Friday, October 28, 2011

THE LISTS: Ranking Stanley Kubrick

Before anyone else even has the chance to chastise me, I'll beat you to it. How the hell have I gone through nineteen years of my life without being touched once by the genius of Stanley Kubrick? How did I get by this long without seeing his influence in my rear-view? In a word, barely. In the first sixteen years of my life, I'd describe myself as a complete and total idiot. By eighteen, still painfully limited. By nineteen, a point of confidence and individuality, but still not quite complete. I have made more headway towards becoming the sort of influential filmmaker that I want to be most in the past week and a half than I have in almost my entire life.

To say that Stanley Kubrick has had a great deal of influence on several high profile filmmakers is an understatement. The man practically defined perfection in cinema at a time when it was still searching for a definitive form. Not to say that his films are the absolute, unequivocal best, and that no other film could top his #1. I think that'd be just far too insane and geekish a statement for everyone. Still, there is no other filmmaker who has taken up the task of perfection in medium quite as much or as sincerely as Kubrick. If you've not seen and loved a film of his, you are of a dead nature to me, and I'm afraid there's no hope for you.

The moment I'd made my way through two of his films, I knew that I couldn't stop until I was done. And with Halloween just waiting around the corner, and me not quite willing or prepared to make a list of the top horror films this year, I felt this was the perfect opportunity for a list. After all, you can find sinister undertones permeating through most of his films, outside his sole horror venture. There are very few that don't have that touch. Though I must say that I couldn't include all of Kubrick's films. There were some that just didn't match up. "Killer's Kiss" was too banal a piece, and though "Lolita" had a characteristically strong start, I couldn't make it out of that first hour without feeling uninterested. So it's with the utmost of honor that I run down the ranking of Kubrick's ten other features, after the jump.

10. "The Killing" (1956)

Now while going through the anthology of Stanley Kubrick, it occurred to me very quickly that ranking them was going to be an effort of comparing gold to diamonds. However the bottom two films on this list largely dispute that idea, and this is the perfect illustration of that. Recently released on the Criterion Collection, Kubrick's second film, while in no way truly poor, does not rise above the ranks in the way the rest of his films do. It's a rather simple example of noir construction, with strong performances and witty dialogue, but never anything more. Solid, but I'd never go out of the way for a Criterion copy.

9. "Spartacus" (1960)

And here was yet another film I was speculative about heading in, and to a degree I was right. This is the only film that Kubrick himself did not have a hand in writing, and as such there is some weakness to be found. The film has a great deal of fat on its bones, not enhancing as his more involved productions were. The length was justified in many of his other films. In this, not so much. Still, I admit that the film payed off enormously from Kubrick's involvement. There is that sign of Kubrick's innate eye and mind having an definite hold on the film. Even more than that, oddly, is Kirk Douglass' titular performance, finding great use of suppression and silence when given. Sure, one of his lesser works, but in any typical year, we'd be celebrating mildly.

8. "Barry Lyndon" (1975)

Kubrick isn't exactly known for being a formative stiff, so if you assumed such from seeing his ninth film then you've cast shame upon yourself. "Barry Lyndon" is just as gleefully cruel as some Kubrick's darker films, though in a completely different way. What no doubt gave rise to the slew of period costume dramas that we're currently marred with, this film is his most carefully gorgeous of works in terms of cinematography. It has as ironic a streak as you'd expect of him, paying its title character back in full in the second act for his several honest deceits in the first act. Wrapped together by a epilogue card that gives rise for the audience to consider the film all over again in strong context, which is what great cinematic cap-offs are meant to do. While a television series is meant to wet its audience's appetite for the next episode with the end, a film should lead the audience back to itself with its end.

7. "Paths of Glory"(1957)

All the world in unison now: "Paths of" WHAT? This is far from his most well known of films, perhaps even less than "Barry Lyndon", but this is as strong a sign of the man he will become as any of his earliest works. At times working as a biting bit of satire, but more often working towards tragic machinations. Often touted as an anti-war film, that almost misdirects Kubrick's actual focus. It's mostly an indictment of the inhumanity of those with power, dead set on what's productive rather than what's right. What's strongest about the film is the honest and unflinching performances from its cast, particularly Kirk Douglass who shows why Kubrick brought him along for "Spartacus" later on. It's a film that caught me honestly off-guard, as Kubrick often has.

6. "A Clockwork Orange" (1971)

I figured out the hard way a few seconds in that it is not advisable to accompany this film with Chinese food. The Kubrick film that has most inspired a cult following, not to mention his most bizarre, nail-scraping film, I have to admit being just a tad underwhelmed. In a few ways, it lacks in the propulsiveness his other films have, its slow pace in some ways seeming somewhat meandering. That being said, that's like complaining that you thought it would be A and it turned out A-. Malcolm McDowell really slams onto the scene with such disturbed relish in each movement of his orchestration, at times displaying a confident omniscience, while at others showing the tragedy of human weakness. But this is really a rag-to-riches story, saying that if you hold to who you are, everything will work out in the end. Even if who you are is a sociopathic manipulator. It's that biting idea that holds this film up so high.

5. "Dr. Strangelove" (1964)

And here is the greatest example of Kubrick's satirical intelligence at display, and in many's opinion his best film. Personally, I have just a few reservations, though nothing of major dissent. The film drags at the moments with the team in the plane, which could've been a bit more interesting in nature. Outside that slight quibble, this is a really hilarious and damn well effective political yarn. They set up this self-defecating image of America, with an ex-Nazi heading their technology department, and interestingly gaining the film's namesake. It's an interesting title, given the character's presence in the film is somewhat diminished. But by the end of the film, and I mean the very end, you'll see why it's so appropriate and ridiculous. When you've already fucked yourself pretty impossibly, there's really not much else to do than laugh about it. "Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!"

4. "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999)

I took in Kubrick's final film in the earlier hours of Monday evening, with a slight bit of apprehension I might add. It dawned on me quickly that this was the last film Stanley Kubrick made, and though that's not a very inviting concept, this is a very suitably mystifying and bizarre note for him to go out on. Wrongly perceived on its release as a simple and convoluted piece, you'd think after 40 years we'd have learned that there's always something below the surface. It's a film about people who try to explain things perhaps without meaning or purpose, and as such it renders two absolutely brilliant performances from Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. Between this and "Magnolia", where has Cruise gone astray since 1999?

3. "Full Metal Jacket" (1987)

This was probably the most difficult film in Kubrick's archive for me to articulate my thoughts on, though aren't they all hard to really pin down? What's so difficult about it is its infrequent nature, though not that it's infrequently good or bad. It's the strong divide between the two equally fascinating halves, the first at boot camp, and the second moving towards a Vietnam city. Both are rather riveting in their own ways, with the first half showing the true ugliness of that war before we're even out there, in a truly haunting manner no less. The second half, at first glance, doesn't seem to have anything to do with the riveting first act. It's got more of that Kubrick irony at play, not to mention the most magnificently constructed extended set-piece in Kubrick's career. It's not until the very end that it's all tied together subconsciously through Abigail Mead's score. I wasn't quite enthused the moment it was over, but this one stuck with me and even grew on me.

2. "The Shining" (1980)

So very close to being my number 1, it might just be the current atmosphere we're living in, with horror films a plenty cropping up on television and in cinema. Or it could be that the film grabbed onto me magnificently from the very first frame, following a car mundanely driving through the mountains in a way that's far from mundane. But then the film goes on from there in an indefinably creative manner. It's not the horror film that tells you everything's fine, and then sets this twist upon you. Throughout the entire ordeal, everything's not alright. What's really sticking about the horror here is that it's not of some monster, but it is something that could so easily happen. The fear that the world you've created for yourself could collapse under the weight of reality is what propels each character, with the concrete walls of the hotel bouncing all those fears and insanities inward against each other. And then it culminates in a knife-edge finale that had me bobbing towards and away from the screen in equal and continuous measure. And then it ended, and I realized I had to go to sleep after that.

1. "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)

I was advised continuously by my peers to hold off on "2001" till the end, which really caught my interest in it. I remember once "trying" to watch it, but failing. Then again, that was a very long time ago. So it was with equal anticipation and apprehension that I went into this one. By the end, I spent a solid 10 minutes in my chair, staring at a black screen. After all, I had witnessed the dawn of man juxtaposed with its growing insignificance. I had viewed some literally gravity-defying imagery, which must've been time-consuming to nail down. I had wept like an infant child at the death of a machine ("I can feel it"). And then I beheld the strangest sequence of warping and saturated colors. I saw the misery of life flash by before it had. And I still don't quite know what to make of that final shot. It's a film, like all Kubricks, that takes more than one viewing to digest. I feel confident in my rankings, but at the same time, I need to wait a month before visiting these films again. Give them time to marinate before ruminating further. I know for certain, I'll spend more time contemplating this than the others.

How would you rank Kubrick's films? Comment below!

1 comment:

  1. I've only seen two Kubrick films, 2001 and The Shining, so I can't really comment on this,

    I do have Clockwork orange and Dr. Strangelove on my Netflixe quee though, I've been meaning to watch them for years so I'm excited to do so.

    as for 2001 and The shining, I'm not really thie biggest fans. I'm a fan of the novels that both films are based on its it was weird seeing 2001 on screen because, it came being so cold and soulless,its like multiple viewings are a must for the movie.

    Ans as for The Shining, I kind of don't like it. As a film adaption they bastardized a lot of the things from the novel, can't really form a concrete opinion from it.