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Debate Club: The Wachowskis' best films (that aren't The Matrix)
Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
Lana and Lilly Wachowski blew people's minds in the spring of 1999 when they unveiled The Matrix, an action film that merged science fiction, dystopian drama, kung-fu cinema, and pre-millennium tension, giving us a new cinematic world while popularizing cutting-edge special effects. ("Bullet time" will forever be synonymous with this groundbreaker.)
The Matrix inspired two lucrative sequels, but since then the Wachowskis have struggled to capture the zeitgeist as memorably and with such ingenuity. But that doesn't mean their cinematic risk-taking hasn't had its moments. Even their duds boast a startling strangeness that have inspired cult followings and ardent supporters, even if critics and mainstream audiences had trouble getting on board. And, of course, their pre-Matrix movie still holds up.
Here’s our ranking of the filmmakers' best movies beyond the world of Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity.
05. Jupiter Ascending (2015)
Like Neo, Mila Kunis' Jupiter Jones is an average person who's about to discover that she's destined for great things — and that the fate of the universe rests on her shoulders. But unlike The Matrix, Jupiter Ascending is more silly than spectacular, allowing the Wachowskis to indulge their most out-there sci-fi ideas. (Channing Tatum plays Jupiter's interstellar protector, who happens to be a human/wolf hybrid.)
There's a decent amount of camp appeal to this film's crazed production design and oddball acting choices, and on the whole, it's worth rooting for original cinematic visions, even if they totally misfire (Jupiter Ascending was that rare studio movie in 2015 that wasn't based on existing material). But none of that translated into a quality viewing experience, and the film tanked at the box office.
Oh well, we'll always have the GIFs that immortalized Eddie Redmayne's super-hammy villain performance
04. V for Vendetta (2005)
We hope this won't get Anonymous after us, but we'll confess we do find V (Hugo Weaving) a lot lamer than director James McTeigue and writer/producers Lana and Lilly Wachowski want us to (there's just something silly about a guy who talks this much but whose lips we never see moving). And we're not sure the way V treats Evey has necessarily aged all that well. That said, the movie still has an undeniable narrative propulsion, thanks largely to Natalie Portman, whose fearless performance would set the tone for a career full of them. The movie plays better in theory than in practice, but it's still an undeniable audience-stirrer.
03. Speed Racer (2008)
Riding high after the Matrix trilogy, the Wachowskis were in the driver's seat, basically able to make any movie they wanted. Intriguingly, they decided to do a big-screen adaptation of a Japanese property about a speedster who gets into all kinds of adventures.
Emile Hirsch plays Speed Racer, who competes in the same high-octane race that once killed his beloved race-car driving brother, and along the way Speed Racer dazzles and overwhelms us with what Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips once called "retina-splitting oceans of digitally captured color." The movie is aimed at kids, but it's a totally bonkers experience, offering nonstop sensation with very little nutritional content to go along with it.
And yet, Speed Racer feels so pure in its whiz-bang ambitions that you can't dismiss what the Wachowskis have dreamed up. The movie doesn't work... in a very original way.
02. Cloud Atlas (2012)
It's difficult to overstate how profoundly weird Cloud Atlas is. Tom Hanks playing multiple characters, including a Cockney hit man. A narrative that spans 500 years with the same actors hopping from story to story. Hugh Grant as this:
Not all of Cloud Atlas succeeds, but it's impossible not to admire the insane ambition of wanting to even try to tell this story. No other filmmakers would dare attempt to pull this off; that the Wachowskis and co-director Tom Tykwer can't entirely get there is not a reason to blast them, but to praise them.
01. Bound (1996)
It's difficult to see The Matrix in the Wachowskis' debut film about two lovers (Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly) conspiring to steal $2 million of mob money. But that bravery — that way of seeing the world just a little bit differently, and to take a time-honored genre and twist it a little — is very much on display.
The heist aspect of Bound is pretty standard, but the Wachowskis bring so much style, verve, and sexiness to it that it holds up as smart and sensual and a little bit dangerous still today. Frankly, we'd love to see them dial it back and try to make another movie as stripped-down as this one.