Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
My all-time favorite director is one who worked rather infrequently once he got into a position where he could do his own thing. More than a decade passed between his final film (1999’s Eyes Wide Shut) and his prior effort (1987’s Full Metal Jacket). Stanley Kubrick made only thirteen feature-length films in his career and all of them are well respected by critics and most of them were beloved by audiences alike. Winnowing down a best of list for Kubrick to five is a challenging proposition, especially when it required that I leave off films like the hilarious Dr. Strangelove, the shocking Full Metal Jacket, and his early triumph The Killing. The five that remain are quintessential Kubrick films, each having an impact on other films in their genres and each standing the test of time, even improving with age.
Paths of Glory (1957)
I came to Stanley Kubrick’s filmography a bit later than a lot of people. It started with a midnight showing of A Clockwork Orange back in the 1990s. I then proceeded backwards through time watching his other pictures before finally coming to this early gem of Hollywood Studio Era Kubrick. Prior to Sparatacus, Kubrick was trapped in a studio system he loathed, but his direction of Kirk Douglas in this film helped lead him to Sparatacus, which thereby enabled him to leave the studio system and work for himself. Although this film is the absolute best of his studio era, his post-Sparatacus output was phenomenal and helped solidify his standing as one of the all-time great directors.
Path of Glory takes us into the trenches of World War I like few films before it. The film begins as a battalion is preparing to storm a heavily defended German position called the anthill, a potentially disastrous affair. As the events of the next two days play out, one squad pushes to their death while another refuses to leave the trenches. As the various leaders of the troops maneuver their positions, the horrendous events lead to the court-martial trials of three men, none of whom are deserving of death, but execution is inevitable as the politics of military service win out over common sense and idealism loses out to patriotism. Kubrick’s exploration of this infuriating story is all too realistic, making this one of the most potent anti-war films ever made.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Kubrick followed his studio triumph Spartacus with his weakest independent effort, Lolita, but after that, his war satire Dr. Strangelove was brilliant and the hits kept coming. While I’m chagrined to leave Dr. Strangelove off this list (it ranks 6th behind these titles), it was his subsequent film that he may well be best remembered for, his science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Attempting to trace the mysterious origins of a large black monolith, two astronauts and three more in suspended animation must battle wits with the human-like artificial intelligence aboard their spacecraft. As the AI begins to isolate and kill his passengers out of self-preservation, the astronauts must work quickly to protect themselves.
With pioneering visual effects (which won Kubrick his only Oscar), 2001 is considered by many to be one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made asking us to question the future of artificial intelligence and its lack of ethical programming as well as exploring the origin of the universe and mysteries deeper than mankind has yet to fully grasp. It’s a thought-provoking and riveting film that solidified the idea that Kubrick never met a genre he couldn’t perfect and revolutionize.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Perhaps Kubrick’s most philosophically deep film, A Clockwork Orange looks into humanity’s future where violence has a potential cure through aversion therapy, a technique that asks the audience to ponder is the elimination of inherent sexual and violent aberrations worth any cost, however unethical. Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel was deemed too violent and sexually exploitative by numerous nations earning bans from many of them.
The film looks at violence through the eyes of a young gang leader who is arrested after the violent rape and attempted murder of an innocent, wealthy couple. Sentenced to fourteen years in prison, Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell), in a riveting performance, is given an option to undergo a type of aversion therapy that will eliminate his violent tendencies. The treatment leaves him unable to defend himself as he succumbs to the very ultra-violence he once inflicted on others.
Kubrick’s fascinating exploration of violence may have been difficult for many to take upon its release, but its shocking visuals have been reexamined over the years and deemed less questionable by modern standards. Yet, its sexual violence, exploration of the obvious unethicality of aversion therapy, and the more abstruse ethicality of societal strictures that provide for a fascinating look at a culture determined to eradicate violent thought without consideration for the ramifications.
The Shining (1980)
Kubrick’s first and only foray into horror was this superlative adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about an alcoholic father who attempts to murder his wife and son as they sequester themselves over the winter in a remote mountain hotel where the past is far from forgotten. Starring Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, the film not only explores Jack’s inner demons, given frightening personification by Nicholson, but also the haunted hotel in which it takes place.
Nicholson, Shelley Duvall as his wife, Danny Lloys as his son, and Scatman Crothers as the hotel’s cook Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) all deliver fittingly terrified and terrifying performances. With some of the most iconic visuals in horror history. From the frightening frozen maze to the elevator of blood to the creepy twin girls, The Shining might have angered author Stephen King, but the end result is a superb, taut, scary, and horrifying film that puts most others in the genre to shame.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Still tinkering on the film at the time of his death, something the perfectionist Kubrick often did, Kubrick’s final film is a fascinating picture that builds on the philosophical themes of sexuality in A Clockwork Orange and puts them to use in a film about fidelity and remorse. Eyes Wide Shut divided audiences and critics upon release, but its brilliance has been better recognized and embraced as history frames the film in the light it most deserved at the time of its release, but satisfyingly has attained in the years since.
Starring Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, who were married at the time the film was being shot, but would divorce two years later, star as a married couple who are anything but happy. As Alice (Kidman) confesses an earlier infidelity to Bill (Cruise), his anger at her dalliance sends him into the streets of New York City (filmed in London) to contemplate her betrayal. While walking the vacant streets, he happens into a gamut of situations that tempt him to stray while he works through his anger at frustration at her actions.
This psycho-sexual thriller takes numerous bizarre twists as it maneuvers through the city streets with its protagonist who must dodge one questionable offer after another. When he ultimately ends up at a secret cabal’s sex party, his uncertainty on whether or not to cheat on his wife faces its biggest test. When he flees the facility out of fear of discovery and, after a conversation with a fellow doctor and encounters with the other bullets he narrowly dodged, he returns home feeling vindicated, but his excursion hasn’t gone unrecognized. Did he imagine it all or is something more sinister at work?
This was the first Kubrick film I got to see in the theater and it remains an indelible part of my filmic identity. Its cleverly-crafted moral exploration is as mystifying and enticing today as it was twenty years ago. Kubrick’s decision to film various sexual acts with unclothed men and women in abundance, caused the film to net bans in many more countries, much like A Clockwork Orange had. This time, however, Warner Bros. decided it would ensure it could pull an R-rating from US censors by digitally adding black-robed figures in front of the various sexual acts, blocking out part of the master’s vision. Like Clockwork, the film was eventually unedited and all could take in the final work of one of the greats of cinema. The film itself, whether edited against the filmmaker’s likely wishes after his death or fully on display, was a fitting end to a celebrated career and although it might not appear on others’ best-of-Kubrick lists, it sits fairly high on mine.