Stanley Kubrick is probably the best director I’ve come across. The tight control he exerts over his films makes him a force to be reckoned with in cinema. While not all of his films are enjoyable or even good in the strictest sense of the word, they are almost always thematically and philosophically challenging and technically innovative. He is also a textbook example of an auteur; with almost every one of his films you can tell he made it. Calling someone the best director ever is basically impossible to do correctly, but these qualities of Stanley Kubrick’s motivate me to do so in his case.
The best thing about Kubrick in my opinion is how he uses the camera to define his own attitude toward the material. In his best and most Kubricky films, there is another dimension besides simply what is going on onscreen, and that is how Kubrick feels about it. I actually think Paths of Glory best illustrates this, even though it is not necessarily my favorite film of his. You can tell he disapproves of the French army’s actions when the camera stops following them around the room. Barry Lyndon is another good example; the main character is terribly boring but Kubrick’s vaguely amused attitude towards him is anything but.
Like many American directors, Kubrick was an expert in tackling different genres and making them his own. He did almost everything; sci-fi with 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, film noir with The Killing (and Killer’s Kiss too, but we don’t like to talk about that one), costume picture with Barry Lyndon, sword and sandals epic with Spartacus, horror with The Shining, and multiple war films with Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, and Full Metal Jacket. Like many other more contemporary directors working with genre, Kubrick didn’t just make genre films, he reinvented them to his own particular sensibility. Yes, The Shining is a horror film, but it’s barely even scary. He always made Kubrick films first and foremost, transforming what lessor directors would use as merely a convenient blueprint in order to comment on it and the larger philosophical issues he was always concerned with.
And boy, was Kubrick ever philosophical. It’s apparent through the fact that many of his characters did not seem to be active human characters as we normally see in movies that Kubrick was always concerned with broader philosophical issues larger than even the human race as a whole. Individuals largely served as examples of how the universe acts on us tiny humans. While this attitude might get a little depressing, it’s always inspiring to me to see a filmmaker attempting to grapple with issues so large over and over again in his films, and largely, succeeding.
With those thoughts, I’m now going to go into my traditional ranking of all his films. As always, I concede that ranking films is somewhat of a pointless exercise, but one I enjoy doing anyway. It may be impossible and pointless to weigh the merits of say, The Killing against The Shining, but I like talking about the films and I like making lists, so here we go!
His filmography: Fear and Desire (1953), Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
Coming in at number thirteen is….
Fear and Desire (1953)
Fear and Desire definitely deserves to be at the bottom of this list, and I’m sure Kubrick himself would agree. There are some interesting shots and themes, but overall the film is just a lot of murky existential worrying. It doesn’t have a plot or characters that we can care about. The acting is pretty uneven. Kubrick’s location is pretty cool, there is that interesting bit with the girl and the obsessed soldier, and there is some interesting Eisensteinian editing in there too, but it’s still not enough to keep you watching through the films’ 72 minute running time. Kubrick shows promise in his first feature, but unfortunately not much else. (2/4 stars)
Coming in at number twelve is….
Killer’s Kiss (1955)
Killer’s Kiss is an interesting film, better than Fear and Desire by a mile, but still not good by any means. Kubrick has something that more resembles a story here, and even though it’s not very compelling at least you have something to follow unlike Fear and Desire. It’s interesting to see Kubrick incorporate many film noir elements, something that would only get better in his next film, The Killing. (2.5/4 stars)
Coming in at number eleven is….
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
I’m sorry to say that Full Metal Jacket is not a movie I enjoy. Sure, the first half is pretty funny if you like over the top profanity, but Kubrick has done anti-war better, and the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone have done anti-Vietnam war better. The second half just bores me to tears, and the themes of the duality of man are hammered in way too hard. I have read and heard interesting takes on this movie, but when I watch it, I personally don’t see much in it unfortunately. (2.5/4 stars)
Coming in at number ten is….
Spartacus is a good movie, but it’s not a Kubrick movie. If you like epics, you’ll probably like this one. Kirk Douglass is pretty good in it, and Laurence Olivier is even better. There are a lot of humorous moments with the Romans, even if the slaves are kind of boring. It’s a good movie, and an entertaining one. However, the studio interference that Kubrick suffered through definitely shows; you can’t even really tell he made the film. The classic Kubrick detachment isn’t there, neither is the symmetry nor the ostentatious tracking shots. It’s unfortunate, but the film is still incredibly watchable. If it had been directed by almost anybody but Kubrick, it’d be a lot higher on the list. (3/4 stars)
Coming in at number nine is….
Lolita‘s topic is not something that I feel allowed to find any enjoyment in, but because it’s Kubrick making the film it proves to be more interesting than one would think. For one thing, they age Lolita up so it’s not quite as disgusting, and for another, I find it fascinating how Lolita prefigures what Kubrick does with his final film, Eyes Wide Shut. I never would have noticed this without taking the Kubrick class, but the way Kubrick shoots the film puts real doubts onto Humbert’s reliability. Much of the time, you never really see the face of any of Peter Sellers’ characters, and oftentimes he and James Mason do not occupy the frame at the same time. Sellers’ myriad of character may be serving as incarnations of Mason’s conscience. This not only gives the movie are more interesting moral dimension, but also is interesting from a cinematography standpoint, one which I wasn’t clued into while watching this film previously. Lolita also functions are a parody of melodrama at times, which can actually lead to a bit of humor surprisingly enough. So while Lolita was a film I initially disliked, being forced to watch it again in a more academic mindset helped me change my mind a bit (though it’s still not a feel good movie of the year by any stretch of the imagination). (originally at 2.5/4 stars, I’d have to at least bring it up to 3/4 stars at this point)
Coming in at number eight is….
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A Clockwork Orange is low on the list for similar reasons as Lolita is; in fact, I’m not really sure which film is more disturbing. This one is certainly more graphic. There are two reasons it is up as high as it is: 1) it exhibits Kubrick’s style better, and 2) it gives you more to think about, even if Kubrick’s point of view is possibly flawed. It tangles with some classic Kubrick themes such as the existence of free will. Kubrick is at his best, I think, when you can tell what he thinks about the material he’s working with, when the point of the movie is not what is happening onscreen but how Kubrick is shooting it to show his own point of view. He does that in this film to a greater extent than anything below, so even though I never hope to set my eyes on this film again, I gave it a fairly high grade and put it up higher on this list than I would have otherwise. (3/4 stars) [note: I have set eyes on this film again and it’s more tolerable the second time around, but I still don’t really know what Kubrick’s getting at here]
Coming in at number seven is….
The Killing (1956)
The Killing is Kubrick’s first real Kubrick movie. It’s remarkable to see how he came from Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss to this film. Kubrick’s close ups in this film are phenomenal, starting his tendency to frame actors in unsettling ways. His emphasis on planning and timing plays into the larger existentialism of the film. The film’s cast, led by Sterling Hayden, is stacked with wonderful character actors. It’s not Kubrick’s best film obviously, but it’s really good and shows where it all began. (3.5/4 stars)
Coming in at number six is….
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
I feel bad putting 2001 this low; at this point it’s more of a personal preference than anything else. 2001 revolutionized both science fiction and filmmaking in general; if anyone puts it at the top of Kubrick’s list you won’t hear any complaints from me. Why do I have it so low then? The drawbacks for me are the drawbacks most will list, the only entertaining part is in the middle with HAL, the ending is really confusing, and the whole thing is just too damn long. Is it a great movie? Yes, definitely. One of my favorites? Unfortunately not. (3.5/4 stars)
Coming in at number five is…
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Though like 2001, not much happens in Barry Lyndon, I’m very fond of this movie. Partially because it’s relatively overlooked in Kubrick’s filmography, but also just because I find it rather amusing. While there won’t be a lot of laugh out loud moments, Kubrick’s vaguely dismissive attitude toward Barry and his life story is quite humorous. On top of that, the film is gorgeous to look at, shot with almost only available light, with painterly compositions and ornate costumes. While Kubrick’s effort at a costume drama may put some to sleep, personally, it’s one of my favorites from him. (3.5/4 stars)
Coming in at number four is…
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
I think Eyes Wide Shut is one of Kubrick’s most challenging films, and like Barry Lyndon, one of his less popular ones. Having just rewatched it, I can’t really shed any more light on what is happening here than I could on a first watch, but the dreamlike atmosphere has me appreciating it just as much on the second. Tom Cruise gives an genuinely surprising performance as everyman Dr. Bill Harford, who is just slightly too awkward and confused to get anywhere with anyone in New York. Eyes Wide Shut may be one of Kubrick’s relatively unknown films, but for me, it’s one of his more worthwhile ones. (4/4 stars)
Coming in at number three is…
Paths of Glory (1957)
Paths of Glory is a film that impressed me more initially than on subsequent rewatches, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a remarkable film. Kubrick tangles with war a second time, and with much greater success than in the horribly uneven Fear and Desire. I think he hits upon the horrors of war here more effectively than in Full Metal Jacket, which stylistically can be easily confused with a more gung-ho war picture. Kirk Douglas’s performance may have made the movie into something Kubrick wasn’t necessarily going for, but I enjoy it all the same. Most importantly, the camera lets you know exactly how Kubrick feels about all of this, which is nothing but contempt. (4/4 stars)
Coming in at number two is…
The Shining (1980)
It causes me physical pain to put The Shining at number 2. In a lot of ways, I think it’s Kubrick’s best film and I may even like it more than the film I put at number 1. But as I explained in my recent top 20 of all-time list, I really have a history with that film that I don’t have with The Shining, and when the films are basically perfect in every other way, you have to distinguish them based on something. The Shining has everything I love about Kubrick’s films and almost none of the bad; long tracking shots, rigid compositions, an interesting examination of free-will, ambiguity, and characters that kind of act like robots (though less so here than in some of his other films). The Overlook Hotel is one of the most memorable settings for a movie you’ll ever see. My favorite thing about this movie though, is the gender dynamics at play. Kubrick interacts with issues of class, race, and gender more obviously (to me anyway) here than in any other of his films, and I love it for that. (4/4 stars)
Coming in at number one is….
I just have to put Strangelove at number one. It’s the first Kubrick film I saw and is damn near perfect. Peter Sellers is used much more effectively used here than in Kubrick’s previous Lolita, Sterling Hayden gives a hysterical performance, and George C Scott blows all of these great actors out of the water. Strangelove is one of the funniest movies of all time, combining a high brow liberal social conscience with Kubrick’s signature low brow humor. Terrifyingly realistic and completely insane at the same time, Dr. Strangelove may not be Kubrick’s masterpiece in every book, but it is in mine. (4/4 stars)
That’s a wrap on my examination of Kubrick’s filmography, finally. I finished watching the films themselves last October, but still had a bunch of rewatching to do, so now that’s finally done and out of the way. Kubrick joins the illustrious ranks of directors whose filmographies I’ve completed, as if that’s even a category anyone cares about. Though it may not seem like it from my bashing of classics like Full Metal Jacket, A Clockwork Orange, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, I really do think Kubrick’s the best. I am both happy and sad to have finished up his filmography. But enough about what I think- anyone out there have their own opinions on Kubrick’s work? Who thinks I put 2001 waaaaaayyy too low on the list? Does anyone think I should have put The Shining above Strangelove after all? Anyone think my reevaluation of Lolita is completely insane? I’m looking forward to discussing Kubrick with anyone interested; thanks for reading and feel free to comment below.