The Definitive Kubrickian Films Part Two
My first real attempt at understanding the brilliance that was Stanley Kubrick came in my freshman year of college when I wrote a research paper on 2001: A Space Odyssey for an English class. After all that work, I only received a B and found myself more confused than ever. But there it was – the spark that Stanley Kubrick’s work produces. Kubrick’s best films were experiences; it’s impossible to “half-watch” one of his many masterpieces. And that’s what the movies on this list do. They take you on an odyssey of visual wonder, psychological tremors, and expect you to do as much work as the people involved in the making of the films. Yet, in the end, Kubrick’s films didn’t feel like homework. They felt like vacations to a world where deep thought is a welcome respite.
What makes it Kubrickian? As are most of Malick’s films, it is sweeping and tediously crafted. Similarly, rather than focus on the heroism and bravery in war, like in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, The Thin Red Line is more concerned with the psychology at play between these men, examining what it means for men to lay their lives down and suffer through horrible mental punishment to serve the “greater good.” Even films like Saving Private Ryan lean on their feel-good stories of “brotherhood” and war scenes. The Thin Red Line was an ensemble piece that felt less like a war movie and more like a meditation on sacrifice and humanity. Separating itself from other war films, Malick’s work took those themes tackled in movies like Platoon and applied them at a subconscious level, where the warfare is simply an afterthought. It was never about the battles; in The Thin Red Line, World War II is simply a channel to deliver psychological drama, much like World War I was the just a package for Paths of Glory, only to have the major moments in the film not even relate to battlefield moments.
What makes it Kubrickian? Kubrick’s biography claims that it (along with The Exorcist) was the primary reason he even considered making The Shining. After watching and being enamored by Polanski’s film, Kubrick decided that if horror films this good could be made, he deserved to have his chance, leading to 1980′s Stephen King adaptation. Much like The Shining, while Rosemary’s Baby is commonly referred to as a horror film, what makes it exceptional is the slow build to anything meant to shock and disturb the viewers. Like in Ira Levin’s source novel, Rosemary’s Baby is filled with undertones surrounding religion and spirituality, while refusing to give in to the easy target tropes surrounding the commonplace concept of giving birth to Satan’s offspring. A film that could’ve gone for gore went with an unhurried build to psychological terror, only giving hints at the train that is coming down the tracks. Kubrick took similar steps in The Shining (though Nicholson’s performance is more unhinged from frame one than anything in Rosemary’s Baby), creating a sister film to Polanski’s, where the influence of a child – unborn or not – with a secret drives the story forward, leaving a trail of fear and panic.
18. if… (1968)
Directed by Lindsay Anderson
What makes it Kubrickian? Without it, A Clockwork Orange probably wouldn’t exist. When Stanley Kubrick saw Lindsay Anderson’s film, he demanded that star Malcolm McDowell be his Alex Delarge in Clockwork, or refused to do the project. In a way, if… feels like it may have been Alex Delarge’s origin story. Taking place in the late 1960s at an English boarding school, the film was famous for its relentlessly savage portrayal of how students were treated, both by superiors and older classmates. When Mick Travis (McDowell) and his friends return to school, their against-the-grain mentality sees them suffering a great deal of punishment, only leading them to break more rules and fantasize about taking revenge on the institution. It’s horrifyingly prophetic, given the long-since uprising in school shootings, but, in terms of the film itself, the disaffected drive of McDowell and Anderson’s pacing forms a direct connection to the way Kubrick paints his future in Clockwork, a picture of London if these fantasized revolts took place. The film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival despite, much like A Clockwork Orange upon its original release, being rated X.
17. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
Directed by Sydney Pollack
What makes it Kubrickian? It’s a haunting story of what desperation can do to people and what lengths they are willing to go to for money or, in some cases, to manipulate their environment. Set in the Great Depression, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is based on Horace McCoy’s novel of the same name, taking place almost entirely at a dance marathon. The marathon offers a cash prize of $1500, with a collection of competitors, including Gloria (Jane Fonda), Harry (Red Buttons), Alice (Susannah York), James (Bruce Dern), and the protagonist Robert (Michael Sarrazin). As the competition drags on (for weeks), it is revealed that it is not exactly what it seems, as the organizers begin to throw wrenches into the proceedings as publicity stunts to amuse spectators. What sounds like a ridiculous premise for even an Adam Sandler movie is actually an incredible study of the human condition when pushed to its limits. Kubrick’s more existential-themed films all played with those concepts: the will to survive, the psychological makeup of his protagonists, and the claustrophobic feel defined by this dance hall. Pollack’s film used the relatively new concept of flashing forward in the story, jumping to points beyond the normal narrative, a theme similar to some of Kubrick’s more narratively creative efforts. Despite its topic, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? might be darker than most, if not all of Kubrick’s work.
16. The Phantom Carriage (1921)
Directed by Victor Sjöström
What makes it Kubrickian? Another one of Kubrick’s favorite films, it’s an incredibly early indication of creative narration and editing techniques Kubrick would eventually employ. Plus, it deals head-on with death and the human condition, as it’s the story of a dying girl whose final wish is to speak with David Holm, first shown talking to his friends in a graveyard while drinking. The title carriage is, in fact, Death’s carriage which, according to David, is driven by the final person who dies each year to collect the souls of all the people who die in the following year. Much like Enter the Void, The Phantom Carriage is eventually told on an ethereal plane, almost a Christmas Carol-style look at mistakes a man has made and promises that should’ve been kept that have long affected his life. As for direct connections to Kubrick, Jack’s ax-chopping scene from The Shining is a direct homage to this film (which is, itself, an homage to 1919′s Broken Blossoms), in addition to many other thematic elements that create the mystery and atmosphere, both films float upon.
15. The Abyss (1989)
Directed by James Cameron
What makes it Kubrickian? It was a deliberate attempt to do for the ocean what 2001: A Space Odyssey did for space. Directed by James Cameron, The Abyss follows a group of divers as they search for a lost nuclear submarine. While near the bottom of the ocean, they come across what they refer to as “non-terrestrial intelligence” (NTIs), or underwater aliens. The film dives into the crews’ relationships with one another, two of which are a separated married couple. While 2001 lives in the ether, The Abyss gets a little bogged down in the romantic drama to follow directly in Kubrick’s footsteps. But the visual nature of how Cameron moves his camera is clearly influenced by Kubrick’s cinematography. The original theatrical release left the end sequences a little more vague (much more Kubrickian); the 1993 special edition re-inserted some edited scenes that took away a little of the mystery the original had created. The Abyss was an indication that, before James Cameron became obsessed with special effects, he managed to use them in an innovative way that added more to the story than hindering it. Kubrick’s one effects-laden film is still his most thought-provoking because he refused to rely on them for story structure and narrative power. When Cameron did the same, he made much better films.
What makes it Kubrickian? It’s littered with symphonic compositions of images and landscapes and may be the most perplexing story of existence since 2001: A Space Odyssey. Directed by unflinching auteur Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life is an onslaught of beauty and wonder, an extended commercial for the miracle of life seen through the eyes of one boy/man and his struggles with the universal question. Most of the film focuses on young Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his difficult relationship with his father (Brad Pitt), a strict man whose treatment of Jack and his brother fully encompasses Jack’s psyche going forward (as an adult, he’s played by Sean Penn, though his scenes feel disconnected). His existential struggle with his place in this world, his triumphs, his failures, his loves and losses are what drive the film, leaving no stone unturned. Much like 2001 asks more questions than it answers, The Tree of Life isn’t bent on spoon-feeding its audience; since the dawn of time, we have all existed on this planet for something greater than we aren’t meant to understand. Both 2001 and The Tree of Life are willing to illicit those questions if only to make its audiences ponder them going forward.
What makes it Kubrickian? While The Tree of Life dives into the same philosophical questions posed by 2001, Duncan Jones’ debut feature film pretty much took a photocopy of its literal themes. Sam Rockwell, in a near one-man show, plays Sam Bell, an astronaut stationed on the moon to gather a resource to help with the Earth’s ongoing energy problems. He is assisted by his computer, GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), an artificially intelligent being that is his only communication source during his 3-year contract. As he struggles with his loneliness, just 2 weeks before he departs for Earth, he is accidentally knocked unconscious. When he awakens, he finds that he has somehow thrown off the balance of the mission and makes a startling discovery that sends his entire existence into a downward spiral. The checklist is met pretty handily: 1. set in space, 2. faceless robot companion that may have its own agenda, 3. deals with isolation and its psychological toll. Moon hits all the notes to be Kubrickian; it never approaches the level on which 2001 sits, but it still manages to get quite a bit of mileage out of borrowed themes and a wonderful lead performance from Rockwell.
What makes it Kubrickian? As mentioned earlier, Fincher is Kubrick’s contemporary, and he pulls out all the stops here in what is probably his most Kubrickian effort. While it’s pretty heavily influenced by All the President’s Men, Fincher utilizes all the typical Kubrick-style processes with Zodiac: complete control over every aspect of the film’s creation, unflinching attention to detail in terms of music and tone, and an unrelenting reshoot-after-reshoot approach that can easily wear his actors out. But it’s all here: every detail, every date, every moment is calculated clearly. Zodiac is the fictionalization not of the San Francisco Zodiac killer’s murders, but the pursuit of his identity by cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his companion journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.). Graysmith’s obsession with finding the answers to the encrypted riddles is the heart of the film, taking him to places he has no business going, while Avery subconsciously enables him. Fincher’s filmography has plenty of great films; Zodiac often gets lost in the shuffle, but probably gives you the best glimpse of what Fincher would do if he had even more control than he already has. It’s brooding. It’s dark. It’s entirely Kubrickian.
What makes it Kubrickian? It’s a psychodrama of the highest order, complete with Kubrickian filming techniques and settings. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has returned from World War II, dealing with what may be diagnosed as a mild case of PTSD, revealing itself as sex obsession and alcoholism. He meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a religious movement called “The Cause.” Dodd takes Freddie in, accepting him into the movement and travels with him trying to spread the message of his faith. While indoctrinated, Freddie still finds himself unable to control his drinking or his temper, leaving other members of the movement fearful that he is either clinically insane or a spy. The film follows Freddie’s relationship with Dodd and the movement, bringing about the questions Kubrick often asked in his films. While the themes of The Master lean more toward those of A Clockwork Orange and the freedom of choice, the filming, and staging of the movie approaches a feel more similar to Full Metal Jacket. In the end, while the film was clearly identified as an attack on Scientology, its more fascinating themes deal with Freddie’s psychological tendencies, how they relate to the horrors he experienced in war, and how even the most malleable people can show flashes individualism, even if those flashes come from a place born out of fear of isolation.
What’s difficult about making this list is finding a balance between a successful Kubrickian film that either predates or pays homage to Kubrick and, for lack of a better term, is a ripoff. Now that we’ve hit the apex, it’s clear that these are, regardless of influence, quality films. What sets them apart is their ability to evoke Kubrick’s greatness (or inspire it), while delivering a stand-alone masterpiece. If Kubrick took the helm for any of these films, the result wouldn’t delineate too much. Still. Kubrick is a genius because he always kept us guessing.
10. Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Directed by Werner Herzog
What makes it Kubrickian? It’s a film about extreme obsession and the unreasonable lengths a man will go to when consumed by it. Fitzcarraldo is the story of Brian Sweeny “Fitzcarraldo” Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) and his entry into the rubber industry. When he learns that a parcel of land in South America known for its rubber trees remains unclaimed, he decides to investigate, only to find that there is no way to reach the land, as the only tributary is cut off several hundred meters from an Amazon River tributary. His goal: take his massive ship down the tributary and enlist natives to help him manually pull the giant vessel over a muddy hillside to get to the next river. Along the way, they will collect rubber trees and bring them back to Amazon to market. Between Fitzcarraldo, its companion documentary Burden of Dreams, and its companion film, Aguirre: the Wrath of God, the depiction of Kubrickian obsession is more than clear, as Herzog will stop at nothing to have his vision realized, and his protagonist serves as his mouthpiece, however volatile. While the three films paint a much clearer picture, the sheer resolution it took to pull a boat up a mountain, shooting on location, and both the director and Kinski’s single-minded drive is Kubrickian in and of itself.
9. Shame (2011)
Directed by Steve McQueen
What makes it Kubrickian? The camera has an unsettling stillness to it that makes modern New York City feel like a dystopian nightmare. Steve McQueen’s second film took on the touchy subject of sex addiction, as seen through the eyes of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), an advertising executive who finds himself in the throes of a heavy addiction to sex, pornography, and anything else that provides that release. When his estranged sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to visit, his world is thrown into upheaval, as his carefully concealed secret begins to destroy him. McQueen’s film dives deep into the psychological issues behind the fear of intimacy and the emotional inadequacy of some of the most seemingly confident men, much like Eyes Wide Shut put Tom Cruise in an extremely warped light than audiences were used to (partly the reason for its mixed reception). McQueen and Fassbender are one of the premiere director/actor combos working today and Shame is the most intimate of their work so far. It’s a spotlight on one man, delivering some of those patented Kubrickian stares, as he tries to put the pieces of his broken life back together.
8. La Ronde (1950)
Directed by Max Ophuls
What makes it Kubrickian? Another of Kubrick’s favorite films, La Ronde is a character study meant to focus on the relationships between ten different people – storylines that begin together and move away from each other, all stories about love or, to put it bluntly, sex. Based on the play by Arthur Schintzler, Max Ophüls’ adaptation is told from the viewpoint of a conversationalist as he walks us through a series of affairs, each leading on to the next. Some are love stories, some are not. But each has an effect on the other moving forward. While not typically a topic Kubrick would dissect, what makes it Kubrickian is the stylistic approach to the topic. Ophüls has garnered similar criticisms as Kubrick – many view his work as simply an apophasis, lacking deeper substance by never talking about an actual theme. The fact that there is a Kubrickian style points to that, but, like Ophüls, his films manage to stand out for their creative narrative structure. La Ronde is probably his most interesting story, with the feminine touch Ophüls tends to infuse. La Ronde is not his best film, but in terms of influencing another master, it’s probably his best example of using narrative space to tell stories about romance that lean more toward loss and regret than anything. Kubrick’s protagonists have long been isolated characters looking for something – passion, love, even pain.
What makes it Kubrickian? A black-and-white surrealist body horror film, Eraserhead is David Lynch’s first full-length feature, a dirty allegory about the fear of parenthood. Starring Jack Nance as Henry Spencer, an interesting-looking man whose head is apparently a micro-planet. He awkwardly romances the beautiful girl across the hall (Judith Anna Roberts) and she gets pregnant, eventually birthing an inhuman-looking baby with a reptilian head that resembles a spermatozoan-style creature that emerges from Harry’s mouth early in the film. It’s not an easy sit. If Kubrick’s films are representations of larger themes, Eraserhead is an insanely-minded metaphor meant to disturb the viewers, while trying to bring about deeper questions without any real pretense. Kubrick has used black-and-white photography in the past to give his films a stark feel – Lynch does the same here, the cinematography creating a dream-like world that is more of nightmare. Kubrick has made disturbing films: A Clockwork Orange is twisted; Eyes Wide Shut jumps to sexual themes that hadn’t been approached so vividly before. Eraserhead (and other Lynch films) steamrolls through any attempt at subtlety by putting his own subconscious fears on-screen without regard for the viewer. If Kubrick is a master architect of black themes, Lynch is the understudy who loses his mind after years of toiling under his supervisor, only to become a criminal mastermind.
What makes it Kubrickian? It’s kind of like The Shining if Danny was the hero. And not a horror film. Pan’s Labyrinth is the story of young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), living in post Civil War Spain with her mother and stepfather, an anti-Franco commander assigned to conquer rebels. Her mother is pregnant, and Ofelia wants nothing more than for her to be safe. When she discovers a tiny creature she believes is a fairy, she finds herself pulled into a fantastical world of mythical creatures that give her tasks to carry out if she wishes to save her unborn brother and escape the world of pain she is sure to endure with her stepfather. Del Toro’s design of both worlds – the real and the fantasy – are so incredibly imagined and detailed, visually, and metaphorically. The monsters in the fantasy world feel more real than the monster (Ofelia’s stepfather) in the real world most times. Taking a Kubrickian cue, del Toro cast Doug Jones as both the faun (Pan) and the Pale Man (much like Peter Sellers’ multiple roles in Dr. Strangelove), the most striking monster from the film and the image most associated with this fairy tale. Pan’s Labyrinth takes a childlike topic – a story about a fairy princess – and puts a real-world spin on it, creating a dark and beautiful parable. All this, plus a literal chase through a hedge maze where Ofelia is running from her stepfather makes the film indelibly Kubrickian, but also a wholly original story of triumph and beauty in a world of sadness.
What makes it Kubrickian? On the surface, it doesn’t look entirely Kubrickian. But feel it. Among the idyllic beauty, Peter Weir puts on screen is a dark underbelly of mystique and terror. Picnic at Hanging Rock is based on Joan Lindsay’s novel, which, in turn, was based on the true story of the disappearance of schoolgirls at Hanging Rock in Australia, Valentine’s Day 1900. It’s not necessarily a psychological study, but it is an exercise in frustration. Much like 2001, nothing is solved. What happened to these girls? In Weir’s mind, it doesn’t really matter. Instead, his masterpiece is littered with striking imagery and a slow-burn narrative structure that only gives viewers a taste of what is lurking behind both these girls and their teacher. It’s much prettier than Kubrick’s films, for sure. But stylistically, that impending fear and isolation are still there, clear as day. While Kubrick’s version would probably give more hints as to what may have happened, there’s no question he would have left those as mere possibilities. Weir does the same, but in a manner that is so beautifully unclear that the mystery of the film ends up on the fringes as we are taken into the gorgeous method in which Weir delivers his cliffhanger (pun intended).
What makes it Kubrickian? First, Douglas Trumbull did the special effects for Ridley Scott’s film, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Second, despite the performances being necessary to the success of this sci-fi/noir, the world itself is the star of the film. Blade Runner is the story of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), tasked with finding genetically engineers robots called replicants, who were built by a mega-corporation to do off-planet work at various colonies, and have since escaped and returned to Earth. Deckard works in 2019 Los Angeles, shown as a black-rain dystopia, searching for these replicants, namely Zhora (Daryl Hannah) and Roy (Rutger Hauer). Meanwhile, he is befriended by an experimental replicant named Rachael (Sean Young) who believes she is human. Based on a Philip K. Dick novel, Blade Runner‘s world is incredibly driven by machinery and technology, much like the world of 2001. Its central theme is the individuality of these machines – as Dick’s source novel’s title states, do androids dream of electric sheep? Do robots have consciousness? If they do, what’s to stop them from exercising their decision-making prowess and fighting back? While 2001 asks those questions in a more philosophical manner, Blade Runner blends them in to one of the best science-fiction films of the last 35 years; it’s an action movie for the thinking person.
What makes it Kubrickian? It’s the first true science-fiction feature film. Without it, we may not have 2001. Or Dr. Strangelove. Or A Clockwork Orange. On top of that, it’s a criticism of class and economy. The first forecast of a dystopian future came from Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, a futuristic tale of class warfare as Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), son of the master of the city, decides to close the gap between the rich and the poor after meeting Maria (Brigitte Helm). When he begins to learn the horrors of the working class, as well as finding mysterious maps on the bodies of dead workers in his father’s machine rooms, he and Maria begin to unravel the mystery of what is under Metropolis, with the help of an inventor named Rotwang (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) and his Machine-Human (also Helm), modeled after the love of his life – Freder’s mother – who left him to marry Freder’s father and died giving birth to Freder. It’s really an art-deco film, with settings modeled after New York City skyscrapers and European architecture. But, most importantly, it’s about the struggle between progress and ethos, industry, and emotion. Metropolis will only truly be a happy place if the intelligence used to build it, partners, with the love of the people who inhabit it. It’s the first attempt to discuss the dangers of technology taking over and replacing a human life, while at the same time predicting the wonders that could come from it. Finally – 2001: A Space Odyssey was set in 2001 as an homage to Metropolis: one year after Lang’s film was set, as it was one of Kubrick’s favorite science-fiction films.
2. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
What makes it Kubrickian? In the past 10 years, this is the film that lives, breathes, and sleeps, Stanley Kubrick. Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous work was deftly influenced by Robert Altman more than most, but in 2007, his masterpiece (so far) was on display: There Will Be Blood. Starring Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, a ruthless oil baron, the film is a fable about, again, obsession and the need for power. Moment to moment, there are clear Kubrick influences. The uncomfortable score that doesn’t seem to have a flow, courtesy of Jonny Greenwood. That long, hollow bowling alley in the basement of Plainview’s estate. The camera angles, both intimate and panoramic. There are stand-alone scenes with clear homages to Kubrick’s 2001, most memorably Plainview’s final act – the ape finally exercising his physical strength, changing the course of history. The storylines of Blood and 2001 couldn’t be further from each other, but There Will Be Blood is the same story as 2001: the evolution of man to a soulless shell, trapped in an isolated, well-decorated room in space. Plainview’s mansion is his end game: like Dave Bowman; like Jack Torrance. He’s finished. We all are.
1. Solaris (1972)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
What makes it Kubrickian? It’s basically the Russian answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Andrei Tarkovsky’s brilliant adaptation of the 1961 novel of the same name takes us into space as well, to discuss how we define ourselves through our relationships (or lack thereof). Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to the Solaris Station, knowing that he will not return for a long time, leading him to destroy dozens of personal items before leaving. The friend he thought he had on the ship has committed suicide; the other scientists are not helpful. One night, exhausted, Kelvin is visited by a woman who appears to be his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who committed suicide 10 years earlier. Solaris the planet seems to be creating matter based on Kelvin’s memories. His embrace of his long lost wife seems to be affecting the surface of Solaris, too, as islands begin to appear on the planet normally engulfed in frozen waters. From there, it’s a struggle between what is real and what is imagined – if Hari is real, can he live in his memories forever on Solaris? If not, will his rejection of her destroy the planet? It’s a much more character-driven, emotional story than 2001 (Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake is actually more Kubrickian with its camerawork and narrative structure; although a good film, it still falls short of this original), but it still wrestles with those philosophical questions posed in science-fiction art films like these. Our purpose on this planet may be simply to exist – to communicate with each other, love, and move forward. Solaris doesn’t paint a clear picture but warns us of the danger of memories and how we move on. Regret and depression are dangerous side effects of intense memory. The monoliths, Solaris – they may be links to our past, but may also be linked to our future. The question is, do we want them to be?
– Joshua Gaul
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published April 1, 2014 under our old brand, Sound On Sight.