It’s like picking through diamonds. Some are flawless. Others have minor imperfections that do little to damage their luster. As for the rest, well, there are a couple that could pass for precious, but beyond that, they’re more industrial than iridescent. That’s what it’s like looking over Stanley Kubrick’s amazing output. In the lexicon of film, few stand as tall or as iconic as this renowned genius. He’s the agreed upon gold standard, the definitive talking point when the subject of cinema as art comes around. Few have reached his level of reverence. So imagine the difficulty in ranking his work. With so many great entries to go through, so many mythic movies to consider, it is like being a jeweler. One has to take into consideration the entirety of the catalog, as well as the standing of each object, before plowing through and putting them in order.
There is a caveat, however. For starters, we have purposefully left out Kubrick’s first two “films”—1953’s Fear and Desire and 1955’s Killer’s Kiss. The former was disavowed by the director and has not had a legitimate home video release. The latter suffers from some technical issues and is considered a mere shadow of the filmmaker’s future genius. We also aren’t addressing his days as a photographer or his work in newsreels and short subjects. While important, they don’t fully explain this director’s lasting appeal and influence. Instead, this is an exercise in examining Kubrick’s ‘critical’ output—the titles that took him from unknown New York novice to internationally recognized auteur. Each step along the way, each aesthetic leap, leads to one inevitable conclusion—as an oeuvre, few are more impressive. As a craftsman, none can match him.
So whatever your preference, here is our placement of Kubrick’s definitive directorial efforts. In retrospect, it is a bit like picking through gemstones. All are gorgeous, some are just less blemished than others.
As a final film, many believed Kubrick would return to the source of his greatest achievement (science fiction, as in the long rumored A.I. ) or toward a subject he had never tackled before (as in the Holocaust, and the proposed Aryan Papers). Instead, he became obsessed with Arthur Schnitzler’s Freudian novella Traumnovelle, updating the tale of a young doctor’s sexual awakening from 1920s Vienna to 1990s New York. Shot entirely on London soundstages and featuring then Hollywood supercouple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, it promised to be enlightened and experimental. Sadly, it came off like a high class erotic thriller—beautiful to look at, but vacant at its core.
At the time, Kubrick was still considered a photographer turned filmmaker. His initial efforts had met with indifference and the director was hoping his next project would pull him out of obscurity. As luck would have it, TV distributor James B. Harris came along and soon the two formed a partnership. The result was Kubrick’s first fully realized work, a fine film noir based on Lionel White’s novel Clean Break. With pulp crime specialist Jim Thompson along as co-writer, he was finally able to apply his developing technique towards something substantial. While not the hit that everyone thought it would be, The Killing showed that Kubrick was indeed ready for the big time. His next effort would offer incontrovertible proof.
How, exactly, do you adapt one of the most controversial books of the 20th century to the big screen - and do so without completely diving into the main narrative element of said tome (a love story between a middle aged man and a 12-year-old girl)? If you’re Kubrick, you take massive liberties with Vladimir Nabokov’s considered classic, turning many major elements on their head while crafting a kooky comic tour de force for British funnyman Peter Sellers. Like two dispirit movies thrown together, Lolita suffers a bit from this idiosyncratic identity crisis. On the one hand, the main material has a power and allure. On the other hand, much of it seems like an audition tape for Sellers future work in the seminal Dr. Strangelove.
Kubrick lucked into the job of directing this monumental epic when, simultaneously, he left the Marlon Brando western One Eyed Jacks over creative differences with the star and friend Kirk Douglas was looking for a replacement for the recently fired Anthony Mann. Without the usual pre production preparation and control he enjoyed, Kubrick found the shoot difficult and his relationship with his pal deteriorating. The results, however, speak for themselves. This influential period piece proved that Kubrick could handle scope as well as deliver on both an artistic and commercial level. Not surprisingly, it would represent his last real stab at Hollywood acceptance and respect.
Fans of Stephen King hate this adaptation of his famous novel and with good reason. Aside from the basic plot elements and the character names, this otherwise interesting take on terror bears little resemblance to the beloved book. On the other hand, horror aficionados agree that, within the confines of the literary master of fear, Kubrick created a masterpiece. The levels of tension he achieves are palpable and the disassociation and psychological trauma of isolation and madness are magnified and made real. In fact, when he sticks to King, he comes up a bit short. But left to his own disturbing devices, Kubrick argues for the scary movie as something all together different… art.