Friday, November 28, 2014

The Films of Stanley Kubrick: Conclusion and Ranking

After spending the last month watching every film Stanley Kubrick ever directed, I am now convinced that he may just be the best director in cinema history. Martin Scorsese will always be my favorite director – he’s the one whose films I return to the most often and who mean the most to be personally, but Kubrick made such brilliant films – films that you can revisit time and again, and continue to discover new things about. Scorsese himself said in A Life in Pictures that while Kubrick didn’t make a lot of films, his films are different each time you watch them – and that is very true. His technical abilities are unmatched – he changed the visual language of film more than any director since Orson Welles or D.W. Griffth. The films are endlessly fascinating, endlessly transfixing, and quite simply brilliant.

Below are how I would personally rank his 16 films – 3 shorts, and 13 features – made over the span of 46 years. I wish there were more films in this resume – but the price we pay for the brilliance of Kubrick was that he had to take the time he did to make them.

16. The Seafarers (1953) – Far and away the least interesting film Kubrick directed – basically a half hour infomercial for The Seafarers Union – which Kubrick clearly made to pay the bills. Nothing wrong with that, but there really is no reason to watch it unless you’re a Kubrick completest.

15. Flying Padre (1951) – Like The Seafarers, a short film made to pay the bills. Supposedly a documentary about a Priest who has to fly to see his spread out congregation, but the film is clearly heavily staged. Really not of much  interest.

14. Fear and Desire (1953) – Kubrick withdrew his feature debut from circulation – and would have been happy for it never to see the light of day. When a copy was discovered, and restored, the world could see why Kubrick didn’t like it. There are isolated moments that work amazingly well – but the dialogue and acting is basically horrible. I’m glad we can see it now – but I doubt I’ll ever watch it again.

13. Day of the Fight (1951) – The one short of Kubrick’s career that is worth seeing – the first one Kubrick made, based on his photo spread for Look Magazine. There are moments that show Kubrick’s genius in its gestation period, which make it worthwhile. Not a great short by any means – but the only short that feels like a personal project for Kubrick.

12. Killer’s Kiss (1955) – Like Fear & Desire, Killer’s Kiss is at its best when the characters are not talking, and Kubrick is showing his early understanding of shadow and light, and staging some interesting action sequences – including the creepy finale in a mannequin factory. What makes it far better than Fear & Desire is that there is far less talk – and Kubrick is more confident as a story teller. It would most likely be a completely forgotten noir, had Kubrick not gone on to do what he did later.

11. Spartacus (1960) – Of the 11 films Kubrick made after going to Hollywood, instead of doing independent productions like the previous 5, Spartacus is the one that feels less like a Kubrick film. It is a very well-staged Roman Epic – with some great battle sequences, and fine performances by all – but it is basically Kubrick as a director-for-hire – executing someone else’s vision rather than his own. As far as these type of epics of the time go – it’s actually quite good – better than most not directed by David Lean. But it’s also a film that I never really think about – and probably would have watched once and forgotten had it not be a Kubrick film.

10. Full Metal Jacket (1987) – If the whole film was as good as the first 45 minutes, than this film would be much higher on the list. But despite how brilliantly shot the final 70 minutes of the film is, it really doesn’t add anything new to the Vietnam war film, or war films in general, or even the brilliant opening segment during basic training. Be honest – the first two performances and characters you think of when you think of the film are Vincent D’Onofrio and R. Lee Ermey. There’s a reason for that. But half a Kubrick master is still worth celebrating.

9. The Killing (1956) – A brilliantly staged, edited and shot heist film – about a man who is a meticulous planner, undone when others don’t quite follow his plan. As tightly constructed as any film of its sort, with great use of narration, and fine performances. This showed Kubrick had the goods to go onto bigger and better things – and is a brilliant little film in its own right.

8. Lolita (1962) - Kubrick’s Lolita isn’t Nabokov’s Lolita – and it’s hardly even Kubrick’s, since he admitted that if he knew the censorship that would be involved, he probably wouldn’t have made it. But it’s still a fascinating, dark comedy about sexual obsession, brilliantly directed and written – with a quartet of great performances by James Mason as the pathetic Humbert, Shelley Winters as the brash, ignorant woman he marries, Peter Sellers as the libertine Clare Quilty, and yes, Sue Lyon, who keeps Lolita an enigma. Is the film more interesting to write about and discuss than it is to watch – to a certain degree. But it’s still a great film.

7. Paths of Glory (1957) – One of the best anti-war films ever made – Kubrick’s first masterpiece, than for most directors would be the highlight of their career. The film looks at the corrupt class system of war, the senseless cruelty and violence, and that final scene will bring a tear to the eye of anyone with a heart. Brilliantly directed – especially in the trenches.

6. A Clockwork Orange (1971) – The film that I downgraded the most upon the most recent review – perhaps because it is a young man’s film, and I’m not as young as I once was. I know find that I admire the film more than I actually love it – it is among the best shot, edited, score, acted and designed films of Kubrick’s career – and its message is as timely now as it was when it was released. A masterpiece – even if I liked it a little less than I did as a teenager.

5. Barry Lyndon (1975) – The film that I upgraded the most after the most recent re-watching – one of the most beautiful films ever made, as Kubrick found a way to make the 18th Century look on film as it did in the paintings of the period. A story of a passive man, trying desperately to be something he cannot be – and be destroyed as a result. To some, it will be boring – but who cares about them?

4. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – The more I watch the film, the more mysterious, ambiguous and brilliant Kubrick’s film seems to be. If A Clockwork Orange moved down the list a couple of places because it’s a young man’s film, than Eyes Wide Shut moved up a few spots because it’s the film I relate to most right now in my life. Objective? No – but I don’t really care.

3. The Shining (1980) – After the most recent re-watching, I am now more convinced than ever that The Shining is the best horror film ever made – and every bit as good as the top two films on this list. An endlessly fascinating enigma, puzzle box of a movie, with no real solution that is also brilliantly shot, editing, scored – and never ceases to scare the crap out of me.

2. Dr. Strangelove (1964) – For my money, the best comedy of the sound era – a movie that is simultaneously hilarious throughout, in large part because of the great performances by Peter Sellers, in three roles, George C. Scott, going over the top insane, and Sterling Hayden, doing understated insane, and downright frightening because of its implications of how close we could come to annihilation because of the idiots who are in charge. Scary, hilarious brilliantly directed. Not what we normally think of in a Kubrick film – but every bit as good as anything he has ever made.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – There are a handful of films that can be said to have truly changed cinema history – and 2001 is certainly one of those films. One of the most ambitious films ever made – that wants to do nothing less but to tell the history of humanity, and our place in the larger universe – and how the greatest thing about humanity is our intelligence. Brilliant as sci-fi, brilliant just as a visual experience, but also quietly profound, this is clearly one of the very best films ever made.

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