Director’s Series #1: Stanley Kubrick

Hello again, I’m back!

It’s been a while since I last posted, and a lot of things have gone down in the world. I want to take a second to wish everyone the best of luck and health in these troubling times. I hope everyone is staying inside when necessary! What better way to keep spirits up than with a classic WTCR ranking list!

This is the first instalment of a new series here on my blog where I watch a filmmaker’s entire filmography and rank them, providing my opinions on the film and then a little overall section about my opinion on them as a filmmaker.

A while ago, on Twitter, I created a poll and asked which director I should begin this series with. After a frustrating tie in the votes, Stanley Kubrick emerged victorious. A pretty good way to start, with one of the most prolific filmmakers of all time.

I had only seen a handful of his films and loved most of them, so it was great to go from start-to-finish and see how Kubrick evolved as he grew more acclaimed and was given more resources. Over the past few days, I have watched his filmography and written down my views on them in order to create a rough ranking of the films.

Warning: Mild spoiler talk and a very, very unpopular opinion so tread gently!

11. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Yes, you read that right. An anomaly in Kubrick’s discography in that it’s the only film I openly despise. I considered not rewatching this one for the project because of how much I detest it. Full of heavy-handed, hateful filmmaking, A Clockwork Orange appears to exist only to shove its themes in the audience’s faces. Is violence ever necessary? Should offenders be given a second chance? Nature vs Nurture? They’re all complex moral debates and Kubrick does tackle them with a certain flair that I can see appealing to people. I just can’t find any enjoyment in this. The scenes are too long and overdrawn, everything feels so largely ostentatious and I can’t quite figure out why. Everything feels like a caricature and I can’t connect to anything, which is imperative for my own personal enjoyment of a movie. There are some good things here, such as the Ludivico sequence which is great filmmaking, but I just don’t enjoy the story. A masterpiece perhaps to some, but I can safely say that I will never be watching this movie again. 

10. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Oh, you thought I was done with the unpopular opinions? Nope, far from it actually. Kubrick’s final film is certainly an interesting one. Full of suspense, intrigue, and a couple of pretty great performances, Eyes Wide Shut is a film I wished I loved more. I love the story, the dialogue, and the sweeping camera movements as Kubrick has always been so good for. The issue I have with Eyes Wide Shut is the perspective. An interesting and compelling story is all well and good, but I couldn’t connect to Cruise’s Bill character, although he is played with aplomb. I found Kidman’s Alice much more interesting, but the majority of the film follows Bill in his endeavours and his engagement with the creepy society at the heart of the film’s paranoia. Watching Bill react to everything unfolding around him can be intriguing, but I never felt anything other than indifference for him. Alice is much more compelling, with a history of marital doubt and dreams of infidelity. Bill is somewhat of a blank canvas which admittedly does work well with the bizarre story that is being told, but I wish following him around was more interesting to me. I absolutely understand why a lot of people love this and I wish I felt the same way. Perhaps with more revisiting, I could. 

9. Lolita (1962)

Nabokov’s original novel is one of my absolute favourites: a perverse, amoral work of erotic puerility. Kubrick’s adaptation had potential to match these rather forbidden topics, but it was simply produced at the wrong time. The cast are excellent, the writing remains sharp and interesting from Nabokov’s own adaptation of his novel, but the real grit of the source material is lost due to the binds of Hollywood. Censorship dictates this piece and, while the novel remains a controversial classic, the film suffers from its inability to capitalise on what makes the story so great. Mason gives Humbert an odd amount of indifference which only contributes towards his initial sympathetic nature. Kubrick’s abundance of Quilty distracts, even though Sellers nails every single iteration of the character. Calling it ‘wasted potential’ feels harsh, because Kubrick did a lot of great things here, but what remains excluded is a great deal of the perversion Nabokov excelled at. It’s understandable why he wouldn’t go deeper into these themes and motifs, but it feels like a shame that this cast and crew weren’t able to pull it off, because everyone is perfectly assembled.

8. Barry Lyndon (1975)

Perhaps Kubrick’s most intricate film, Barry Lyndon dangerously treads the line between gorgeously enthralling and superfluously meandering. The character study is fascinating, but the scenes run over far too long in a lot of cases. The cinematography is superlative, but often exceeds the storytelling at hand. The dialogue is mostly simplistic, with lack of nuance and texture, but the level of craft is undeniable. The costumes and set design are indelible, and the lilting score that waltzes in between moments is glorious to behold. Mostly, I appreciate the level of detail that goes into a film like this, but admit that it can be somewhat taxing to sit through, particularly in its duller moments. When the excitement comes, its in the form of a final duel, which (once again) probably runs too long, but the tension-building is superb which distracts from just how long Kubrick is spending on a relatively fleeting moment in Barry’s life. Every single frame could be hung on the expensive walls for nobility to peruse and purchase, then again Kubrick has always been brilliant at matching his directorial style to the tone of the genre and the story and that is the same here; Barry Lyndon is delicate, visceral, and exquisitely crafted, but sometimes lacks the momentum required to carry an audience through its runtime. 

7. Dr. Strangelove (1964)

The first blatantly comedic piece in Kubrick’s filmography and it mostly lands. The War Room is a legendary location in cinema history and the set decoration is gorgeous. The dialogue is spot on, and the phone call sequence between President Muffley and Dimitri Kissov is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in quite a while. While only being a 94 minute movie, Dr Strangelove takes a surprisingly while to set itself up, as inciting incidents and first acts are usually something Kubrick does well. For me, Dr Strangelove works best as the contained “bottle episode” type of movie with everything surrounding the political conversation that has been established in the War Room. Sellers, Scott, and the entire ensemble do a great job here and the pacing of the scenes are very smartly thought out. Sellers, in another of his three roles, and Sterling Hayden have some good moments locked in their own room discussing Communist conspiracies. The film loses some of its traction when it diverts to the aircraft scenes with the actual deployment of the bomb. It’s not as engaging as the others parts and I found myself missing the conversational elements of the film charged with political fear. Still, Kubrick made a brilliant political satire and you have to appreciate films under 100 minutes at this level of quality! 

6. Spartacus (1960)

I don’t normally much enjoy daunting epics like this, but Kubrick makes the use of the large budget and determination behind making this project succeed. Armed with a huge cast, some top names in the substantial roles, and a story that serves the beautiful cinematography he had been known to champion even at this point, Kubrick turned what could have been a lifeless political drama into a thrilling, engrossing tale of rebellion. Anchored by another spirited performance from Kirk Douglas, Spartacus is an endurance test, but its rewards come in the first and third acts through some entertaining fight sequences and fascinating character study. The second act is largely political and sets up the stakes for the final sequences, but it finds itself losing some of the impact created by the twists and turns of the first. Spartacus’ power is growing, but the movie cuts so frequently between the freed slaves and the Roman senate that it loses its drive and focus created through its heroic protagonist. The performances are great, the writing is interesting, and Kubrick rarely puts a step wrong with the direction but with a bloated runtime and an unsteady second act, Spartacus manages to be simply great, rather than achieving the excellence of Kubrick’s other filmography. 

5. The Killing (1956)

The Killing is likely Kubrick’s most straightforwardly constructed movie. Even with its repetition and twists, the structure is appropriately formulaic, or that may be because heist movies have emulated this to such an extent that it feels more generic than groundbreaking, when it may be the case that the latter is more applicable to this effort. Kubrick shows his style early on, and his use of lighting and blocking is almost incomparable. Yes, he’s made better movies but for one of the first ones in his filmography, it’s hard to find a lot wrong with this. There’s a reason so many rave superlatives about him and this is part of the reason why. His ensemble is directed well, the script flows effortlessly, and the third act brings satisfying twists that build on the character work done in the first half. Definitely not what I was expecting from him at such an early stage in his career, but it is plain to see now that he was a master of the craft from the very start. 

4. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

One of Kubrick’s most structurally straightforward films, Full Metal Jacket is split into two sections, what I like to call: Cause and Effect.  The first hour focuses on boot camp and it’s pretty iconic. With the acerbic drill sergeant, deftly played by R. Lee Ermey, disciplining the privates and preparing them for a life of killing. The somewhat passive observer Joker is a good lens to witness the horror, as his competent hands leave us anticipating what it’s going to lead into and when the rub comes midway through and its breathtaking. The second half focuses on the effects of the rigorous condition from boot camp, and we follow Joker once more, who is now a combat journalist. Putting Joker in a relatively low-stakes role lets us view everything else from a harsher viewpoint, and the effect really lands. The second half definitely loses some of the captivating writing of the first half, but altogether it’s a compelling study of the ‘machine’ that is war and how it impacts the soldiers who are conditioned to kill.

3. The Shining (1980)

Widely known as the superior Stephen King adaptation, although the author is said to have disliked it initially, The Shining is a marvel on all fronts. King’s iconic Jack Torrance is played with an unnerving believability by Jack Nicholson, who really should have received more critical praise for his performance. Shelley Duvall is also quite brilliant here, although she has her detractors for reasons I cannot fathom. Kubrick’s superior set decoration and production design rears its head once again to create the famous Overlook Hotel, which is a large part in building the twisted atmosphere that feeds the brutally haunting final act. The Shining is perhaps one of Kubrick’s more accessible films, as the pacing and direction befit the style and tone of the film much more here and its terribly easy to get sucked into the madness within, particularly whenever Nicholson is on screen. And even when he’s not, you’re uneasy, terrified about where he might be or what he might be doing. It’s a remarkable achievement in horror filmmaking and absolutely one of my favourite Kubrick films.

2. Paths of Glory (1957)

Although still early in Kubrick’s storied career, Paths of Glory sees everything that a war movie should have. A decided stance on the concept itself, some epic visuals that raucously accentuate the fear and pandemonium of the battlefield, and a thematic core which drives its central characters. The whole thing isn’t about who wins the war, it’s about the people who lose. The soldiers who are strong-armed into disillusionment, those suffering with shell-shock that are accused of cowardice, and the injustice of the power structures that resulted in countless casualties. Kubrick really smartly focuses on a protagonist who isn’t a paramour of morality, but who seeks to do the right thing in times of hardship. When injustices are done, he works to fix them, and it results in many ethical debates about death, capital punishment, and the machinations of the military. Rarely a movie better emphasises the core themes of its genre than Paths of Glory.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Most would agree that this is Kubrick’s masterpiece, and they would be right. 2001 paved the way for science-fiction as we know it today. The Stargate sequence speaks for itself, and the visual storytelling is second-to-none here. Everything between the hominid sequence and the Discovery One section are a bit meandering, but I can ignore those nitpicks for the sake of the larger piece of art at play here. It’s intelligent, daring, masterfully crafted, with a bold vision that most would cower from. I can’t say enough good things about it. Back when I first saw, I argued against it, stating it too intelligent for its own good and confusing without any real drive to explain itself. A few rewatches in and I realise that it doesn’t have to explain anything because it’s posing complex theories about the future of the Universe. It doesn’t necessarily have the answers, but that’s okay. It lets us into the beauty and intricacy of the unknown, as well as the nature of humanity, and lets us derive our own conclusions. I still don’t know what to make of most it, but it’ll keep me guessing every time I watch this. Which will be a lot, I have no doubts about it.  

I want to get one thing straight: I may have a lot of quibbles with these films, but I like and respect Kubrick a lot. He traverses a variety of genres, styles, and stories, and his skill behind the camera and in his research and assembly of a film is nothing short of exceptional.

So there you have it. I’m guessing you may have some opinions on my opinions, which I’m more than happy to explain further in the comments!

As this is going to be a series, and I suddenly have quite a bit of free time on my hands, I’ll be shortly exploring another beloved filmmaker’s entire works. This is somehow whom I’ve admired and respected as a filmmaker for a while now and while he tied with Kubrick in the initial poll, he just fell short in the follow-up tiebreaker. To keep the suspense, I won’t name him now, but it’s certain to be another polarising one! If you follow me on Letterboxd though, it won’t be much of a surprise when I start logging all of his films!

Hope you enjoyed this, I’ll look at getting the next one up sometime soon! Stay safe everyone, and if you anybody wants/needs someone to vent to or just a new friend, hit me up on Twitter and we chat! These are scary times, so it’s nice not to feel so alone!

7 thoughts on “Director’s Series #1: Stanley Kubrick”

    1. I love how Kubrick’s works are so diverse and unique that people who equally respect and love his stuff can have completely different favorites. For example, I’d have A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove in my top 5 along with 2001, Paths of Glory, and Fullmetal Jacket and The Shining would probably be my #10 (ahead of Eyes Wide Shut) or maybe even #11. But of course, that’s just my subjective preference and your list is killer!

      Like

      1. Kind of like with Miyazaki too. Everybody knows Spirited Away is the crowning achievement but beyond that, seems like everyone has such a diverse range of favorites, each with their own valid justifications.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s