Stanley Kubrick Meta-Analysis

The first dead guy in this series! I’ll tell you what, it is shockingly difficult to find full lists ranking Stanley Kubrick’s filmography on the Internet, and without being more flippant, I really do think it’s because he’s been dead for years now. Many of my more reliable sites for this kind of business, like Vulture and Slant and Collider, just don’t have a list for Kubrick like they do for any number of living directors. When he died in 1999, it was long before the Internet started doing retrospective rankings of famous directors on the occasion of their death, like a rank with star ratings attached. Even 2009 was a little early for that kind of thing, and once you get past ten years you kind of have to wait for twenty-five. Seeing as I don’t have the patience to wait until March 2024 to do this, I’m going to jump the gun on what will surely be a treasure trove of rankings and lament it later.

Of all the auteurs in all the world, I’m not sure that there’s a single one who carries more baggage than Kubrick. I say this not because he’s, big sigh, “problematic,” or because he was a great filmmaker, or even because he has taken on an outsize role for film bros who (unfairly? criminally!) lump him into their fandom for David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. I think even without the Internet fandom or the genuinely adult subject matter, Kubrick would be uniquely polarizing. There’s more to him than just “Oh, Steven Spielberg is too sappy for me” or “Who can stay awake through a Robert Bresson movie?” or other questions which are primarily about taste or, haha, the lack thereof. Kubrick is famous enough, and has just enough movies that enough people have seen, to generate truly intense debate about how good a director he was. You don’t often find a lot of people who are willing to say something like, “Kubrick, for sure one of the fifty best directors of all time.” Either he’s top five (or, in the most strident cases, number one with a bullet) or he’s not even on the list. Any list has its basis in its maker, and because the sample size I have for Kubrick is a little smaller, I think the self-selection criteria here forces us to take these results with a grain of salt. (I mean, more than usual. I’m a guy with a WordPress account and a reasonable appreciation of how to get the search results I want from Google, absolutely feel free to question the scientific rigor of my methodology.) To qualify for my collation, a list had to include all thirteen of Kubrick’s movies. Given that Killer’s Kiss and Fear and Desire are emphatically the kind of movies you have to look for—not because they’re unavailable but because they aren’t classics—and because there’s no peg to hang a Kubrick ranking on like the release of Mank or Luca is a peg—I think the people making these tend to be Kubrick fans. If there’s such a thing as “more Kubrick,” it’s probably being rewarded here. If a group like the AFI went down the path of ranking directors’ filmographies as content, which is an idea I’m just tossing their way for free, there’d probably be a very different type of Kubrick ranking. This is just to say that by their math, the top four Stanley Kubrick movies are 2001, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, and Spartacus. To put it mildly, that’s not a sequence in any of the full rankings I’ve pulled from. Basically, what I’m saying is that given a larger sample which feels a little more neutral, or at least scholastic, I think less aggressively Kubrickian pictures like Paths of Glory might fare better.

Spoilers but not really: given that sample, 2001: A Space Odyssey is the top-rated movie. Personally, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to suggest that 2001 is in the running for the title of greatest film of all time, no matter how few monoliths showed up on the Moon during the Bush administration. The good people at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? aggregate it third overall. The most recent Sight and Sound poll has it sixth, and when the new one drops next year I doubt that 2001 will fall much, if at all. For as many people who will breathlessly proclaim 2001 one of the absolute best films of all time which must be part of that conversation when it’s had—and to be clear, I’m one of them—there have to be just as many who would call it pretentious, opaque drivel. I think you can find people who didn’t enjoy Citizen Kane or have reservations about Tokyo Story or whatever, but it’s hard to think of a film that gets people’s dander up the way that 2001 does in both directions. It’s not just like the possibly manufactured drama of the awards season every year, where it seems like more often than not there’s a Boyhood and a Birdman, but this is a raw reaction regarding one of the greatest movies of more than a century of filmmaking, not just for 1968. You can then find that polarizing reaction down the line in a number of other Kubrick properties. A Clockwork Orange, which has famously dark and graphic subject matter in its first half before proceeding into a second half that people seem not to talk about much, has to be one of the most controversial films ever made. For most directors, Lolita or Eyes Wide Shut would be far and away their most explicit and uncomfortable picture from a sexual point of view; if anything, those movies should probably be more controversial than they are. Clockwork takes a lot of heat off of them. Even the more low stakes arguments still seem to be this or that. Take Barry Lyndon. Is it one of the greatest achievements in the history of motion picture photography or is it a stolid snoozefest with a couple of hot nonentities in front of the camera? Can Stephen King find it in his heart to forgive Stanley for improving The Shining?

One of my least favorite lines of praise for Kubrick is the one which talks about the variety of his movies by genre. A great sword-and-sandals epic, a great horror movie, a great science-fiction movie, a great political satire, a great courtroom drama, a great war movie, and so on. This is a little tiresome for me in the same way that the praise for Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson can get a little tiring: it’s easy to get a handle on small sample sizes, and there’s nothing like seizing on a movie like Spartacus, say, just one movie out of a baker’s dozen, and then making grand suggestions about an oeuvre based on one movie’s place in a larger genre. (Whether or not the people who praise Spartacus as a great epic set in the ancient world have seen anything beyond the ’50s Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments is another question entirely, and I won’t try to answer it here.) Most of all, I don’t think I care for the idea that if a director makes lots of different kinds of movies, that’s somehow superior to a director who makes more movies in a single genre but does so at an extremely high level. There’s no doubt that compared to the company Kubrick keeps at the top of the pole, there’s literally more variety in genre. But should Hitchcock have made fewer thrillers and psychological dramas in favor of more political satires? Should Ford have made fewer westerns in favor of more horror movies? This intimation prizes being able to do something once more than being able to do something five or ten times at a high level. I don’t know that it’s really more impressive that Stanley Kubrick could have made one of the great dystopian films ever in Clockwork than it is for John Ford to have made seven westerns from 1946 to 1956 which go from “good” to “the best in the history of the genre.” For what it’s worth, I also think that overstating Kubrick’s genre-hopping tends to elide the variety even in the filmmakers who are jostling with him for one of those lecterns in the debate. Andrei Tarkovsky made eight features, and while they don’t branch out quite as far as Kubrick’s thirteen, surely making Ivan’s Childhood flexed different genre muscles than Solaris, Andrei Rublev, or Nostalgia. Just because Lean’s calling card was the epic doesn’t mean Brief Encounter and Hobson’s Choice aren’t in there; just because Kurosawa is best remembered for samurai movies doesn’t mean that Ikiru, High and Low, and Dreams all suddenly disappeared from his filmography. There are lots of outstanding reasons to fete Kubrick…going gaga over genre is not one of them.

The process for Stanley Kubrick is the same as it was for the MCU, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Pixar, Wes Anderson, and Paul Thomas Anderson.

1) Search for any and all lists I could find which rate Stanley Kubrick’s narrative feature films from Fear and Desire to Eyes Wide Shut. This gives thirteen films and excludes his documentaries and shorts, not like people were clambering to rate The Seafarers anyway.

2) I found a combination of lists from sources which, I’ll grant, are not all the gold standard in criticism, but generally speaking I wanted something a little better than “just someone’s blog.” If a list is taken from someone’s personal rankings on Letterboxd, I’ll note it here. Same goes for YouTube, although I needed to see hundreds of thousands of views on the video in order for it to qualify. The list of sources, in all: All the Right Movies, Darren Carver-Balsiger (Letterboxd), Cinemaholic, Consequence of Sound, Digital Spy, Far Out Magazine, Film Inquiry, Gold Derby, the Guardian, Hollywood Tribune, Independent UK, Indiewire, MSN, No Film School, The Playlist, Rotten Tomatoes, Karsten Runquist (YouTube), Screenrant, Diogo Serafim (Letterboxd), Slashfilm, Studiobinder, Taste of Cinema, They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?, Ultimate Movie Rankings, What Culture, and Yardbarker. In other words, some of these are aggregators, some of these are individual outlets, some of these are very respectable and and others barely so…it is a funky group, but it’s what was available.

3) The ranking system is very simple: write down the place the movie holds on each list, get an average over the 25, and the low number wins.

Because I’m a guy who really likes movies, or, more importantly, I’m a guy and I won’t shut up about movies, I have a Kubrick ranking as well:

  1. 2001
  2. The Shining
  3. Dr. Strangelove
  4. Barry Lyndon
  5. Paths of Glory
  6. The Killing
  7. Eyes Wide Shut
  8. Clockwork Orange
  9. Spartacus
  10. Lolita
  11. Full Metal Jacket
  12. Fear and Desire
  13. Killer’s Kiss

Let’s get this show on the road. There are probably too many tiers here for a guy who only made thirteen features, but you’ll see why it looks this way when you see the numbers.

Tier 7: The First Shall Be Last

13) Fear and Desire / Average score: 12.88

12) Killer’s Kiss / Average score: 11.76

One of the running themes of these results for me was that I’d frequently look at where a movie placed, say, “Oh, that’s too bad, it deserves more attention than that,” and then see that I’d put said movie within a spot of where the sample group put it. Taste of Cinema put Killer’s Kiss ninth. Rotten Tomatoes, which hilariously has the weirdest list of any outlet sampled, has Eyes Wide Shut thirteenth. Thus these two movies are bumped up one spot each. Darren Carver-Balsiger, Indiewire, and the Guardian each put Spartacus twelfth, which gives Killer’s Kiss a couple more rankings at eleventh. And that…is it. Everyone else has one of these two movies either twelfth or thirteenth. Combined, they last about 130 minutes and cost, in our money, about $1.3 million. They aren’t strictly microbudget films, although sometimes Fear and Desire can feel almost as small as Slacker. (Thinking about the unorthodox approach that Kubrick took to becoming a director and then staying one emphatically on his own terms is another good reason not to sit around and gush about that like it’s any more than a fun bonus; most directors do not get the leeway or independence that Kubrick had for a host of reasons.) Killer’s Kiss is the more fleshed out of the two, the one with a larger budget and a more straightforward plot. There’s a pleasantly seedy Frank Silvera performance to grapple with, as well as a solid rooftop chase sequence and of course that culminating scene with the mannequins. It feels much more professional than Fear and Desire because it is much more professional. Yet for my money there’s no scene in Killer’s Kiss which compares to the raw feeling of Paul Mazursky losing his mind because he’s got a girl tied to a tree.

Essentially, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss stand as proof of concept; both are good but with absolutely no pretensions to greatness, mostly because they don’t have the budgets or materials to pretend to it. It’s in the baroque moments of both movies that you can sense what Kubrick would do with more cash or more time. The shadowy, slightly uncanny quality of the mannequins in Killer’s Kiss evolves into the almost frightening scene where Sterling Hayden in his mask stalks a locker room in The Killing. Paul Mazursky’s unhinged soldier inflects Timothy Carey’s frightened one in Paths of Glory, and then that idea mutates again into Private Pyle, another man driven to madness over the length of his military service. I wish Killer’s Kiss were a little more available than it is—right now the best place to see it is probably on the second disc of your Criterion edition of The Killing—but Fear and Desire is available just about anywhere, including YouTube. No doubt he would have been horrified that this first and slightly sophomoric picture would have been as easy to see as any other movie he made.

Tier 6: Sex Stuff

11) Lolita / Average score: 9.52

10) Spartacus / Average score: 9.12

9) Eyes Wide Shut / Average score: 7.92

Love that that tweet accurately describes all three of the movies above. Anyway, none of these movies really got much traction. I was not surprised to see that Spartacus and Lolita struggled to do so; the epic from the ancient world is out of style, and Lolita is not an easy movie to like, to say the least. (Shelley Winters gives the whiniest performance in the history of the movies, which I mean as high praise, and then after she’s dead the film goes full on into the whole “pedophile abducts adopted daughter and goes on road trip” plot.) But Eyes Wide Shut I thought was getting more of a reevaluation, especially in the wake of that whole “1999 was the best movie year” discourse being propped up when all the people in entertainment media turned forty and reminisced fondly about being somewhere between seventeen and twenty-five in 1999. It got a first-place vote from Film Inquiry, a second-place vote from Diogo Serafim, a third-place vote from Slashfilm, a handful of sixth-place votes, and then nothing else in the top half. (Eyes Wide Shut is weighted so heavily towards the back, and its emphasis on illicit, even forbidden sex is so similar to the other two films here, that I’ve got it as a kind of outlier for Tier 6 rather than up one.) Eyes Wide Shut is something of a puzzle, about as close as Kubrick ever gets to David Lynch, but that doesn’t appear to have won this poll group over. Amusingly, Eyes Wide Shut is Kubrick’s answer to Spielberg’s A.I., in that there’s a very vocal component of critics and Film Twitter personalities who stan for it, but that hasn’t expanded to a wider critical consensus for movies which most folks put in the bottom third.

I happen to like all three of these movies a great deal, though, once again, I’m not exactly far off the consensus on where Lolita and Spartacus belong. What I think stands out as much in this group as the emphasis on sex is the way that none of them smell like Kubrick on the first or even second pass. The fascination with Kubrick as a technician, someone who used NASA’s lenses to shoot Barry Lyndon or the guy who made the enormously inventive 2001, tends to dominate his fans. From here on out, I think every movie has “KUBRICK” stamped on it somewhere in its photography or editing choices. This isn’t to say that these films don’t have such a watermark but that it’s not in such large type or centered on the screen. Something else can and frequently does overshadow these movies.

For Lolita, it’s the first attempt by Kubrick to adapt a major novel to the screen. The feel of the novel is so different from the feel of the film. Vladimir Nabokov can be far more explicit in a novel, and far more frightening, than Stanley Kubrick can be with a ’60s Hollywood studio picture. Lo is a preteen in the novel, and Sue Lyon is a fairly adult looking teenager in the film. That makes a world of difference in the way the story is presented, but it’s not enough (and nor should it be) to completely throw off the unsavoriness of the plot. Unable to fully shake himself loose of the original source, which is no surprise given that Nabokov wrote the screenplay, readings of Lolita the film tend to fight through readings of Lolita the novel. Further still, Lolita trips over the balance between Kubrick and star Peter Sellers. This is not an issue in Dr. Strangelove, but in Lolita, Sellers’ Clare Quilty is almost a distraction until he becomes incredibly important.

For Spartacus, I really think it’s just the genre. I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past, and it wasn’t until a recent rewatch of Spartacus that I started looking for Kubrick and found him in his command of composition, his use of the frame as a vibrant three-dimensional space, and his genuine, repeated concern for oppressed people. Does that mean that I was big enough not to use Spartacus as a way to think about “directors out of type” on a podcast? Not at all! And for Eyes Wide Shut, I think that film is still overcoming its original negative reviews to some extent. There’s a lot of that film which was overshadowed at the time by the behind-the-scenes business. There was the Cruise-Kidman marriage, the inevitable questions about how much of what we’re seeing is “real,” and so on. There was the shoot itself, which took more than a year. The film was marketed like the whole production was a great secret, which did not turn into some kind of crystal clear reveal during the runtime of the film itself. And of course, Kubrick died months before the film was actually released. A little more room from those things might have made it feel more like Kubrick and less like potential Oscarbait from a director in his final years.

Tier 5: Close Encounters of the First Kind

8) The Killing / Average score: 7.88

7) Full Metal Jacket / Average score: 7.32

I’m overstating things a little bit in terms of “closeness,” given that The Killing is actually closer to Eyes Wide Shut in these rankings than it is to Full Metal Jacket. These two are a pretty good example of the two ways to get lodged as a mid-tier movie: a variety of rankings which lean lower, for The Killing, and a bunch of rankings in the same spot, for Full Metal Jacket.

Fourteen out of twenty-five rankings have Full Metal Jacket either seventh or eighth, and it has one of the tighter ranges I’ve come across for a movie in the middle of the pack in any of these little projects. On the other hand, The Killing strikes sixteen of twenty-five listmakers as belonging in the bottom half, but it’s also hanging on to a second-place vote and, overall, much more support in the top half than any movie thus far. No one, apparently, believes that The Killing is at the midpoint of Kubrick’s oeuvre; that’s where they all have Full Metal Jacket.

I think it’s worth it to note that these are probably Kubrick’s two most normie movies, not in the sense that “anyone could have made them” but that they bear the most resemblance to other movies as they’re made by other directors. Full Metal Jacket is one of the last major Vietnam movies and is frequently contextualized with the previous year’s Best Picture winner, Platoon, or Apocalypse Now. And The Killing, while a fairly involved heist/robbery film, is also not so far away from another 1950s crime noir starring Sterling Hayden, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. I think the directors of the three movies I’m comparing Kubrick’s pictures to here speak for themselves in terms of the overall quality of the movies, but there’s nothing about either one which is sui generis.

Tier 4: Close Encounters of the Second Kind

6) A Clockwork Orange / Average score: 5.52

5) Paths of Glory / Average score: 5.4

One of the closest pairs of any two movies in Kubrick’s filmography by the numbers, and probably the two important movies from his career that are furthest away in terms of content. A Clockwork Orange fools with the form over and over again, using slow-motion and sped-up playback with equal aplomb. Classical music and opera favorites clash heartily with the dystopian future. It has that very Kubrickian feel of being broken up into acts which are so different that it’s almost showing off, and what that means is that it’s possible for two people placing emphasis on different pieces of the film to read it very differently. (See also: Full Metal Jacket, Barry Lyndon, even Dr. Strangelove.) Paths of Glory is a beautifully acted, tightly made film, coming in under ninety minutes and searing the whole time. It’s one of the great triumphs of United Artists in a decade where the American studio system was in its finest hours; you can see the risks that Paths of Glory takes with its content and occasionally with form (some bold tracking shots), but in structure it’s hardly running away from the model of contemporary studio pictures.

My hypothesis going in was that Clockwork would be noted in every single-digit spot, while Paths of Glory would cluster in the upper middle.

To be honest, not my best hypothesis. (I’ve included the sums for each to go with the rest of the chart, so if you’re wondering why the little boldface numbers are there, that’s why. It was close!) I was literally right that Clockwork hit every spot, and I was right that Paths gets most of its strength from that 4-6 range. The difference between them, even more than the people who have Clockwork eleventh, is how many people have Paths of Glory sixth.

I was curious to see if this was the pair of films, at least from movies that weren’t sitting in at the bottom, which had the greatest gaps between individual listmakers. In other words, if someone ranked Paths of Glory highly, say, did that imply that A Clockwork Orange tended to be lower on their list? I pulled four pairs of consecutive movies which were pretty close to one another by the averages, and the only average distance that was greater than the Paths-Clockwork disparity was the Killing-Eyes Wide Shut disparity. It certainly looks like an affinity for one means less of an affinity for the other. (Basic as I am, that appears to be the case with me as well; that average disparity of 3.24 spots matches my own gap between Paths and Clockwork pretty neatly.)

Tier 3: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

4) Barry Lyndon / Average score: 4.56

3) The Shining / Average score: 4.52

The closest pair of them all (tied with The Killing and Eyes Wide Shut), separated by just four-hundredths of a point. although there’s less of a clear narrative of opposites to work from than there is in Tier 5 or especially Tier 4. These two movies were released only five years distant from each other—less than the distance between The Aviator and Shutter Island, or Interstellar and Tenet. Yet the way that people talk about them now, let alone the way they were received, is so different. Barry Lyndon went an extremely respectable four for seven at the 48th Academy Awards in an absolutely stacked year where One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest became just the second movie to sweep the Big Five. It was not some juggernaut at the box office, certainly not by the standards of Kubrick’s previous film, but it made back its budget and then some. The Shining did better at the box office but was not nearly the critical or industry success. Now they’re two of the consensus great movies of all time. Barry Lyndon remains the fancier movie, I think, with its place on the 2012 Sight and Sound list. The Shining has become more of a popular favorite, and has taken its place in the Post-Oscars, that is, the AFI lists. While not on the ’98 or ’07 lists, it’s shown up on the 100 Years…100 Thrills list as well as the Heroes and Villains list; it stands a decent chance, in my opinion, of squeezing onto whatever the next iteration of the AFI list might be.

The thing that makes these an interesting pair to me is that while I think both are obviously given huge praise for everything that they do, the focal points for both are different. Barry Lyndon is the ultimate Kubrick in cinematography, but also has a pretty fair case to make that it’s got the finest art direction and costume design of any of his films. (I realize these are high bars.) On the other hand, The Shining is frequently shouted out for its sound design and music, and may well have the best performance of any Kubrick movie in Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance. (Again, a high bar.) There are movies that are agreed on as better ones, but I don’t know that there’s another pair in Kubrick’s filmography that so neatly covers the whole gamut of reasons why he’s been canonized. Between these two novel adaptations from the final third of Kubrick’s career, it seems like there’s nothing he couldn’t do.

Tier 2: Runaway Second-Place

2) Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb / Average score: 3

I went back to the Spielberg meta-analysis just to check the numbers. Jaws came out on top with a score of 2.875, which, as the mathematically inclined among you can see, is a better one than Dr. Strangelove has from its separate data set, but it’s not all that much better. That number would have been far and away the first-place film in the Pixar or MCU collations. Simply put, it’s the highest second-place score of any director filmography that I’ve done thus far, and it’s done so with a film ahead of that absolutely snarfed up the first-place votes. On about half of lists, twelve of twenty-five, this is number 2. The message is pretty clear: this would be number 1, and maybe even without too much hassle, if 2001 had never been made.

The common threads from the outlets that placed Strangelove first are predictable: all-time great satire, three all-time great performances from Peter Sellers. That thing I said about Nicholson giving the best performance in a Kubrick movie is definitely under assault if you think that one of Sellers’ roles, or maybe Sellers’ performances as a package deal in Strangelove, are superior. My guess, not that I have enough data to say this definitively, is that if you think Sellers-as-Strangelove is the best performance in Kubrick’s filmography, then you probably have this one first. Or maybe it’s a question of preferring the ridiculous pace of this film (just 94 minutes!) to the more patient strains of 2001. (The three lists that have Strangelove first are from MSN, Screenrant, and Rotten Tomatoes; the former two have 2001 third, where Rotten Tomatoes has 2001 in fourth, its lowest spot.) I just want to say that there’s no better proof of the sheer brilliance of Dr. Strangelove than the existence of Fail-Safe, Sidney Lumet’s verisimilitudinous adaptation of the novel that basically plagiarized the Strangelove source, Red Alert. Where Fail-Safe is so dull-eyed and stupid that it basically makes the case for absolutely irradiating the USSR if American planes couldn’t be called back in time, Dr. Strangelove leans all the way into the absurdity and does so with riotous, rolling-eyed laughter. There aren’t that many great satirical films out there; most of them can’t carry the jokes to the finish, or start getting earnest. Dr. Strangelove sends us out of the theater with two songs ringing in our ears. The first, “We’ll Meet Again.” The second, the screeching discordance of the title character communing with his God: “MEIN FUHRER! I CAN WALK!”

Tier 1: Space Ghost Coast to Coast

1) 2001: A Space Odyssey / Average score: 1.56

It’s not quite as unanimous as Pulp Fiction, which averaged 1.54 over forty-one lists. But 1.56 over twenty-five lists isn’t so bad either. I think there are two differences between Pulp Fiction and 2001 as far as these collations go. First, when another movie took first place on one of these lists, especially Jackie Brown, you could sort of hear the blurbs sneering a little at Pulp Fiction. I don’t mean to say that people didn’t like Pulp Fiction. Like 2001, Pulp Fiction finished fourth or better on every list. But when people wrote up another movie for first place, there was an implied kick in the direction of the ’94 neo-noir classic, as if to say “What, you think you’re so special?” When people wrote up other movies for first place in their Kubrick rankings, the tone was entirely different. They felt like they had to apologize for 2001 being as low as it was, and the majority of them basically go with “It’s more boring than [The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, etc.] and that’s why it’s second. The other difference is that Pulp Fiction is not generally given by groups outside of the 16-21 male demographic as one of the ten best movies ever made, and 2001, as I discussed in the intro, usually is. To be honest, I’m a little surprised it’s coming in with a number that high at all.

One final note: never forget that 2001 was Kubrick’s highest-grossing movie. A better world is possible.

2 thoughts on “Stanley Kubrick Meta-Analysis

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