I’ve known Zach Phillis since the eighth grade when he and I took Latin in the same Amherst Regional Middle School classroom where I would return two decades later to briefly try and convince eighth-graders to like 90s hip-hop.
Despite being friends for more than a quarter of a century and sharing a longstanding love of film, we don’t always land on the same page when it comes to our movie tastes (he thinks The Wrong Trousers is an all-time cinematic achievement, I think it’s a perfectly fun short film; I see Captain America: Civil War as one of the best movies the 2010s, he thinks I’m an idiot).
But this past week, Zach and I decided to roll the dice and joint-watch a seminal early-2000s classic that had somehow slipped by the both of us: Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky.
What followed was a two-plus hour barrage of haphazard surrealism, misguided pseudo-psychology, gratuitous-yet-inscrutable exposition, startling needle-drops, and absolutely bat-shit-crazy acting performances. The moment the credits hit, I pulled out my phone to send Zach a text, only to see my exact thoughts reflected back at me:
“WTF did I just watch?”
The “WTF did I just watch” genre is an expansive one, encompassing all manner of high-minded cinema and low-brow shlock. It is defined neither by its aesthetics nor its subject matter, but rather that singular, lingering question that haunts you long after the final credits roll.
At its best, it offers some of the most profound visions of possibility that film has to offer. At its worst, it leaves you personally offended, unable to comprehend what could motivate a person to make such an astonishingly terrible film.
In either case, a WTF movie is never easy to ignore.
Inspired by my most recent experience with the clusterfuckery of a truly upper-echelon WTF movie, I decided to do a deep dive into the category, investigating some of its most confounding entries and the root qualities that give a WTF movie just the right amount of WTF.
Welcome to the “WTF Did I Just Watch” Hall of Fame.
For this installment of the WFTDIJWHOF (because buckle up, we might have a series on our hands) we’re going to be focusing on a few of the key categories that a WTFDIJW movie can fall under, and some of the best and worst examples of each.
Starting things off:
The “It Might Be Brilliant” WTF Movie:
The “It Might Be Brilliant” WTF category features some of the most overwhelmingly maximalist films in cinematic history alongside some of the most disorientingly restrained works of all time–but uniting them all is a sense that the bewilderment you experience while watching is a deliberate consequence of the steady hands guiding the story. Even while up at night for hours, post-watch puzzling over how the hell they pulled the movie off, the fact that they pulled it off is never really in doubt.
An Incomplete Collection of “It Might Be Brilliant” WTFDIJWs:
- Mulholland Drive (2001)
- Vertigo (1958)
- Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
- The Matrix (1999)
- Dogtooth (2009)
- Us (2019)
- Chungking Express (1994)
- You Were Never Really Here (2017)
- Battle Royale (2000)
- The Master (2012)
- A Bigger Splash (2016)
The “Simply Too Smart For Me” WTF Movie:
The line dividing a “Simply Too Smart For Me” WTF and a “Might Be Brilliant” WTF is slim, and usually hinges on the overall enjoyment of the experience. While Primer is an absolutely fascinating, hard-science take on time travel, my favorite part of the movie was the 15-minute YouTube explainer I watched afterward.
Sometimes, a film can be so invested in its own intelligence that it loses sight of the fact that it’s a film. In other cases, the movie’s awareness of its own intelligence simply makes you feel bad for not being able to keep up.
A “Simply Too Smart For Me” WTF movie either can’t quite walk the tightrope between perplexing and enjoyable, or is (for lack of a better term) just too damn smart for me, and for the sake of my own ego cannot be allowed to ascend to the same echelon as an “It Might Be Brilliant” WTF.
An Incomplete Collection of “Simply Too Smart For Me” WTFDIJWs:
- Primer (2004)
- Persona (1966)
- American Psycho (2000)
- Under The Skin (2013)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
- Annihilation (2018)
- I’m Not There (2007)
- Being John Malkovich (1999)
- 12 Monkeys (1995)
- Interstellar [but is it?] (2014)
The “Steering Into The Skid” WTF Movie:
The “Steering Into The Skid” category is generally reserved for those films where all involved parties own, celebrate, or are blissfully unaware of their collective dysfunction, to the point where the chaos becomes a feat in and of itself. Many of the best “Steering Into The Skid” movies make minimal effort to masquerade as art. However, sometimes an ill-conceived attempt at grandiosity can produce a wonderfully “so out on the joke it comes back in” film (here’s looking at you, Zack Snyder’s Justice League).
Most importantly, nearly every “Steering Into The Skid” WTF stars Nicolas Cage, either literally or spiritually.
An Incomplete Collection of “Steering Into The Skid” WTFDIJWs:
- Face/Off (1997)
- Tenet (2020)
- Point Break (1991) / The Fast and the Furious (2001)
- The Room (2003)
- Purple Rain (1984)
- Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
- Space Jam (1996)
- John Wick 2 [arguably an “It Might Be Brilliant” contender] (2017)
- Deja Vu (2006)
- Geostorm (2017)
The “On Second Thought” WTF Movie:
The “On Second Thought” WTF movie can, in many ways, be broken down into two subcategories of its own:
A.) The “too smart for you” movie that, on second thought, might not be that smart at all (for those who haven’t rewatched since middle school, Donnie Darko is an unfortunately strong contender in this subcat–stay tuned for future installments of Is It Super Deep Or Were You Just Thirteen?).
B.) The movie you never thought about as a WTF movie until, upon closer consideration, you realize it decidedly is a WTF movie.*
*I’m sorry, you’re telling me that twin sisters who were separated as babies were never told about each other’s existence but then just happened to meet up again at summer camp and then straight up switched families and one of them could suddenly do accent work and they locked their parents in a basement just to try to get them to hook up again? WTF?
An Incomplete Collection of “On Second Thought” WTFDIJWs:
- The Parent Trap (1998)
- Donnie Darko (2001)
- Interstellar [a much more appropriate categorization] (2014)
- You’ve Got Mail (1998)
- Garden State (2004)
- V for Vendetta (2005)
- Big Trouble (2002)
- Ghost World (2001)
- Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
- American Beauty [highly dependent on how old you were when you first saw this movie; plenty of people were smart enough to know it was hot garbage right out of the gate] (1999)
The “Swing and a Miss” WTF:
The “Swing and a Miss” category can often be the most frustrating because it is defined by the possibility of something better. There is a sub-30min short film inside of Vanilla Sky that could have been incredibly compelling–it is unfortunately derailed by the surrounding hour-and-45min of frantic, seemingly dysregulated genre-and-narrative hopping. A steadier hand could have molded that chaos into Mulholland Drive, but Cameron Crowe’s hands gave us this instead:
(the slightest of Vanilla Sky spoilers)
An Incomplete Collection of “Swing and a Miss” WTFDIJWs:
- Vanilla Sky (2001)
- Nocturnal Animals (2016)
- Joker (2019)
- Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
- The Dark Tower (2017)
- Predestination (2014)
- Suspiria [I know, I know, I know, the lighting’s cool] (1977)
- WW84 (2020)
- Avatar (2009)
- Across The Universe (2007)
Which brings us to our final category:
The “Why?” WTF:
In addition to “WTF did I just watch?”, a few questions you may find yourself asking after viewing a film from this category are:
-”Why did I watch what I watched?”
-”Why did no one warn me not to watch what I just watched?”
-“Why would someone choose to make a movie like this?”
-“How many people had to sign off on this idea for it to get made, and why were they all drunk on the same day?”
A “Why?” WTF can at times be on-its-face offensive, but more often it is simply ill-conceived, poorly constructed, and somehow, in spite of all of its notable failings, never quite able to stumble into “good-bad” territory.
Finally, many “Why?” WTF movies star Gerard Butler, but it is essential to note that this should in no way be interpreted as an insult to Gerard Butler, who is a treasure to us all.
An Incomplete Collection of “Why?” WTFDIJWs:
- Olympus Has Fallen (2013)
- Joss Whedon’s Justice League (2017)
- Law Abiding Citizen (2009)
- How I Live Now (2013)
- Fools Rush In (1997)
- The Dukes of Hazzard (2005)
- Good Luck Chuck (2007)
- Gods of Egypt (2016)
- Dark Phoenix (2019)
- What Women Want (2000)
For a complete collection of the “WTF Did I Just Watch” Hall of Fame films included here (as well as a few additional honorable mentions) swing by Nate’s Letterboxd.