Friday, July 15, 2022

Top Ten Things: Stanley Kubrick Films

Welcome to another Top Ten Things here at!  A couple weeks ago I made a list of Quentin Tarantino's ten best, and thought it might be appropriate to give Stanley Kubrick similar treatment.  

Kubrick was one of the all-time great film auteurs, creating a unique visual style characterized by fluid camera movement, unnervingly symmetrical deep focus photography, and often a cold emotional detachment.  His films often contained deep subtext and were generally much more about the human condition as a whole, than about the fate of the individual characters.  He would build his stories around lofty philosophical concepts and themes, which he hammered home with every sequence.  Kubrick was notorious for being a perfectionist, often asking his onscreen talent for dozens upon dozens of takes before he saw one he liked, and demanding strict continuity on the set.  Considering he was active for over 45 years his filmography was quite sparse, and in later years his filmmaking process was so painstaking it became infamous.  His last film Eyes Wide Shut for example was in production for a staggering 17 months, and he just barely lived long enough to see its completion.

Stanley Kubrick was one of the most controversial, divisive, and thought-provoking filmmakers of all time, and he left behind a stunning body of work containing some of the most amazing visuals ever put to film.  Lending themselves to varied analyses, his films demand repeated viewings and tend to reflect humanity's virtues and (more often) deep-seated flaws.  What a tremendous talent this man was.

Here now is a list of his ten best works.

But first, check out a piece I wrote about Kubrick's early effort Killer's Kiss, which has grown on me quite a lot.

10. Lolita

This 1962 adaptation of Nabakov's provocative novel was met with vehement scorn from religious groups upon its release, to the point that Kubrick had trouble even getting it distributed.  The story concerns a middle-aged man's love affair with a 12-year-old girl and his subsequent fall from grace.  Kubrick enlisted Nabakov himself to adapt the novel into a screenplay but changed several elements and played up the dark comedic aspects, such as the supporting character of Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers).  Beholden to the MPAA, Kubrick also had to keep much of the lurid material implied rather than explicit.  The result was a pretty outrageous "dramedy" with strong performances from its lead actors, in particular Sellers and the 16-year-old Sue Lyon, whose turn as the title character is well beyond her years.  I consider Lolita one of Kubrick's lesser efforts, but it's certainly never dull.

9. The Killing

Kubrick's third feature (though only his second "official" release as he pulled his first film Fear & Desire from theaters) is an early example of the heist-gone-wrong story.  Based on the novel Clean Break, The Killing is about an intricate plot to rob a racetrack of $2 million, and the aftermath of the crime which leaves most of the conspirators dead.  The theme of "even the best laid plans..." is prevalent in this film, and the carefully orchestrated robbery ultimately fails due to multiple unforeseen events.  The standout performance belongs to Sterling Hayden, who brings a cynical, grizzled quality to criminal mastermind Johnny Clay.  In assembling the film, Kubrick played around with the timeline, presenting certain events from multiple points of view.  I have to think The Killing had a big influence on Quentin Tarantino when making Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown.  The Killing is an early example of Kubrick's considerable intellect as he moves his characters around like chess pieces.

8. Full Metal Jacket

The late 80s saw a bevy of Vietnam-related films, and Kubrick's adaptation of The Short-Timers was one of the most noteworthy.  Though later to the game than he'd hoped, Kubrick nonetheless presented a fascinating take on the evils of war and their effect on the human psyche.  The film is split into two parts, the first (and best) of which depicts Parris Island Marine Corps basic training, where Private Joker (Matthew Modine) witnesses the complete mental breakdown of Private Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio) at the hands of a brutal drill instructor (R. Lee Ermey, in a brilliantly vulgar performance).  The second half of the film then picks up with Joker's exploits as a war correspondent in Vietnam.  While still atmospheric and beautifully shot, the second half is unfortunately nowhere near as strong as the first, given that it's missing the two best characters in the film.  Still, Full Metal Jacket remains one of the best films made about Vietnam and about the dehumanization of those who lived through it.

7. Eyes Wide Shut

Mine has been a long, strange journey in fully appreciating Kubrick's polarizing final film.  My initial reaction to it was one of completely underwhelmed bewilderment.  I literally wasn't sure what to take away from it.  I enjoyed Kubrick's usual visual elegance but found the story impersonal and the performances stilted.  Then I read Tim Kreider's analysis of the film entitled "Introducing Sociology," and it all came together for me.  Eyes Wide Shut is not just about the trials and tribulations of marriage and fidelity, it's more about how the wealthy and powerful use other people as mere commodities, be they servants, sales clerks, musicians, doctors, prostitutes; to the ruling class everyone is expendable.  Really the decadence of this small circle of power brokers is staggering.  Tom Cruise's Bill Harford tries to get a taste of this lifestyle before being slapped back down to his own level in the third act.  When viewing the film from this perspective it becomes absolutely captivating; I daresay it's Kubrick's most complex social commentary.  To anyone unimpressed with Eyes Wide Shut, I highly recommend reading the essay cited above and then rewatching the film.  You won't be disappointed.

6. Paths of Glory

Another early Kubrick film, Paths of Glory is a scathing anti-war piece based loosely on true events that took place in France during World War I.  During a key, futile campaign to take a fortified German position the French unit takes heavy casualties before eventually retreating.  The commanding General (George Macready), having been offered a promotion if the attack succeeded, is furious and orders three members of the platoon tried for cowardice, under penalty of death.  The platoon's commanding officer, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) volunteers to be the defense attorney, and the ensuing court-martial is flagrantly little more than a formality; the General staff has already made up its mind that the three defendants will be made an example.  The film's scornful depiction of French officers led to its not being distributed in France until 1975, and it remains an uncompromising indictment of war practices and the exploitation of the soldier.  For me this was the earliest of Kubrick's films to really show off his visual style, with almost geometric camera angles and long tracking shots.  Also of note, Kubrick's second wife Christiane appears at the end of the film as a German song girl.

5. Barry Lyndon

Probably the most visually stunning of all of Kubrick's work, Barry Lyndon is an 18th century period piece chronicling the rise and fall of an Irish aristocrat in English society.  Starring Ryan O'Neal as the title character, this is a slow-moving epic wherein Kubrick made use of specially-designed cameras to allow him to shoot only in natural light, thus giving the film an authenticity most other period dramas lack.  Literally dozens of shots in this film closely resemble paintings of this era, and it makes Barry Lyndon a picturesque, immersive viewing experience.  The Lyndon character is initially presented as a socially awkward Irish boy who leaves home to find his fortune, joins the British Army, defects to the Prussian Army, and eventually falls in with a notorious gambler where he travels Europe scamming wealthy gamers out of their cash.  In the second act though he decides to marry a rich Countess, and through arrogance, fiscal irresponsibility, and mistreatment of her son, he becomes a societal outcast who suffers financial ruin.  Barry Lyndon is most definitely an acquired taste due to its length and methodical pace, but it's become one of my favorite of Kubrick's films partly due to its visuals but also because I find its strangely objective tone fascinating.  The voiceover narration offers almost no sympathy for the characters or their situation, and is merely presenting the story for the viewer.  Once again Kubrick took a film genre and turned it sideways.

4. A Clockwork Orange

One of Kubrick's most notorious films, A Clockwork Orange is set in a dystopian future and depicts the escapades of a teenage sociopath who gets off on committing acts of "ultra-violence."  Eventually young Alex (Malcom McDowell) is arrested and volunteers to undergo a revolutionary new treatment designed to turn criminals into docile, functioning members of society.  The title is derived from the concept of this Ludovico Technique removing the subject's choice to do good or evil, effectively reducing him to an organic being with a mechanical thought process, or a "clockwork orange."  McDowell gives a career performance as a loathsome character we can't help sympathizing with, so overwhelming is his charisma and power of persuasion.  The film was an enormous hit but became the source of great controversy when copycat criminals began popping up all over England.  After Kubrick's children were threatened at school he opted to pull the film from English cinemas, and it wasn't re-released in Britain until 1999.  A Clockwork Orange has been accused over the years of glorifying violence, but it's really more about this question: Which is worse for society as a whole, a person who chooses to do terrible things, or a person who isn't allowed to make that choice at all?

3. Dr. Strangelove

Kubrick's bitingly satirical look at the Cold War and the military-industrial complex was released in 1964 and was not surprisingly condemned by conservative America.  The film was loosely based on the Cold War thriller novel Red Alert, and Kubrick originally intended this as a serious adaptation until realizing the subject matter lent itself much better to dark comedy.  In the film a crazed US General falsely alerts his bomber wing circling the Soviet Union that a full-scale nuclear attack is underway, and his planes are to proceed to their targets inside Russia.  Upon learning of this development, the President and the Pentagon must figure out a way to recall the planes before an actual war breaks out.  The actors deliver the absurd dialogue with deadly earnestness, which is what makes the film so hilarious.  Peter Sellers of course steals the show as three different characters, President Merkin Muffley, Commander Lionel Mandrake, and the title character, a reconstructed Nazi-turned advisor to the President.  The other standout is George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson, whose braggadocious delivery inspires as many laughs as Sellers.  Aside from the delightfully over-the-top performances and brilliantly-written dialogue, Strangelove featured highly influential and evidently dead-on accurate set design.  Legend has it that Kubrick and his set designers created such precise depictions of the bomber interiors and the War Room that they feared being investigated by the FBI.  Dr. Strangelove was Kubrick's only true comedy film and remains relevant not only due to its subject matter but also because of its outrageous tone.  This is one of the most irreverent satires in film history.

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey

Kubrick's most intellectually challenging film, and the one he's most remembered for, is 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Conceived as both a film and a novel with writer Arthur C. Clarke, 2001 is the story of the next step in man's evolution.  While Clarke's novel plainly states the events and character motivations, Kubrick's film deals instead with the visual journey, leaving the story details deliberately ambiguous and open to interpretation.  In a nutshell though, the premise involves an advanced alien race that monitors the development of humanity, from neanderthal to space traveler to star-child.  The aliens go unseen in the film, but mark man's progress with a series of black monoliths that send a signal back to their homeworld.  Futuristic man traces the signal back to Jupiter and sends a vessel to investigate, but on the way the ship's computer HAL (oddly the most interesting character in the film) malfunctions and kills everyone on board except Dr. Dave Bowman who proceeds through a wormhole to the alien planet (one of the most photographically groundbreaking sequences ever put to film) and lives the rest of his life in a sort of menagerie before evolving into a new lifeform and returning to Earth.  That's the basic sequence of events, but the film explores them in an innovatively cinematic way and plays against the theme of man vs. machine using special effects that still hold up today.  This was the first film to present the vastness of space in a realistic fashion, and it's inspired countless other movies, from Star Wars to Gravity to Interstellar.  Almost every space film since owes at least some debt to 2001.  Even though I've only ranked it #2, by most accounts this is Kubrick's masterpiece.

1. The Shining

While not the most critically-acclaimed of Kubrick's films, my favorite nonetheless is his adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining.  A simple story about a family of three shut up in an empty hotel for the winter, King's novel explicitly plays out like a haunted house story, where Kubrick's callous take eschews many of the ghostly elements to make it more of a domestic tragedy.  While Jack Torrance (played to the hilt by Jack Nicholson) is shown conversing with "ghosts," it can be interpreted that everything is happening in his own head and he's simply gone insane.  The idea of Jack actively wanting to murder his family makes the film more terrifying than King's novel, where the Overlook Hotel itself is clearly the antagonist.  In Kubrick's film the Overlook is a masterfully constructed set that becomes a character unto itself.  The long, deserted corridors, the grand ballroom, the bright lobby all become unconventionally scary locales for the drama.  Kubrick based many of the interiors on the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park, and the exterior on the Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood in Oregon (in fact several shots of Timberline are used in the film).  In and of itself, The Shining is a great horror film filled with an underlying dread, but it's been interpreted in several other ways, my favorite of which belongs to Bill Blakemore.  Blakemore opines that below the simple ghost story lies a subtext dealing with the genocide of the Native Americans at the hands of white America.  Between some of the set design choices, certain lines of dialogue, and various visual cues throughout the film Blakemore makes a fairly strong case for this interpretation.  Now when I watch The Shining (much as with Eyes Wide Shut) I can appreciate it on another level.  Just based on the glorious opening shot swooping over Montana's Glacier National Park and Wendy Carlos's haunting score, I was hooked on this film right from the start, and it's become an annual Halloween essential for me.  But it's also much more.  The Shining is for me the greatest of all Stanley Kubrick films.

Well that's my story and I'm stickin' to it.  Agree or disagree with my picks?  Comment below!  Don't forget to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, MeWe and YouTube!

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