4 Best Movies to Watch by John Wood

Staff & contributors

Based on Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando is a fitting adaptation for a groundbreaking story. Changing from man to woman, the titular time traveler is portrayed by the incomparable Tilda Swinton, breaking the fourth wall as if daring anyone to question her casting. But Swinton’s androgynous look and stellar acting make her the perfect choice for this. Her gaze is the anchor that we hold on to as the film glides through the novel’s multiple themes with ease. Through director Grace Potter’s indescribable vision, they create a fantastic film that blurs gender, sex, identity, and time together with the original novel itself.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy

Actor: Anna Farnworth, Anna Healy, Barbara Hicks, Billy Zane, Charlotte Valandrey, Cyril Lecomte, Dudley Sutton, George Antoni, Heathcote Williams, Jerome Willis, Jessica Swinton, Jimmy Somerville, John Grillo, John Wood, Kathryn Hunter, Lothaire Bluteau, Martin Wimbush, Mary MacLeod, Matthew Sim, Oleg Pogodin, Olivia Lancelot, Peter Eyre, Quentin Crisp, Robert Demeger, Roger Hammond, Sara Mair-Thomas, Sarah Crowden, Simon Russell Beale, Thom Hoffman, Tilda Swinton, Toby Jones, Toby Stephens, Viktor Stepanov

Director: Sally Potter

Rating: PG-13

One of Shakespeare’s most indelible works is brought roaring to life in this explosive adaptation. The action is transposed from the 1400s to brutalist 1930s England, with the bloody civil war between the houses of Lancaster and York being waged by tanks and planes instead of cavalry. The switch isn’t merely cosmetic, though: in an inspired move, usurper Richard is reimagined here as the fascist head of an army of Nazi-esque Blackshirts (an analog of real militant far-right leader Oswald Mosley). Ian McKellen, who also co-wrote the screenplay, gives an odious but brilliant performance as the titular Machiavellian schemer who will stop at nothing to seize the crown, even betraying his own blood.

McKellen is joined by a gluttony of acting talent: Maggie Smith plays the King's despairing mother, Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr. are the unfortunate American queen and her brother, while the likes of Jim Broadbent, Bill Paterson, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Jim Carter fill up the royal court. All the richness of Shakespeare’s original writing is retained, charging the performances and the film around them with a grand sense of drama. Peter Biziou’s ostentatious cinematography is a perfect frame for it all, and helps cement this as much, much more than a piece of filmed theater.

Genre: Drama, War

Actor: Adrian Dunbar, Andy Rashleigh, Annette Bening, Bill Paterson, Christopher Bowen, Denis Lill, Derek Lyons, Dominic West, Donald Sumpter, Edward Hardwicke, Edward Jewesbury, Ian McKellen, James Dreyfus, Jim Broadbent, Jim Carter, John Wood, Kate Steavenson-Payne, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Marco Williamson, Michael Elphick, Nigel Hawthorne, Robert Downey Jr., Roger Hammond, Tim McInnerny, Tres Hanley

Director: Richard Loncraine

Rating: R

A wacky viral story — the kind that gets played for laughs at the end of news broadcasts — gets uncommonly deep consideration in this documentary gem. That’s not to say that Finders Keepers ignores the surreal comedy of the situation that John Wood and Shannon Whisnant, two star-crossed North Carolina men, found themselves in in 2007: battling over the custody rights of John’s mummified amputated leg. The humor in this bizarre tale and all the myriad eccentricities of its real-life characters is never left untapped, but to simply focus on that would add nothing new to the way the story had been told thus far. 

Unlike the many clips from news segments and reality TV that we see in the film, Finders Keepers instead looks beyond the low-hanging fruit and finds deep pathos simmering under the surface of this wacky tale. What emerges is a complex, often tragic, and very American picture of the way traumas shape our lives, the addictive pull of drugs and attention, and fate’s habit of twisting nightmares into blessings and vice versa. It’s the kind of film that makes you wonder how many other unexpectedly poignant stories have been short-changed by our impulse to be flippant.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: John Wood, Shannon Whisnant

Director: Bryan Carberry, J. Clay Tweel

Rating: R

At first glance, The Madness of King George seemed like a history lesson about King George III. Like plenty of British royalty dramas, the film has all the opulent trappings in its sets and costumes, as well as some of the best actors from the British isles. However, unlike other depictions of the monarchy, the film depicts the king not as a benevolent ruler or oppressive tyrant– instead, King George III is terribly human, with his memory failing, being unsettled by loss, and concern over his health, which involves having to look at his urine. But the historical satire, based on the 1991 stage play, still manages to have the same mockery towards the opportunistic court, while still retaining sympathy for the very nobility it mocks, through original playwright Alan Bennett’s adept writing, as well as the excellent performance of the stacked ensemble cast.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, History

Actor: Adrian Scarborough, Alan Bennett, Amanda Donohoe, Anthony Calf, Barry Stanton, Caroline Harker, Clive Brunt, Colin McPhillamy, Cyril Shaps, Dermot Keaney, Geoffrey Palmer, Helen Mirren, Iain Mitchell, Ian Holm, Janine Duvitski, Jeremy Child, Jim Carter, Joanna Hall, John Wood, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Julian Wadham, Michael Grandage, Nicholas Irons, Nicholas Selby, Nick Sampson, Nigel Hawthorne, Paul Corrigan, Peter Woodthorpe, Robert Swann, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Roger Hammond, Rupert Everett, Rupert Graves, Selina Cadell, Struan Rodger

Director: Nicholas Hytner

Rating: PG-13