Today would have been Stanley Kubrick’s 89th birthday. The director passed away in 1999 as he was completing his 13th and final feature film, “Eyes Wide Shut,” at the age of 70.
In honor of the great director’s career, eight members of the IndieWire staff — William Earl, Kate Erbland, David Ehrlich, Eric Kohn, Michael Nordine, Zack Sharf, Anne Thompson, and this author — individually ranked the director’s films, which have been averaged together to result in the following list. While Kubrick only made 13 films over a 46-year span, he made more than his fair share of masterpieces. As a sign of just how deep the quality of this list runs, six different titles received first-place votes, while in the final tally the difference between #1 and #7 was razor thin.
13. “Fear and Desire” (1953)
At the age of 23, Kubrick was a fairly successful photographer and had made two short films, which he used to raise the money for “Fear and Desire,” this story of a soldier who survives a plane crash and lands behind enemy lines. Shot in five weeks in the California mountains with a crew of five, Kubrick thought he would keep costs down by shooting the film without sound and add music and effects in post. The plan backfired, as post-production costs blew well past his budget. The strength of the film lies in the honest, unflinching portrayal of death and man’s animal instincts removed from society. The film has a sense of realism, as you can sense the skills of the young documentary photographer behind the lens. Over the years, Kubrick was embarrassed by his first feature and did his best to pull prints from circulation.
12. “Spartacus” (1960)
Star and producer Kirk Douglas fired the great Anthony Mann a week into production and brought aboard a 33-year-old Kubrick, who Douglas thought did a good job with “Paths of Glory.” This didn’t mean the massive studio epic was to become a Kubrick film, but that didn’t stop him from trying. Kubrick butted heads with the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, over the lack of flaws in the hero (which is humorous, if you’ve seen other epics of this era); he fought with Welles and Sirk’s great DP Russell Metty over the framing and lens choice; and he was forced to cut the bloody battle scenes he was most proud of when they proved too disturbing. Ultimately, “Spartacus” ranks as a decent Hollywood epic that contains Kubrick’s craft. It was a significant resume builder, and introduced him to larger-format cinematography the and depth of detail it could achieve.
11. “Killer’s Kiss” (1955)
At 26, Kubrick borrowed $40,000 to make his second feature, which he sold to United Artists for $100,000 with a promise of another $100,000 to pay for his third feature, “The Killing.” The strength of this film largely comes from Kubrick-the-hotshot-Look-magazine-photographer, rather than Kubrick the budding filmmaker. Shot on location in New York, the film captures the city as it really was, with images that evoke its atmosphere and seedy underbelly. In particular, ta rooftop scene by the waterfront shows how Kubrick’s knowledge of the city and light meant he could turn New York into the perfect set. In telling the noir story of a washed-up boxer trying to help a girl tangled in a messy situation, you can feel Kubrick trying to adapt his sense of composition into filmmaking, with an instinct to strip a scene down to its most basic elements.
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