The intense stare into the camera lens, the use of classical music, the elegant visual style, the stories of complex productions and the record-breaking number of takes, it goes without saying that the cinematic works of Stanley Kubrick are unlike those of any other director. His films have passed into cinematic lore, the visuals have become a fabric of the cinematic language in a way that very few directors can achieve, and his narratives, from the dizzying 2001: A Space Odyssey to the haunted corridors of The Shining, can invoke debate and analysis that goes beyond the realm of the scholarly.
Picking five of the best Kubrick films may seem a daunting challenge, but to do so is to pick some of the greatest works any director has accomplished, work that is challenging, engaging, brilliant, and yet sometimes accused of having a distinctly chilly air that makes his work hard to engage with.
His work has inspired the likes of Christopher Nolan, while Steven Spielberg has not only finished one of the director’s incompleted works but has delivered work that sometimes feels like it owes a clear debt, some subtle, others more overt. His works are most definitely unique among the pantheon of cinema.
Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Without a doubt, one of the greatest black comedies ever put to film, the surreal air and comedic atmosphere of Dr. Strangelove almost feels out-of-place in Kubrick’s output, especially give the documentary air to parts of 2001 and the confrontational darkness of A Clockwork Orange.
Featuring career-best work from Peter Sellers (which is really saying something given how versatile a comedic performer he was, despite his difficult reputation) not to mention superb production design from famed James Bond production designer Ken Adam, Dr. Strangelove is a surreal, joyous journey that, amazingly, has only become more prescient in today’s day and age.
A comedy about nuclear war, viewed in the context of today’s political environment and the almost surreal “comedy” involved in political characters like Trump, the film still feels powerful, relevant, but above all else, very, very funny if a tad uncomfortable that it’s a film that provokes laughter about nuclear Armageddon and political failings.
Although Kubrick never had such a high opinion of Spartacus, after all, he was basically a director for hire at the request of star Kirk Douglas after the two had worked together to brilliant effect on Paths of Glory, there is no denying that it is a Hollywood epic of a very high quality, even if it is the least personal of Kubrick’s films.
It may feel anomalous in the Kubrick cannon, it is the one film that somewhat conforms to narrative structure and filmmaking style, but what an amazing piece of narrative structure and filmmaking style it is.
Many Roman epics, in fact, Hollywood historical epics, feel as if they owe Kubrick’s tale of the famous slave turned gladiator a debt, the film is a brutal and, amazingly for Kubrick, emotional tale of freedom, love and lots of brilliantly choreographed battle sequences. It’s the latter where the style of Kubrick really shows. The final battle, culminating with the famous “I’m Spartacus” moment is as brilliant a piece of movie making as ever produced, filmed in a pre-CGI era, it feels earthy, spectacular and above all else real.
2001: A Space Odyssey
The greatest of Kubrick’s works, and also the greatest of the science fiction genre, Kubrick’s collaboration with famed science fiction author Arthur C Clarke changed the face of what was usually regarded as something of a B-movie genre and elevated it to the heights of grand brilliance.
What is there left to say about it that has never been said before? The Dawn of Man opening, to the final revelation of the Star Child, the film may be fifty years of age and we as a species may have passed the films setting, but it still feels boundary-breaking in ways that films since have very rarely surpassed, and the visual effects still look as wonderful and magical as they were the day they were released, giving the film’s visuals a timeless quality that is almost unheard of.
As is always the case with Kubrick, The Shining has almost transcended movie making and movie history with its mere existence. We all know the stories on how Jack Nicholson improvised the film’s most famous line and how Shelley Duvall was, for all intents and purposes, emotionally tortured with a record-breaking number of takes for one scene (a fact that mars the film ever so slightly due to how awful her experience was).
Then there was Stephen King despising the adaptation to the extent he would write his own filmed version for American television in 1997. In truth, the film doesn’t deviate too far from the book in basic narrative terms, but it’s the feeling of it that makes this more of a Kubrick film than a King adaptation. King’s novel was about ghosts, but Kubrick made his films so mysterious almost by design, or capable of many interpretations, one could almost just look at it as a film about a family torn apart by cabin fever.
Kubrick’s only trip to pure horror genre, it has become of the most famous examples of it, with imagery, scenes, dialogue and set pieces that have become a staple of the genre as much as Kubrick’s filmography and will no doubt pick up new fans thanks to a well executed tribute in a recent blockbuster that tipped its hat wonderfully from a director who knew Kubrick very well.
Full Metal Jacket
An incredibly intense experience, Kubrick’s contribution to the increasing sub-genre of Vietnam war movies that were opening up during the late 70’s/early 80’s (see also Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July) feels incredibly different to those that were coming from the likes of Oliver Stone. If anything, it probably shares an almost surreal sense of observation when it comes to the chaos of war as that of Francis Coppola’s film, but Kubrick also explores what it means to create a solider.
Split into two parts, the first half devotes itself to the training of young soldiers about to be deployed to Vietnam, the second to when they get there. Centred around Private Joker (Matthew Modine), the film also boasts one of the most intensely committed performances put to film courtesy of R. Lee Ermey as Drill Sergeant Hartman, as well as an astonishing supporting performance from Vincent D’Onofrio.
Amazingly, Kubrick recreated Vietnam itself at the Isle of Dogs and at the Beckton Gas Works in London. It shouldn’t work, but the recreation itself is more than solid, and the knowledge that the Vietnam conflict was recreated in London simply adds to the film’s surreal air in the second half.