopath. The ending is ludicrous, but again, you can’t deny it’s a fun movie.
The War of the Roses (1989, Danny DeVito) [r]
* Outrageous Zemeckis/Gale-style comedy from James L. Brooks’ Gracie Films about a couple of immature adults who get married because the sex is good, then discover quickly that they hate each other, leading to a harrowing battle over property. Funny, knowing satire does hit a level of overkill at the conclusion, but DeVito’s direction is ingenious.
War of the Worlds (2005, Steven Spielberg) [r]
Though it lacks an ending (and a climax), and features one detour that no one needed, this H.G. Wells adaptation finds Spielberg achieving the most palpable sense of doom ever seen in a sky-is-falling movie. The special effects are stunning (especially considering how quickly the film was made), and even Tom Cruise is pretty good. One of Spielberg’s darkest films, with some rather enjoyable over-the-top gore.
Warrior (2011, Gavin O’Connor)
Competent, technically assured sports drama about two brothers, one an AWOL Iraq vet and one a broke physics teacher, competing in a major Mixed Martial Arts tournament is sensitive and entertaining in the vein of Rocky and Chariots of Fire; like those films it doubles as social comment, in this case regarding the financial collapse and its effect on working families. Builds to an exciting Breaking Away-like climax, but you have seen it all before, so it’s really worth watching only if you have specific interest in MMA or in the sports movie genre overall.
The War Room (1993, D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus) [r]
Entertaining documentary about the 1992 Clinton campaign, focusing on larger-than-life James Carville and his pal Snuffaluffagus. No depth at all, but full of piss and vinegar, and quite interesting; Pennebaker and company’s verité style is obviously the biggest draw.
The Watcher in the Woods (1980, John Hough) [c]
* Weird, half-finished Disney horror movie spirals out of control in record time.
Watch on the Rhine (1943, Herman Shumlin) [c]
Awkwardly acted, poorly directed propaganda with a weak script by Dashiell Hammett (!), from Lillian Hellman’s play, suffers from stilted dialogue and awful pacing; it’s essentially a chamber piece about a resistance fighter (Paul Lukas) hiding out in the U.S., undermined by local Nazi George Coulouris. Too much facile speechifying, too much talk in general, and the two or three potentially exciting scenes are badly bungled. The child actors make the kid in Shane seem like an accomplished thespian.
Watership Down (1978, Martin Rosen) [A+]
Lively, gripping adaptation of Richard Adams’ novel follows a group of rabbits who escape a construction site and set out for a new home. A dramatically potent story of a valiant fight for survival, this violent, bloody, emotionally heavy film is not for all tastes but will shatter and engross those who are up for it. A work of stunning craft and imagination from British director Rosen, who had never worked in animation before!
Waterworld (1995, Kevin Reynolds) [NO]
* Budget-blowing sci-fi about continental drift gone awry is better-looking than it has any right to be but is still dramatically laughable. It’s amusing to see Kevin Costner stuck in somebody else’s bad movie, though.
Way Down East (1920, D.W. Griffith) [hr]
Far off from the opulent sets of Intolerance, this is a bombastic and ludicrous but incredibly entertaining domestic drama of a bereaved, shunned, betrayed woman (Lillian Gish, magnificent as always) that somehow leads to a chase scene over some ice floes, but its focus on a morality play of interpersonal relationships lets the director’s populism shine. Griffith his vast improvement as a visual stylist and an extractor of deeply felt performances in the years since Birth of a Nation.
Wayne’s World (1992, Penelope Spheeris) [hr]
Delightful, inventive, and constantly quotable comedy based, remarkably enough, on an SNL sketch has charm to spare, with Dana Carvey and Mike Myers as hosts of a no-budget public access TV show, faced with an offer to Sell Out. Bright satire is surprisingly well-written and keeps the pace up for the duration.
The Way We Were (1973, Sydney Pollack) [NO]
* Dismal, namby-pamby horseshit with Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford non-actors in a non-story about a non-relationship. There are Ziggy strips with more substance.
We Are the Best! (2013, Lukas Moodysson) [hr]
Hilarious, palpably autobiographical (on the part of source material author Coco Moodysson) slice-of-life odyssey of two punk rock-addicted adolescent girls recruiting a third, a more conventional “good kid” from a religious household, for an amateur punk band and sing about how much they hate sports, during the early winter of 1982 in Stockholm. If Frank Borzage had lived to capture the experience of being a sullen, alienated teenager finding solace in headphones, it might have felt like this, so vivid and distinctive are its characters and their relationship. It’s the rare film that you wish could go on longer.
The Wedding March (1928, Erich von Stroheim) [hr]
The brief stabbing pains of a love affair between a cash-poor prince and the daughter of a local innkeeper; there are moments of spirit and optimism but finally the encroaching demands of high society ruin the possibility of sincere connection. Von Stroheim’s fixations are the same as ever, but the grim ironies in this stunted romance betray an emotional anguish harder to spot in his more gleefully wild films. Fay Wray’s performance is one of the most believably emotional in American silent film.
The Wedding Singer (1998, Frank Coraci) [r]
* Winning slice of ’80s nostalgia about gee-whiz blooming friendship/love affair between title professional and a waitress. Adam Sandler forgoes his annoying personality just enough to make this fun escapism, though the film is made really worthwhile by Drew Barrymore, who reminds us that she can do a great job when given the opportunity, which is all too rare.
Weekend (2011, Andrew Haigh) [hr]
A whirlwind fling between two complex people, nothing more or less, with much that is almost imperceptibly soft or unstated altogether — and a level of knowing detail about love and sex in general, and specifically the lives of young gay men in a place like northern England, that renders it one of the best modern romance films without attempting to transform its distinctive characters into blank slates or to represent some broad generational or demographic experience. It all adds up to a work of stunning intimacy, and it’s like focusing on a specific part of a starry sky as your eyes adjust: the closer you look, the more there is to see.
Weekend at Bernie’s (1989, Ted Kotcheff) [c]
* Oddly cheerful comedy about a corpse isn’t as offensive as some claimed, it’s really just… weird and vaguely off-putting.
Weird Science (1985, John Hughes) [c]
* Hughes at his worst. An exploitative teen comedy about a computer-generated babe that’s crude, unprofessional and completely banal. Bachelor Party-style trash for kids.
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996, Todd Solondz) [hr]
Solondz’s painful, funny, at times surprisingly ambitious coming-of-age story of an awkward 12 year-old girl trying to survive junior high school, where she is endlessly taunted and abused. Solondz engages in both cartoonish excess and hypperrealism and — surprisingly — excels at both, blending them seamlessly.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, Lynne Ramsay) [r]
This decades-late Problem Child sequel is almost oppressively uncomfortable and tense, following Tilda Swinton as the beleaguered mother of a boy (Ezra Miller, a terrifying blank slate) who seems to be a psychopath. It’s a miserable thing to watch, with few redemptive moments even implied — Swinton’s Eva is absolutely and fully alone, with her husband (John C. Reilly) somehow oblivious to their son’s alarming behavior — but it’s a far more persuasive portrait of violent adolescence than Gus van Sant’s Elephant.
The Westerner (1940, William Wyler) [r]
Lightly comic western lets you bask in great characterizations by Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan (brilliantly funny as a very inaccurate Judge Roy Bean) as well as stunning Gregg Toland cinematography. The story is painfully silly bordering on nonsensical, the romance hackneyed, but everything involving Brennan’s celebrity obsession, his uneasy and complicated friendship and rivalry with Cooper, and the closing shootout in an empty theater is full of wit and energy, and lots of fun to watch. The great Wyler shows off how he can conquer even the most threadbare script.
West Side Story (1961, Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins) [r]
A flamboyant, deliberately cartoon romance is given passionate treatment by the authors and filmmakers, thus providing us with a politically telling and marvelously wide-eyed balletic tragedy that has its flaws but is full of brilliant moments and visual ideas, best of all being either the “America” number, which feels like an apex of the Hollywood musical, or Saul Bass’ iconic closing titles.
Westworld (1973, Michael Crichton) [hr]
* Exciting science fiction from Crichton’s novel about a theme park populated by robots who, one fateful day, begin to malfunction! Yul Brynner is a riot as the evil western bot. The movie is not the brightest bulb in the pack but it goes down easy and is really grand escapism with the wonderful caveat that it’s a bit of warning against escapism.
What About Bob? (1991, Frank Oz) [r]
* Bill Murray invades the life of his psychiatrist, terrorizing his entire family. Up to a point, this is actually as good as it sounds, but it does wander about halfway through and is a lost cause by the end. Still, Murray gets one of his rare pre-Groundhog Day chances to exhibit range.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962, Robert Aldrich)
Lurid story of two sisters, former celebrities, driving each other mad in a dimly lit mansion is sheer camp, though stunningly photographed. Joan Crawford seems to think she’s in a serious film whereas Bette Davis knows it’s silly and doesn’t care, and hers is the more interesting performance by far, with her sadism sometimes offering a sense of what real abuse is like. Otherwise, the borrowings from Sunset Blvd. and Psycho come at the expense of all subtlety.
Whatever Works (2009, Woody Allen) [r]
Allen coasts along through this vehicle for famous and horribly irritating comedy writer Larry David. Beyond its light social satire that manages to seem simultaneously progressive and old-fashioned, the most remarkable thing about this lightweight and enjoyable farce is that it’s exactly, uncannily what you’d expect a Woody Allen movie starring Larry David to be.
What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966, Woody Allen) [hr]
Allen removes the sound from a ludicrous Japanese caper film and inserts his own dialogue and storyline; this comic masterpiece foreshadows MST3K and encompasses some of the most irony-rich humor seen in any movie of the ’60s. This is Allen’s first film as (semi-)director and is very, very different from the rest of his work; it contains plenty of audacious moments and a few slow ones as well (especially the Lovin’ Spoonful bits), but it’s nevertheless a wild night out.
What We Do in the Shadows (2014, Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi) [r]
Mostly gentle, silly mockumentary about a fraternity of vampires getting into internal scraps and causing havoc in the human world has a few huge laughs, spread perhaps a bit too far apart, but it’s a must-see for production design, effects work and cinematography that makes the vast majority of actual horror movies from the last ten years look desperately inadequate. And it really earns a recommendation for the sandwich line alone, with Jackie Van Beek’s character and the closing age disparity gag just the icing.
When a Man Loves a Woman (1994, Luis Mandoki) [NO]
* Sticky-sweet little horror about an alcoholic woman (played with nonexistent range and personality by Meg Ryan) trying to learn to deal with her problem. Annoying tract is best defined by the scene in which Ryan hugs and consoles fellow alcoholics to the tune of “Everybody Hurts.” Blecch!
When Harry Met Sally… (1989, Rob Reiner) [r]
* Though it’s certainly not original, Reiner’s romantic comedy pastiche about a friendship that neither party wants to be anything more (or so they think) is surprisingly frank and idiosyncratic (especially considering it’s the work of Nora Ephron), with the usual energy brought to the table by Reiner and Billy Crystal, in one of his better roles.
Where the Wild Things Are (2009, Spike Jonze) [r]
Although there are wisps of elegant childishness in parts of Jonze’s overblown adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s stirring, simple children’s book, and although its opening sequence is gorgeous and Lance Acord’s cinematography effortlessly captures a zillion late-afternoon playtimes, the whole overly busy product makes it too easy to assume that Jonze will never recover from the loss of his partnership with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, whose directorial debut Synecdoche, New York tears this to shreds. The bits of risky Sendak that survive are put across as gorgeously as any film could, but Jonze knows perfectly well this shit is too damn long.
While We’re Young (2014, Noah Baumbach) [hr]
Ben Stiller portrays a documentary filmmaker with a tendency toward childish anxiety and careerist aloofness that’s frustrating an otherwise good marriage (to Naomi Watts, who’s phenomenal here); when he and his wife befriend a much younger couple, their sense of life seemingly revitalizes him. Not a film with a simple thesis, rather a quite nuanced examination of generational differences, with more believable characterizations than are par for the indie-comedy course.
Whiplash (2014, Damien Chazelle) [r]
An engrossing sports movie with drums instead of balls. Miles Teller strives for jazz drumming greatness under the iron fist of psychotic instructor J.K. Simmons (channeling R. Lee Ermey); the film doesn’t quite promote the latter’s method of emotional abuse to get “artistic” “results,” but it comes close enough to make sane people pretty uncomfortable. Extremely tense, even when its story becomes truly ludicrous, but the flabbiness of the characters on the fringes is a major debit, as is the cartoonishness of the plot and the leads.
White Heat (1949, Raoul Walsh) [hr]
The greatest virtue in James Cagney’s comeback to the gangster picture fold is its lack of predictability; Cody Jarrett is approximately the nastiest protagonist one can imagine, to the degree that he isn’t exactly fun to watch so much as addictive in a lurid, train-wreck sense. This outstanding performance is well supported by a revolving-door cast that changes considerably from the first act to the second, at which point the film shifts from a series of heists and chases to a less conventional, more suspenseful prison feature. It’s a horrific tale rife with betrayals, killings and soulless nightmares, but its intensity feels very much real.
White Material (2009, Claire Denis) [hr]
Brilliantly visualized filmed dream about a white woman reluctant to vacate her antiquated coffee plantation in an African nation fraught in the midst of a revolution. Unable to accept that her time has passed, she becomes a symbol of privilege, the source of both empathy and scorn, as her family and life fall apart. Denis tells her story in a humane but brutal, and strangely sensual, manner.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988, Robert Zemeckis) [r]
Humdrum “noir” story masks what amounts to an explosive tribute to the classic cartoons of every studio, with Bugs and Mickey interacting, Donald and Daffy playing dueling pianos, and various animated characters getting the opportunity to say the word “bitch.” The film has not aged very well and the animation is a bit lazy at times, but it’s great fun, especially for cartoon buffs. Might have benefited from a better script, like perhaps one from Zemeckis and Bob Gale? Just saying.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols) [r]
Nails-on-the-chalkboard claustrophobia this (gorgeously) filmed play may seem at first, but there’s a beating heart beneath the marital roof falling in here. You may be required to see it twice to detect it; it won’t be nearly so difficult to note the brilliance in the performances by Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and especially Sandy Dennis.
Who’s Harry Crumb? (1989, Paul Flaherty) [NO]
* Ugh. What could be more evil than a sanitized, excessive ’80s comedy with a “detective” played by John Candy? One that concludes with him dressing as a woman and expects that to be automatically funny, perhaps?
Wide Awake (1998, M. Night Shyamalan) [r]
Fifth graders want to know: Is there a god? Yes; according to Lady in the Water, your director.
Wiener-Dog (2016, Todd Solondz) [hr]
Solondz’s four-episode odyssey of a long-suffering dachshund simply defies description, but it’s another darkly funny, morbid, challenging near-masterpiece from one of the country’s most distinctive living cinematic voices. Do not watch this if you’re terribly squeamish about fictional animals being harmed, but then, do not watch any Solondz if you’re terribly squeamish about much of anything.
The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah)
Unbalanced and frivolous western that revels with almost obscene delight in violence. It’s fun to see the cast work together but the movie is just anonymous and slightly creepy, whatever the appeal of a hundred male fantasies on screen might be.
Wild Man Blues (1997, Barbara Kopple) [hr]
Unexpectedly insightful vérité documentary about a clarinetist’s tour of Europe. He’s also famous for other stuff but so what. More than anything, an intriguing chronicle into the inner and outward worlds of a celebrity, with some surprising glimpses into how a celebrated writer and creator sees the world around him. Fans of you-know-who shouldn’t need to ask whether this is worth seeing.
Wild Strawberries (1957, Ingmar Bergman) [A+]
So close to death and yet so far from it, a professor — portrayed with aching sensitivity by Victor Sjöström — on his way to receive an honorary degree is forced to contend with the mistakes of his life, wondering why he is so unforgivingly alone. The movie that results from his journey is truly (not in any simple or labored fashion) life-affirming, opening up a beautiful and lively world available to all.
Wild Tales (2014, Damián Szifrón) [r]
Like most portmanteau films, this extremely popular black comic anthology is hit-and-miss, made more frustrating by the near-total absence of meaningful connection between the individual stories. They’re all about some form of revenge and all include acts of violence, most of them ending ironically. The best sequences bookend the picture: an Agatha Christie-inspired opening aboard a plane is brutal, quick and hilariously morbid. The film closes with a devilishly constructed repudiation of yuppie relationship norms set at a big wedding, a blast of acid so invigorating it makes the whole thing worth your while.
Wild Things (1998, John McNaughton)
Fun to a point, this semi-noir thriller is certainly well-designed as a populist party: there’s makeouts, threesomes, and nutty twists in the plot that often threaten to make the story incomprehensible but never quite go to that level. The film is so lovably trashy one can almost admire it, but beyond a delightful Bill Murray cameo it’s a little too self-satisfied to be as much fun as one might hope.
Willow (1988, Ron Howard) [NO]
* Another George Lucas production of someone beating the odds to bring a newborn baby to safety, this time Warwick Davis battling nutzo queen Jean Marsh. I don’t know what the hell it’s all supposed to mean, but Howard is not the one to make it work, not that it ever could anyway. It’s a fantasy film of infinite terror that’s afraid to inflict any terror or exhibit any true fantasy.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971, Mel Stuart) [hr]
Part razor-sharp consumerism satire, part sensory-overload kiddie film, part horrifying character study of a psychotic entrepreneur, part opulent populist musical, all well-honed brilliance. Stuart’s film of Roald Dahl’s slightly anemic novel comes bursting with life and color to become one of the all-time great children’s films. Watch out for the creepy riverboat sequence, and take special note of one of the best song sequences in any movie: Veruca Salt’s “I Want It Now!”
Wilson (1944, Henry King) [NO]
Insipid Technicolor biopic-lovefest from Darryl Zanuck starring babyfaced Alexander Knox as the titular president is glossed-over, fawning, superficial, terribly dull.
The Wind (1928, Victor Sjöström) [A+]
Lillian Gish is unforgettably stunning as an idealistic young woman moving to the desert, where she is faced with unthinkable horror and is forced to grow up rapidly. A haunting tale that torments up to its ideal conclusion… which, unfortunately, never comes, replaced by the studio with a “happy” ending” in an incompetent business decision that still hurts. Nevertheless, the beauty and horror here remain unmatched anywhere else in Hollywood cinema.
Wings (1927, William A. Wellman) [r]
Sure, this influential WWI drama — winner of the first Academy Award for what is now Best Picture — is overlong and features an unbearably drawn-out love quadrangle subplot overstuffed with cliché, but Jesus fucking Christ man, the actors are flying the planes themselves. And operating the cameras. In some of the most realistic and harrowing dogfight sequences ever captured on film. You can hardly believe it’s not a documentary. The story is scarcely relevant laid against such a cinematic (and dangerous) stunt. You’ll be floored, even if you hate war movies.
Wings of Desire (1988, Wim Wenders) [A+]
Stirring humanist story about angels wandering around Berlin, watching and listening as people live their disparate, incredible lives. One of the angels (played by Bruno Ganz) runs into a trapeze artist and is suddenly in love. He chooses to become mortal to be with her, then must contend with the glory and strangeness of life on Earth. And Peter Falk appears as Peter Falk, a fellow ex-angel! One of those rare genuinely beautiful, soulful movies that one is unlikely to ever forget.
Winter’s Bone (2010, Debra Granik) [hr]
Neo-noir set in backwoods Missouri is absorbing, beautifully acted, and free of condescension for its subject. Remarkably, the story grips and becomes less important over time as atmospherics and emotions overtake the narrative — exactly as it should be and seldom is in the genre. In a star-making moment, Jennifer Lawrence gives much more than a brilliant performance — she is as believable and admirable as we can imagine an acting turn being.
Winter Sleep (2014, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Photographs of an asshole talking.
The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers) [c]
Atmospheric, well acted but totally mediocre horror about an isolated Puritan family falling apart because of the nefarious influence of a witch; the eldest daughter, a budding adolescent, is strongly suspected when the disappearances and deaths begin. Nothing about this isn’t obvious after the initial fifteen minutes, and the entire ordeal feels like an extended act of trolling. Perhaps it’s different if you can buy into its supernatural conceit.
The Witches (1990, Nicolas Roeg) [r]
Director Roeg is an ideal match for Roald Dahl, and it shows in this inventive take on Dahl’s wild novel about what witches are “really” like — normal-looking ladies who offer children candy before destroying them. Haunting images and ideas dominate the first half, while the last half is a suspense-oriented affair rich in grossouts and chase scenes. Roeg does a fine job across the board, with the help of some fine performers, especially Anjelica Huston (as the head witch) and Mai Zetterling (as the kindly grandmother). The only big disappointment is the copout finale.
Withnail & I (1987, Bruce Robinson) [hr]
* Wonderful film about British layabouts on vacation is one of the best UK films of its period, full of keen observations and low-key humor that delights on multiple viewings. For once, Richard E. Grant is well-suited for his role.
Witness (1985, Peter Weir) [c]
Dull ’80s crime thriller has Harrison Ford hiding out in an Amish community to protect a young boy, getting his swerve on with the kid’s mom. Builds to a very basic-cable finale but also includes a man being killed by falling corn, so it’s really a toss-up.
Witness for the Prosecution (1957, Billy Wilder) [hr]
Laughton is the man to trust as an aging barrister in this seductive Agatha Christie courtroom drama with an exciting setup and many riveting twists and turns. Wilder stages it with just the right amount of curiosity and humor.
The Wizard (1989, Todd Holland) [c]
* Crummy exploitation pic about triad of kids traveling to a videogame competition, the gaming prodigy haunted by Bad Memories, is a long commercial for Nintendo with a gross excess of Fred Savage.
Wizard of Oz (1925, Larry Semon) [NO]
Today this might be someone’s idea of a bad joke, but in 1925 it was a third-rate comedian’s vision of L. Frank Baum’s book, removing much of its imagination and story thrust and adding a weird political story, with bad racial humor thrown in. Disgusting.
The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming) [A+]
One of the all-time Hollywood peaks, this sumptuous, colorful filming of the Baum novel sparkles with fantastic scenery, glorious storytelling, great songs, and sharp-edged humor, with a climax bursting with wise irony. This is everything right and good about American filmmaking in 101 lovely minutes.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, Martin Scorsese)
Pretty much Goodfellas but with an even less interesting louse at the center, here played by a sprightly enough Leonardo DiCaprio and equipped with a few admirable comic sequences. But it drones on for three hours and is essentially a tiresome scold toward behaviors in which it wallows; in other words, it’s a Martin Scorsese picture.
A Woman of Paris (1923, Charles Chaplin) [r]
Chaplin’s most uncharacteristic silent feature — a dour drama about an independent woman (Edna Purviance) confronted anew with a past lover who forces her to question whether she prefers luxury or true love — is a soapy melodrama that resolves itself too obviously, but individual scenes are stunning, like the initial reunion of the two lovers and the sublime finale. Purviance towers among the cast, all delivering exquisite performances with considerable understatement and subtlety.
Woman of the Year (1942, George Stevens) [r]
Surprisingly frank and realistic examination of an opposites-attract romcom scenario — in this case, a meet-cute between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy at the newspaper they both work for — is hilarious up to its very last scene but suffers from the conundrum of so many Hays Code-era films that dare to examine marriage and the, uh, crisis of working women: is it coded feminism or coded misogyny? Either way, it’s a provocative and funny film.
A Woman Under the Influence (1974, John Cassavetes) [NO]
Uncinematic, pointless catalog of misery in which a housewife loses her grip in protracted trainwreck manner, unfortunately as portrayed by the terribly inauthentic, scenery-chewing showboat Gena Rowlands, nearly all of whose scenes are either unintentionally hilarious or pure aesthetic torture. Cassavetes lives up to his reputation in the sense that his camera and editing seem extremely unmoored and don’t shy away from technical ineptitude, but this commitment to documentary realism hits a wall when it comes to the supposedly pure drama he captures, which is both badly, self-consciously performed and just generally broad and silly.
The Women (1939, George Cukor)
With its all-star all-female cast, its silly air of MGM prestige, and its priggish, conservative messaging about love and marriage, this is a feminist victory only on a superficial level, since — as the tagline puts it — “it’s all about men.” The movie unabashedly reveres money and glamour and while there’s a certain camp appeal to all that, it wholly drowns out the humane and appealing story at the center (about Norma Shearer’s marital woes), and Cukor has no idea how to deal with the comic aspects of the script.
Women in Love (1969, Ken Russell)
Highly literary, complex film of D.H. Lawrence’s novel is unmistakably a condensation of themes that have more room to sprawl out on the printed page, but it benefits from good performances (Eleanor Bron’s pretension is especially fun) and Russell’s hyperactive style; his camera loves the nude wrestling of the two male leads far more than any of the sex scenes, which focus on the shortcomings of men who don’t really know how to fuck and are not shy about proving it. As the story descends into bickering and rather verbose delvings into an extremely off-kilter vision of sexual politics that would take hours of energy to unpack, it ends up feeling just overwhelming.
Women of the Night (1948, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
Mizoguchi’s bleak nod to Italian neorealism is miraculously fluid and riveting. Kinuyo Tanaka and Sanae Takasugi are excellent as sisters coping with post-WWII poverty in the seedy areas of Osaka; after death and disease plague them, they are forced to turn to illicit means, and later the streets, for survival. With the usual breathtaking long takes as well as painstakingly realistic but engrossing uses of focus, space and sparingly agile camera movements, it’s a feast for the senses despite its intense despair and squalor… and Mizoguchi’s empathy seems more genuine than De Sica’s or even Rossellini’s.
Wonder Boys (2000, Curtis Hanson) [A+]
Michael Douglas, ordinarily hidden behind his yuppie persona, delivers a brilliant, understated performance here as a college English professor and bestselling author hard at work on his sophomore novel, suddenly embroiled in an absurd crisis brought on by his fondness for a promising student and his illicit affair with his boss’ wife. Subtle and remarkably well-rounded film with excellent humor, an intelligent and humanistic story, and dead-on satire of literary circles. One of the best films of the era, and one of the all-time great portraits of the universal nature of grappling desperately for an identity, a phenomenon the movie knows is hardly limited to adolescents.
The Woodsman (2004, Nicole Kassell) [r]
Interesting character study of a reforming child molester just out of prison played with amazing skill and nuance by, of all people, Kevin Bacon. Daring, sometimes audacious in all the right ways. Kyra Sedgwick and Mos Def are haunting but so is the story, dark and sobering but hopeful. The messages about redemption could easily be cloying but the film hesitates to state the obvious, which is to its credit.
Woodstock (1970, Michael Wadleigh) [NO]
* Terrible filming of watershed pop culture moment with weird, failed widescreen experiments and highly questionable editing that has time for Joan Baez, Crosby Stills & Nash, and Joe Cocker (!) but leaves out essential performances by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and various other luminaries. The only highlight of this dismal hippiefest comes from the delightful performance by Sly & the Family Stone.
Working Girl (1988, Mike Nichols) [r]
Romantic comedy concerning corporate ladder-climbing on the part of an ambitious secretary charmingly played by Melanie Griffith is a pure morsel of late ’80s nostalgia; she’s oddly third-billed under perfunctory hapless-foil and screeching villain roles by Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver respectively. Writer Kevin Wade has the usual infatuation with “structure” that makes so many big comedies of this era feel so schematic, but for sheer entertainment value this certainly delivers from beginning to end. (Half the reason you’ll want to see it, though, is its time-capsule view of ’88 New York.)
The World According to Garp (1982, George Roy Hill) [NO]
* John Irving’s novel is diluted to sappy, annoying foolishness starring Robin Williams that retains no sophistication or even slight intelligence. And the ending is utterly infuriating.
The World of Henry Orient (1964, George Roy Hill) [hr]
Wonderful photography and acting in this very sweet story of two precocious young girls with a shared crush on a concert pianist, played by an understated Peter Sellers. Delightful coming of age story has a few too many narrative intrusions but is still lovely.
The World’s End (2013, Edgar Wright) [r]
The end of the world comes down to a few drunk friends, as it so often does, in the finale to the trilogy that wrought Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. This squarely sits between those two in quality, but if you love either one, you’re likely to get a lot of mileage from this. Martin Freeman’s performance as a bluetooth-wearing real estate agent is a classic.
Written on the Wind (1955, Douglas Sirk) [r]
Entertainingly schlocky melodrama in which three big stars plus Oscar winner Dorothy Malone act out a clichéd plot (subversively tinged with the mild suggestion of incest) about an oil magnate’s children and their all-out war over the objects of their sexual desires. You can probably read a world of things into this, especially given the loving way Sirk and Russell Metty shoot and compose it, but it’s really too campy to enjoy in earnest, a primetime soap before its time.
The Wrong Man (1957, Alfred Hitchcock) [hr]
A treasure. Henry Fonda is a musician whose life is virtually ruined after he’s falsely accused of robbery, in this “semi-documentary” film (sort of a celluloid variant on Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel”) based with frightening precision on a true story. Fonda and Vera Miles are incredible, and aside from a few tacked-on scenes, a pointless introduction, and an abrupt ending, this is a film of stirring realism… and it’s very unsettling. Unique, in the Hitchcock vein and otherwise.
Wuthering Heights (1939, William Wyler) [r]
Popular film of classic Brontë love story is a good showcase for Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and is well directed by Wyler, who stages and photographs it like a German horror movie. That’s only too appropriate: These are very serious people, and love is a matter of vast, earth-shaking importance for them. The one parallel experience, it seems, is death. Far too much of the spirit of the original work was sacrificed for tone or severed in favor of a more concise (too concise) narrative, but the film is still an engrossing watch.
Wuthering Heights (2011, Andrea Arnold)
I appreciate how much less talky this is than the William Wyler version, and the child actors are magnificent, but it doesn’t reveal anything deep or new about these familiar characters. It’s still a grim, dour story — especially in the manner it’s popularly adapted — and whatever insights the novel has tend to be overly simplified as cinema. Arnold’s style is lyrical and swoony, even reverent — and then out of nowhere and completely inappropriately, in comes fucking Mumford & Sons over the credits. Whose failure to say no do we blame for that one?