“From the very beginning, all of my films have divided the critics. Some have thought them wonderful, and others have found very little good to say. But subsequent critical opinion has always resulted in a very remarkable shift to the favorable. In one instance, the same critic who originally rapped the film has several years later put it on an all-time best list. But of course, the lasting and ultimately most important reputation of a film is not based on reviews, but on what, if anything, people say about it over the years, and on how much affection for it they have.” – Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick was a controversial director throughout his career and some will argue he still is. What particularly made Kubrick a profound director was his ability to take on controversial topics and blatantly put focus upon them for audiences to see. Kubrick didn’t care whether he offended or isolated prospective fans. His ideology was allowing for his films to speak for themselves. Therefore, if a fan was displeased by what they saw, Kubrick would have no qualms if they left the theater disenchanted. For Kubrick, his films were about artistry, therefore he willfully allowed for his films to be subjective with audiences. Furthermore, Kubrick continually instilled as much careful and thoughtful direction into his film narratives, which is commendable considering he rarely allowed for outside influences to divert his vision. Kubrick’s films were very much like abstract paintings, to which it was left to the viewers to interpret the films’ meanings and purposes. Kubrick was meticulous with his films, taking creative license to incorporate his vision into the narrative, many times frustrating and sometimes infuriating authors whose source material was reinterpreted by Kubrick. Nonetheless, the majority of Kubrick’s films have become iconic, thus allowing for contemporary audiences to emulate the writer/director as a man of unique and extraordinary brilliance.
In honor of what would have been Stanley Kubrick’s 87th birthday today, here is my personal ranking of his most famous films.
9. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
This is perhaps the worst film of Kubrick’s career, which he ironically dubbed as his best work before he died suddenly in 1999. The film is a sexual odyssey, to which its protagonist (Tom Cruise) stumbles onto an underground world of sexual perversion, fantasy, and deception. While the film is a train wreck to endure, it must be acknowledged for its first thirty minutes when Tom Cruise’s on-screen wife (Nicole Kidman, while she was still married to Cruise) delivers a stunning 10 minute monologue of how she once cheated on her husband.
8. Spartacus (1960)
Stanley Kubrick despised the final product of this film primarily because he had no control of the script, which incited his preference to write his own scripts for the remainder of his career, as well as direct them, thereby giving him total control of the film production. Nonetheless, this film is an astounding epic film about the famous gladiator and war general. This film also stands as the only film to have an Oscar winning role, which went to Peter Ustinov for Best Supporting Actor.
7. Lolita (1962)
While the film may be tame in comparison to the controversial novel written by Vladimir Nabokov, Kubrick took a tremendous risk adapting the film about an middle-aged professor becoming infatuated with a fourteen year old girl named Lolita so much so that he marries her mother to get closer to the girl. What especially is worth noting with this film is how Kubrick never aimed to convey issues of morality or conflict within the narrative, which leaves the viewer revolted and disgusted with the film’s content. The main highlight of this film is Shelley Winters’ performance, which was snubbed for an Oscar nomination.
6. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
This film has the unique distinction in that it is perhaps one of the more popular Vietnam films, yet it isn’t famous for its Vietnam war sequences. What makes this film uniquely its own is that its cinematic gold comes from the first half of the film that focuses on the boot camp sequences, which made R. Lee Ermey iconic as the ruthless drill sergeant who drives an overweight recruit (Vincent D’Onofrio) to madness.
5. Barry Lyndon (1975)
On an epic level, this is perhaps Kubrick’s most profound film that fantastically merged a fictional biopic with historical drama. On a grand scale, this is Kubrick’s most stunning work. The battle sequences alone are worth watching this three-hour long epic.
4. The Shining (1980)
Stephen King was infuriated with how his novel was adapted and vowed never to let Kubrick adapt one of his novels ever again, while Jack Nicholson also vowed never to work with Kubrick again, citing that making this film was one of the worst experiences of his career. Despite these grievances, this film is one of Kubrick’s most famous films and set a standard of what horror films ought to be like. Kubrick deviated from King’s novel dramatically, which ironically improved its content, and provided for a creepier undertone throughout the film. Even more ironic is that many Nicholson fans claim this was one of the best roles in his career by how he conveyed a perfect portrayal of someone descending into madness.
3. 2001 Space Odyssey (1968)
The brilliance of this film was its ability to be interpreted in a multitude of different vantages based upon HOW one watches this film. This film is abstract and highly subjective, to which its message (if there is any) is left for the viewer to establish, with notables such as Rock Hudson famously saying after the film’s premiere, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?” What especially makes this a brilliant film is Kubrick’s tremendous attention to detail and his willingness to break outside of cinematic conventions to film this movie. For instance, the film has no dialogue for its first 25 minutes, instead leaving viewers to watch the evolution of man on Earth. This film also has the famous HAL 9000, the central computer aboard the space ship that decides to wage a war crafted in the style of human versus computer. One astounding feature of this film was it foreshadowing the eventual dependency society would have with technology and being enslaved to it.
2. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Jane Fonda infamously boycotted the Academy Awards in 1972 when this film was nominated for Best Picture. This film is the very definition of a dystopian film that chronicles the concept of a society that is run by hoodlums and gangs and the deeply flawed tactics of government to reduce crime. This film is unapologetic, vicious, violent, deeply offensive, yet truly an achievement of film. This is a highly visual film, which Kubrick excelled at with introducing narrative conventions that were entirely physical to the viewer, which instilled the greatest possible impact to the viewer.
1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Taking the idea of nuclear war and annihilation and parodying it, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis, was an incredibly risky career move for Kubrick, but he didn’t let that stop him. The true brilliance of Kubrick was hiring Peter Sellers (who he had previously directed in Lolita) and having him star in three separate roles in the film, all equally hilarious. Kubrick allowed for Peter Sellers to improvise and gave him creative liberty to improve upon the characters established in his script. Added onto that was Kubrick’s unapologetic approach of conveying the lunacy and incompetence of the government, showing them to be hilariously eager for war or desperate not to offend. Dr. Strangelove has become one of the comedy genre’s most appreciated gems, with many writers and directors using it as a standard of what satirical films ought to look like.
*Did you know: Stanley Kubrick was nominated 13 times in his career for an Oscar, but never won one for production, writing, or directing. However, he did win a single Oscar in his career, but it was ironically for Best Visual Effects for 2001 Space Odyssey in 1969.