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10 Reasons Why Stanley Kubrick Is The Greatest Director Who Ever Lived

24 July 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Mark Krasselt

Stanley-Kubrick

Kubrick reigns supreme. He is the top of the pantheon. His is a unique, irreplaceable vision and he died before his time, leaving an incomparable legacy of films that have stood the test for generations.

As inscrutable he may outwardly be, he is not a complete cipher. Many internal themes and visual leitmotifs that remained almost constant throughout his career can be easily gleaned with a little exploration.

Here then, are Top 10 Reasons why Stanley Kubrick is the greatest filmmaker who ever lived:

 

1. He Was a Photographer First

KubrickForLook

Stanley Kubrick moved quickly from high school to immediately become one of the youngest staff photographers at Look magazine (at that time Life magazine’s major competitor). As a result, he developed a keen sense of a single image telling an epic story. Many of his still photographs became quite famous and to look at them today, one bears early witness to a genius in the making. He especially excelled at photographic essays. It was an easy step to go from essayist to filmmaker.

It is curious he almost became – or at least seriously contemplated – a chess grandmaster. It was only after he realized that creativity on a chessboard, opposed to the visual acuity of a photographer, while distantly related, meant isolation, anonymity, and decades of solitary study before getting a shot at the title (Bobby Fisher was decades away from putting the word “chess” on the lips of many-a youngster). He yearned for something greater.

kubrick photography

The logic and organizational battle of the chessboard was put to good use while directing films – often he did both – as famous photographs with Arthur C. Clarke and George C. Scott attest! In chess, as well as film directing, moves are made and pieces pushed for a result not immediately known or clear, as part of a 1000 decisions one can make before choosing only one.

Capturing the King, as well as fulfilling an artistic vision, require leaps of “faith” based on knowledge, presumption, and desired outcome. Talent, luck, and ambition go a long way, as well as strategy, logic, and a gift for seeing life in pictures – tools of the trade and a golden ticket to Willy Wonka and the dream factory.

 

2. He Approached His Craft Differently Than Most

Stanley-Kubrick_Barry-Lyndon-4K-Shooters

He did this by becoming an auteur – something almost unheard of in Hollywood at the time. There were certainly no lack of great directors in Hollywood. But great directors that were historically relevant was another story altogether. Kubrick had work to do.

The failure of Spartacus – after the relative critical and commercial success of Paths of Glory – marked a career low point. His directorial career in Hollywood had stalemated. He rebelled at being “director for hire.” His reputation amongst insiders was not stellar. He realized it was time to make a radical move and soon.

Taking a risk, he capitalized on the opportunity to shoot Lolita in England. He loved the isolation, the English countryside, and the incredibly different working conditions. He would never make another film in America again.

This move gave him unprecedented freedom to develop, shoot, and participate in a more active and exciting way. He was artistically rejuvenated. Other than highly scheduled “tea” breaks, the European guilds were far more amenable to auteurs and their quirks. The director/cameraman, a fairly common title in the UK, was all but prohibited in the US, and he exploited this advantage and was often on camera for hand-held shots.

From Lolita on, he emphatically embraced the role of auteur, and thus began a string of masterpieces that would not end until his death. Gone were the undue star influences of Kirk Douglas or incessant studio meddling. He was responsible for it all and rose to the challenge.

stanley-kubrick (1)

Over time, he developed a very streamlined way of making films which reduced costs and the size of film crews in measurable ways, giving him greater opportunity to concentrate on infinitesimal nuances of performance.

Far from the rumor of vast budget overruns, his films are a testament to efficiency – the hundreds of takes notwithstanding! Look at a still from almost any one of his sets and you will see comparatively few people, as opposed to typical Hollywood productions that employ hundreds on set.

Kubrick went back to the studio that had produced Lolita – Warner Bros. – after ten years with MGM, for A Clockwork Orange. Its studio head, Terry Semel, gave Kubrick carte blanche to pursue any project he so desired, regardless of genre. They left him alone no matter how long it took.

Sometimes, and only for a chosen few, a genie enters your life and grants your every wish no matter how farfetched. Semel was Kubrick’s King Ludwig II – the man who rescued Richard Wagner from crushing debt, jail, and almost certain obscurity – and, like Wagner, this patron gave leave to Kubrick to blossom into the greatest filmmaker, in the same way Wagner became the greatest opera composer, the world has ever known.

Kubrick had, remarkably and against odds, achieved his goals and enjoyed a status only a handful of directors ever, ever enjoyed. Of any pure film director alive today (as opposed to oligarchs like Spielberg or Lucas, formerly, who are studios unto themselves), only Woody Allen currently enjoys this type of financial freedom and artistic assurance to make what he wills, no matter how trifling or significant.

Semel recognized genius and Kubrick delivered in spades. Kubrick rewarded loyalty and produced masterpiece after masterpiece until his unexpected (to the public, anyway) death.

kubrick

What makes the Kubrick experience partly so unique was his breathless, breathtaking, epic visual style – it wasn’t all pretty images. His Gesamtkunstwerk – a German word meaning “total work of art” – sought, like Wagner, to synthesize the visual, dramatic, and musical form into a fully realized, cohesive, symbolic whole, wrapped in subtext, metaphor, and irony that were not easily deduced and so very often completely misunderstood.

Additionally, everything else about structure and production of his films were different too – from script, to acting styles, to editing, to the use of music. His films were chess and boxing matches structured like opera, filmed like ballet, unified into a coherent, Picassian whole that subverted every preconception of the way things were “supposed” to be.

They were as deeply intellectual as they were thrilling, intricately laced with voluminous, heady, obscure literary, theatrical, and psychological references from dozens of genres and philosophies. They were dazzling displays of technical virtuoso that stupefied the viewer into awe, taking them down the metaphorical rabbit hole of directorial invention.

He was a filmmaker’s filmmaker who never pandered to his audience. He was driven by a curiosity rarely seen in motion pictures, and, thankfully, given the freedom to pursue this insatiable curiosity.

Certainly, we are the better for it and no one was ever the same after seeing any of his films. He inspired many to become filmmakers themselves. This fact alone grants him status to the pantheon.

 

 

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  • Mark Smith

    can’t seee FOrd, Allen, Hitchcock as his equal. can see Fellini, Bergman, Ozu as his superior

    • Daniel Quintero Ramirez

      Tarkovsky plz

      • Mark Smith

        agree

  • Xanian

    Your love for Kubrick shines through so brightly in this article, it is infectious. That should be the aim of all lists. You should be proud. Brilliant work and a brilliant ode to one of the greatest directors to have graced world cinema.

  • zachlen

    Prefer Ken Russell’s early work. Kubrick was too carefully P.C. Russell did not care who he offended.As Truman Capote was once quoted saying,”Good Taste is the Death of ART.”

    • Забрайх Името

      Kubrick was PC? What the fuck are you talking about? Clockwork was the first R-Rated movie!

      • zachlen

        you really don’t know what your talking about.In England Ken Russell’s THE MUSIC LOVERS was rated X. Next was THE DEVILS also rated X. Still to this day Warner Bros. has still not released it on DVD. Too controversial after 40 years.The BFI has made it available in letterbox and it’s original cut.

        • Забрайх Името

          I stand corrected. Still, that film was made 1 year before Clockwork. And you can’t possibly say that Kubrick was too PC. That’s just ridiculous, this has been considered as on of the most provocative, violent films of all time! Calling it PC in any way is absolutely preposterous. Kubrick has never pandered to an audience, especially not in Clockwork.

          • zachlen

            If you would only try THE MUSIC LOVERS to understand just how really controversial it is to anything Kubrick had ever done you will see how mainstream he was. I still admire his work but can not compare to the audacious subjects of Russell.

          • Забрайх Името

            I’m not comparing him to anybody. I’m just annoyed at the fact that you’re calling him mainstream when he clearly wasn’t. It’s like saying that Jodorowsky is mainstream, because Lynch makes weirder movies.

          • zachlen

            No one should consider Jodorowsky mainstream. Kubrick is .IMO.

  • John H. Coffman

    It must have a lot to do with pre-production – this auteur sensibility. Not about teamwork, yes. Hitchcock pre-planned everything so much that no one could take over his projects…Kubrick must have been in the category. The most relevant trait tho, would be ego. You have to have a large ego to go with your tireless work ethic to stand above the rest. Movie-making takes no prisoners.

  • Still D.R.E.

    I think Scorsese is the best Director of All-time I think Spielberg Scorsese Hitchcock Tarrantino Coen Brothers all have made 5 or more masterpieces and guys like David Fincher and PTA have 3-4 amazing/masterpieces Kubrick was amazing but Scorsese and Spielberg can both match his track record as the GOAT.

    • Spielberg? :))))

    • HLLH

      Spielberg is dogshit.

      • szore88

        He was good for what it was. Close Encounters is a classic and Jaws was excellent, up there with Star Wars as the big new summer blockbuster phenomenon. Also Raiders was a huge hit when it came out and its excellent. Poltergeist, for its time, was excellent, plus ET was huge and very entertaining.

        • HLLH

          I guess he just lost it or got old in a bad way.

          • szore88

            They run out of ideas after awhile.

      • Noah Garner

        I’d also like to say that schindler’s list was exceptional

    • szore88

      Tarrantino is over rated.

    • Bob Jennings

      Lol you must be a freshman in college.

    • Ozymandias

      Scorsese himself say “ten of my films are equivalent to one of him”

  • Ashutosh Sen

    Andrei Tarkovsky???

    • Noah Garner

      tarkovsky’s work is so fake deep it hurts

      • John Doe

        Oh yeah, definitely unlike Kubrick.

        • Noah Garner

          Yeah, completely unlike him, Kubrick was a master of form and composition, and his art is full of emotional distance and technical bravura and it still has enough impact to be worth something. Tarkovsky, while some of his ideas were good, his vision is just lazy and meandering and basically is just poorly done. I don’t understand his acclaim, his work bears no relation to the art of the cinema. Probably the most pretentious amount of fuckery ive seen is Stalker. His films are just lacking in any substance, if you want someone who can do a lot with very little, look to Bresson, Tsai Ming Liang, or Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

          • John Doe

            ” Kubrick was a master of form and composition, and his art is full of emotional distance and technical bravura and it still has enough impact to be worth something. ”

            I really don’t understand this, Tarkovsky compositions are brilliant, ever see The Sacrifice or Andrei Rublev? Also Tarkovsky is a lot more humanistic and less cold than Kubrick is.

            “Probably the most pretentious amount of fuckery ive seen is Stalker. His films are just lacking in any substance, if you want someone who can do a lot with very little

            Wow, nice buzzwords.

            “if you want someone who can do a lot with very little, look to Bresson, Tsai Ming Liang, or Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

            I think it’s ridiculous to compare “Joe” to Tarkovsky because they’re literally two different filmmakers considering that one almost always deals with magic realism. Not gonna argue with Bresson considering Tarkovsky looked up to him and Ming-Liang is more interested in every-day life.

          • Noah Garner

            Tarkovsky’s eye was bland, his compositions are flat and lifeless, in all the films of his ive see maybe 3 shots ever stuck out as special to me. And i don’t really give two shits if Kubrick’s work is cold, the emotional distance works for what he wants to show, ever see Barry Lyndon, or The Shining? And honestly, i’ve never doubted Kubricks compassion after Paths of Glory, though he may often doubt the kindness of humans, i don’t think thats a bad thing artistically.

            “Wow nice buzzwords” is all you have? Stalker is nothing more than half baked meditations on themes plenty of films have shown in more interesting ways. For me at least. Tarkovsky’s languishing delivery makes it unbearable for me.

            And literally any filmmakers are two different filmmakers, Tsai deserved his mention because theyre all directors of a quieter cinema. It the stylistic link i was thinking of, not the subject matter.

            My point is, i think they are all better than Tarkovsky. For me personally all the directors i named offer better insights, better visuals, better cinema in all it’s aspects. I think Tarkovsky is the most overrated of “great directors”. I don’t think Kubrick is THE best director (cuz Ozu was), but he was a more gifted, and more important director than Tarkovsky.

  • Nejc Kovač

    HE IS NOT!!!

    TARKOVSKY, BERGMAN, KIESLOWSKY, KUROSAWA!!!

    • Bob Jennings

      Come on. Yeah Kurosawa is on a different level but Kubrick is a close second. Post WWII European cinema has always been over-hpyed.

      • Palitoh

        I wouldn’t say over-hyped, but one has to admit that those guys really was an influence in Kubrick’s work. And I love Kubrick’s filmography.

        • Bob Jennings

          I don’t disagree with you but just because someone is influenced by someone else’s work doesn’t automatically make their work inferior. The thing that I feel sets Kubrick a part is depth of his story telling which I know is Kurisawa trademark but I don’t think anyone has done it better than Kubrick. Just my opinion.

    • Enis Ucer

      Of course those are great directors also, I would even go further to name Murnau, Lang and Waxman and Bergman being my most favorite among them but still Kubricks’ ability to tackle different genres nearly every time he intends to make a film, aside from the fact that all these films turned out to be modern classics is what makes him unique. This is just my opinion.

  • Veronica Clarke

    While I wouldn’t agree with Kubrick being the greatest director, I found this a very interesting and thoughtful article.

  • Noah Garner

    Kubrick is 2nd after Ozu
    no director saw the human soul with more clarity and could show how it moves within us like Ozu
    not to mention his sublime visual style

  • Podovski

    This entire article is rubbish.
    No way in hell is Kubrick the greatest director of all time.
    This is total trash aimed at people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. There are literally a dozen other directors who are better than Kubrick.

    Joe D’Amato, for one.

    • James Do

      Clearly, you have no idea what you’re talking about.

      • Podovski

        Clearly you’ve never watched any Joe D’Amato movies.

    • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

      Greatest comment on this site ever?

    • Massimiliano Piccolo

      ahahah 🙂

  • John Doe

    It’s articles like these which give a warning sign of why ToC SHOULDN’T be posting lists on a daily basis.

  • Applerod

    I had a life-altering experience ‘absorbing’ 2001: A Space Odyssey.
    Thank you, Stanley.

  • Juliana LeGrand

    Here’s an equally beautiful, if not in-depth, article about Kubrick and his films.
    https://theironicman.wordpress.com/2015/07/29/mr-kubrick/

  • HLLH

    Hail Kubrick

  • szore88

    I think his films are over produced and over rated, tho he did have his moments of genius, no doubt (opening ape scene of 2001 for example, and the moon base approach). The Shining left me cold and I thought Clockwork Orange was a mean spirited film, tho technically excellent.

    • Thoth

      Read The Shining. Mean spirited? Read the novel A Clockwork Orange! Kubrick’s films are just a shadow of the literature his films are supposed to be portraying.

      • szore88

        I said Clockwork Orange was mean spirited not Shining and yes I did read The Shining. That’s fine, then the movies he tends to make off the novels are mean spirited, whatever. The point is I think Clockwork Orange was a mean spirited film and I don’t really see what the big deal is. He is over rated.

        • Thoth

          I was referring to your comment about A Clockwork Orange, which is the title of the novel and the film, not Clockwork Orange being “mean spirited.” Read the novel A Clockwork Orange and you’ll understand. And f you’ve read the novel The Shining you’d also get it. Kubrick made movies that didn’t even come close to the novels he was portraying. They are both novels about hard subject matters to deal with. Your idea of mean spirited in that of a person sheltered from things of a dark nature. You need to actually realize the context in which the novels were written to get the movies were made that way. They are both very bleak, horrifying and foreboding.

          • szore88

            And very boring…

          • Thoth

            No. You’re just a boring person.

          • szore88

            Wow your a little bit of a fascist, huh? Don’t tolerate dissent? Pal, I don’t like Kubrick. Period. He is over rated. That is my opinion, deal with it. Done.

          • Thoth

            I don’t like him either. I was referring to the fact that you claim to have read The Shining and have never read A Clock Orange. You are a very boring person. Very boring.

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  • acgogo

    Don’t forget the backward tracking and stunning framing in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’m thinking of the jogging sequence and the wide angle set pieces with the apes or the ones with HAL at the center. They are like beautiful paintings that you can not take your eyes away until you have devoured every inch.

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  • Kourosh Afshar

    Agreed

  • AfterAll

    I love Kubrick but Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove (Even though they are good movies, his pre-1968 movies are just practice for 2001), and Full Metal Jacket are not masterpieces.

  • Guillermo Reyes

    The failure of Spartacus????

    • Well, relative failure, in Kubrick’s eyes probably. Kubrick had to put up with much studio involvement, and in turn it feels the least like one of Kubrick’s films, lacking the same bite and edge his others do.

      It’s still a very fine film regardless, and I’m sure it performed well financially, so I wouldn’t take ‘failure’ as something so literal in this case.

  • garden variety

    it’s interesting to see all these people who chimed in with their personal favorites who they think are so Superior, they don’t get that it’s their ego and their desperate need for the intellectual property that those particular directors feed. Cinema is language and art is partly measured by the test of time. Also, when you consider the context of what Kubrick did in the time that these movies came out, there’s no comparison, not only that but it could be argued that the level of success combined with the depth and precision of his films helped evolve the species, much more than those weak and boring alternatives.

  • Tigreton
  • Patrick Hill

    Considering that almost all of his films that were done exclusively by him (as an auteur) are bona fide masterpieces, it’s hard to argue that he does stand in a very tiny and select club of the greats. In the same vein, as with the other greats, he has redefined entire genres while giving birth to others. For Scifi fans, there is the before 2001, and much later, the after, as it took a while for most to actually digest it. He got outer space right before we knew, and it took decades for it to show back up. That is true Kubrik, just way too far ahead of the times, to be really acknowledged by his then peers

  • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

    Talented, visionary man for sure, and this was a nicely enthusiastic and informative read. But either casually or putting my mind to it he wouldn’t crack a top 20 for me.

  • Everybody can compare and trash Kubrick or other directors if they want. I for one think that Kubrick, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, Bergman and all the other legendary auteurs shouldn’t be held in some kind of competition. They’re all fantastic, yet incredibly different from one another and comparing them only trivializes their works and reputations.

    However, one thing about Kubrick that sets him apart from most directors is that he basically reinvented every genre he touched. That’s not a claim many, or any directors can boast. Sci-Fi, Horror, Satire, Period drama, War, Anti-War, Heist, Epic…

  • Wally Davies

    I had the pleasure of once speaking with Roger Ebert about Kubrick. I believe it is fair to say that while Ebert admired Kubrick, SK would not be at the apex of Ebert’s list of Greatest Directors. Having said that, Ebert told me that he always admired Kubrick because the director was always trying to hit a home run with his films; he was uncompromising in his aspiration to make each one of his films not just good, or even great, but one of the greatest movies ever made. I think that ambition is evident in Kubrick’s work, and is what his advocates—myself included—most appreciate in his work.

  • Derek Richards

    I love Kubrick, ever since I saw 2001 on release as an 8y/o kid. I became a professional director now for 25 years (MTV and Ads) and I’ve learnt a thing or two about what makes for the chance or opportunity to make something great. In my opinion it is two fold. 1: u need some talent and passion, goes without saying. 2. You need to understand how humans make decisions and consequently how to manage “creativity” with the guys who supply the cash. I’m not exactly sure how Kubrick manage to create this situ for himself but it was THE key. He somehow created a situation for his authorship and then his execution not to be meddled with. He, Bergman, Kurasawa, (and a few others) were able to exclude the nuff nuffs who will ruin a singular vision, no matter how good their intention may be. I suspect a lot was to do with Harris, I’m guessing he was able to reassure backers/studios to leave Stanley alone (as was Kubrick himself) and trust it. Sadly, when a film maker panders to his/her masters, then you’re screwed and Kubrick knew it (like we all do). He knew that, to be good was to be independent, yet have carte blance access to their huge availability to big budget cash. SK was the kind of man that other powerful men believed in…somehow ( I believe Paul T Anderson must have this ability). SK had the courage to stand by his conviction, thru the whole process and the big boys respected him in kind…and they all won, mostly. Simple but rare. In and ideal world, it’s how it should be.

  • ridelo

    Arthur C. ClarkE, SpartAcus.