Posted on Thursday, December 18th, 2014 by Russ Fischer
There isn’t a thing that hasn’t been written about the films of Stanley Kubrick. His films have been celebrated and reviled; some originally reviled have been reassessed as masterpieces; reams of copy have been written on even his least-appreciated movies. And yet they pull us in time and again. His films feature richly developed concepts that we can appreciate differently as our own lives progress and change.
Kubrick is the most visible representation of a sort of filmmaking that has largely vanished. He was likely the last director to enjoy total creative freedom with the backing of a major movie studio; his deal with Warner Bros. let him do what he wanted, on his own time. His 1999 passing happens to coincide with the transition into a fully digital filmmaking era and into a time when studio films are ever-more focused on sequels and familiar concepts.
The idea of ranking Kubrick films is somewhat absurd; there’s really only one that can be at #1. But there’s a lot of room for discussion about what his other twelve features offer. Warner Bros. recently issued a new box set (Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection) with a gorgeous outer shell (above), a fine array of behind the scenes material, and disc packaging that is an improvement over the last blu-ray set from the studio. That box of eight films had us going back through all of Kubrick’s movies, and we’ve laid them out in order below.
13. Fear and Desire (1953)
Kubrick’s very first feature is also his first war movie, telling the story of four soldiers and their experience behind enemy lines. It is a more abstract film than the war film he would make four years later, and is very evidently the work of an untested filmmaker. But it is also the product of willpower and shows Kubrick’s exceptional eye for composition. Kubrick essentially disowned the film, considering it an overly amateur effort, and put some effort into preventing it from being seen in the years prior to his death.
Rewatch it For
The experience of seeing the film at all, which most audiences haven’t enjoyed. Fear and Desire was relatively unavailable until only a few years ago, and a recent disc release put Kubrick’s first feature squarely back into consideration as a major moment in his career.
12. Lolita (1962)
A popular novel from one of the most significant authors of the 20th Century gave Kubrick controversial source material on which to spend credit earned with Spartacus, for a film that may be his one genuine misfire. So much of what we recognize as elements of Kubrick’s style come into play as the documentary elements of his pre-Spartacus movies fall away in favor of a focus on meaty performances and material that challenges contemporary moral standards. Here, Kubrick’s pushback against conventional ideas of what is permissible is weakened by his inexperience and the strength of the production code. The film’s somewhat bland irony and darkly comic approach don’t jibe with the characters, especially as Kubrick cut scenes from the novel showing Lolita’s real reaction to the “romance” with Humbert. Lolita is now quite difficult to watch — in many ways it is Kubrick’s first horror film.
Rewatch it For:
Peter Sellers’ performance as Claire Quilty, the role that Kubrick greatly expanded from its relatively small presence in the novel into a pessimistic complement for Humbert Humbert.
11. Killer’s Kiss (1955)
The first of two ‘50s noir pictures from Kubrick, Killer’s Kiss is a raw genre story about a boxer, a dancer, and her brutish employer. On the script side the film is rough, but Kubrick’s early filmmaking style has already improved considerably since the creation of Fear and Desire two years prior. This might be more effective as a silent film, as the images are powerfully evocative, with an impressive use not only of light and shadow, but of space. Kubrick’s work as a photographer informs the location shooting, which documents mid ’50s New York through Kubrick’s intelligent eye.
Rewatch it For
The boxing sequence in the middle of the film, which breaks from the rest of the film’s naturalistic style to offer something a bit more impressionistic and immersive, and stands as an influence on Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.
10. Spartacus (1960)
More important to the biographer than the viewer, Spartacus sees Kubrick employed as a director for hire thanks to the intervention of Kirk Douglas. As studio epics go this is still an impressive effort, and one has to admire the fact that the relatively young Kubrick stepped onto set with a cast of luminaries and took charge to create something a bit like a film he might have conceived. Still, it’s not quite like a Kubrick movie, and even the most significant aspect of the film’s production — that Dalton Trumbo was credited under his own name, breaking the Hollywood blacklist that had been established as part of a Communist witch hunt a decade earlier — was the result of efforts from Douglas, not Kubrick.
Rewatch it For
Some understanding of the fact that even the most powerful directors can be faced with compromise, and that the creation of great work in film is always a collaborative experiment.