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? may 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 axe-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 intelligences” (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 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 that 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, an 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 approach 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.