As much as I love doing this column (all of which can be read right here) and forcing myself to reexamine my very favorite filmmakers, sometimes it’s especially difficult. Arguably my favorite director of all time is Stanley Kubrick (he routinely fights for supremacy in my head against Sergio Leone) and like Leone, he has a relatively small filmography. He’s really only made 12 films. That actually made choosing a favorite seven more difficult, because what do you leave out? I mean, obviously there are a few to leave out, but how do you pick the best out of a canon that’s basically all bests?
Well, I did. Before we get started, I want to say that Kubrick’s 1962 film Lolita was almost going to make it into the list at number 7. It was jockeying for position for quite awhile in my head, but ultimately I had to go with another. Just want it known that I also love Lolita a lot.
Anyway, without further adieu, here are my top 7 favorite films by Stanley Kubrick.
7) Full Metal Jacket (1987)
This was very nearly Kubrick’s last film, and was for a 12-year span, which makes it significant, mostly because of how different it is. It’s a rather brisk film, and it’s a film of two very different and seemingly unrelated halves. The first is about young recruits in a harsh Marine boot camp before heading to Vietnam, under the yelling, bulgy-eyed supervision of Lee Ermey’s Sgt. Hartman, wherein Vincent D’Onofrio’s overweight and sort of slow Private Gomer Pyle is tortured and ultimately murders Hartman before himself. The second part follows Pvt. Joker (Matthew Modine), the witness to that last unpleasantness, as he’s in Vietnam in the journalism division and seeing the horrors of war first hand, despite his trademark irreverence. The first part of the film certainly works a lot better than the second half, but there’s not disparaging the final amazingly complex action set piece wherein the battalion is faced with heavy sniper fire. What makes the movie even more amazing is that Kubrick had the whole of Vietnam built a few miles from his home in England. It gives the movie a strange overcast gloominess, perfect for the film at hand, but certainly not representative of actual Vietnam.
6) A Clockwork Orange (1971)
This is a movie that I first saw in college and my weird, dark sense of humor took to immediately. It’s pretty cacklingly funny at times, given how actually morose the idea is. Based on Anthony Burgess’ novel (in fact, mainly transcribed verbatim into screenplay format by Kubrick), it tells the near-future story of an ultra-violent youth who leads a gang and engages in sex, drugs, and horrible brutality. He is subsequently arrested and put through a tortuous experiment which gives him physical agony whenever he has his previous urges. We sort of feel sorry for Alex (Malcolm McDowell), him being our humble narrator, even though he’s really a despicable and insane human being. It’s as black a comedy as has ever been made, and Kubrick shoots it with the fish-eyed fervor of disaffected youth. The movie proved so effective, unfortunately, that it evidently led to actual instances in England of violence being perpetrated by young people to the point that Kubrick had the film removed from cinemas. While I still love this movie, I feel as though I’ve slightly outgrown the whole mentality behind it. Still, can’t beat the syth-y version of the 9th by Ludwig Van.
5) The Shining (1980)
Kubrick, in my opinion, always set out to make the “perfect” example of whatever type of movie he was making. He’s been accused, not incorrectly, of being very clinical and sterile in his approach, like an observer more than a participant. That being said, I think he created one of the most deeply terrifying movies ever made in The Shining, which is certainly not a good adaptation of the Stephen King novel, but a movie that could drive (and in some cases has driven) the audience as insane as the characters. Kubrick purposely did hundreds of takes to make the performances of his actors as frazzled and unhinged as possible, with their nerves close to the surface, and he had the interior of the Overlook Hotel set make no logical sense geographically if you’re paying attention to the hallways and rooms and windows. It’s a dreamlike place. I’ve heard criticism of the over-the-topness of Jack Nicholson and the annoyingness of Shelley Duvall, but for me it’s all in service of making the scariest movie possible, and I think it’s at least top five horror ever made.
4) The Killing (1956)
Following his experimental first film Killer’s Kiss, which is technically a Film Noir but a very stripped-down one, Kubrick made his first proper film, with a budget and everything, in 1956. This, like all of Kubrick’s films, looks a whole lot different than most other films of its kind in the genre. It’s a rough and rather dense crime story about a heist carried out by a bunch of ruffians, but it looks much sleeker and sharper than you’d expect for its B-movie plot. It also plays with the narrative by having things happen way out of sequence in order to let the audience learn things when it has the most emotional resonance, not when it has the most logical placing in time. I especially love just how artificial Kubrick makes everything look. The camera moves past walls and in and out of rooms in a way that showcases the fact that we’re watching a movie, certainly not real events. This is a very violent film, and like most of Kubrick’s films, it goes dangerously close to horror at times depicting the lengths greedy people will go to get what they want. Truly excellent movie.
3) Paths of Glory (1957)
As great as a lot of war movies of the time are, like The Great Escape or The Dirty Dozen, which show WWII as an epic adventure of good versus evil, that simplification lessens just how pointless all that wanton violence can be. Paths of Glory is the perfect example of that, and it never even shows us the opposition. We’re in WWI, a war full of incredibly brutal battles where the combatants more or less lived in trenches, gaining inches of land in a victory and losing personnel by the truckload. The characters in the film are all French soldiers and officers and the tension comes not from if they’ll win a particular battle but what happens when the bourgeois officer class and the soldiers on the ground clash over “tactical advantage.” Kirk Douglas plays Col. Dax, a well-liked leader who is ordered to take a paltry piece of land called The Ant Hill during a seemingly unwinnable attack. It fails, needless to say, and the General who came up with the ridiculous plan (played with hateable smugness by George Macready) wants to make an example of the “cowards” under his command, choosing three soldiers at random to stand trial for cowardice and treason. It’s a mockery, and if any movie makes you feel sickened by the absurdity of warfare, this is it.
2) Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Kubrick sure seemed to think war was ridiculous. All three of the military-themed movies he made showcase people in power being out of touch with what’s actually going on. This is a Cold War dark comedy about the fragility of the world under threat of nuclear annihilation, especially when those in power are impotent, in a number of ways. Sterling Hayden gives a fantastically weird performance as General Jack T. Ripper, a man who has lost his mind and thinks women are out to take his life essence and so has to destroy the Red Menace (?) by giving orders to drop bombs on Russia without the ability to retract them. Meanwhile, the President of the United States (Peter Sellers) attempts to quell the situation but learns that the Russians have a doomsday machine that will immediately retaliate if attacked, effectively destroying the whole world. Acceptable losses perhaps? Sellers plays three characters in the film, the Pres, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake who is attempting to reason with and stop General Ripper, and the titular Dr. Strangelove, a former Nazi scientist who is an expert on these doomsday machines. Add to that a simply amazing and nutso performance by George C. Scott as a snarling military mind and you have one of the funniest and scariest movies you could think of.
1) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Was there any doubt this would be my number one? Well, kind of if you knew me back in college. The same excursion to Blockbuster where I rented A Clockwork Orange also had me picking up this movie. And, you know what? I didn’t get it. At all. I just thought it was weird and way over my head. I didn’t watch it again for a few years until a Kubrick box set came out, which I bought for Clockwork and The Shining. That viewing of 2001 was a revelation. In only a couple of years, I got so much more out of it than I had before. And that’s been my experience ever since: Every single time I watch it, I get more and appreciate more of what an astounding achievement it is. You can get lost in the grandeur of space and the floatiness of the procedure of it all, especially with Kubrick’s use of classical music to highlight the balletic nature of weightlessness. Kubrick and Douglas Trumbull’s special effects are still impressive; I don’t think they’ll ever stop being impressive. The story meanwhile humbly tries to explain what we are as human being in terms of our relationship to helping-handed alien entities, a very much Chariots of the Gods-style explanation for man’s advancement. A lot of this was lost on me as a 20 year old but it is, as the posters at the time aimed at LSD users proclaimed, “The Ultimate Trip.”
And there you have it, my favorite films by my favorite director. What are your favorites? Do you think I’m a fool for leaving off Barry Lyndon? Let me know below!