Stanley Kubrick, one of cinema’s most celebrated and influential filmmakers, was born on this day in 1928. Both he and his work have a reputation for being clinically cerebral, obsessively precise, and unnervingly cynical. His films focus on harsh and heavy subjects like war, madness, murder, abuse, and the potential pitfalls of artificial intelligence.
These films tend to contain extremely uncomfortable scenes of anguish and violence, which Kubrick often shot in long, unbroken takes. He was notorious for filming dozens, if not hundreds of takes for many such scenes, distressing and disheartening his cast and crew to soul-crushing degrees (most notably, poor Shelley Duvall during production of The Shining). When comic relief appeared in a Stanley Kubrick film, it typically came in the form of acidic gallows humor.
Yet deep in the core of his films, you can feel the beat of a compassionate heart– even if that heart had been perhaps terribly wounded by the slings and arrows of our cold, cruel world. You could even say that a few of Kubrick’s movies contain hints of optimism. If you’d like to experience any of this unique filmmaker’s compelling and complex work, you’re in luck: you can check out all of his films in some format or another with your Livingston Library Card!
Fear and Desire (1953)
Throughout his career, Kubrick would condemn the brutality of war in movies like Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, and Full Metal Jacket. So it’s fitting that his debut film was the harrowing Fear and Desire, about a group of soldiers navigating their escape from hostile territory.
Available to stream on Kanopy and Hoopla
Killer’s Kiss (1955)
In his second film, a crime noir about a boxer and a dance hall girl on the run from ruthless gangsters, Kubrick was still forging his directorial style. Killer’s Kiss is more or less a conventional genre film, but viewers can certainly catch glimpses of the subversive brilliance and technical proficiency that would define Kubrick’s later work.
The Killing (1956)
Kubrick’s first major feature was another crime noir, this time co-written with master hard-boiled novelist Jim Thompson. Though The Killing initially failed to attract a large audience, it has since become recognized as a classic of its genre, with its non-linear structure and snappy dialogue inspiring the films of Quentin Tarantino.
Paths of Glory (1957)
For his second war film, Kubrick adapted Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel of the same name about a French colonel defending his soldiers from unjust accusations of cowardice. In addition to a stellar lead performance by Kirk Douglas, Paths of Glory features the kind of meticulous framing and long, riveting shots that would eventually become Kubrickian trademarks.
Kubrick reunited with Kirk Douglas for this gladiator epic based on Howard Fast’s 1951 novel, and it became the first big commercial success of the director’s career. Over 60 years later, Spartacus remains one of Hollywood’s most famous gladiator movies, along with William Wyler’s Ben-Hur and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.
Available to borrow on DVD; original novel available to borrow in print; see also the “Great Courses” episode “Spartacus: Kubrick’s Controversial Epic,” hosted by history professor Greg Aldrete, available to stream on Kanopy.
Never afraid of controversial material, Kubrick rose to the challenge of adapting Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel about a middle-aged literature professor’s abusive relationship with a 12 year-old girl. The result is a film laced with dark humor that never fully undermines the serious subject matter. It also boasts outstanding performances by a cast that includes James Mason, Peter Sellers, Shelley Winters, and Sue Lyon in the title role.
Available to borrow on DVD; original novel by Vladimir Nabokov available to borrow in print, as an ebook, or audiobook.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
For his first legit comedy, Kubrick teamed with irreverent humorist Terry Southern for this farcical satire about a brewing nuclear war between Russia and the United States. If it’s possible to relieve anxieties about mutually assured destruction by leaning into the cosmic absurdity of it all, Dr. Strangelove does so masterfully. Kubrick once again got fantastic work from the legendary Peter Sellers (this time in three wildly different roles), as well as surprisingly hilarious turns by George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Slim Pickens.
Available to borrow on DVD
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
By 1968, Kubrick had established that he was working at the highest level of cinematic craftsmanship. Then with 2001: A Space Odyssey, he proved that his talent existed in a universe of its own. Inspired by renowned sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke’s 1951 short story “The Sentinel,” Kubrick and Clarke collaborated to create a mind-blowing trip through humanity’s evolution from primitive hominids to spacefaring star-children.
Available to borrow on DVD; novelization by Arthur C. Clarke available in print or as an ebook; ebook containing “The Sentinel” available on Hoopla; see also the “Great Courses” episode “Kubrick’s 2001 and Nietzsche’s Übermensch,” hosted by philosophy professor David Kyle Johnson, available to stream on Kanopy
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Nearly a decade after Lolita, Kubrick once again courted controversy by adapting Anthony Burgess’s 1962 dystopian novel about a violent criminal who undergoes a radical rehabilitation. Though the film can sometimes be hard to watch through Kubrick’s unflinching eye, the director’s unmistakable visual style and sardonic spirit can also be positively mesmerizing.
Available to borrow on DVD; original novel by Anthony Burgess available in print, as an audiobook through Hoopla or Overdrive/Libby, or as an ebook.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
When it was first released, this adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 picaresque novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon was praised mainly for its aesthetic qualities– especially its groundbreaking candlelit cinematography– and criticized for its perceived sense of emotional detachment. But like many Kubrick films, Barry Lyndon has become more deeply appreciated over time, and has inspired the work of great filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson.
The Shining (1980)
Stephen King may not be a fan of how Kubrick adapted the author’s 1977 novel about a snowbound writer descending into madness while caretaking a haunted hotel. Moviegoers like myself, however, would attest that The Shining is without a doubt one of the most terrifying psychological horror films ever made.
Available to borrow on DVD; original novel available in print, as an ebook, or audiobook. See also Room 237, a documentary that explores various fascinating interpretations of Kubrick’s The Shining.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
For his final war film, Kubrick adapted Gustav Hasford’s 1979 novel The Short-Timers, about the author’s hellish experiences as a U.S. Marine during the Vietnam Era. Matthew Modine and Vincent D’Onofrio both deliver superb performances which illustrate the dehumanizing effects that military training can inflict on its young cadets– but Full Metal Jacket is absolutely owned by R. Lee Ermey in the role of their hysterically vulgar drill sergeant.
Available to borrow on DVD
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Kubrick’s last film, adapted from Arthur Schniztler’s 1926 novella Traumnovelle, is largely remembered for its long dreamlike sequence where Tom Cruise’s character sneaks into a menacingly erotic soirée. But Eyes Wide Shut also offers plenty of provocative ideas about identity, social class, and proper marriage maintenance.
A.I. : Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Though Kubrick didn’t technically direct this film, he worked on its development for over two decades before passing the project along to Steven Spielberg. Released two years after Kubrick’s death, A.I. manages to blend both directors’ sensibilities into a futuristic fairy tale that’s thick with darkness and heavy with sadness, but not without a (somewhat) happy ending.
Available to borrow on DVD
–Joe, Adult Services & Acquisitions Librarian