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From Stanley Kubrick to David Lynch: 10 cinematic masterpieces that were way ahead of their time

2020 has been a living nightmare. Had Stanley Kubrick still been alive, we would have undoubtedly been gifted a footage film about madness and hysteria, shot inside the four walls of his apartment. While we wait with bated breath for these trying times to end, we cannot help but dread the near future. Do we indeed have a future? As all these questions plague our mind, we are reminded of all those movies, decades back, that had predicted the suffering of humankind due to the rapid advancement of technology, consumerism, zombie apocalypses, robotic invasions and more.

Trapped in the drudgery of our homes, we try and browse through the movies available, sifting out best of the films to watch and re-watch them over and over again to lull ourselves into this sense of fulfilment. Amidst the hundreds we watch, any film that manages to leave an ineffaceable mark on our minds, even decades after its release, is indeed a masterpiece.

Some of the directors were indeed visionaries. Far-sighted and intuitive, their creativity and innovation helped them reach insurmountable heights, where they produced films that were indeed way ahead of their time. Some of those films might have been poorly rated at the time of their release, but are now the subject of study and analysis by hundreds and thousands of cinephiles all over the world. We have curated a hand-picked list of ten masterpieces that were way ahead of their time and deserves to be watched as many times as possible.

Let’s get started.

10 films that were way ahead of their time:

10. Saló or 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975)

“I consider consumerism to be a worse form of fascism than the classic variety.”– Pier Paolo Pasolini

Considered as one of the most notorious films that managed to shock the viewers across the world, Salóis anything but ‘torture porn’. A political allegory, the film’s plot involves four fascist libertines (the Duke, the Magistrate, the Bishop and the President) who hold captive nine young women and nine young men in a villa near Saló. Along with four other soldiers, four guards and four middle-aged prostitutes who indulge in vulgar stories to incite and arouse the men, the libertines carry out a series of sadistic torture, humiliation and abuse, eventually torturing the prisoners to death.

The film which basks in explicit debauchery, power abuse, violence and humiliation is jarring to watch; it is a scorching commentary on “new fascism”, consumerism as well as aristocracy. Pasolini was convinced that consumerism would mark the downfall of humanity. Everything is considered a commodity, even the people in the film. The scene where the prisoners are made to partake in a literal shit-fest is a commentary on the excess of consumer capitalism which leads to subsequent degradation of humanity. Even aristocracy is affected by this as they slowly start losing their morals and values with the advent of excess power in their hands. The libertines become the source of fun for the viewers as they realise the bizarre prisons of excess and etiquette they are trapped in. Pasolini is deft in sowing the seeds of revolution. When one of the serving girls indulge in passionate sex with one of the servants, it is the first sign of resistance where belief in love and the yearning for freedom among the political prisoners threatens to destabilize the beliefs of the institution their fascist masters projected.

9. Breathless (Jean Luc-Godard, 1960)

Jean-Michel Poiccard is a young and charming criminal who assumes the persona of Hollywood star and American cultural icon, Humphrey Bogart, emulating his ways and trying to survive in his shadow. Michel romances an American girl, Patricia, in Paris while being pursued by the policemen for evading the law. The ending of the film is iconic; however, this masterpiece, the success of which Godard said was “a mistake”, is a commentary on how the traditions of Hollywood affected French cinema and fanned the ensuing search for identity.

The dichotomy between the French and American culture is significant in the movie. Michel assumes an American persona, uses an American pistol and falls in love with an American girl; yet their romance is more private and intimate than the extravagant Hollywood romances. The movie constantly reflects the ongoing identity crisis of French cinema which was existing as a shadow of Hollywood while consistently trying to put across its voice. This film is, however, well-known for Godard’s implementation of cinematic techniques that were way ahead of his time. He constantly breaks the fourth wall by interfering and making decisions on behalf of the characters; he even appears to speed up the chasing scene by aiding the police find Michel. He shatters the continuity of scenes with numerous jump-cuts which were quite novel at that time. Later, these discontinuous and sudden movements have found its way into the entertainment industry (YouTube, Tiktok etc.) to budget the time for story-telling.

8. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)

“There’s nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my closeup.”

A 1950 noir-crime drama, which is considered to be one of Billy Wilder’s finest works and decades ahead of its time, Sunset Boulevard uses cynicism and surrealism to confront Hollywood’s megalomania. The film begins with the iconic shot of a nameless writer floating dead in a swimming pool. He is later revealed to be Joe Gillis, a struggling screenplay writer, neck-deep in debts, trying to make his mark in Hollywood. Having failed to achieve the American Dream, he almost returns to Ohio, his hometown, when he is employed by a long-forgotten silent film star of the bygone times, Norma Desmond, to improve her otherwise terrible script. What follows is a vicious relationship comprising obsession and abandonment issues.

Wilder was an extraordinary filmmaker who employed unique tactics to shoot the swimming pool scene. However, what makes the film stand out is the unnerving atmosphere that permeates through the screen, informing the audience about the dark side of Hollywood where the crown of relevance and stardom is the most sought after. Hollywood incinerates and regurgitates ambitions of newbies in the industry. Even the A-list stars fear abandonment and isolation. Norma is a grotesque portrayal of an actress of bygone times still tied to the past where she was prominent and adored. She is a living nightmare whose denial of the linearity of time and constant need for reassurance of her attractiveness makes the film scarier. The film shakes its viewers to the core with a concoction of gothic flamboyance, the ugly reality of being in the show industry as well as the madness that follows dethronement.

7. Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997)

In a biopunk version of the eugenics-driven future, genetically engineered children are considered superior and ‘valid’, while children conceived traditionally are called invalids. Etan Hawke who plays Vincent Freeman is one such invalid who faces genetic discrimination at random and lives in the shadow of his brother Anton. Vincent, urged by his desire to explore space, dreams of defying the fate encoded in his DNA. He finds an unlikely ally in Jerome (Jude Law), a genetically superior but paralysed athletic and assumes the latter’s identity to realise his dreams. However, with the unexpected death of the director at the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, their meticulous plan is hindered and threatened when Vincent comes under the investigative radar.

Genetic engineering and genetic discrimination are the dominant themes in the movie, followed by the unique take on predestination. A future where people, deprived of genetic modification, are ostracised, is not far away. Although it is an offence against God’s will, it is definitely in line with Darwin’s theory of evolution. Gattaca’s society is a futuristic society where genetic discrimination has advanced forward in tandem with genetic engineering. The ‘bad’ is replaced by the ‘best’. The film raises pertinent questions regarding the socio-political implications of genetically-engineered children and the ensuing discrimination on the basis of superiority. The film is poignant and poetic- something that is quite unexpected in a sci-fi movie. Ahead of its time, Niccol’s imagination of a future reality was nothing short of a scientific prediction of the ever-evolving genetic technologies from which stem subsequent changes in human relationships.

6. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)

According to Jack Matthews, a film critic, the film ends up “satirising the bureaucratic, largely dysfunctional industrial world that had been driving Gilliam crazy all his life.” Brazil is a dystopian satire where consumerism, hyper-surveillance and totalitarianism dominates an alternative reality. The plot resembles George Orwell’s 1984, where the protagonist Winston Smith is a lot like the fil protagonist Sam Lowry who works a low-level job at the government. His recurrent dreams urge him to break free from the shackles of the hyper-bureaucratic government. Lowry comes in close contact with Jill Layton and alleged renegade Archibald Tuttle, and together, they try and escape the society; however, Sam is tricked into a false sense of reality where imagination and dreams are his only escape routes.

Brazil is terrifying. The Orwellian anxiety and repression loom large. It is a satire on the freedom of speech and expression that supposedly exists in the society which is hindered by censorship. The totalitarian government in the film is reminiscent of Big Brother; it rewards the loyalists and punishes the rebels who try protesting. The future is dark and menacing where humans exist as mere puppets at the hands of the government. Monotone and dull, the fear of having rebellious thoughts is endless, much like the censorship that exists in the present day on anti-government art. The film reinstates how the only way in which commoners can transcend the government’s regime is by virtue of imagination. Lowry’s lobotomy is unexpected and shocking; even the audience is lulled into the false sense of disbelief that he emerges victorious in his battle. There is no escape from the grim reality the film predicts for the future fuelled by constant monitoring by the government, affinity to cosmetic surgery in an endeavour to look perfect and hyper-consumerism and capitalism.

5. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

“The mediator between Head and Hands must be the Heart!”

Lang’s ambitious silent film, Metropolis, is considered a pioneer in the science fiction genre. The plot, set in a futuristic dystopia, resembles the present world via the existing disparity between two socio-economic classes located on the two extreme ends of the spectrum- the elite class and the working-class. Freder, the son of a wealthy city master, falls in love with Maria, a woman devoted to the cause of the poor workers, and becomes aware of the enormous gap that lies between the two economic groups. In a genuine effort to bridge the gulf, he strives hard to unite the two groups with the help of his father, Joh Frederson, and the foreman of the heart machine, Grot, while battling evil forces like the mad scientist, Rotwang.

Metropolis was way ahead of its time in imagining a future of alternative reality, androids, robots, computers and above all, cloning. Rotwang’s creation of a Machine-Maria proves the filmmaker’s vision and scientific predictions. The videophone in the movie paves the way for the idea of video-calling which has been prevalent in the genre of sci-fi. Rotwang’s nefarious intentions to manipulate the android to achieve a worker’s rebellion against the people he promised to help give an insight into current events. The brilliant visuals of the film as well as Lang’s immaculate execution stand the test of time. Lang’s techniques would surely stump modern advanced technology. The film focuses on relevant issues like class struggle and the depiction of the rise of communism. Despite being criticised for having too “naïve” a plot, Lang’s masterpiece is a prediction that inspires the medium of imagination to outdo itself every second.

4. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

WALL-E is Andrew Stanton’s 2008 animated sci-fi rom-com which is perhaps one of the best Pixar movies ever made. It is the story of a little robot named WALL-E, left alone to clean after the humans after they have littered the Earth. Due to their aggressive consumption and consumerist behaviour, humans are now obese blobs who are enjoying a luxurious life in outer space and cannot indulge in voluntary movement. Suddenly, a glowing robot named EVE takes WALL-E on an epic adventure to show him how the humans live their life in outer space. She has an organism that holds evidence that humans may recolonise Earth. WALL-E falls in love with EVE, and what follows is a romantic saga between two robots.

WALL-E gives the viewers a fresh perspective. Wrapped in the garb of a children’s film, it is a creative commentary on the various issues that plague our modern society, like consumerism, obesity, growing waste in landfills, and above all the impending environmental catastrophe. Although Stanton vehemently disagrees to the having had a “political bent or ecological message to push”, his intentions are irrelevant. It is not a prediction; instead, it is a warning against the calamities that will soon befall the world if the people continue staying indifferent to the growing environmental problems. The representation of humans as shapeless, helpless globules is quite scary, as is the fact that they are devoid of their creative and rational powers as well as the ability to love or think. Having not paid heed to the serious issues they WALL-E warned the world against, slowly and gradually, the modern society is disintegrating into the futuristic dystopia portrayed in the film- it is not long before all the waste materials that are strewn all over the land push humans out of the Earth to exist as mindless blobs floating in outer space.

3. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

Inarguably one of Hitchcock’s brilliant masterpieces, Psycho is the famed psychological thriller that changed the course and history of cinema. Phoenix secretary Marion Crane steals a whopping $40000 from her employer to elope with her boyfriend Sam Loomis. However, exhausted and caught in a violent rainstorm, she seeks shelter in the dilapidated Bates Motel. There she encounters the polite but mysterious proprietor Norman Bates, who is interested in taxidermy and has evident mommy issues. Marion meets a fateful end, and the cat and mouse chase begin when Sam and her sister, Lila, search for her.

The earliest example of a slasher thriller, Hitchcock’s Psycho dabbled ingeniously in areas of violence, psychological deviance and sexuality. It was ground-breaking as well as shocking; Hitchcock was successful in terrorizing his audience by “transferring the menace from the screen into the minds of the audience.” The shower scene, which is testament to his brilliant cinematography skills, is perhaps, one of the best-known scenes in the history of filmmaking. Norman removes the voyeuristic painting to become the voyeur himself, which itself was a novel idea in the history of films. Shot using innumerable takes, 180 breaks and jump-cuts, the 45-second scene continues to haunt generations of viewers for decades. Never before had dissociative identity disorder been explored the way Hitchcock does in his film; Norman’s eerie smile is enough to rob the audience of their sleep and send chills down their spine. With a mind-bending twisted ending that subverted audience expectations, the film was way ahead of its time not only due to the unique cinematography but also due to the ideas of madness, hysteria, obsession and trauma that had never before been explored.

“We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?”

2. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)

A master of surrealism and weird dream narratives, David Lynch’s 1977 masterpiece was his debut film and a passion project. Eraserhead is a surreal nightmare which defies logic and pre-existing notions. It shocks and repulses the audience who still feel strangely addicted to it. Each and every scene of the movie holds a different interpretation; it is too shocking to comprehend a definitive meaning. The plot revolves around the paranoid Henry Spencer, who visits his girlfriend’s parents for dinner. After a dinner scene composed of grotesque and erotic imagery, the girlfriend announces her pregnancy, and at the parents’ insistence, they get married. The ‘baby’ looks like a spermatozoon- deformed and disgusting. On being left alone to tend for it, Henry is overcome by the fears of fatherhood, which are aggravated by the various hallucinations and dreams that plague him.

Eraserhead is a Lynchian nightmare; as Matt Prigge said, “No midnight movie had ever been so immaculately crafted…. Eraserhead is a fine-chiselled gem, every shot planned out, every shadow or shade of darkness obsessively arranged”. Jack Nance’s brilliant performance laden with anxiety, weariness and vulnerability adds to the unnerving atmosphere of the film. His anguish at having to nurture this alien-baby coupled with his desire to mate with the beautiful neighbour across the hall adds to the claustrophobic nature of the apartment, as well as the film. The surrounding wasteland as well as the moral ambiguity adds to the tension; the film stifles the common audience and is enjoyed by a niche crowd. Lynch is yet to be decoded; however, his influence on the art of filmmaking is immeasurable, his audacity and the atrocious masterpiece is the finest example.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 ambitious masterpiece left the world reeling under its impact, where the filmmaker was audacious enough to begin the story in the ancient past and jumped forward to the present day as effortlessly as possible, before gliding into the distant future. Millions of years ago, hominids find a black monolith on the plains of Africa, and soon discover the use of tools. In the present, scientists discover the same monolith on the lunar plains, which lead to an expedition to Jupiter. Astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole are to be cared for by the ship computer HAL 9000. However, various trials and tribulations lie in their path as they gradually understand how there is more to the trip than what they have heard. The movie ends on a fascinating note where neoclassicism is woven into the idea of cosmic death and rebirth with Kubrickian grandiose.

Although “Renata Adler, in the Times described the movie as “somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring”, Kubrick’s masterpiece left an indelible mark in the history of sci-fi, taking quantum strides in exploring new arenas of filmmaking as well as portraying futuristic gadgets and human evolution. The realism embedded in the majestic and cosmic tale is the director’s unparalleled genius. The filmmaker stops at nothing, exploring concepts of webcams, laptops and tablets as well as advanced spacesuit designs and artificial intelligence. HAL 9000 can be considered a prototype for Siri and the like. Instead of showing laser guns and ghastly aliens, Kubrick paid tribute to the superior intelligence of the aliens as wisely as possible. They were portrayed as extra-terrestrial aid to humankind to help progress civilisation. Kubrick was very careful with the audio-visual effects. As noise cannot travel in vacuum, explosions make no sound. Instead, he employed classical music in accordance with the mood of the viewers. Although he, himself, was very cynical about the humankind and its future, Kubrick’s outlook bears a hint of optimism. Humanity seems to have unlocked the trick to transcend their current existence and reach for the stars. Brilliant visuals and innovative techniques were employed by the visionary filmmaker, which makes it a classic Kubrickian masterpiece that lay decades (exactly 52 years) ahead of its time.

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