He may come fourth in this monthly blogathon, but Stanley Kubrick could arguably be called the best film director of all time. I wish he’d been able to prove his talent more often — like, say, Hitchcock, Bergman, Friedkin, and Scorsese — but if he took his sweet time making films, that was what he needed to perfect his artistry; in this he was like Terrence Malick. Practically everything has been said about him: he pushed himself into all genres; he never made the same film twice; he refused to be intimidated by controversy; he had a gifted eye for color and lighting, and a brilliant ear for scoring; most importantly, from an early point in his career, he never made a bad or mediocre film that he didn’t have complete control over. In what follows, I consider all of his films from Paths of Glory and beyond, which is ten. I’m leaving aside the very early films, mostly because I saw them once and hardly remember them, but also because Kubrick himself considered them more amateur attempts.
[It’s worth noting that every one of Kubrick’s films since Paths of Glory is based on a literary work. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a creator. He generated as much as he took over, which is why Stephen King hated The Shining so notoriously; its tone and thrust shared little in common with his book. Kubrick was a supreme interpreter, able to crack the codes of literature so they worked magic on screen. To hang on a text’s every word is to fail in the cinematic task, and that’s what defeated King’s corrective version of The Shining made for TV.]
Update: See also Carson Lund’s rankings of Kubrick.
1. Eyes Wide Shut. 1999. 5 stars. [Based on Dream Story, by Arthur Schnitzler, 1926.] Kubrick’s last film is his best, and it’s tragic he never saw the finished product. It marries a perfect aesthetic to lustful themes both real and imagined. It’s pessimistic and optimistic at the same time, portraying monogamy as suffocating and stifling, but ending with a married couple’s acceptance of each other despite this hard truth. As always for Kubrick, emotion has to be teased out from under cold surfaces, and this works better than ever in the context of a Christmas-seasoned dreamscape. It’s almost the inverse of Mulholland Drive, where the fantasy’s power is suddenly felt as it bridges reality. Here the fantasy is real — every weird thing that happens to Bill on his night out a nectar, from professions of love next to a patient’s corpse, to a young girl’s seductive airs at a costume shop, to finally, the outrageous orgy of masked performers. It’s the best snails-paced film I know of that carries excitement in every frame.
2. The Shining. 1980. 5 stars. [Based on The Shining, by Stephen King, 1977.] Stephen King hated it so much he made a corrective version for T.V., but not half as good or scary. Kubrick hit a home run because he took the skeleton of a haunted hotel story and fleshed it out with more uncompromising terrors and a unique tone that doesn’t let you tell yourself things are going to be okay. The result may be more minimalist than what King intended, but it’s sure as hell more effective, and that’s what any true horror artist aims for. Scenes I took to bed too often: Danny’s vision of the two hacked-up little girls in the hallway, the look on Wendy’s face when she discovers Jack has been typing the same sentence over and over for weeks, Jack’s sinister face appearing in a hotel painting in the final shot after he dies. Every frame of this picture, every intonation of the score, is part of an overarching terror that only Kubrick could have realized on screen. If not for The Exorcist, this would be the best horror film of all time.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey. 1968. 5 stars. [Based on The Sentinel, by Arthur C. Clarke, 1951.] If the best fantasy picture (Lord of the Rings) is a blockbuster grounded in soul, the best science fiction film is anti-blockbuster in the extreme, and seemingly soulless to those who don’t grasp Kubrick well. I used to respect Space Odyssey from a distance, admiring the aesthetic around the difficulty of “experiencing” it, but in recent years that distance collapsed; now it’s a Kubrick favorite. It’s intensely visionary, plumbing the vastness of space through some of the most ecstatic imagery ever put on celluloid. And there are pure genius shots like the falling bone from the primitive chimpanzee age “becoming” the space shuttle in the 21st century. There’s only one film that has accomplished what Space Odyssey did to perfection, namely Tree of Life, in showing humanity so humbled by celestial mysteries. And make no mistake, there’s soul to be found in places you least expect, if you have the heart to feel it.
4. Barry Lyndon. 1975. 5 stars. [Based on The Luck of Barry Lyndon, by William Makepeace Thackeray, 1844.] Anyone who believes that Kubrick’s work lacks life and emotion hasn’t seen Barry Lyndon. The scene with Barry weeping over the bed of his crippled son has me doing the same, even if I loathe him by this point in the story. This is certainly Kubrick’s most epic film, a period piece that chronicles the rise of an 18th-century Irish peasant to a wealthy noble, who ultimately loses his fortune. It tends to slide under the radar of Kubrick discussions, and I’m not sure why. When given its due, the use of natural lighting (especially candlelight) is rightly underscored as genius; the technique makes it seem like you’re watching a series of antique paintings come to life instead of celluloid. Kubrick evokes the Enlightenment era with ease, though there seems precious little enlightening about this world of primitive warfare, ugly duels, brawls, and dishonest gambling… after three hours you almost forget who you are and what values you hold.
5. Paths of Glory. 1957. 4 ½ stars. [Based on Paths of Glory, by Humphrey Cobb, 1935.] Kubrick’s most straightforward film is top-notch, proving that artistry can rely on certain measures of formula and little digressive fanfare. On top of that, it’s polemical, and yet manages to press its clear anti-war agenda without any sanctimony. That message is that soldier grunts are worthless pawns, to be thrown away for the sake of their superiors’ aggrandizement, and that military tribunals are parodies of justice. The suicidal attempt to take the hill holds up astonishingly well after so many decades (much as Spielberg tried, he didn’t quite surpass this brutal intensity in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan), and the court marshal of the second part remains as good as any courtroom drama. And then there’s the final scene: the poor ridiculed stage-singer who manages to shatter everyone’s soul, a moment’s epiphany in a cruel uncaring world.
6. Full Metal Jacket. 1987. 4 ½ stars. [Based on The Short-Timers, by Gustav Hasford, 1979.] I had difficulty knowing where to rank this one. Like the novel, it’s three stories in one, the first of which is excellent, the second a bit middling, and the third somewhere in-between. But I’ve seen the boot-camp part so many times it’s ridiculous. Gunnery Sergeant Hartman is for me the most entertaining character ever, and Full Metal Jacket is defined by his performance. As a nineteen-year old, I remember thinking he went over-the-top for sake of theater, but quickly learned that R. Lee Ermey had been a real-life drill instructor, and that Kubrick allowed him to edit his own dialogue and improvise as he saw fit. I still have his lines memorized — which I admit is rather pathetic, given the dominance of vulgarities — and stand in awe at the levels of obscene abuse that can heaped on fresh recruits. The film breaks down a bit in the middle part (which feels more like Europe than Vietnam), but the sniper thriller at the end pulls it back on its feet.
7. Dr. Strangelove. 1964. 4 ½ stars. [Based on Red Alert, by Peter George, 1958.] For some this is Kubrick’s ultimate masterpiece, for others the greatest comedy of all time; it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. I’m not that wild about Dr. Strangelove, but then I’m a hard one to scratch with comedy. That’s especially true of war comedy, which is why I had problems with some of the middle act of Full Metal Jacket. But I’m praising with faint damn: this remains a classic for good reason, with terrific performances from Peter Sellers who plays literally three characters: the captain serving under the renegade general who orders the strike on Russia, the president of the United States who does his damndest to recall the attack, and of course Dr. Strangelove, the president’s scientific adviser who was once a Nazi. The story jumps around three settings, from the patriotic pump-ups in the fighter jets, to the paranoid rantings of the war-mongering general, to the desperate efforts in the War Room to recall the flight. The War Room is easily one of the best cinematic set pieces ever built.
8. A Clockwork Orange. 1971. 4 stars. [Based on A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, 1962.] If there’s any Kubrick film I’d have the impertinence to call overrated, it would be this one. Of course, it’s still very good, and I was always astonished by Roger Ebert’s scathing indictment of it as both “a paranoid right-wing fantasy” and an apology for criminal behavior (that “in a world where society is criminal, the citizen might as well be a criminal too”)! Not only are these contradictory, neither is true. Kubrick asks us to identify with a scumbag in the first part so that we can feel crushed by state tyranny in the second, not to justify the former as to underscore its inevitability: violence begets violence. It’s a nihilistic message, but doesn’t completely shut out hope for humanity’s self-improvement. As for being “right-wing”, I, for one, endorse capital punishment for people like Alex, which is more humane (for them) and more safe (for society) than the “rehabilitation” on display in this film. I doubt Kubrick shares my view given Paths of Glory; he simply imagines Britain pushed to totalitarianism in the wake of many changes of the ’60s, the abolition of the death penalty being but one.
9. Lolita. 1962. 3 stars. [Based on Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, 1955.] This is a case where drastic departures from the source material were for the worse, but Kubrick had no choice. No one could make a film in the early ’60s (at least not in America) about a man having an affair with a 12-year old nymphet, and do it justice. Kubrick later stated that had he known the censors would wield such control over his picture, he would have never tried making Lolita in the first place. This film’s Lolita is supposedly 14 but looks 17, which may make Humbert an ephebophile (depending what state you’re in), but certainly not what any sane person would call a pervert. And this was an age in cinema when you couldn’t show two people on a bed unless one person’s leg touched the floor. All things considered, I’m amazed I have anything good to say about Lolita, but some of it does work well, and I thoroughly enjoy Peter Sellers’ impostering performances.
10. Spartacus. 1960. 2 stars. [Based on Spartacus, by Howard Fast, 1951.] As with Lolita, it’s not fair to fault Kubrick here, since he wasn’t ultimately calling the shots (Lolita and Spartacus are the only two films on this list which Kubrick didn’t produce as well as direct.) I’ll let him speak here: “I tried with only limited success to make Spartacus as historically real as possible but I was up against a pretty dumb script which was rarely faithful to what is known about Spartacus. If I ever needed any convincing of the limits of persuasion a director can have on a film where someone else is the producer and he is merely the highest-paid member of the crew, then Spartacus provided proof to last a lifetime.” Not to mention all the gruesome battle sequences that were censored; Kubrick wanted to convey the horrendous costs of any war, even the most noble crusades to liberate slaves. Attempts to make authentic films like Lolita and Spartacus in the early ’60s, without complete control of your film, were doomed to fall short of greatness.
Next month: William Friedkin.