Matthew Dancona

The Spectator’s 50 Essential Films: Part Two

Peter Hoskin and Matthew d’Ancona count down the final 25 of The Spectator’s 50 Essential Films

Peter Hoskin and Matthew d’Ancona count down the final 25 of The Spectator’s 50 Essential Films

Barry Lyndon

(Stanley Kubrick, 1975)

Cinema sure does work in mysterious ways. Take Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick’s account of an Irish lad (played by Ryan O’Neal) who rises — and then falls — in 18th-century society. It’s a satire which lacks the vigour of Dr Strangelove (1964); a study of human nature which lacks the honesty of Paths of Glory (1957); and an adventure which lacks the expansiveness of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). What’s more, it meanders well beyond the bounds of empathy, and feels indulgent every single step of the way. Yet, despite it all, it remains the clearest — and most stunning — expression of Kubrick’s artistic vision.

The clue is in the camerawork: Kubrick slowly zooms out of the human drama to stage his own recreations of contemporary landscape paintings. It’s a beautiful effect (in a film which is among the most beautiful ever made), but utterly damning. As the image expands, people are reduced to mere specks; a bacterial culture on Kubrick’s Petri dish, to be studied dispassionately, if at all. Without the benefit of a microscope, Barry Lyndon could be anyone. And anyone could be Barry Lyndon.

At Barry Lyndon’s conclusion, our Everyman hero has been ejected from the courts of Europe, and is left sickly, poor and broken. He has less come full circle than been thrust to an even lower level than that at which he started. This is how Kubrick phrases the most dreadful — and most important — question of all, the question he has been priming for the entire film: what’s the point? PH


(Luis Buñuel, 1961)

The only feature film Buñuel made in his native Spain is also one of the most controversial movies of all time — condemned by the Vatican as ‘blasphemous’ and attacked by the Spanish government, which tried to have it withdrawn from the Cannes competition.

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