Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Stanley Kubrick Films Ranked, From ‘The Shining’ to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

On what would have been the great director's 89th birthday, the IndieWire staff ranks his 13 feature films.

Stanley Kubrick
Everett Collection/Rex

Today would have been Stanley Kubrick's 89th birthday. The director passed away in 1999 as he was completing his 13th and final feature film, "Eyes Wide Shut," at the age of 70.
In honor of the great director's career, eight members of the IndieWire staff — William Earl, Kate Erbland, David Ehrlich, Eric Kohn, Michael Nordine, Zack Sharf, Anne Thompson, and this author — individually ranked the director's films, which have been averaged together to result in the following list. While Kubrick only made 13 films over a 46-year span, he made more than his fair share of masterpieces. As a sign of just how deep the quality of this list runs, six different titles received first-place votes, while in the final tally the difference between #1 and #7 was razor thin.
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13. "Fear and Desire" (1953)

"Fear and Desire"

At the age of 23, Kubrick was a fairly successful photographer and had made two short films, which he used to raise the money for "Fear and Desire," this story of a soldier who survives a plane crash and lands behind enemy lines. Shot in five weeks in the California mountains with a crew of five, Kubrick thought he would keep costs down by shooting the film without sound and add music and effects in post. The plan backfired, as post-production costs blew well past his budget. The strength of the film lies in the honest, unflinching portrayal of death and man's animal instincts removed from society. The film has a sense of realism, as you can sense the skills of the young documentary photographer behind the lens. Over the years, Kubrick was embarrassed by his first feature and did his best to pull prints from circulation.

12. "Spartacus" (1960)


Star and producer Kirk Douglas fired the great Anthony Mann a week into production and brought aboard a 33-year-old Kubrick, who Douglas thought did a good job with "Paths of Glory." This didn't mean the massive studio epic was to become a Kubrick film, but that didn't stop him from trying. Kubrick butted heads with the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, over the lack of flaws in the hero (which is humorous, if you've seen other epics of this era); he fought with Welles and Sirk's great DP Russell Metty over the framing and lens choice; and he was forced to cut the bloody battle scenes he was most proud of when they proved too disturbing. Ultimately, "Spartacus" ranks as a decent Hollywood epic that contains Kubrick's craft. It was a significant resume builder, and introduced him to larger-format cinematography the and depth of detail it could achieve.

11. "Killer's Kiss" (1955)

"Killers Kiss"

At 26, Kubrick borrowed $40,000 to make his second feature, which he sold to United Artists for $100,000 with a promise of another $100,000 to pay for his third feature, "The Killing." The strength of this film largely comes from Kubrick-the-hotshot-Look-magazine-photographer, rather than Kubrick the budding filmmaker. Shot on location in New York, the film captures the city as it really was, with images that evoke its atmosphere and seedy underbelly. In particular, ta rooftop scene by the waterfront shows how Kubrick's knowledge of the city and light meant he could turn New York into the perfect set. In telling the noir story of a washed-up boxer trying to help a girl tangled in a messy situation, you can feel Kubrick trying to adapt his sense of composition into filmmaking, with an instinct to strip a scene down to its most basic elements.

10. "Lolita"

Adapting Nabokov's novel into a 1962 film was not an easy task. Kubrick had to keep the drama flowing, while keeping the sexuality tacit. (He later remarked he would have never done the film if he'd known the losing battle he'd fight with censors.) Even so, Kubrick implied a great deal in the film's carefully mannered performances and loaded scene transitions.
Putting the book's terrific end at the beginning was a sacrifice, but it also allowed Kubrick to give the film a sense of fatalism as well as a dramatic jump start. More than anything, Kubrick brought humor to the story. Peter Sellers and James Mason are excellent, and Kubrick used them to find the line where he wouldn't undercut the drama and still be playful. It's a film that can feel a little ordinary for Kubrick at first, but with each viewing you can see the director smirking at their predicament and piety. Had Kubrick been unleashed, this likely would have been a full-blown black comedy.

9. "Full Metal Jacket" (1987)

"Full Metal Jacket"
Kubrick's war film splits into two distinct parts that echo each other in a way that isn't blatant or contrived, but starts a conversation in your head about what being a soldier does to your humanity. Part one is like a great one-act play, in which real-life drill sergeant-turned-actor R. Lee Ermey tries to break a flabby Private Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio) into becoming a soldier. Ermey's rapid-fire dialogue is delivered in ways that makes you believe he likely was a tremendous drill sergeant, while at the same with sense of humor that is endlessly quotable and amusing. Underneath the barrage of dialogue comes the arc of a young man who clearly doesn't have the stuff to cut it; the army will bleed him of weakness, even at the cost of his humanity, to turn him into a killer.
For the second half of the film, Kubrick transformed England into Vietnam, blowing up old buildings, importing trees from Hong Kong (along with a plastic jungle from California that he instantly dismissed), and acquiring enough old helicopters and tanks to start his own army. The results are impressive, if not 100 percent up to the impossible standards Kubrick set for himself. At the same time, the battleground is made to feel intentionally foreign, as Matthew Modine's character, as sympathetic observer in part one, tries unsuccessfully to stay on the periphery of war.

8. "The Killing" (1956)

"The Killing"
Kubrick, at 28, believed this was his first "mature" feature. Using his favorite pulp writer Jim Thompson and a cast of characters from his favorite crime films, Kubrick's spin on film noir is immensely entertaining. As they set up the puzzle pieces needed to rob the race track, and it all gloriously falls apart, there's tremendous attention to detail. Kubrick's coolness and sense of humor make this one of the fresher and more enjoyable heist movies ever made. From a Kubrickian studies point of view, you can feel the director's style start to emerge, but you can also see (something Kubrick discovered for himself at the time) that his approach to filmmaking would be much different than his photography. He would need far more control and resources (money!) to bring the exactness that his vision required.

7. "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999)

"Eyes Wide Shut"

There's a misconception that Kubrick was a cold filmmaker. It's more that throughout his career, he never wavered on the perception that humanity has completely screwed itself over with its blind acceptance of the institutions of war, law, and social hierarchies. The institution of marriage and the concept of monogamy fall into the same bucket for Kubrick, although he identifies with his protagonists' struggle — and that intimate relationship is especially clear in this film about a married couple (played by then-husband and wife, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman). As Kubrick was a longtime admirer of Max Ophuls' waltz-like camera movement, you can feel the freedom an older Kubrick has granted himself to let the camera dance. Leaning on the film's Freudian source material, the filmmaker's fascination with the absurd rituals of man bends toward a surreal and dreamlike exploration. Yet this is still Kubrick, as he sets dead aim at privilege and patriarchy — to say nothing of toying with Cruise's persona on and off screen — and the film has all the edge and bite of his previous work.

6. "Paths of Glory" (1957)

"Paths of Glory"
While every bit a Stanley Kubrick film, this pre-1960s masterpiece is a window into an alternate path of Kubrick's career — had he not achieved artistic freedom and practically invented his own personal brand and mode of filmmaking. Kirk Douglas plays a lawyer-turned-colonel in the French Army who, in the midst of World War I trench warfare, must defend three of his men facing the death penalty as a result of their regiment retreating, refusing a senseless order to charge toward certain slaughter. Kubrick has the aristocracy of military power (brought wonderfully to life by Adolphe Menjou) in his crosshairs — but it's the nobility and strength of Douglas' character in the face of senseless death, beautifully realized in the trenches and the court room, that anchors this film.
While the character of men crumbles under extreme pressure, Kubrick creates the most traditional hero in his most traditional narrative. The takeaway is that Kubrick was capable of doing a straightforward drama extremely well, if necessary. The film's end, where Christiane Harlan sings "The Faithful Hussar" in the packed beer hall, is one of the most emotional and effective endings in film history, as the moment of shared humanity brings a tear of reflection to the tragedy that's just unfolded. That the German actress would later become Kubrick's wife and great partner in filmmaking until his own death 42 years later adds an extra layer meaning to his fans.

5. "A Clockwork Orange" (1971)

"A Clockwork Orange"
The social satire of "A Clockwork Orange" has become an accepted part of popular culture, which somewhat masks its status as one of Kubrick's most heady and most risk-taking works. Adapted from Anthony Burgess' 1962 book, it tells the story of Alex (Malcolm McDowell, in one of those roles that sticks to actor for decades) and crews of "droogs," a group of violent juvenile delinquents in a future dystopia. In a film that explores the potential dangers of how behavioral psychology could be used by a totalitarian government, Kubrick was uncharacteristically open in announcing the film's themes he was exploring. He wrote: "It is a story of the dubious redemption of a teenage delinquent by condition-reflex therapy. It is, at the same time, a running lecture on free-will."
The film's subversive brilliance is how Kubrick uses cinema to not only make Alex and his "droogs" palatable, but also uncomfortably entertaining. Kubrick constantly, but expertly, teeters on the line of identification and satire of his nihilistic characters who beat, rape, and steal. In a unique combination of music and costuming — because what thug doesn't wear white leotards, a black derby, and love to kick back to some Beethoven — Kubrick created a cartoonish version of cool. The use of language and voiceover were also precisely executed. Kubrick's decision to use the teenage mode of speech invented by linguist-turned-author Burgess (Nadsat, a form of Russian-influenced English slang) was particularly important; it supplied a necessary distancing tool for the audience to be entertained by Alex's gleefully indifferent and wittily inhumane narration. When juxtaposed with the political doublespeak of government officials, as Kubrick simultaneously skewers the left and the right, the film dramatically switches gears, as the audience is confronted by our own moral attitudes about the constraints of society, government, and the concept of free will.

4. "Barry Lyndon" (1975)

"Barry Lyndon"
Deliberately slow in its pacing and physically distant with an omniscient narrator who pushes us only further away, this film somehow enthralls you to the point that every small gesture is packed with meaning and emotion. Based on a Victorian novel (regarded as the first without a traditional hero), "Barry Lyndon" is the story of a calculating and amoral Irishman (Ryan O'Neil) who climbs society's ladder. Kubrick tells the story with what seems like a cool detachment, but seduces the audience into caring. "Barry Lyndon" is also an impossibly beautiful film and a technical marvel. The director's wide-angle distance is matched with some of his most profound framing and elegant production design, with costumes that tell a rich and layered story. Aided by John Alcott's cinematography, which utilized a special f0.7 lens made by NASA to capture 70mm images lit by candlelight, is is amongst the greatest of all time.

3. "The Shining" (1980)

"The Shining"
It could be argued the most influential film on this current moment in filmmaking is "The Shining." From its more overt psychological approach to genre, use of location, and groundbreaking camera movement, Kubrick's horror classic is a vital touchstone for this generation of filmmakers. Interestingly, it was not widely accepted by critics, who had a hard time connecting to Jack Nicholson's struggling writer who slowly descends into madness as he brings his family to The Overlook Hotel. Kubrick was drawn to making a horror film to explore his deep mistrust of the flaws of man's personality.That the film's incredibly effective scares and sense of unease comes from this exploration, and Nicholson's amazing descent into madness, isn't meant to be welcoming.Yet, at the time, the film was seen as so over the top that it became Kubrick's first film to receive nominations from the Razzies rather than the Academy.
The film's crowning and lasting achievement, however, is the way Kubrick married his precise sense of composition and pacing with a moving camera that brought the film's psychological underbelly to life. Experimenting with Steadicam inventor and operator Garrett Brown, Kubrick put the new tool to use and, in the process of doing 50 repeat takes, helped Brown perfect his invention.

2. "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964)

"Dr. Strangelove"
FilmStruck / Criterion Collection
One of the keys to understanding the brilliance of this black-comedy masterpiece is Kubrick initially set out to make a more straightforward thriller about a nuclear-weapons crisis. In the process of doing extensive research, Kubrick couldn't get past the absurdity of the "mutual assured destruction" theory that justified both sides of the Cold War endlessly stockpiling nuclear bombs as they gamed out doomsday scenarios. Thinking of our current political moment (which understandably has artists befuddled about how to handle it), the idea that Kubrick made this comedic masterpiece in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisist and on the eve of the Vietnam War is truly remarkable. What's even more amazing is, close to 30 years after the end of the Cold War, the film still feels just as fresh and insightful.
As Kubrick delights in skewering real-life political realities and figures, the key is his deft touch with comedy. Reluctantly accepting Columbia Pictures' insistence that Peter Sellers play four different roles (he ultimately only played three) after the financial success of the comedian playing multiple roles in "The Mouse That Roared," Kubrick turned the studio mandate to his advantage as Sellers supplied the exact slow-burn comedic timing needed to draw pitch-perfect performances from dramatic actors like George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden. Yet all the role playing and madcap humor were  a delivery device for Kubrick to hold up a mirror to a world on the brink of destroying itself.

1. "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)

"2001: A Space Odyssey"
Looking back now, with the hindsight of nearly 50 years, it is still hard to fully appreciate just how visionary Kubrick was as a filmmaker, technician, and thinker. With little precedence, Kubrick brought to life an artistic use of sci-fi visual effects (in great collaboration with Douglas Trumbull) and a vision of artificial intelligence (in great collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke) that not only still feels fresh, but embarrasses (or at least it should) filmmakers in 2017.
Determined to make a different type of sci-fi film, Kubrick recruited Clarke to help him develop a story that explored man's relationship to the universe. Simultaneously, the two worked on a novel and screenplay, using an early work of Clarke's as starting point, to flesh out the genre-altering screenplay. For all of their different versions (and abandoned elements) as they struggled to work out the complexities, and for all the cutting-edge technical engineering the film required, Kubrick's existential vision of "2001" is brilliantly simple and cinematically exact. It's as transcendent, bold, and distilled as any film ever made.

One of the most important aspects of the film that rarely gets discussed is how important it was to Kubrick's career. This was not a film that took years to be appreciated. While initial reaction was mixed, it slowly steamrolled its way throughout the year (not that long ago, films weren't defined by their opening-weekend box office) to become the highest-grossing film of 1968. Yet it's easy to imagine how a heady film of this scope could have become an extremely expensive art-film flop. One of the keys to Kubrick, intentional or not, was he was at least somewhat in tune to the zeitgeist. While that's not by any means a prerequisite of great art, the fact that this film was a breakthrough sensation and captured the imagination of the public, one year before we put a man on the moon, solidified his reputation as a visionary.

By 1972, "2001" was already appearing on the Sight and Sound's once-a-decade poll of the greatest films ever made. The artistic and financial freedom he gained from Warner Bros. as a result defined his later career, and allowed him to make his last five films in his own unorthodox, obsessive, and unimpeded way. While it's fun to debate which film is Kubrick's best, this was the one that defined him.

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