The Definitive Ranking of Every Stanley Kubrick Feature Film

And now for something completely different: a satire piece. Not too long ago, Ken Morefield published the definitive ranking of every Robert Bresson film ever. The semi-satirical semi-serious essay was meant to parody the click bait film lists of Buzzfeed and the like. Never one to let a good joke go to waste, I decided to do the same thing with Stanley Kubrick, and since yesterday was his birthday, it seemed like a great time to publish it. The rankings are pretty much the order I like the movies, but I’ve watched most of them multiple times, so that’s my claim for this list being the definitive ranking. And even if it seems like something is rated too low, remember: these are Stanley Kubrick films, so that means all of them are fantastic.

 

fear-and-desire13. Fear and Desire (1953) — I know I said every Kubrick film is fantastic, but I kind of lied. Fear and Desire does leave quite a bit to be desired, so much, that Kubrick tried to destroy every copy of it. (He was a notorious perfectionist and embarrassed by his less than perfect first feature.) However, for his first feature film, it’s pretty impressive. Sure the acting is terrible, the dialogue is worse, and the storyline is pretty dumb too, but there is really great editing (merging of different shots) and blocking (telling the actors where to stand amidst the props). The visual composition captures the helplessness of four soldiers lost behind enemy lines too. You can clearly see Kubrick’s background as a photographer, and since film is a visual medium, the fantastic visuals mostly make up for the less than stellar aspects.

 

mannuquin12. Killer’s Kiss (1955) — Okay, this one’s not quite fantastic either, but it’s really good, unlike Fear and Desire, which is only plain good. The storyline is about a boxer who wishes to retire and leave New York, but he falls in love with a girl, and then runs afoul of the mafia. At 67 minutes, it’s one of Kubrick’s shortest features, and it still feels like the paper-thin story would have worked better as a short film. However, Kubrick being a fantastic director, has a great sense of style, and this film has style in spades. He stops the plot for a brilliantly filmed ballet scene and an equally brilliantly filmed chase/gun fight in a mannequin warehouse. The rest of the movie is pretty forgettable, to be honest, but those two scenes are incredible and they form at least a third of the movie. The acting is slightly better than Fear and Desire, but this is still clearly a freshman effort, unlike Kubrick’s next feature — a masterpiece which is his seventh best film ever!

 

maxresdefault11. Full Metal Jacket (1987) — Yes, this one is fantastic, despite the rough transition between the two halves, which is the main reason it’s at number 11. The two halves of Full Metal Jacket are actually two separate movies. I know that sounds confusing, but what I mean is that the two halves are so stylistically different that they feel like two separate movies which happen to be connected in one bigger movie. You might think that one bigger movie would be two times more awesomer than its two parts, but after watching Full Metal Jacket a couple times, I still think the transition from the training base to Vietnam is rough. The first half chronicles the training of US marines by the sadistic Sergeant Hartman, (R. Lee Ermey) and the second follows one of the marines after he is stationed in Vietnam. The slow pacing of the second half reflects the sense of purposelessness and questioning of the Vietnam war. The aggressive pacing of the first half reflects the brutality and relentlessness of Hartman’s training. Both halves open with a scene suggesting loss of innocence and then conclude with a shocking, unexpected death witnessed by Pvt. Joker (Matthew Modine). One major theme of the movie is the duality of man and how war brings that out, as exemplified by Pvt. Joker writing “born to kill” on his helmet yet wearing a peace button at the same time. The movie’s pretty deep; but nonetheless, its definitive ranking is number 11. But that’s not a bad ranking; remember Spinal Tap, great Kubrick films go to 11.

 

10. Lolita (1962) — This is the first movie that Peter Sellers made with Kubrick, the second one they did together is a bit higher on this list, which I might add is definitive. It is possible to debate which Sellers performance in a Kubrick film is better; it is not possible to debate which Kubrick film he did was better. Lolita is the weaker of the two, because it is ranked lower on this list. Lolita-1962-2The novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov was very controversial, especially in 1962, and as a result Kubrick had a lot of difficulty in adapting it into a film and getting approval with the Hollywood censors. Consequently, even though Nabokov wrote a really good screenplay adaptation of his own novel, Kubrick significantly revised it so he would not run afoul of the production code. The result is still a great movie (it’s a Kubrick film, lest we forget), but the pacing could have been a little tighter, and I think it was possible for the film to have been even creepier as well.

 

9. Spartacus (1960) — I was on the fence about including this one, because I believe in auteur theory, the idea that the director exercises control over all aspects of his film, and he is the true author of the film. However, Stanley Kubrick did not have complete creative and artistic control over Spartacus, because he was hired as a replacement director after Kirk Douglas and Universal Studios had a falling out with the first director, Anthony Mann. spartacus-fightKubrick had to include the few scenes which had already been filmed, and he was not allowed to rewrite the script to his satisfaction. So therefore, while Kubrick did technically direct Spartacus, it is debatable whether it really is a Kubrick film. However, since the title of this post is “The Definitive Ranking of Every Stanley Kubrick Feature Film” I figured it should be included. And since it’s awesome (because the über-talented Kubrick could make a great movie even if he did not have everything done the way he wanted) it’s included in the top ten.

 

8. A Clockwork Orange (1971) — Yes, this list is the definitive ranking of Kubrick films, and number 8 is the correct ranking of A Clockwork Orange. I understand that many people believe Kubrick aficionados are supposed to include this one in the top three, but the simple reality is I like the remaining seven films more than this one. clockwork-orange-1971--large-msg-130281966791A Clockwork Orange is the best types of movies — one which forces the viewer to draw his own conclusions on whether Alex’s (Malcolm McDowell) horrific crimes or his rehabilitation is the greater violation of human dignity. The vibrant gaudy color scheme and highly synthesized score create a fantastic dystopian aura of unease. Perhaps it is the pacing; A Clockwork Orange has three sections, and each one is almost exactly forty-five minutes long, even though the more important sections should be longer. Perhaps it is because I like Singin’ in the Rain even more than this. Whatever it is, I know it is not Kubrick’s decision to omit the final chapter of Anthony Burgess’ novel, because the story is definitely stronger without it, as Kubrick (who was a genius) correctly knew.

 

7. The Killing (1956) — You read that correctly. The-Killing-006I am seriously ranking The Killing ahead of A Clockwork Orange. The Killing is very simply, a fantastic film noir, and in case you forgot, this list is definitive. In The Killing, a group of veteran criminals led by Sterling Hayden plan the perfect robbery, but during the execution things do not go as smoothly as planned. Like A Clockwork Orange, The Killing is also one of the best types of movies — one which has a title that can be interpreted multiple ways. This provides a great level of complexity upon which Kubrick masterfully builds, keeping the tension and suspense riveting to the end. I suppose I should repeat it here, because it is possible you’ve forgotten that Kubrick was one of the greatest directors ever.

 

6. Barry Lyndon (1975) — This movie is long and beautiful, and I love every second of it. After Kubrick’s funding for his planned project on Napoleon Bonaparte was pulled, he used the extensive research he had done to make the period drama Barry Lyndon about a fortune hunting Irish rogue. To add to the eighteenth century feel,large_barry_lyndon_blu-ray_8 Kubrick refused to use any electric lighting for the shoot. All scenes in the film were lit by natural light or by candlelight and shot with high speed lenses which would allow the film to capture more light than normal. That in itself is a really impressive achievement, but the clarity and stunning focus of the dazzling costumes and sweeping landscapes makes the technique all the more impressive. The film won four academy awards, which must be proof of something. I feel bad I can’t rank it higher.

 

5. The Shining (1980) — I often see this at number one on other lists rankings Kubrick’s films. However, those lists are not definitive, unlike this one, and putting The Shining at number one is a classic case of someone being wrong on the internet. the_shining_backVery, very wrong on the internet. Because while The Shining is great, (it’s a Kubrick film, so it has to be) it is not as great as the four titles which follow it here. Anyway, the film is about isolation and the breakdown of the family which occurs when Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) chooses to isolate himself as he works on his novel while being the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. It is not about Kubrick proving the moon landings were faked, as some fans of The Shining claim. While I can understand the disappointment from that revelation, it in no way detracts from this masterpiece.

 

leadeyes34. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) — I’m not going to say anything about this, except that it’s a perfect nightmare, and the eerie atmospheric pacing is perfect, and the use of Ligeti and Shostakovich perfectly adds to said atmosphere, and it has the perfect switch from underscoring to diegetic music during the first scene to suggest the transition from dreaming to waking up, and it has the best Tom Cruise performance, and the best Nicole Kidman performance, and the perfect use of the color red, and the perfect use of masks, and the perfect development of the theme of sex divorced from relationships, and the perfect ending. Okay, for not planning to say anything, I said a lot. In short, Eyes Wide Shut is perfect, and it was an incredible final film from Kubrick.

 

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)2001-a-space-odyssey I am aware that this is Kubrick’s most important film, and it is supposed to be at number 1. But Kubrick’s top four films are all sublime, and by putting 2001 at number three, I am certainly not denying that it is Kubrick’s most impressive achievement. Instead, I am simply saying that it definitively ranks slightly behind two of Kubrick’s other incredible achievements. Maybe if it didn’t have so much in common with WALL-E I would rank it higher. But seriously, how can anyone miss that both films have a computer villain with a glowing red eye? Or the fact that both films use “Also Sprach Zarathustra” at dramatic moments when mankind is drastically changing its destiny? Both things are fantastic in both films, and Kubrick always knew how to create the best ideas, so I’m certainly not complaining. This film is divine.

 

2. Paths of Glory (1957) — I think I’ve already made it clear that all these movies are awesome, but considering that this was Kubrick’s fourth feature made when he was twenty-eight years old 91ql8gVcDDL._SL1500_(what did you accomplish when you were twenty-eight?) that makes Paths of Glory all the more impressive. One of Kubrick’s first films to use his signature tracking shot, which he would use throughout the rest of his career, Paths of Glory follows Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) through the French trenches of World War I, and then continues to follow him when he defends three soldiers who are wrongly court-martialed. The depiction of human frailty, corruption, and greed is balanced by a touching depiction of vulnerability and compassion that I sometimes think the definitive ranking of this film is number one. If you don’t know the answer to why this movie is great, I pity you.

 

1. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) — No, I have not gone a little funny in the head, number one is the correct ranking for Dr. Strangelove, and this is the definitive list. A satire of the cold war, the film hilarious exposes the absurdity of attempting to commit mass murder for the sake of preserving peace. After all, what is 20 million deaths if the USA can emerge as a world leader and finally triumph over the Soviets? Kubrick wanted Terry Gilliam to direct a sequel to Dr. Strangelove; he didn’t want that for any of his other films. I think that proves this film is the best. How perfect is this film? 2812849_l3The perfectionist Kubrick insisted that the conference table in the war room be the exact same shade of green as a poker table — for a film that is in black and white. You’ll laugh until you cry, unless your tear ducts no longer function because your tears have evaporated from being exposed to fluoride in drinking water and in children’s ice cream, as put there by the international communist conspiracy. In which case, you probably are a commie with no sense of humor, and in that case, we can’t allow you to see the big board anyway.

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Year of Release: 2005     Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy, and Helena Bonham Carter.

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Believe it or not, Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is ten years old. While the film has received decent reviews from critics (it currently has an 83% at Rotten Tomatoes), audiences have been less kind to Burton’s take on Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book. When I saw it as a high school student ten years ago, I remember liking it more than most people seemed to, and I may or may not have said to a friend that this film was superior to the original, but that would have been said more in jest than anything else (if it had been said at all).

While Burton and Depp have done brilliant work over the course of their careers, both separately and together, they have also made some bad misfires, again both separately and together. On the other hand, they have made some of my favorite films, so I was curious as to what I would think of this now. However, as I recalled Depp’s goofy hamming it up as Wonka and how he’s lately turned into an obnoxious self parody (Mortdecai), it wasn’t hard to see roots of that here. And after watching some of Burton’s worst films, (Alice in Wonderland) I was resigned to say my high school self was badly wrong.

There’s no use in beating around the bush any longer; I guess I should just come and out and say it. This is a very good movie; it’s better than the 1971 film with Gene Wilder; and I found it to be an even better film than I remembered as a teenager. And no, none of those statements are said in jest.

If you’re still reading and have not deleted this blog from your search history or died of shock, I will emphasize that this film’s strengths lie in the perfectly cast children and Burton’s wildly creative visuals which bring the chocolate factory to life with a reverence for the source material while adhering to his own artistic vision. (I’m still not joking.)

All five of the children were terrifically cast. As Charlie, Freddie Highmore gives a great portrayal of optimism and innocence balanced with an acceptance of reality, always remaining determined and altruistic and never becoming cruel.

The four other child actors are a great contrast to Highmore, and they create delightfully repulsive characters. Philip Wiegratz does not have much to do as the gluttonous Augustus Gloop, but his gloating about how much he eats makes the perfect candidate for the first victim of the chocolate factory. AnnaSophia Robb (Violet Beauregarde) delivers her lines with such arrogance and over the top energy that she’s hilarious as the über-competitive girl who detests losers (i.e. everyone else). As the spoiled brat of spoiled brats, Veruca Salt, Julia Winter alternates between pouting and grinning with such ease that it makes her being attacked by squirrels all the more rewarding, and that sequence is easily superior to the geese in the older film. Finally, Jordan Fry gives a great one note performance as the rude and sulking video game-obsessed Mike Teavee.

Burton’s set design and art direction are some of his finest, and the chocolate factory he created has a sense of beauty and danger. The opening shot — a fittingly austere worm’s eye view of the factory’s tower shrouded in fog — captures the greatness of the factory and gives it a feeling being unsafe. When we finally see inside the factory, the vibrant array of colors is genuine Burton art direction. The colorful factory starkly contrasts the drab grays and browns which permeate the London streets, with hints of those colors on display in candy stores. Naturally, the dull colors of London make the golden tickets stand out all the brighter.

I think the above points are all undisputedly fantastic —so much that I don’t really understand how someone could dislike those aspects of the movie. I do understand how someone might not care for Depp’s off-the-wall interpretation of Wonka as a reclusive weirdo scarred by a traumatic childhood. However, if one leaves preconceptions behind and gives the unorthodox performance a chance, he might be surprised to find the performance better than remembered. While Depp’s performance here clearly contains the seeds of him turning into the self parody that he has become recently, I think what he is doing actually works for Burton’s version of the story, even if it is a little overdone.

Burton’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is essentially a horror film for children. After all, the idea of bratty children going off to a strange and mysterious factory where they fall victim to their temptations is not far removed from misbehaving teenagers going off to an abandon area and meeting gruesome ends due to their mistakes. Interestingly, the swirling melted chocolate which flows through the opening credits looks very similar to the gushing blood which flowed through the opening credits of Burton’s next film, the horror musical Sweeney Todd.

The horror in this film stems from the breakdown of families as a result of parental failure. Our hero Charlie is noticeably the only character to come from a happy intact family. As the Oompa Loompas sing: “Who went and spoiled her? Who indeed? / Who pandered to her every need? / Who turned her into such a brat? / Who are the culprits, who did that? / The guilty ones – now this is sad / Are dear old mum and loving dad.” Depp’s Wonka suffers from the same horror that affects the other children, and the film cannot be resolved until that relationship is mended. If one views Depp’s Wonka as the equivalent of the creepy guy who knows the horrors awaiting badly behaved teenagers, his character works.

I guess I should add that I am partial to Burton’s visual aesthetic, and his weakness as a storyteller often does not bother me. (Alice in Wonderland and his Planet of the Apes are both pretty terrible, but Beetlejuice is one of the greatest films ever, and I like it better than every Tarkovsky film I’ve seen. Not. Joking.) Although he slightly failed to rein Depp in, Burton created some fantastic sets, and he preserved the essence of Dahl’s story while retelling it with a slightly darker edge that makes Charlie and The Chocolate Factory a thoroughly enjoyable children’s horror film.

 

Content Advisory: Comic peril of bratty kids with possibly upsetting imagery.                      MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: B+

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Don’t Look Now

A fantastic film newly released by the Criterion Collection. I am very grateful that Ken Morefield gave me the opportunity to write it up.

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Inside Out

Year of Release: 2015     Directed by Pete Docter and Ronald Del Carmen. Voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, and Kyle MacLachlan.

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I’ll say it right now before I begin this review: Inside Out is one of Pixar’s top three films.

Before Inside Out begins, Pixar reminds audiences why they are one of greatest creators of family entertainment. With the short film Lava, a cute and funny volcano romance, they take the unoriginal idea of a romance between two inanimate objects and turn it into a sequence of witty wordplay and gorgeous 3D animation. There’s not much to the short beyond that, but the story is cute enough to entertain small children, and the presentation is clever enough entertain adults.

Like Lava, Inside Out contains a vibrant colorful world that is enthralling for any age to behold, and while the story can similarly be followed by any age viewer, there are many nuances which will make the film richer and funnier as it awakens memories of growing up in older viewers.

Growing up is very much at the center of Inside Out. The ten minute prologue both establishes the theme of growing up and serves as a mesmerizing introduction to the world of the film. The prologue showcases sweet and funny incidents from Riley’s life as a baby as she grows into an eleven year old girl (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias). Initially, as a giggling smiling baby, she has one emotion insider her head: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler). However, Joy is soon joined by the other emotion common to infants: Sadness (voiced Phyllis Smith). As Riley becomes a toddler then a child, three other emotions join Joy and Sadness inside her head: Anger, Fear, and Disgust (voiced by Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling respectively).

The five emotions are responsible for guiding Riley through each day and storing her memories as brightly colored balls — a different color for whichever emotion dominates the memory. Yellow = Joy, blue = Sadness, red = Anger, green = Disgust, and purple = Fear. According to Joy, a perfect day consists of an entire wall of glowing yellow globes which are then shipped off to long term memory as Riley falls asleep. Watching the humorous interactions which create those globes (Disgust: “It’s broccoli! He’s trying to poison us!”) and the intricate workings of Riley’s mind makes for Pixar’s most breathtaking and spellbinding prologue since WALL-E.

After the prologue, the story focuses on a particularly difficult transition of growing up: moving from Minnesota to San Francisco and the mild tension it creates in the otherwise great relationship between Riley and her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan). The major upheaval is naturally stressful for the eleven year old Riley, and the five emotions in her head all cope with it according to their functions, which makes it harder for Joy to maintain her perfect days. Adding to Joy’s troubles, Sadness has taken on a new ability, and any memory globe she touches turns blue, appalling Joy that Riley’s memories are now tainted with sorrow.

Initially it seems like Sadness needs to learn not to tamper with the memories and allow Joy to control the headquarters of Riley’s mind as she has always done. “Stay in this circle, the circle of Sadness,” Joy tells her fellow emotion, and that almost seems believable, especially when Sadness touches a memory that leads to an embarrassing incident of Riley crying over the loss of her old home as she introduces herself on the first day at her new school. However, all the emotions have a legitimate place, and Joy’s desire to be the predominant presence in Riley’s mind soon becomes frustrating. After all there are times to celebrate, to mourn, to be afraid, and to be upset.

All the emotions have a useful purpose; Fear stops Riley from being reckless, Disgust stops her from making a fool of herself, Anger gives her determination, Joy keeps her happy, and given Joy’s predominance for awhile it is not clear how Sadness helps Riley. It is clear that all the emotions need to work together to help Riley transition through this difficult phase of her life, and there are hints throughout the film as to how that should be achieved. The answer is far simpler and more ingenious than one would imagine, and director/writer Pete Docter saves the revelation for the perfect moment.

The ancient Greeks believed in four humors, which would be in equal balance if a person were healthy. An excess or deficiency of any one was considered unhealthy. Pete Docter has repackaged that idea as five emotions inside every person’s mind. Any of those five can be absent or over abundantly present, resulting in an ill humor. A major strength of Inside Out is the way it presents a gradual understanding of that balance; Riley’s emotions mature as she does. A humorous episode in which we see the far more mature emotions inside Riley’s parents’ minds furthers that development.

Almost all children see the world very much in terms of black and white, which is one reason it is very rare to see a children’s movie with a morally compromised hero or a conflicted villain who occasionally struggles to do what is right. (With a climax that involves the protagonist apologizing for a serious transgression and a villain having a tragic past, Pixar’s last non-sequel, Brave, is something of an exception to that pattern.) Similarly, explaining to a child how something could be simultaneously happy and sad might not be particularly easy. Inside Out offers an explanation which occurs as a natural result of Riley growing up.

Inside Out‘s climax also shares a similarity with Brave in that the climax of both films is spurred by an overwhelming sense of regret and contrition. The beautiful heart touching scene that follows as a result of that feeling may be my favorite depiction of repentance, forgiveness, family bonding, and maturing in any family film.

In addition to its other strengths, Inside Out provides some very funny explanations for the workings of our brains. When any one emotion gets out of control, the film convincingly portrays how the most illogical destructive decisions seem logical. The pain and awkwardness that many children feel as they approach adolescence is explained by over indulging in one emotion or denying another, both of which are unhealthy.

The film’s coup de maître is showing children (and adults who may need reminding) that all our emotions are intertwined, and that unpleasant experiences are just as important as pleasant ones. Inside Out is not afraid to explore the pain and regrettable decisions which stem from out of control emotions, but it also relishes happy moments with beauty and joy, happy moments which would never exist if it were not for the whole messy and wonderful spectrum that constitutes human nature.

 

Content Advisory: Nothing really, mild family discord, a depiction of a nightmare involving a mean clown, and a humorously bleeped swear word; only the most sensitive kids would be upset.           MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Review Roundup

Belle and Sebastian – a delightful story of a boy and a dog living in the French Alps during WWII

The Lesson – an interesting but uneven drama of a moral, hard working teacher pushed to her breaking point

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