No other director, past or present, has attracted the same amount of critical and cult acclaim and such rabid fans. No other director, or perhaps person has had so many urban legends and speculation written about him. A director who was an absolute master of his craft, but who was also extremely intelligent to the point that many have assumed his movies were saying a lot more than they actually were on the surface, leading to hundreds of wild theories linking him to stories about fake moon landings and obsessive fan documentaries. It’s clear Kubrick played up to such things, and yet his works have such depth and range of subject, theme, and genre that it is hardly surprising that so many think he is the greatest director ever/immortal/a wizard. With a career spanning five decades it is shocking and perhaps disheartening that he only has 13 credits to his name. Making only 1 film in the 90s, 2 in the 80s, and 2 in the 70s, one wonders and dreams what could have been had he managed to make another film in each (or one) of those eras. Nevertheless, we are left with one of the finest filmography in history – a series of films that will continue to entertain and teach for eons to come. Here are my top ten favourite Kubrick directed movies.
10: Eyes Wide Shut
Really I could have included The Killing here, but I felt like I needed to include Eyes Wide Shut. The important thing being that those early few Kubrick films don’t really feel like Kubrick films, while Eyes Wide Shut feels 100% like Kubrick, even if it feels even more like one big joke from beyond the grave. I seem to remember the film was largely torn apart upon release, and I’m not sure if there has yet been a favourable critical consensus in the years since – looking on Wikipedia though it seems like general consensus has always been positive so my memories may have been falsely planted. It certainly looks the part, and there is certainly a lot to say about the film and the real-life goings on going on at the time of filming. It’s just too dense and ultimately silly to truly appreciate, but as a final hurrah it is surely one of the most effective and bizarre.
9: Paths Of Glory
One most other lists of top films I would rank Paths Of Glory higher. It always naively impresses me that films from so long ago can have such an impact on me and still have the ability to wow on a technical level and still be intellectually, morally, and artistically relevant today. The rather simple story is given emotional gravitas mainly due to a terrific central performance by Kirk Douglas, in which he rages against the machine in an all too convincingly futile manner. One can imagine these same little speeches and injustices going unheard and unpunished in every walk of life today and although the machine remains unfeeling and uncaring, the individual never stops fighting. Kubrick’s camerawork here marks it as the first truly Kubrickian film, with the dolly work through the trenches marked by eerily prescient dialogue and stark glimpses on the faces of each beaten soldier being an obvious highlight.
In 1962 Kubrick had made it big, thanks to the critical success of his last few films and the commercial success of Spartacus. What better way to continue that success by filming one of the most controversial books of all time? The film was of course controversial too, and Kubrick’s vision was severely hindered by the censorship of the times – he wanted the sexual tones to be more obvious in alignment to the novel, but that was never going to happen in 62. We are still left with an unsettling, well-acted, and tautly directed film which still prompts uncomfortable viewings and discussions decades later.
7: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Kubrick had already broken new ground in Cinema before he began making 2001, but it is his 1968 masterpiece which saw him transform cinematic storytelling and propelled the art form over strange and wonderful new horizons. Few films have created as much discussion as this one, and it is frequently cited as either (or both) the best film or the most important film ever made. With a non-linear structure, spanning millennia, prompting discussions on a myriad of philosophical topics, and with truly extraordinary visual effects which are still impressive today, it is a film which everyone should experience once. Perhaps ‘experience’ is the best word to describe it, more than ‘film’, because it still seems so foreign from traditional cinema. The sheer amount of technological advances that were created and pioneered with the film is incredible. And yet I do feel it is overlong, that the dialogue and the characters who speak it are too plain – non entities in the vastness of space and time. Many will likely continue to view it as boring, confusing, abstract, and pretentious, while others will proclaim it as the second coming.
The film that established Kubrick as a major talent, and as someone who would bring the big bucks, Spartacus is an enjoyable epic that merges the Golden Age of Hollywood with the newer, encroaching modern era. It’s apt then that the subject matter also deals with the rebellion against old ways and traditions. Ironic too that it is perhaps the only film in Kubricks catalogue that he did not have complete control over – the film was the studio’s baby, and the star power of Kirk Douglas meant that Kubrick was always number three. Nevertheless, the meticulous nature of Kubrick, his eye for detail and depth are obvious. We get a heady mix of standard, grandiose epic drama, romance, tragedy, but with a scale, scope, and pathos rarely seen before. With breathtaking set pieces, iconic moments, and a strong cast it is rightly seen as one of the greatest epics ever made.
5: Barry Lyndon
A period drama unlike any other, and quite unlike anything else Kubrick had done, this is the film fewest will have seen of his post 1950’s work. Not a great commercial or critical success upon release, it seemed that this was Kubrick shying away from controversy and crafting something personal from a technical and directorial perspective. We follow Ryan O’Neal as Barry, an Irish teen who flees his home and life and has various escapades involving war, gambling, espionage, dueling, greed, etc over the course of his life. Visually stunning, lavish, and with a hollow core with neither approves or disproves of any action, it is a candle-lit tale of debauchery and loss, with one of Kubrick’s most interesting, underrated characters.
4: Dr. Strangelove
A comedy, a political statement, a protest song delivered as a farce in the medium of film, Dr. Strangelove is as much a vehicle for Sellers as it is for Kubrick. Two unique perfectionists come together to make a successful comedy with jokes that remain funny, and themes that remain potent and relevant today, arguably the best political satire ever made. The film for me is most curious because of the fact that when Sellers is on screen it feels like a Sellers film, but when he is not present it feels like a Kubrick film – there is little, but subtle overlapping.
3: A Clockwork Orange
Kubrick’s most infamous film, banned in many countries and banned by the director himself. Linked to many youth crimes after release, A CLockwork Orange’s stark portrayal of crime is exuberant, stylized, extravagant, and does not offer much redemption or hope with the message being that violence breeds more violence, attempts to quell violence are violent, and in the end violence may be all we know. Once again Kubrick evokes a tremendous performance, this time from Malcolm McDowell as lead droog Alex, a teen with a taste for ultra-violence and the old in out. We watch his various crimes and adventures, witnessed with an sometimes satirical eye, at other times with a voyeuristic one. We have a glorious soundtrack and scenes that will pop out of your memory without warning any time you hear one of the classical pieces, we have a visual flair that creates a hyper-realistic view of youth culture and modern society, and scene after scene of manic carnage. Looking at it now, it is hardly violent when compared with any horror movie post- Texas Chainsaw, and yet it still leaves an impact more keenly felt than a hundred gore flicks. It’s also hilarious, quotable, and begs you to watch just one more time.
2: The Shining
The film I think would appear at the top of fan lists, though likely not critic lists, The Shining is a film which, once seen, can never be forgotten. The Steadicam moving through endless coloured hallways, the thunder of tricycle wheels, the immense torrent of blood cascading from the elevator doors, the shock cuts between girls standing, and girls in pieces – all these are etched indelibly into the psyche of viewers and popular culture – even if you haven’t seen the film, you’ll recognise it from those scenes. Although most of Kubrick’s work has elements of horror and moments of revulsion, fear, and violence, this remains his only overt horror film, a tale of isolation, claustrophobia, paranoia, and the weakness of man. Taking King’s story and making it something entirely separate, Kubrick has crafted a dizzying, looping story which would be monotonous (correctly so) if not for the creeping, insidious dread we feel as the hours and days in The Overlook tick by. Modern audiences have criticized Nicholson’s depiction of Jack Torrence as either being too Nicholson, or too crazy – from the first scene we know something is not right with this man – he starts at 7 and doesn’t take long to dial up to 10. My view is that yes, he is demented from the outset, and that the Hotel has drawn him here seductively; Torrence has already been abusive to his family in the past and they are completely under his thrall, just as much as he is caught in the hotel’s web. The Overlook is a central character, with its endless corridors layered with sinister corners and doors, vistas which seem to shift in a serpentine manner so that when you think you have traveled in a circle you finish somewhere completely different from where you began; once inside there is no escape – Torrence the captain of this labyrinth, but victim of the more traditional maze outside the walls. I do feel the film would have been better served by someone other than Duvall, but then there wasn’t much she could do with the character – a passive, reactive scream queen cliche who doesn’t complete a journey in the film so much as be carted along by the choices of others and forces outside her control.
1: Full Metal Jacket
A macho film which once again returns to anti-war themes. A film of two distinct parts, dripping with tension, action, quotable dialogue and fantastic performances. I do feel that the second part struggles to follow the first part, but it nevertheless comes out as my favourite Kubrick film. The coldness which often inhabits his work may be apparent here, but it doesn’t get in the way of this being his most re-watchable film. You may not learn as much with each re-watch as you would with his other work, but you will always be entertained. For some reason I always think this is a 90s movie – it has the smarts and the attitude which set it apart from most of its ilk. It masquerades as an action movie, with training montages and war games, but of course it is more similar to Platoon. As always there are themes of moral ambiguity, but perhaps those on display here are the most striking, with Joker so long detached and rebelling against the idea of a soldier merely being an extension of his weapon until he finally becomes that weapon. Modine, Baldwin, and particularly Ermey and D’Onforio are exceptional, Kubrick’s meticulous eye, ear, nose for detail is present and accounted for in every shot, and the film contains some horrific moments which rank it close to The Shining in terms of chills. It may be said that Kubrick, not for the first time, takes a God-like detached chair and simply shows us what life can be like for people involved in war – good, bad, indifferent are the choices the viewer and the characters need to make, while Kubrick sits above, fingers intertwined, pondering and watching the results.
What are your favourite Stanley Kubrick films? Do you think he is the greatest Director of all time, or is he overrated? Let us know in the comments!