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The top five Stanley Kubrick films

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July 26th will mark what would have been Stanley Kubrick’s 89th birthday.

Credit: Senses of Cinema

The veteran director was a massive influence on the film industry; from his short films in the early fifties, right up until his death in 1999, he left behind a legacy that has left many considering him one of the greatest filmmakers to have ever lived.

Whilst Kubrick made many great films over his nearly fifty-year long career, here’s a look at the director's five best-known movies that proved to all be masterpieces in their own way.

1) Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

There’s no better place to start than with Kubrick’s mid-sixties satire of the nuclear age, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The film is centred around the order of the rogue General Ripper (Sterling Hayden) to drop a nuclear bomb on the Soviet Union and how the President of the United States (Peter Sellers) attempts to end the crisis.

The film is a hilarious take on the Cold War and is filled with jokes pointing out the barbarity of political attitudes at the time. Peter Sellers, who has three roles altogether, is excellent in the movie and his scene as President Muffley on the phone to Russian Premier Dimitri Kissov goes down as one of most iconic comedic sketches in cinematic history.

Its humour and message have held up incredibly well and it remains one of Kubrick’s highest rated films today.

2) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Arguably Kubrick’s most influential film, in the long run, 2001: A Space Odyssey was jaw-dropping when first released as its visual effects were like nothing seen before.

It follows astronauts Dave (Keir Dullea) and Frank (Gary Lockwood) as they battle against their ship’s artificial intelligence, HAL (Douglas Rain) in the year 2001. The film is far deeper than its base story suggests though. Depicting the dawn of man and covering themes that criticise human’s arrogance and stagnation, the film proves to be far more rewarding on repeat viewings. 

The movie beautifully blends soundtrack and visuals with Kubrick’s use of the classical piece Also Sprach Zarathustra in the opening titles, helping to create another iconic cinematic moment. It is a testament to Kubrick's filmmaking that 2001 holds up as well as it does with the impressive use of practical effects creating what is still a visual spectacle.

3) A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Moving on to what is by far Kubrick’s most controversial film, A Clockwork Orange. It follows Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell), a despicable, evil, youth, whose actions lead to him being the test subject for a new kind of psycho therapy that will attempt to cure him of his urges.

The film is a disturbing and, at times, frightening piece of cinema, with Kubrick’s presentation of Alex’s misdemeanours being brutal to watch. Likewise, the later depiction of Alex’s treatment makes for some very uncomfortable viewing. 

Despite all this though, A Clockwork Orange is arguably Kubrick’s best film. He once again blends soundtrack and visuals through classical music masterfully and the vision that he creates of the film's dystopian society is put together wonderfully.

3) The Shining (1980)

Based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, The Shining was a critical flop at release but has gone on over the years to become a cult classic.

A psychological thriller that follows the Torrance family as father Jack, played perfectly by Jack Nicholson in one of his best roles, who begins to go mad in his role of caretaker at the sinister Overlook Hotel.

A mysterious and ambiguous film, The Shining has gone on to spawn documentaries as well as heavy analytical pieces that have attempted to figure the film out. Kubrick, whilst not staying very faithful to the original novel, created a disturbing film that showcased his ability to effectively shoot horror. He makes full use of the Overlook’s creepy setting with the hotel’s long narrow corridors and large empty spaces fully utilised. 

5) Full Metal Jacket (1987)

1987 saw Kubrick’s take on the Vietnam War with Full Metal Jacket. The movie is essentially split into three mini films with recurring characters in each. The first is an accurate depiction of a marine boot camp, the second shows the propaganda of the war as well as the confusion and lack of preparation many soldiers had going into Vietnam, whilst the final part focuses more on the horrors of war.

Kubrick once again includes a social commentary, this time on the Vietnam War itself, but it is arguably his storytelling talents that are best on show here. Looking at the film as three parts, much of what happens in part one is mirrored in part three with a lot of earlier set up paying off later on, which is not immediately obvious to the viewer.

Another great aspect of the film is R. Lee Ermey's mostly improvised performance as Sergeant Hartman. Full Metal Jacket shows off Kubrick’s excellent screenwriting ability with the boot camp portion often being highlighted as the film's best section.

Overall, it is clear that Stanley Kubrick was and will always remain, one of Hollywood's most influential and groundbreaking filmmakers. It is a shame that he is not still alive today as it would be interesting to see the modern world through his lens.

His films remain hugely influential and important to the industry today.

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