The Definitive Kubrickian Films Part One
In this article, we look at the filmmakers who were clearly influenced by Kubrick. “Kubrickian” films tend to exercise incredible control of the camera, are extremely ambitious, tend to deal with much weightier themes, and always maintain a sense of mystery, like there’s an invisible fog always hovering over the film. This list could be sharply focused on about five directors working today but, though a number of these filmmakers appear in this list of 40, we’re spreading the wealth a bit. Let’s get to it.
What makes it Kubrickian? It’s surprisingly cold and detail-oriented, unlike most of Zack Snyder’s other work (well, detail-oriented in a positive way). Watchmen is based on the acclaimed graphic novel of the same name by David Gibbons and Alan Moore, about a desolate alternative future where 1985 is the height of the Cold War, forcing a collection of mostly retired superheroes to assemble and investigate a conspiracy that may be international. While comic books tend to deal with deeper themes than most movie adaptations like to dive into, this “unfilmable” source leaves no possible way to skim over the darker, more philosophical themes. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) alone has enough existential overtones to derail a film based on this work. Yet, somehow the man who directed Man of Steel and 300 managed to develop a tone necessary to tell this unforgiving story. However successful Snyder was at adapting the iconic work is left to the fans of both, but he did find a way to evoke Kubrick’s icy techniques in a way that, at the very least, was a step up for him.
What makes it Kubrickian? Incredibly patient shots, forcing viewers to live out the protagonist’s pain and suffering. Director Craig Zobel based this disturbing parable on real-life events, telling the story of a fast-food worker who is degraded by a shift manager, after answering a phone call from a “police officer.” What results is an uncomfortable journey almost in real-time, as Becky (Dreama Walker) is accused, abused, strip-searched, and worse, as her manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) simply follows through with every request on the other end of the call. Despite the heinous acts committed, Zobel’s film is more a sociological study on what people will follow through with when faced with an order from a supposed superior. What is right and wrong may be easy to determine when watching Compliance, but, then again, most of us don’t depend upon a minimum wage job to survive.
38. American Beauty (1999)
Directed by Sam Mendes
What makes it Kubrickian? Lester Burnham = Humbert Learns (rearrange the letters). While that connection is extremely superficial, the suburban nightmare is like a PG-13 version of Eyes Wide Shut, a story of a man dealing with his insecurities and fear by acting out in unsuspected ways; or of Lolita, in which an older man gives in to his attraction to a teenage girl. While Eyes Wide Shut focuses on the surreal world of unfulfilled sexual desires, American Beauty is a warped tale of a family’s desperate need for unfulfilled emotional desires, whether they result from sex, professional success, or a return to a time where responsibility wasn’t so overwhelming. Kevin Spacey plays Lester, a man unhappy with his work and his marriage, only to rebel by blackmailing his boss, working in fast food, smoking pot, and obsessing over his daughter’s teenage friend. The rest of his family (and others) almost fall in line, each finding their own way to “buck the system.” It’s certainly a much tamer version of the social commentary Kubrick put in his own films, but the connections are there in the camera movement, darkened cinematography, and sexual (however mild) undertones behind so many otherwise mundane tasks.
What makes it Kubrickian? A muted approach to a character that, on the surface, doesn’t deserve our sympathies. Refn’s biggest North American hit came in 2011 with the hyper-stylized Drive, but in 2008, he provided an early showcase for future star Tom Hardy with Bronson, a famous British criminal who spent years in solitary confinement, due to his violent nature. Bronson is delivered episodically, shifting between scenes of showy motifs and the extremely barren, almost degrading scenes that lend themselves to Kubrick’s often sterile filming techniques. The same could be said about Drive, a film so tone-focused that it’s easy to miss the cold, disconnected themes behind it. But Bronson is a clearer example of those ideas, due to the more aggressive nature of its protagonist and the rigid difference from one moment to the next. The story is told by the title criminal, a man desperate for fame, only to find that his only real talent is to be a criminal, not having real artistic talent. It’s an uncomfortable ride at times, but Refn’s unfeeling camera is what gives it that Kubrick feel, even in the more theatrical moments.
What makes it Kubrickian? Kazuo Ishiguro’s source novel may be the reason, but the detached narrative of Romanek’s film feels like a barren wasteland of psychosis and pain. Never Let Me Go is the story of an alternative world where scientists have developed a way for humans to live longer lifespans, thanks to a breakthrough that, despite its brilliance, is a sociological nightmare for those involved. Starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield, the film mostly takes place at a boarding school in the middle of the English countryside, focusing on the perceived love triangle between the three. The boarding school focuses on keeping oneself “well inside” and discourages any physically harmful activity of any kind, including any contact between students beyond brief encounters. It’s a dark, dark film, but one that would’ve been excellent source material for Kubrick to handle. Even the unrequited, hopeful love feels like a hollow endeavor. Mark Romanek is a filmmaker clearly influenced by Kubrick and, while the film has its problems, it still bears those resemblances clearly.
35. Heat (1995)
Directed by Michael Mann
What makes it Kubrickian? There’s no denying that Michael Mann’s hyper-focused control draws from Stanley Kubrick’s style. His best offering to date is Heat, more famous for its inclusion of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in a cat-and-mouse, cop-and-criminal game than Mann’s hand. Style is one thing – all of Mann’s films tend to feel a little sleeker than most. But there’s no denying how clearly methodical his camera is and how finitely crafted the camera movements are. It’s based on the experiences of a former Chicago PD officer and his obsessive pursuit of a mastermind criminal, played by Pacino and De Niro, respectively. Mann’s film is packed with other talented actors and actresses, some before they gained more notoriety (e.g., Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, Danny Trejo). Despite being a film noir (a genre Kubrick isn’t typically associated with), it’s a surprisingly spread-out film, not feeling as constricted as many of Mann’s other films.
34. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
What makes it Kubrickian? Kubrick identified Shadow of a Doubt as one of his favorite films. Second, the connections between Hitchcock’s film and Kubrick’s work is extremely clear (perhaps that makes Lolita Hitchcockian, too). Shadow of a Doubt is the story of a California teenager named Charlie (Teresa Wright) who learns her favorite uncle (also named Charlie, played by Joseph Cotten) is under investigation for murder. Unsure of how to handle this information, young Charlie finds herself shifting between helping her uncle and helping the detectives who arrive at her home, one of whom pursues her romantically. When the twists and turns play out, Charlie finds herself on the run with her uncle, only to see the veil of deceit slowly pulled away. Lolita certainly bears a resemblance, while even Barry Lyndon has some themes that could have dots connected to this Hitchcock gem. Hitchcock never had the control and precision that Kubrick did, but he did make psychological dramas that found their way into Kubrick’s psyche.
33. Pi (1998)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
What makes it Kubrickian? What doesn’t? The black-and-white cinematography alone lends itself to a Kubrick film. Darren Aronofksy’s debut won him Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival and clearly pointed to a theme he would return to over and over again, eventually yielding much more crowd-pleasing results: the danger of obsession. Pi is about Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a number theorist who, after making stock predictions, crashes his computer after it dispenses of a random 216-digit number. So begins the obsession. Max also narrates the film, however unreliably, and suffers from paranoia, psychotic breaks, and social anxiety. This number begins to consume everything, as Max is searched out by various other parties to find the mystery behind the number – was it sent by God? Is it the meaning of life? Kubrick never shied away from incredibly complex psychological themes, and Aronofsky – one of Kubrick’s most talented contemporaries – is clearly influenced by those themes and techniques. It may be Aronofsky’s smallest film, but it deals with some of the biggest questions he puts on screen.
32. Little Children (2006)
Directed by Todd Field
What makes it Kubrickian? Director Todd Field (who was in Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut) has stated that Barry Lyndon was a big influence on this film. Beyond that, Field’s film also bears some resemblance to Kubrick’s handling of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Little Children tells the story of a stay-at-home mom named Sarah (Kate Winslet) who grows frustrated with her sexless marriage and her on-the-surface friendships, finding herself drawn to Brad (Patrick Wilson), a stay-at-home dad with a similarly fruitless marriage. The two form a friendship when their children become friends. Meanwhile, a convicted pedophile named Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) returns to the neighborhood after serving his time, infuriating Brad’s friend Larry (Noah Emmerich), a former police officer who spends all his time harassing Ronnie after being forced to retire early. It’s a film less about physical adultery than it is about emotional infidelity, as Brad and Sarah’s relationship fills a void far beyond sexuality. They both long for a world where their choices were different and their lives panned out in a way that varies greatly from their current ones. The children may not be regrets or mistakes, but they can result in a loss of identity that can only be recovered through the love of oneself. Kubrick took the idea of social consciousness and how family and relationships affect them seriously in many films; Little Children filters it down into a tight psychological drama.
31. Birth (2004)
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
What makes it Kubrickian? It’s strikingly shot and plays with themes that involve the psychological intelligence of a child. Jonathan Glazer’s follow-up to his successful debut Sexy Beast, Birth stars Nicole Kidman as a New York City woman who unexpectedly loses her husband. Ten years later, after she has accepted a proposal from her boyfriend, Anne (Kidman) meets a young boy who claims he is her reincarnated husband. Kubrick used children on multiple occasions to drive his films; Danny serves as the catalyst to his father’s breakdown in The Shining. In a similar fashion, though in a more straightforward manner, young Sean (Cameron Bright) is either manipulating Anna or is a voice from her past that cannot let her go. Either way, Glazer’s meditation on loss, love, and what it means to move beyond despair is a gripping psychodrama that Kubrick would’ve sunk his teeth into. It’s not a ghost story. It’s not a horror film. It’s a saturated look at how death and regret permeate all corners of your existence.
The difficulty in counting down films so clearly influenced by Kubrick is that there are certain directors who are just tailor-made for it. So, you start to run into situations like this section of the list, where two directors have two films and two other directors had a film mentioned in the last section. But that’s the way it goes. Much of Kubrick’s style isn’t reflected in the work of, say, Todd Phillips. Or Todd Haynes, for that matter.
What makes it Kubrickian? As directors go, few rival the sense of complete control over his films like Christopher Nolan, famous for his obsessive attention to detail, much like Kubrick. With Inception, Nolan dialed up the control, creating multiple worlds set within dream landscapes, painting incredibly stunning shots and moments. Focusing on Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team of dream surveyors, Inception is a mind warp of dream within a dream within a dream and so on, each creating a new world for the protagonist to navigate. His team is sent in not to read someone’s mind, but to plant an idea into someone’s mind, previously thought to be impossible. The concepts behind Inception are incredibly complex, while Nolan depends much more on his ability for viewers to unravel the mystery, rather than relate to the characters, who are not exactly fully realized. While Kubrick did take us into the human psyche, he also stepped back sometimes to let the jigsaw puzzle he created make a bigger impact.
29. The Game (1997)
Directed by David Fincher
What makes it Kubrickian? Well, if Nolan shows flashes of Kubrick-influenced work, Fincher is pretty much his second coming, famous for more retakes than we can imagine. The control freak that is David Fincher began to come into his own in 1995 with Se7en and upped the ante again with a less focused, but admirably constructed mystery with The Game. The game referred to in the title is a birthday present for a San Francisco financier name Nicholas (Michael Douglas) from his transient brother Conrad (Sean Penn) that plays out like a live-action video game, where Nicholas can never tell what is and what isn’t part of the charade. At its heart, The Game is nothing more than an action film with a sinister twist, but the way Fincher handles his camera – even at this early stage in his career – is decidedly Kubrickian, concentrating on every detail on-screen at any given time. He would clearly improve upon his efforts going forward (his source material alone would vastly improve), but Fincher’s steady hand-turned what could have been a train wreck into, at the very least, a somewhat engaging drama.
What makes it Kubrickian? The vastness of space and the importance of silence was done best by Kubrick; Cuarón followed suit. This year’s seven-time Oscar winner is probably the most ambitious film ever to be set entirely in space, but it certainly takes plenty of cues (as do most sci-fi films) from Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. While 2001 was a thought-provoking story of mammoth proportions, Gravity managed to take the solitary feeling space creates and develop a character study (however weak the script). Gravity is a far less complicated film, but from a design and technical standpoint, it’s a direct descendant of Kubrick’s opus. Most importantly, the way Cuarón and his team handled the music, sound design, and the need for those quiet moments to allow the viewers to breathe is a page out of Kubrick’s book. Kubrick didn’t make films meant to be blockbusters, but money-makers like Gravity know how to use his influence to create films that are bigger than just popcorn movies.
What makes it Kubrickian? It’s Aronofsky again, this time taking those parables of life and the complexity of it all and applying it on a much larger, somewhat unfocused canvas. The Fountain spans a millennium, taking leads Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz and casting them in three separate roles, all of which are connected. The first (past) gives us Jackman as a conquistador looking for the “tree of life” to rescue his queen; the second (present) is Jackman as a researcher trying to find a cure for his dying wife from trees; the third (future) is Jackman as a galactic traveler looking for a way to spend eternity with his lover as he hurdles toward a dying star. Aronofsky is painting a much grander picture about love, death, and faith, paralleling the journeys as ways to create connective tissue between all these eras. It’s probably Aronofsky’s most Kubrickian film, dealing with much greater themes than his small-scale “danger of obsession” movies. That theme does, however, drive this much weightier, much more baffling entry. The Fountain is Cloud Atlas before there was Cloud Atlas…but without the gimmicks (for better or worse).
26. One Hour Photo (2002)
Directed by Mark Romanek
What makes it Kubrickian? It’s a horrifyingly cold and methodical look at the psychological makeup of a man with clear sociopathic tendencies, starring Robin Williams in his most unsettling dramatic performance. Sy (Williams) is a photo technician at a store than develops pictures in, you guessed it, one hour. He’s a lonely man who lives in a sterile environment, his only joy going through the moments he helps recreate on film, his favorite being those of the Yorkins, a young family he has become obsessed with. Romanek’s film is barren – a quiet, understated film about jealousy and voyeurism, centering on a man who does not have the psychological capacity to carry on a healthy social life, much less gain inclusion into a “normal” family’s everyday life. Garnering comparisons to Eyes Wide Shut and The Shining, One Hour Photo meshes the insecurity of Tom Cruise’s role in the former with the unbalanced behavior of Jack Nicholson’s work in the second. Robin Williams had given less flamboyant performances before, but his work in Romanek’s film revealed something more (or less).
What makes it Kubrickian? While Inception certainly drummed up the physical appearance of the world, Nolan’s The Prestige dove deeper into that psychological soup that lays within every character in the film. Upon the film’s release, it was lumped into a battle of “magician films” against The Illusionist, a far less ambitious film. This story focuses on rival magicians in London named Robert (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred (Christian Bale) and the concept of how a magic trick works in three parts: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. While the film’s psychological themes can be Kubrickian in nature, what’s most telling about the film is the set and production design and how it mimics plenty of other Kubrick works, from long hallways that seem to never end to cinematographer Wally Pfister’s use of color as a set-piece. Much like Kubrick does, even in films that are meant to be set in a time and place (e.g. Barry Lyndon), The Prestige feels like it transcends its era. It could’ve been a simple story of betrayal, jealousy, and competition, but Nolan has become a true magician that never reveals his tricks, filling a mold originally cast by Kubrick.
24. Brazil (1985)
Directed by Terry Gilliam
What makes it Kubrickian? Gilliam’s best work is typically his more Kubrickian, and this is one of his best, if not his greatest achievement. Meshing the dystopian film with satire, Brazil is basically George Orwell’s 1984, but as a black comedy (and no “Big Brother”), starring Jonathan Pryce as a “technocrat” in a world that has more meaningless bells and whistles that it knows what to do with. When Sam (Pryce) steps in to free a man that was wrongfully arrested, Sam meets the woman of his (literal) dreams, Jill (Kim Greist), only to be blamed for a string of terrorist attacks, endangering Sam and Jill as they try to hide from the bureaucracy. Outside of the themes and the darkened cinematography, comparing Brazil to movies like 2001 and even Dr. Strangelove (which Gilliam claims Kubrick wanted him to direct a sequel to, or so he was told), Gilliam has always been a stark defender of Kubrick and his work, putting him on a pedestal while simultaneously criticizing other filmmakers, like Steven Spielberg, for their lack of attention to detail. Gilliam (and Kubrick) set out to make films that forced audiences to think. None of Gilliam’s work will bore into your brain as much as this underrated trip through retro-future.
What makes it Kubrickian? Richard Kelly’s work tends to shoot for Kubrickian themes, this one being his closest shot. Donnie Darko is a movie filled with dark themes, psychological paradoxes, and some of those patented “Kubrick stares.” Starring Jake Gyllenhaal as the film’s title character, Donnie is a high school student who begins to have visions after a plane engine falls on his house, nearly killing him. Donnie is clearly schizophrenic, but visions of a doomsday bunny named Carl and his obsession with time travel and wormholes make him an outcast at school and with his own family. The debut film from Kelly is deliberately confusing – an attempt to build a web of inconsistency and ask the viewers to answer questions that may or may not have answers. Can Donnie travel through time? Is this all a dream? Does any of it even matter? Questions like these filled Kubrick’s films, though typically in a more organized fashion. While Donnie Darko is certainly not as detail-oriented as any of Kubrick’s films, it’s still a reminder of how much a film can force you to think and how the reality we see on screen may not be the ones that the protagonist sees.
22. Fight Club (1999)
Directed by David Fincher
What makes it Kubrickian? Its existential themes mix with A Clockwork Orange‘s “ultraviolence” to create one of the best studies of film masculinity in the last 25 years. Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, David Fincher’s Fight Club centers around an office worker (Edward Norton) who can’t sleep and has a strange addiction to support groups. In his mundane, yet unstable life, he meets an uninhibited soap maker named Tyler (Brad Pitt) who enlists his help to begin an underground fight club that proves to be a jumping-off point to something much, much bigger. As we discussed before, Fincher’s attention to detail is staggering, even in a film that feels as chaotic as this. It’s a film about power – over oneself, over one’s environment, over that voice in your head that wants to turn you to the “dark side.” Not only is it full of violence, but it also focuses on that fundamental question also at the core of A Clockwork Orange: should we all have the freedom of choice, even if the choice we make damages ourselves, others, and the world around us? Fight Club is the story of an organization that Alex DeLarge and his droogs would’ve created in the barren Los Angeles landscape, too.
What makes it Kubrickian? If you made a two-and-a-half-hour movie out of just the psychedelic trip at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, this would be it. Directed by French auteur Gaspar Noé, Enter the Void is an uncomfortable journey through neon-lit Tokyo through the eyes of a drug dealer having an out-of-body experience. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is a dealer living in Tokyo, supporting him and his sister by selling drugs. When he goes with his friend to make a deal, they stop at a bar called The Void, only to get jumped by the police. Oscar is shot and, as far as the audience can tell, dies. The rest of the film is still seen through Oscar’s eyes, who is now going through his own life, watching it flash before his eyes in chronological order. While the look and feel of Enter the Void certainly fit the Kubrick mold, the acting is what puts it over the top. In some Kubrick films, just like in this one, the acting comes off a little wooden and unfeeling, purposefully done to create a disconnect between the audience and the protagonist(s). It’s a feverish dream with a nausea-inducing score – Stanley would have approved.
- Joshua Gaul