By John H. Foote
Bold, brilliant, risk taker.
His very name conjures a near instant reverence among film audiences who know anything about film, including critics, professors, film students and filmmakers. To this day, nearly two decades after his shocking, sudden, unexpected death, there are many who believe Kubrick to be the greatest director in the history of the cinema. There is no question his work was audacious, bold, often perverse, ground-breaking and many of his films are for the ages, but it cannot be denied some of his work was flawed, show the weaknesses of a brilliant man, who when in absolute command of his many gifts, was undeniably brilliant, but like any great artist, he was possessed of flaws, self indulgence among them. His films are meant be near sensory experiences, and not simply to be watched. They must be experienced, you must take a journey with the characters, you must go with them. Every sense must be used in the experience of a Kubrick film, to not do so is cheating yourself of something unique.
Not every film was a masterpiece. No one can do that, but his ten finest were all interesting in diverse ways, and not once did he ever repeat himself.
The first five on my list of ten are, no question, masterpieces of the cinema. The other five? Not so much, though they have their moments of undeniable power, performances and imagery.
Kubrick’s best films are remarkably cerebral works that pose challenging questions, even choosing to answer from time to time, but usually left it up to the audience to decide what the film was truly about. He knew, no question, but he so loved puzzles. You must see a Kubrick film with more than your eyes, ears and mind, but your entire being must be in tune with the film as it is unfolding before you. Without that, you will never truly understand a Kubrick film and what makes them great.
In 1980 at the first screening I saw of The Shining, I remember audience members laughing when Jack Nicholson came through the door with an axe, saying with deadly intent, “Here’s Johnny!” Laughing! I was stunned! Did they not understand the film? Imagine you are on the other side of that door with poor Shelly Duvall, suddenly it is not so funny anymore, is it? Watch Duvall in the scene, the absolute visceral terror she exhibits is how the audience is meant to feel if they are in fact experiencing the film. You could never just watch a Kubrick film because there was so much going on, so much more than what we could see and hear, every single detail in the moment mattered, had a purpose. But it was underneath the surface of the scene that mattered, the subtext.
His films, to fully appreciate them, were to be experienced.
What I came to love about a Kubrick film was the perversity of man that was explored in every film, a moment when we should be repelled, when we should look away in horror, but we cannot because the director so beautifully draws us in. He was fearless as an artist. Meticulous, even a task master when he knew what he wanted, and there never seems to have been a time when he did not know what he wanted. His confidence as a filmmaker was intoxicating, addictive even.
His treatment of his actors was often a means to an end, which is not to say he was always fair with them, but he certainly knew the buttons to push to get outstanding performances out of them. His harsh treatment of Shelley Duvall during the making of The Shining (1980) was part of drawing out her consistently hysterical performance that captures raw, unbridled terror to perfection. The actress was emotionally battered, but respected what he was doing, the treatment and exclusion adding to her performance. She may not have liked it, but she understood.
The mind games Kubrick played with his actors was more often than not, merely silence. But they were glacially cold silences that could extend weeks till he got what he needed. Then he was warm, chess loving Stanley again. His strange behavior often left his actors confused and perplexed.
Malcolm MacDowell was amazed that Kubrick encouraged him to go out on a limb with his performance, to go further than any other director had asked. He never felt safe in every way, but stated Kubrick was with him every step of the way. Jack Nicholson, who also gave a larger than life performance in The Shining (1980), creating a Monster, praised the director for encouraging him to go out on that limb, then sitting with him on it.
His search for “the moment” in a scene which would then define the scene, even the film, was relentless. It might be a scene between two or more actors, it might be a look from an actor, it might be a gesture or a piece of action, you just could not predict what it might be. Walking into a Kubrick film you never knew what to expect, except to expect the unexpected, and that he was never going to repeat himself, and he never did. Not once.
His close personal friendship with Steven Spielberg was made public after his passing in 1999, Spielberg telling of long conversations on the phone, Kubrick’s loving admiration of E.T. The Extra-terrestrial (1982), his many discussions with Spielberg about his long gestating project A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) which they had planned to make together. Spielberg fast tracked the film into production, directing the film with the remote chilliness of Kubrick, merged with his own warm humanity. It is a masterpiece that audiences are beginning to discover, a film that will stand up for years to come. The handprints of both artists are on the film, as Spielberg honoured what his friend had started.
The time between films became longer, not because he was not working, he always was, but because he would not begin a project until he was ready. Consider the three-year gap between Paths of glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960). He was fired by Marlon Brando from One Eyed Jacks (1961), and his next two films came out in 1964, then 1968, followed by 1971, and then 1975. Then five years went by to 1980, another seven to 1987 and finally twelve to 1999, his last film. In between films he worked on a long-awaited project on Napoleon, which he wanted to make with Jack Nicholson, and that HBO is now making, without Nicholson obviously. He wanted to make several other films that never came to pass, but what he did make would be legend.
His relationship with Warner Brothers was such that when he was ready to make a film, he made a call, got his budget, and was left along for however long it took. The trust between the studio and director was extraordinary, very few directors have ever enjoyed such a free and liberating relationship with a studio.
Yes, it is stunning that he did not ever win an Oscar for Best Director, though he was nominated four times, and won a slew of critics awards. However, he did not make films to win awards, he made them to tell a story. I suspect he would have valued an award from the DGA far more than Oscar, as he was an active film watcher and fan of movies, but they too chose not to award him.
There is of course great mystery surrounding Kubrick, many crazy stories. It was said he never returned to the U.S. after making 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) because he feared flying, which is ridiculous, he simply loved England, was far removed from Hollywood which he disdained, and his agreement with Warner Brothers was such that he could make the films he wanted to make with no interference and at his own pace. His meeting challenges was equally remarkable, devising many of the Oscar winning visual effects in 2001 (1968) and approaching and securing special lenses from NASA to shoot the by candlelight sequences in his exquisite Barry Lyndon (1975).
Long an admirer of his work, you must understand I do not believe he was or is the greatest director in film history any more than I believe Hitchcock was a great director. However, Kubrick gave us an exceptional body of ground-breaking work that redefined American cinema and the language of film. He is certainly among the greatest directors in cinema history, and his films, some of them among the finest in history.
For me, his best are as follows.
10. EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)
The least of his films, his last film, also the strangest but the one lacking in power, he died within days of his final edit, one of his last acts, screening it for Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. More than two years of filming and they could not seem to find a cohesive narrative. Though impeccably made, with beautiful cinematography, there is no question as to the films beauty, but we never care about the characters, and frankly I grew tired of listening to Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise repeat one another’s lines back to each other. Tedious, easily the most disappointing work of his career. Sadly, self indulgent and though Cruise and Kidman are game it amounts to a whole lot of nothing. After twelve years waiting for a new Kubrick film, we expected something more than this. I remember entering the screening room with genuine excitement, but exiting with crushing disappointment. For me it was artistic masturbation at its most indulgent and tedious.
9. LOLITA (1961)
Based on the infamous novel by Vladimir Nabokov, the controversial film explores the forbidden relationship by a man in his forties and a fourteen-year-old girl. James Mason gives a daring performance as the man obsessed with a child, portrayed as a gum smacking, lollipop loving flirt by the precocious Lolita. His obsession will take over his very existence until he loses himself in his strange connection to her. The film, if nothing else proved Kubrick was never going to be controlled by Hollywood and would make the films he wanted to make.
8. FULL METAL JACKET (1987)
Just a year after Platoon (1986) brought the war in Vietnam back from its comic book mentality onscreen, Kubrick adapted a novel entitled The Short Timers to the screen as Full Metal Jacket a sometimes-astonishing film about the manner in which young men are made into killers. Flawed, in that the first half is far better than the second, the training sequences on the island are extraordinary as a tough drill instructor, Hartman, portrayed with chilling realism by R. Lee Emery turns young Americans into killers. Vincent D’Onofrio is terrifying as an overweight, under achieving recruit who becomes the target of Hartman’s wrath, and then that of the men. Turned into a warrior, his mind comes apart in the washroom one night, leaving he and Hartman dead in a shocking sequence. The sequences set in Hue are less effective though still powerful. One of the better films in exploring the futility of the war, the shocking images of swift, sudden death linger in the memory long after you see it. Part of the problem is from the beginning, the men have been shorn of their hair, thus becoming anonymous to us other than by name, so when they get to Viet Nam we barely know them and have little invested in them.
7. SPARTACUS (1960)
Kubrick stepped in after star and producer Kirk Douglas fired the previous director, Anthony Mann, trusting the younger man after the work he did on Paths of Glory (1957). Douglas hired banned writer Dalton Trumbo to write the script based on the Howard Fast novel, which deals with the uprising and revolt of the slaves in Ancient Rome. Kubrick took over for fired Anthony Mann and at once began scrapping scenes with reams of dialogue he knew he could get with a single, silent shot. Douglas went with whatever the young director did, and though it is the most genre-based film of his career it is a powerful, thinking mans epic. There are breathtaking scenes that say more in one image than with pages of dialogue. Douglas gives one of his finest performances here, Tony Curtin, Jean Simmons, Peter Ustinov and Laurence Olivier are all fine, but this is Douglas’ show. The scene where all the slave army profess to being Spartacus to hide their leader is still powerful, as is that heartbreaking final wagon ride past thousands of crucified men, including the hero, Spartacus.
6. PATHS OF GLORY (1957)
A unique film, anti-war film that broke the Hollywood tradition of war films, exploring French officers in World War I. When a group of French soldiers refuse an order, they are court martial led for their actions branded cowards. The soldier defending them Dax (Kirk Douglas) knows they are anything but cowards, bit is unclear how to defend on such trumped-up charges. Should men defy an officer when they know he is sending them to certain death? Should men, in war, have that sort of power over other men. The film asks many burning questions about the rights of men at war and if they even have any. Are they merely pawns to move into position to fight the battles of the leaders? Douglas was outstanding, and Kubrick established himself as a director to be taken seriously. The greatest film made about WWI.
5. BARRY LYNDON (1975)
An exquisite adaptation of the William Thackrey novel of 1844, Kubrick fell into this when funding from MGM fell through for his Napoleon film. He cast Ryan O’Neal, then a major star as the hero of the film, a womanizing lout who seeks wealth, title and position and manages to sleaze and sleep his way through the aristocracy of the time. Set during the Seven Years War, the film offers a stunning, panoramic view of Europe, following our opportunistic hero in his scheming to climb the social ladder. The cinematography is truly breathtaking, capturing the stunning, seemingly untouched greens of the landscape, bringing the land to startling life. With Academy Award winning design and costumes, the film is as authentic as anything of the period ever put on screen. The film requires patience, one must fall in and allow the place and time to wash over you, but once in, you will give yourself over to it. Watching Barry move through his life, leaving home in haste, robbed by highwaymen, listing for war, deserting and taken by another army to fight, used as a spy, rising in society, marrying immense wealth, ruining his marriage with affairs, making an enemy of his stepson, losing his own boy in a riding accident, and finally, one legged, alone, having lost all. Truly remarkable.
4. THE SHINING (1980)
When Kubrick bought the rights to the Stephen King bestseller The Shining, people might have forgotten that once he did it was no longer a King project, it was now a Kubrick film. Yes, the writer has publicly disowned the film, which has never hurt the picture one bit, and in fact, since it’s release, more than thirty-five years ago it has grown in reputation. A horror film, the movie explores a family settling into a resort hotel, the Overlook, high in the Colorado mountains that shuts down for the winter. Hired as the caretaker Jack (Jack Nicholson) will connect with ghosts of the hotel and the eerie claustrophobia that sets in. Nicholson is brilliant in one of his finest performances walking the fine line between being genuinely terrifying, and over the top. That he is frightening is a credit to him as an actor. Shelly Duvall is terrific as Wendy his wife who becomes the target of his madness and wrath. Beautifully shot, the film is easiest the most gorgeous horror film ever made. Blood may flow freely in other horror films, but The Shining gets under your skin and is frightening in a way few films have ever been. Of all the films of Kubrick, this is one you cannot merely watch, it must be experienced. Audiences laughed at Nicholson coming through the door with an axe, announcing his arrival with, “Here’s Johnny!!” But ask yourself, if you are Wendy (Duvall) on the other side of that door, just how funny is it to have an obviously homicidal maniac coming for you?
3. DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)
Imagine a year or two after 9/11 someone decides to make a black comedy about it. There would be such public out cry the film would either be a minor hit, banned or fail out right. Kubrick displayed staggering courage, making a black comedy about the end of the world only a couple of years after we came close to nuclear war with Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and when the threat of such war was a very real thing. In the film a rogue pilot believing we are under attack, takes a jet armed with a loaded nuclear war head and heads to Russia to launch it. At home the President must tell the Russian President what has happened and prepare for the counter attack, which is inevitable. The scenes in the war room, where no fighting is permitted are hilarious yet disturbing in how dark the filmmakers chose to go. Peter Sellers in multiple roles deserved the Oscar, George C. Scott is exceptional, Slim Pickens hilarious as the redneck who takes the bomber to Russia, and Sterling Hayden is sublime. A true black comedy the film remains dark through to its bleak and perverse ending. Riding the bomb down to earth like a bucking bronco, the crazy cowboy bomber hoots and hollers all the way down, the bomb a massive phallic symbol between his legs, headed for an orgasm that will obliterate us all. Big Bang indeed! Startling that it still packs a punch and terrifying it is as funny as it is.
2. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
The language of the cinema evolved with this film, which opens with the Dawn of Man sequence and will end centuries later with the birth of a star child, floating in space, on his way to earth. Challenging, demanding, intellectual, breathtaking and cerebral the film dares the audience to go on a journey, and then decide for themselves what the film has been about, nothing is spelled out for anyone. Throughout the picture we see the many characters within face to face with a monolith, a black rectangular object standing straight up. Each time this object is encountered there is an advancement in intelligence, from the ape-man learning how to kill with a bone, therefore food, or using that same bone as a weapon to defend the waterhole, through man finding their way to Jupiter with the intellect the object provides. The visual effects are miraculous for 1968, and today are equally remarkable. With classical music on the soundtrack, the images in space are wonderful. The villain in the film is the HAL 9000 computer, which attempts to sabotage the mission. The disconnection of HAL is haunting as we hear it die, all the more frightening because the computer knows it is dying. The tune “Daisy” has never been as mournful or as haunting as it is here. For me the film is about the advancement of intellect. Masterful.
- A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
Forty-eight years after its release, nearly five decades, the true genius of this dark futuristic film is that the future portrayed in the dystopian society still looks possible. It has not aged, it is not dated, but still vital, still as powerfully searing today as it was then. With a bouncy, jaunty performance from Malcolm McDowell as Alex, leader of a vicious gang of thugs known as the Droogs, who speak in a futuristic merging of English, Russian and street speak, the film begins its narrative following young Alex through his days and nights. They pillage, steal, beat, rape and eventually murder, which finally lands Alex in jail. He volunteers for a program that sees him undergo a form of near torture that makes the very things he did sickening to him, thereby taking away his choice, which makes him the darling of anti-government groups. He is cured he tells us the end of the film as he dreams again of criminal activities, his dark smile drawing us in, a reminder he is anything but a victim. The film has a genuine light feel to it, almost jaunty and comedic, despite the dark blackness of its subject matter that brings to it a vicious perversity. Much of the violence has a balletic feel to it though no less shocking and real. The scene where Alex, beating an old man, about to rape his younger wife, suddenly bursts into song, crooning Singin in the Rain, punctuating each stanza with a kick, punch, with violence is among the most powerfully perverse scenes in movie history. It is shattering yet I defy anyone to look away. Timeless and complete genius from the acting, cinematography, design, editing, sound, score, writing and most of all direction.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.