The Best of Stanley Kubrick

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Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) is one of the most important and influential filmmakers of all time.  For generations of movie buffs and aspiring cineastes, he was a model of visual innovation and creative autonomy, and it was Kubrick, before anyone else, who came to embody the popular conception of what a movie director should be.  If the old stereotype of the Silent Era and the Hollywood Golden Age portrayed a beret-topped megalomaniac with a bullhorn, shouting orders at armies of extras – Cecil B. DeMille or Erich von Stroheim, say – Kubrick epitomized the new breed:  a quietly authoritative genius who oversaw every aspect of his productions, who immersed himself in his subjects before shooting a single take, and whose work reflected a personal touch in every frame.  Kubrick was also, it should be remembered, a producer or co-producer of his best films, and so had a control over his material that mere journeymen never acquired.  Of all American directors, Stanley Kubrick is the one most responsible for taking the medium from the realm of show business to that of art.

In the years since his death, however, the main argument to emerge against Kubrick’s stature is in his very abbreviated canon.  Kubrick directed eleven studio-backed movies between 1956 and 1999, a number dwarfed by many of his contemporaries and inheritors over a similar stretch of time.  Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, Martin Scorcese, Steven Spielberg – all of them made (or are still making) many more films than Kubrick and have a much broader range of pictures from which to gauge a style or theme.  More isn’t necessarily better, of course, but there is a sense that Kubrick’s limited oeuvre forces his individual movies to hold up to higher cinematic standards than those of more prolific filmmakers.  Most do, in fact, but some don’t, and here is where the debate begins.  Admitting that numeric ranking is a highly subjective and really very imperfect means of critical assessment, the following list is nonetheless offered to spur disagreement and dialogue among admirers of the late, legendary Stanley Kubrick.   Remember:  in contrast to the War Room, you can fight in here.

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11  Eyes Wide Shut (1999) Kubrick’s final movie, released just weeks after he passed away at his English home, was a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise stellar career.  Based – like all his films – on a previous literary work, in this case Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Novel, the picture attempted to address the issue of sexual jealousy within an otherwise secure marriage, but the elaborately contrived premise of secret orgies and upper-class kinks seemed outmoded in the emancipated late Twentieth Century.  Much was made of the then-husband-and-wife leads of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, of the posthumous digital alteration of a sex scene, and of Kubrick’s very long shooting schedule for what was essentially a domestic drama, yet despite the best efforts of the actors and some striking imagery and musical selections, Eyes Wide Shut demonstrated, as had David Cronenberg’s Crash, Adrian Lyne’s 9 ½ Weeks, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris before it, that solemn and surreal depictions of supposed “decadence” can descend into the ridiculous.  Though Eyes Wide Shut has its defenders among devoted Kubrickians, the wider public consensus has deemed it an indulgent, ornate muddle.

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10  Spartacus (1960)   A frustrating experience for Kubrick, called in to replace Anthony Mann at the request of producer and star Kirk Douglas, the filmmaker managed to impart only some of his directorial stamp to this big-budget sword-and-sandal epic, his first color picture.  A few shots show his flair for strong geometric compositions (e.g. the long takes of the Roman armies massing against Spartacus and his men), and he drew good performances from a top-notch cast (Peter Ustinov won an Academy Award for Supporting Actor), but the historical weight and drawn-out plot of a slave rebellion in Imperial Rome worked against his instincts toward ironic detachment.  Given his role as hired gun rather than conceptual overseer, some scholars discount Spartacus as a true Kubrick movie, although the film endures as an unusually cerebral contribution to an often sensationalistic genre.

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9 The Killing (1956) Kubrick’s initial studio effort made his name in the industry for its taut depiction of a racetrack heist that transcended the noirish clichés found in most of the period’s crime stories.  Here is a very early example of the pitiless objectivity Kubrick would consistently bring to his narratives – showing the viewer only the fundamental actions of his characters without resort to emotional prompting, as in the coldly clinical timing of the robbery, the seedy, cynical betrayals among the crooks, and the final disaster which blows it all for the gang’s leader, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden).  Though mired in the familiar 1950s trappings of gangsters, guns, and hardboiled dames, The Killing contains sure signs of more original output to come.

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8 Barry Lyndon (1975) Gorgeously photographed by John Alcott and rich in period detail (designer Ken Adam won an Academy Award), Kubrick’s Nineteenth-Century costume drama is lovely to look at but a challenge to enjoy.  The rise and fall across Europe of the adventuring titular antihero (Ryan O’Neal, doing his best) doesn’t carry much momentum or tension, moving from episode to episode in Barry’s life without imparting a discernible thesis.  It’s possible to read the film as another of Kubrick’s big-plans-gone-awry messages – the folly of grand ambitions and rational purposes – but the languid pace detracts from the impact.  Kubrick’s biggest unrealized project was to be the vast biopic Napoleon, and the historical background and painterly settings of Barry Lyndon suggest the movie he wanted to make as much as the one he actually did.

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7 Full Metal Jacket (1987) The conventional wisdom is, in this case, on the mark:  the training scenes that comprise the first half of the picture, dominated by superb performances from Lee Ermey and Vincent D’Onofrio, are classic Kubrick; but with the move to Saigon and Hue in the second half the movie settles into being just another Vietnam story.  In the wake of The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Platoon (1986), Kubrick’s take on America in Indochina was bound to be a bit derivative, so it’s to his credit that he managed to make something this original, at least those parts with Sergeant Hartman and Private Pyle on Parris Island.  Ermey’s Hartman, in particular, is one of the director’s most impressive constructions, and remains one of the most iconic figures from his or anyone else’s films.

Andy's Film Blog: Lolita (1962 and 1997)

6  Lolita (1962) An astringent black comedy that’s as faithful to Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece as could be allowed at the time, Lolita shows Kubrick’s deadpan visual delivery entering its peak phase.  The filmmaker’s gift for eliciting raw, even embarrassing, exhibitions from his actors is demonstrated in his development of James Mason’s Humbert, Shelley Winters’ Charlotte Haze, and Sue Lyon’s Lolita:   though he’s often recalled as a framer of arresting, wordless pictorial arrangements, it’s in the subtle gestures and timings of individual performances where Kubrick’s touch is often more acute (Mason in particular, like his character, is pushed to his limit).  Compared to other “controversial” movies from the era, Lolita seems almost futuristic – the Coen brothers are still getting mileage out of the same ironic devices as are employed here – and holds up well over fifty years on.

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5  The Shining (1980) Forget the extravagant conspiracy theories of Room 237 – the claustrophobic horror of isolation, insanity, and maybe even actual ghosts are the real subjects, and Kubrick captures them with some of his most indelible staging and imagery.  While much of the snowbound menace goes back to Stephen King’s source novel, the movie, with its labyrinthine Steadicam shots and Jack Nicholson’s celebrated realization of the disintegrating Jack Torrance, is instantly recognizable as the work of only one possible director.  Kubrick’s penchant for long takes and very gradual buildup defies the ordinary contrivances of the genre, and some horror fans have complained about exactly that, but the consequence is a rare fright flick that’s scarier to the intellect than to the senses.  Another strength that’s frequently overlooked (pun intended?):  a great pick of ominous existing music (Bartók, Ligeti, Penderecki) reveals Kubrick’s always-inventive scoring strategy.   And once and for all, the helicopter shadow in the title sequence is only visible on video – nitpickers are referred to the theatrical aspect ratio in which it was photographed.

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4  Paths of Glory (1957) This, one of the greatest of all war movies, is the work of a director not yet thirty years old.   All the elements that characterized the mature Kubrick of the 1960s and 70s are in full flower here:  the careful attention to technical accuracy; the reverse tracking shots (Kirk Douglas’ Colonel Dax and his visitors winding their way through the trenches); the hints of black humor (Generals Mireau and Broulard haggling over how many soldiers ought to be executed for cowardice); the nakedly vulnerable extremes of acting (Timothy Carey’s Private Ferol stands out); and the neat symbolism of the visual arrangements (notice the chessboard of the trial room and the triptych of the execution).   The disastrous attack on the Ant Hill over no man’s land continues to pack a visceral punch almost sixty years later, and the poignant futility of the story anticipates the pessimism of Kubrick’s later projects but without their sometimes glacial tempi.  Though the conclusion has been criticized as an upbeat cop-out, it’s nice to see a charming cameo from Christiane Harlan, a lovely actress and the future Mrs. Kubrick.

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3  A Clockwork Orange (1971) Kubrick’s unforgettable dystopia of the ultimate near-future nanny state is the film which, if there were any lingering doubts, confirmed his rank as the most innovative and uncompromising moviemaker of his generation, and Malcolm McDowell’s Alex may be the most recognizable face from the crowded gallery of haunting Kubrick-created personas.  The amoral violence, loveless sex, and state-sanctioned brainwashing of Anthony Burgess’ satiric novel were represented with a clinical dispassion (some shots have an almost fish-eyed perspective) which was shockingly repellent in the early 1970s and which can still be hard to take now; nobody who’s watched it can ever hear “Singin’ in the Rain” or the William Tell Overture the same way.  Even so, A Clockwork Orange is said to stand for a humanist defense of free will and social responsibility, suggesting that even wanton criminals have a right to choose between good and evil.   Not everyone buys that, and there’s a lingering suspicion that Kubrick was only conducting an endurance test of visual style during a period of widening cinematic boundaries, but whether a conscientious case for personal liberty or a groundbreaking exercise in filmed brutality (even the buildings are ugly), this is by far the director’s most divisive and disturbing picture.

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2  2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)     Rightly hailed as a technical and artistic watershed, 2001 is the work which marks the evolution of the medium from photographed drama to a vehicle of pure sensory experience.  The pioneering special effects, breathtaking wide-screen cinematography, and post-literate communication of cosmic awe changed film, and Kubrick’s reputation, forever.  Like most of his other pictures, too, this contributed several immortal phrases, melodies, and images to our cultural vocabulary:  the Monolith; Moon-watcher and the bone; “The Blue Danube”; “Also Spake Zarathrusta”; “I’m afraid, Dave”; “Daisy”; the Star-Child.   Critics of 1968 expecting a suspenseful, easily intelligible space adventure came away confounded, and newcomers today may have the same reaction, but received with an open (or expanded) mind, the movie can now be seen as a new form of expression that pondered the mysteries of the universe to convey the possibilities of the filmmaker’s vision. And vice-versa.

Double Take: Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964)

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1  Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) At once Stanley Kubrick’s most profound and most accessible movie, made roughly at the midway point of his career, the apocalyptic Cold War comedy is his most successful synthesis of onscreen action and intellectual implication.  Other of his pictures had provocative ideas but lethargic pace; some had compelling narratives but incoherent intentions; others had vivid visuals but sterile settings; Dr. Strangelove has all the pros and none of the cons.  Here the subjects of nuclear brinksmanship and the balance of terror (from Peter George’s 1958 novel Two Hours to Doom) are hilariously and chillingly deconstructed in an exciting conjecture that was all too relevant in the epoch of deterrence and right-wing paranoia, and that hasn’t lost much currency since – the occasionally ponderous orchestrations of theme and choreography of movement which marked Kubrick’s subsequent films are nowhere to be found on Burpleson Air Base, in the War Room, and aboard Major Kong’s B-52.  Props are also owed to the crucial inputs of co-screenwriter Terry Southern, designer Ken Adam, cameraman Gil Taylor, and of course actors George C. Scott, Slim Pickens, and Peter Sellers.  Contesting Kubrickians may substitute in first place the celestial meditations of 2001, the erotic intrigue of Eyes Wide Shut, the corrosive innuendo of Lolita, the lost age of Barry Lyndon, the frozen nightmare of The Shining, or any of the cineaste’s inimitable productions, but for this lifelong devotee, the Doctor is in.  Peace on Earth, and we’ll meet again.