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Stanley Kubrick: His Movies from the Best to Worst
Stanley Kubrick began as a photographer and then came to make several films (both short and feature) that he was not very proud of, but his work quickly became marked by a visual flair and focus on large themes.
He would also come to make films that were stand-alone projects in some ways, telling stories of great diversity (including in a different genre or sphere in just about every film).
I have not included the shorter films or the short features made before “The Killing.” And while “Paths of Glory” is my favourite film by him, it is my view that his greatest achievements (due to their scope and significant implications) were the two movies I have listed before that.
Without any further ado, here are my vote for the top Kubrick films and the others in his filmography (most of which were either good or solid films or that had great and highly engaging aspects to them), beginning with number 1:
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Partially inspired by Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Sentinel," "2001: A Space Odyssey" is, if not the most ambitious story of all time, the most successful example of ambitious storytelling.
Perhaps a challenge for young or impatient viewers (Rock Hudson stormed out of the premiere early saying, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?'!'), as Roger Ebert has written, it is the greatest example of a science fiction film that, rather than thrill the audience with customary action as it covers the Dawn of Man through to humankind's uncertain future (in dream sequences described in advertising as "The ultimate trip"), seeks to "inspire our awe."
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Starring Peter Sellers (in several roles) and George C. Scott, "Dr. Strangelove" is a political satire black comedy film that satirises the Cold War fears of a nuclear conflict between the USSR and the US.
Its warning of the nuclear danger was described by Leonard Maltin as a message that seems more important and prescient with time, and he described the movie as "a brilliant black comedy, which seems better with each passing year."
Like "2001," its various unusual and unforgettable moments and images have become iconic and are regularly referred to and parodied.
Paths of Glory (1957)
As I mentioned above, this is my favourite Kubrick film. It stars Kirk Douglas as a colonel in World War I who is forced to defend three men against a charge of cowardice (who are being made an example of without justifiable cause from those in their companies) in a sham court-martial.
It contains many powerful scenes, including an unexpected epilogue-like scene of soldiers in a bar. The film's title comes from Thomas Gray's poem, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard", the ninth stanza:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th'inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Perhaps Kubrick's most underrated film - and criticised by some as having an unsympathetic protagonist - "Barry Lyndon" is a sumptuous epic based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray.
Many of the large and lavish interior scenes were lit fully by candlelight, rather than with use of electric lights. The titular character, played by Ryan O'Neal, has features of a scoundrel about him, but he is also moved to tears in a moving moment with a fellow Irishman when he has been many years away from home, and in the course of the story he learns valuable lessons (and suffers various comeuppances), in particular from his bratty (almost to the point of his being sometimes insufferable!) son.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Many moments and characters in "A Clockwork Orange" have also been endlessly parodied (including on The Simpsons).
Based on Anthony Burgess' novel, it tells the story of a dystopian future where Malcolm McDowell's Alex DeLarge - a character as fond of ultra-violence as he is of Beethoven - commits crimes and comes by horrible treatment to lose his powers of freewill.
Banned by Kubrick himself from a proper release until after his death following copycat crimes when the film was originally released, the teenagers' unusual slang (Nadsat - a mix of Russian/Slavic and English/Cockney rhymes), its use of classical music, and fascinating ideas of how society should address the worst behaviours of its citizens, "A Clockwork Orange" is one of Kubrick's most popular yet disturbing films.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
"Full Metal Jacket" follows a platoon of US Marines through their training and then the experiences of several members in the Vietnam War's Tet Offensive.
Its opening of Senior Drill Instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, played by actual drill instructor R. Lee Ermey who ad libbed a great number of his lines, insulting and hardening the marines to prepare them for combat is an examination of the dehumanisation of soldiers to ensure that they will be "ready to kill," and it is clear that things will soon take a very dark turn. The sad events continue in Vietnam, and the film concludes (like "Paths of Glory") with another peculiar epilogue of music.
"Spartacus" featured a star-studded cast including Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov (who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor), John Gavin, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton and Tony Curtis.
Original director Anthony Mann was removed by producer Douglas after the first week of shooting. Spartacus was Kubrick's fourth film, with a budget of $12 million (equivalent to approximately $97,082,192 in today's funds) and a cast of 10,500; "Paths of Glory," his previous film also starring Douglas, had only been budgeted at $935,000. The "I'm Spartacus!" scene is today famous and echoes one of the film's primary themes, in sacrifice.
The Killing (1956)
Quentin Tarantino has said that "The Killing" was a significant influence on "Reservoir Dogs" (1992), with both films featuring a fractured timeline from different character perspectives and tales of a crime gone wrong.
The film did poorly at the box office but gained immediate critical acclaim that has continued to this day; it also won the BAFTA for Best Film. The art director, Ruth Sobotka, was Kubrick's wife at the time.
The Shining (1980)
Some readers may be surprised to see "The Shining" (based on Stephen King's novel) lower down the list - a more commercial project Kubrick took on after the lesser commercial success of "Barry Lyndon" - but certain elements damage the success of the film for me.
Some people may know what I mean - the ending, the man in the bear costume, the lack of a really likeable or complex character (even the odd mistake of the helicopter's shadow in the opening flying shot). I am a big fan of the blood arriving out of the elevator, the hedge maze, the weird girls and weird room, Jack Nicholson's wild performance, like anybody; but it is not a highpoint among his films.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Again there is a lot to like about this film. The performances of then husband and wife Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, the dream-like quality of many of the scenes, the music, the film's ideas about human nature and fidelity.
Given how long the film takes to make its points, however, there is a creeping sense that it is "much ado about nothing"; it has moments of wonderfully controlled and memorable beauty (as well as sensuality), but the film has long stretches where the lack of interest makes it difficult to watch.
Not a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination, "Lolita" is just not as engaging as Kubrick's other films or, despite the unique and controversial subject matter (based on Vladimir Nabokov's novel) of an older man loving a "nymphet" of eleven or twelve, as impactful in its messages and meaning.
It does manage to capture some of the comedy of the novel (which the 1997 version of the film was less successful in doing), but there is something lacking; and in fact, Kubrick later said that, seeing how severe the censorship limitations on the film became, given that hindsight he probably never would have made the film. But it is worth checking out (and being the final film on the list, that is no mean feat).
Further writing on film to come; check out my article on my best seven Australian films here.