The Hot Seat – Stanley Kubrick

What have I done…

I’m going to make an attempt at ranking the films of Stanley Kubrick. Make no mistake, I know that this cannot have positive consequences for me. I’ll piss off most due to everyone having a preference on their favorite, and I’ll piss off Stephen King because he hates an amazing film. Just…be gentle with me, please? And hey, at least I’m not taking a shot at Ingmar Bergman yet (it’s totally not the fact that he has 39 films and I’m not ready to tackle that). 

13. Killer’s Kiss [1955]: Look, almost no one pops out of the box fully formed. Kubrick didn’t cut as many short films as other directors and no amount of prep can prepare one for what lies ahead. That said…his second film wasn’t all that impressive to me. There’s something weird here that I can’t quite lay my finger on. Noir seems right up his wheelhouse and yet he bows to convention, stepping away from the darkness of those conventions to end in joyous smiles. It just feels wrong for Kubrick. His major work doesn’t quite go this way, with his happiest ending outside of here resulting in a cosmic phenomenon. Instead we get a cop-out kiss and a happy moment. There are other implications, but this is one of his lesser works and I hold absolutely no guilt about calling that fact out.

12. Fear and Desire [1953]: Welp, it’s slightly better than his second film. I do very much enjoy his anti-war message, a theme he would revisit again in later works, but there’s something that’s barely outside of a short film in this effort that doesn’t work for me. Only an hour long, this one lands on a triumphant note that falters in execution to display the talent he’d later show off to further success. The seeds of what the director would become are spread throughout this one, from his brutality to his sense of humor, but everything feels like the work of a younger man – a man that isn’t quite ready to fully let loose and display his oeuvre and unable to express coherently what he truly thinks about war. His thought process, one that deems war unnatural to humans, is incredibly optimistic and thrown out with all the subtlety of a schizophrenic on crack ranting about the apocalypse. 

11. The Killing [1956]: Here we go, this is where Kubrick really starts kicking into high gear. A heist film is an absolute wonder for the director, using all of his visual skill to discuss masculinity and the futility of fighting against a corrupt system. The robbery itself shows shades of big films like Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job, but it’s a crime film in the vein of early Tarantino and it’s a wonderful effort on his part. Sloppy, stagnate, beautiful, and silly, The Killing is an early precursor to some of the imagery we’d get in his later films and it serves as the Rosetta Stone for his entire set of sensibilities. I absolutely dig each bit of this but the planning stage feels like the best. This serves as a discussion of how an auteur makes a film, from his planning stages to his execution and ultimate failure (at least it seems that’s how Kubrick felt). If you’ve got a love for the director this is definitely a place to start.

10. Spartacus [1960]: Look, I love this film. It’s an absolute blast to watch and is absolutely laden with Kubrickian imagery for a studio-managed film. Kirk Douglas laid down his legend here, acting out one of the most fascinating legends in Roman history. There are moments from this that have sunk into film mythology, mainly the epic “I am Spartacus” moment that has been parodied to death in animated television. Of particular note is the fact that this is Kubrick’s only film where he did not have complete creative control, as well as the fact that Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted and unable to have his name listed as screenwriter due to that fact. Douglas would go on to announce the man as the writer of the film, leading to picket lines that later JFK would cross to watch the movie. Everything surrounding the film is controversial in American history but how is the final product? Turns out it’s pretty damn good, a mishmash of thematic tension and action sequences that somehow lack Kubrick’s attention to detail because of some mistakes you see like watches and Nike shoes. Just…wtf was happening on this production?

09. Paths of Glory [1957]: War is suicide. That’s the message here, it’s just not more plain than that. The film follows Kirk Douglas as a commander of French soldiers that refuse to go into a battle that is, in effect, a blatantly losing scenario. Douglas’s character, Dax, is desperate to defend them from a court-martial. This is one of the Kubrick films that would define how he felt about Post-WWI American culture and the warmongering that pervades us to this day. His stance on young men tossing themselves in front of bullets on the whims of old men squabbling over ground in an effort to carve out who is in charge of what corner of the world. While it fully ignores the racism and jingoistic tendencies that pervaded the war, it boils down to human nature and the tendencies we load upon it. Kubrick believes that war is unnatural to human beings, and he uses this lose-lose scenario to talk about it. It’s a stunning and terrifying look at what it means to be part of the violence we’ve surrounded ourselves with in our daily lives and the consequences we don’t like looking at.

08. Barry Lyndon [1975]: I enjoy a good, ol’ fashioned period piece. This is an absolutely gorgeous film, one of the most prominent to be shot with natural lighting and one that exemplifies the director’s attention to period-accurate detail. This is an influence on films that would follow like those of Robert Eggers (The Witch and The Lighthouse) in their period accuracy and grit. This is far from my favorite Kubrick film, but the performances of Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson really elevate what might have become a standard historical epic. Irish roots pervade the entire thing with a pathos tied to the aristocracy and it leads to a pastiche that turns into an amazing bit of nuanced discussion on historical accuracy. Kubrick always wanted to make a massive film about Napoleon and he used a lot of what he learned in this film, bringing a setting to life in new ways that would pioneer a genre of accurate films.

07. Eyes Wide Shut [1999]: Sex, sex ,sex ,and then sprinkle in a bit more sex. That’s what is gleaned from the most widely known parts of this film but the story is much more complicated than that. Following a Homeric epic of psychological proportions, Kubrick decided to delve into the psychology of a couple that is experiencing marital issues by hiring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Jokes about Cruise are hard to avoid because he really is a strange creature in this one, the whole thing revolving around a one-night journey into the realms of secret societies and sexual orgies that complicate a romantic partnership while he remains strangely separate from the activities. Oddities have shades of what would become of Lars Von Trier in his middle-to-late-career, what with the weird depression and child issues and sexual tension and all. This isn’t for everyone, but it’s late-stage Cruise before he became a full-on psychopath and I love it.

06. Lolita [1962]: It’s hard to defend a movie about pedophilia but Kubrick made something interesting here. No single character involved is a decent person but every one of them is layered and fascinating. Kubrick returns to his weird fascination with lighting in Lolita, using it as an excuse to highlight characters in a specific way that highlights what traits they show. Whether it’s James Mason bathed in shadow and flame or Sue Lyon brilliantly lit to make the entire audience feel guilty and sad from their ogling. This is the definition of uncomfortable filmmaking, a director lending his gaze to a Russian novel that surrounds an older man’s obsession with a woman that is the embodiment of “young.” I hate-watch it on occasion, unhappy that I like what Kubrick is doing and I think that’s the point. It’s just…look, I don’t know how to sell you on this one but it’s worth watching.

05. Full Metal Jacket [1987]: This is my war movie. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Kubrick spent so much of his career lashing out at the warrior image, the visage of the military man as a hero and saint, that he disappeared up his own ass. I’m there for it though, enjoying the way he looks at humanity as a species on the brink of destruction due to their insistence on fighting despite our natural inclination being to avoid conflict. I’m so fascinated with how he views war, as most see humanity as something defined by their warmongering and destruction. Instead, Kubrick views it as a concept we adopted somewhere in the past and have adhered to for reasons beyond our own comprehension. It’s ugly and full of things that defy the concept of “metaphor” but for my money it may be the greatest war film of all time. 

04. Dr. Strangelove [1964]: Look, sometimes I just want to have fun. Multiple performances from Peter Sellers and the absolute wonder of George C. Scott make for an incredibly hilarious time at the movies. I fought hard to get my father to watch this one, his view of my film tastes that of a man enjoying only artsy fartsy silliness, but each moment of it tickled him and before the end he was laughing at commies and chuckling at the hubris of warmongering. I can’t begin to paint such a picture for you, but it’s wondrous to behold my father laughing his ass off at a satirical film lashing out at the red scare and taking America to task. The point of the film is lost on all but those interested in assessing the film’s sexual metaphors as it paints America and Russia as countries in the hold of blue balls. What a weird and wonderful film. I dig it, and I hope you’ll all seek it out.

03. A Clockwork Orange [1971]: Viddy, my droogs, at the moloko horrorshow that plays out before thine very eyes. Grab a glass of milk and indulge in a bit of the ol’ ultraviolence with Kubrick as he pissess off the first major author of his career. Anthony Burgess thought the point of his novel was missed, attributing it to the edited version release for American audiences that dropped a chapter from the end. I’d argue that the missing piece works in the book but would have been a detriment to the end of the film, its operatic and sexual finale exuding excess in every frame. There’s little but gleeful disgust to be had from this film, but for those willing to delve deeper it serves as a commentary on the aggression of youth and the reptile brain buried within each of us that sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the WASPy idealism of the wider world. It’s bananas and I love it to pieces but this shit ain’t for those afraid of uncomfortable subject matter.

02. The Shining [1980]: Ha, gotcha! That’s right, you all thought this would be my number one in Kubrick’s filmography. Go ahead, make your comments. Talk amongst yourselves about how much of a cliche horror freak I am and how you knew for sure that I’d have this at my number one. Well bite me. Don’t put me in a box. Look, this is number two for a reason. Stephen King hates this as an adaptation of his work, but that shouldn’t matter because King never understood Kubrick’s film and Kubrick had a huge lack of understanding of King’s original novel. No matter what issues hide behind this work’s production, the film is a masterpiece of tension and pacing. Each frame is meticulously crafted, each piece of the puzzle beautifully framed, and each performance tortured out of the actor. It’s a shame what happened behind the scenes because I think the damage it did to Shelly Duvall is horrid, but I can’t argue with the final product. Hell, just the fact that he managed to hide the fact that it was a horror movie from Danny Llyod (who played Danny Torrence) is a miracle. Can you say otherwise, watching this beautiful piece of horror iconography?

01. 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]: The word “perfect” doesn’t apply to many films but this is one of them. I got to see the 4K release in IMAX and I swear, the images in that format coupled with the fact that my buddy’s girlfriend just didn’t get it made my night. Her outrage was what I felt while watching the film for the first time, but since then I’ve come to appreciate this as the most beautiful of Kubrick’s films. It’s ugly, it’s delightful in its digression on the human situation, and it’s depressing in how it ponders the future of humanity but optimistic in its viewpoint on the alley we might wander down. Kubrick has no faith in human achievement, instead hoping we succeed despite ourselves. With the monument, the aliens (which have evolved beyond our 4 dimensional existence), and the existence of HAL 9000, he seems to think we’re doomed to our own destruction. I hate and love all of this, losing my faith while finding more and more in each moment as I struggle to connect with his one-point-perspective obsession and his detrimental view of humanity.

So that’s my list. I’ve completely weirded out my horror-centric compatriots and have alienated a good amount of the Kubrick fandom, but I don’t give a shit. These are the films I love and how much I love them. What about you? Do you disagree?

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