Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Barry Lyndon (plus Kubrick's films ranked best to worst)

#90 in the 1000 greatest films of all time

I wasn't surprised to find that of Stanley Kubrick's 11 major works, 4 were in the top 100. I was, however, surprised to see "Barry Lyndon" listed among them (#90), coming in ahead of his masterpieces "A Clockwork Orange" (#93), "Paths of Glory" (#181), and "The Shining" (#141). The only Kubrick films ranked higher were "2001: A Space Odyssey" (#4), and "Dr. Strangelove" (#39).

Since I had not yet seen the film, you may rightfully wonder at the cause of my suspicions. Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen were my first exposures to masterful film-making; I owe my love of film to them. Over time, I'd seen all of Kubrick's other works and read books and essays about them, but I'd never been terribly interested by "Barry Lyndon." Victorian epics have been so thoroughly exploited by Hollywood, and so often to such bilious effect, that I'd been turned off by the descriptions of "Barry Lyndon", despite all that I knew and loved about Kubrick.

Now that I've seen it, I feel an odd mix of shame and vindication in my hesitation. Lyndon isn't just another trite Hollywood Jane Austin adaptation or predictable royal character piece. It's a Kubrick film through and through. Its cinematography, pacing, scoring, and performances (not to mention its underlying philosophy) all bear his directorial stamp. Lyndon is masterful storytelling.

And yet the film didn't fully captivate, startle, or mesmerize me as many of his other films did. Don't get me wrong; I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and recommend this film to anyone, no matter your taste. It's 3 hours and 3 minutes long, yet you'll never know it. It's filmed using entirely natural lighting (candles and sunlight); unlike Hollywood's Victorian pieces, Lyndon's cinematography yields a much more authentic and honest air to the decadent fashions and attitudes of the times.

Perhaps my only real complaint is that the film contained too few surprises or tension. Its narration - spoken with a humorous and cynical detachment that only a distinguished British accent can accomplish - foreshadows nearly all the twists and turns that Barry Lyndon's life takes, making much of the action slightly anti-climactic. This intentional approach reinforces the underlying message of the film, best summed up in the written epilogue: "It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now." Personally, I have no problem with a pessimistic philosophy that questions the point of our lives, the meaninglessness of our existence in this indifferent, godless universe. It's only that the film, while refined, is actually quite blunt in this regard.

Now that I've seen all of his major works, I can't help but create my own ranking of his films:

1) 2001: A Space Odyssey (From the first frame to the last, this is the most amazing work of art ever made - or at least that I've seen)
2) Paths of Glory (the last scene is the most authentically moving in any film I've ever seen)
3) Dr. Strangelove (I experienced a profound loss of essence ;-)
4) A Clockwork Orange (I viddied well)
5) The Shining (Jack was never better)
6) The Killing (the money blowing away on the tarmac left me as speechless as it did Sterling Hayden)
7) Lolita (a failed masterpiece, but a beautiful and captivating failure. I love it when a film makes me uncomfortable without resorting to cheap tricks)
8) Barry Lyndon
9) Full Metal Jacket (overrated by many, but still unceasingly quotable)
10) Eyes Wide Shut (Nicole .... Kidman.... couldn't... speak.... her ..... lines...... any ......slower.)
11) Spartacus (I found little to like until the very last scene).

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