Taking a look at the filmography of the infamous film director: Stanley Kubrick and ranking them best.
Written by Blake Hall
Simply put, Stanley Kubrick is an absolute legend of cinema. With his visionary perfectionism and endlessly high ambition, he has set a gold standard for the heights that filmmaking can take you. His films have a distinct flavor that make every viewing more fascinating and rewarding than the one before. His catalogue is unbelievably diverse; ranging from horror, dystopian, war, black comedy, sci-fi, etc. It seems like he was driven to make the definitive version of every genre out there. His sense of trance-like atmosphere and rhythm of pacing is unmatched. All of his films strive to create the strongest cinematic experience imaginable. Here is my ranking of every Stanley Kubrick film from least favorite to favorite.
13. Fear And Desire (1953)
Fear And Desire is Kubrick’s debut film and easily his weakest effort. The premise sounds promising but it lacks intrigue, has terrible acting/dialogue and is painful to sit through. Honestly, I’d sooner have assumed Ed Wood directed it. Having said that, Kubrick himself loathes this more than anyone else. He was so embarrassed by it that he spent a ton of money acquiring as many copies as possible so he could burn them. He once called it a “bumbling amateur film exercise”.
It’s nearly impossible to find nowadays (although it can be seen on YouTube). The only reason why this film has any kind of cult status is simply because it’s directed by a 25 year old Kubrick. It would certainly be forgotten otherwise. In a way, it’s inspiring how bad this is because it shows that even a man now hailed as a genius had to start somewhere. This is only worth checking out if you’re a Kubrick enthusiast or looking to be inspired by how far a man can evolve from this. Otherwise, avoid it like the plague.
12. Killer’s Kiss (1955)
Kubrick‘s second feature film is about boxing, an early obsession of his. Although it’s a step up from Fear And Desire, this is also pretty forgettable. While it’s a cool little noir, everything else about it is pretty dull. The soundtrack, acting and screenplay are generic and there isn’t very memorable atmosphere. Kubrick has a few moments of quality directing throughout, specifically with some great shots of New York City.
There is also a boxing scene about halfway into the film that features Kubrick at possibly his most raw. There is camerawork that reminds me of the boxing scenes in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. While it isn’t anything memorable, Killer’s Kiss is a nice blueprint of what’s to come.
11. Spartacus (1960)
Honestly, I don’t even see this as a Kubrick film. Kirk Douglas hired Kubrick to step into the directors chair after firing director Anthony Mann a week into filming. Kubrick hardly had any creative control and came on set with actors he didn’t cast, a screenplay he hated and no time to add any personal input. Kubrick didn’t enjoy making this due to a lack of creative control. I’d much sooner call it a Kirk Douglas film. However, it goes down as a Stanley Kubrick film, so it must be ranked accordingly.
I generally dislike historical films in the vein of The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur. However, this is one of the better ones. It’s campy and entirely too long, but it does have some entertaining moments and features fun performances from numerous A list actors of the late 50’s, ranging from Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, etc.
After making it, Kubrick disowned this film. Despite not liking the lack of control, directing it was a wise move on Kubrick’s part because it granted him complete artistic control from then on.
10. Lolita (1962)
Following Spartacus, Kubrick adapted Vladimir Nabokov’s highly controversial novel of the same name. Here, Kubrick dared to take on subject matter that most directors of the time wouldn’t dare come close to.
It’s a tragic story of Humbert Humbert who falls in love with the teenage daughter of his wife. Considering that it deals with such controversial subject matter, it does a fine job at presenting the story without being too specific. Having said that, I can’t help but wish Kubrick could’ve made this later into his career. It hides the rough subject matter so much that it hardly even seems more risky than a typical Hollywood film from the early 60’s. Not that it’s anybody’s fault, it did the best it could have for its time. It just lacks the visceral power a story like this needs.
Despite its flaws and it being a bit lengthy, it’s an interesting film. It marks the final film Kubrick would make until he came onto full artistic control with Dr. Strangelove onwards.
9. The Killing (1956)
Following Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick makes a much better film-noir. It’s often hailed as his first great film. Although it didn’t have much box office success at the time of its release, critics and audience began to take note of Kubrick. Featuring performances from big names of the time such as Sterling Hayden, this is Kubrick’s first professionally casted full length feature.
The plot is simple; it deals with amoral characters committing a racetrack robbery. Although it’s nowhere near the league of Kubrick in full on artistic mode, it’s an entertaining heist film with some genuinely suspenseful moments.
Being a gorgeous and detailed oriented film, Kubrick lays the blueprints down for his distinct directorial style. It’s also worth noting that Quentin Tarantino cites this as a primary influence for Reservoir Dogs.
8. Paths Of Glory (1957)
This is where they start to become really amazing. Everything from here on up exemplifies Kubrick creating masterful cinematic experiences. Although he generally made his best work while in full creative control, this is the one film he made in his early years that sits amongst his strongest work.
It’s one of the most powerful anti-war films I’ve ever seen. Kubrick, often known for being a cold and impersonal director, makes arguably the most humanistic film in his career. It’s a story that’ll make your blood boil by the injustice on sight. It’s a film that takes you through the grief and anxiety of facing death. It’s a powerful study on how awful the human race can be while presenting a sense of good in humanity within Kirk Douglas’s character Colonel Dax.
Kubrick directs this film to perfection. There is a long take within the first ten minutes that follows a general walking along the trenches while greeting soldiers. It’s among Kubrick’s most beautiful moments. It’s stunning that Kubrick could make something this powerful at the age of 28. It’s a punch in the gut that raises so many questions.
7. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Full Metal Jacket finds Kubrick returning to the war genre later in his career with a horrifying and satirical observation on the dehumanization of war. It infamously has an odd structure. It’s divided into two acts that almost seem like they are completely different films.
The first act observes sadistically strict drill instructor Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) as he trains a group of boot camp recruits. Specifically, we follow Private Joker (Matthew Modine) and recruit Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio); the latter gradually descending into madness. This act is what the film is primarily iconic for. It’s truly some of the most brilliant work in Kubrick’s catalog. Sergeant Hartman is constantly spouting out obscene insults that are both hilarious and unsettling. It’s a powerful experience watching these recruits gradually transform into killing machines.
The second act jumps to the soldiers in Vietnam. This half is often criticized as being forgettable in comparison to the stunning first act. While it does has a different flow, it serves its purpose to amounting to a complete film experience. After witnessing how these recruits are conditioned for war, we see what happens once they are thrown into the war. It plays like two sides of the same coin. Although I won’t deny that it isn’t as explosively engaging as the first act and it does drag occasionally, it’s still phenomenally made and ultimately amounts to a very powerful experience.
6. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Kubrick’s notorious final film Eyes Wide Shut is a creative, enigmatic and astonishing masterwork. It’s a film that still polarizes audiences to this day, some hailing it as a masterwork while others considering it a bore that goes nowhere interesting. Of course, I belong in the former crowd. I find it to be one of the most endlessly intriguing films out there. It’s a subtle, yet shocking observation into ordinary life.
The unique dream-like atmosphere created here is spellbinding. Every scene is gorgeously detailed and skillfully captured. It deals with complex mysteries of the world; how people assume they know everything that’s going on but there are deep secrets that, if exposed, can be deeply harmful. It’s simultaneously moving and thought provoking. I love the way Tom Cruise plays main character Bill Harford as a likable and charismatic doctor. He’s one of the most likable protagonists you’ll find in a Kubrick film. Nicole Kidman is excellent as well as Alice. Even though she’s only in the film for about 30 minutes, you feel her presence throughout. It also contains a scene that ranks amongst the most horrifying in Kubrick’s catalog, which is the orgy party. The atmosphere created along with the eerie soundtrack is hypnotic and nightmarish.
Kubrick’s films were often ahead of their time by a decade or two but the fact this film still hasn’t received the recognition I feel it so deserves confuses me. It’s a personal experience of self discovery that I find endlessly re-watchable.
5. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)
The first film of Kubrick’s that granted him complete creative control. While Paths Of Glory is a powerful anti-war drama, Dr. Strangelove is a powerful anti-war black comedy. It deals with similar themes as Paths Of Glory but transcends it into a giant spoof. It came out during a height of paranoia over a nuclear attack in the midst of the Cold War. Kubrick had initially planned on making it a serious political thriller but found the entire scenario way too absurd to be taken seriously.
The premise is absolutely fantastic and sports all kinds of wacky characters. It’s a fantastic story on how all it takes for hell to break loose is a crazy guy in high authority losing his mind, some mis-communication and a little equipment failure. Watching these characters scramble to handle an apocalyptic situation is endlessly hysterical. There are too many memorable characters to count. A few of my favorites include General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who is so serious and sure of his ridiculous conspiracy that he orders a doomsday device to destroy the world. Sterling Hayden plays him so dry and it’s priceless. Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is a hotheaded general who gets overly excited about everything. Watching his over-the-top facial reactions is brilliant. Slim Pickens as Major Kong is such a riot with his southern accent and goofy monologues. Peter Sellers plays three vastly different characters to perfection; Mandrake is subtle and possible the only sane character in the film, President Muffley is dry and stone cold serious, and Dr. Strangelove himself is a quirky nutcase.
It’s such an original and highly re-watchable film. The characterization is primarily what makes this work so well. Everyone is either way too uptight or acting like a complete goon. It’s an endlessly hilarious film that will also leave you thinking.
4. Barry Lyndon (1975)
Barry Lyndon is the most breathtaking period piece I’ve ever seen. I normally don’t care for period pieces at all but Kubrick managed to make this one pure cinematic paradise. It’s such a stunningly gorgeous film with its masterful cinematography, gorgeous classical soundtrack and grand storytelling. It leaves one in awe for its entire three hours.
I’d consider this to be the second most aesthetically pleasing film in Kubrick’s filmography. It’s painfully beautiful. You could pause it at any given moment and it’d be worthy of a period painting. The costume and set designs combined with the use of natural lighting makes for such rich and elegant visuals. Ryan O’Neal as Redmond Barry is often criticized for giving a dull performance but it couldn’t be more fitting. A powerhouse performance on the level of Daniel Day Lewis wouldn’t have worked for this kind of film. Barry is a compelling character who is both sympathetic and despicable. He is very human in that regards. By no means is he a bad person but he’s very flawed. He is driven to seek high status and works hard at it. However, he is selfish and un-compassionate. He is primarily motivated by personal benefit. The consequences of his selfishness is witnessed during the second act when he gradually loses his fortune.
Barry Lyndon is such an original, enthralling and underrated character study that grips me from start to finish. Fans of rise and fall stories such as There Will Be Blood and GoodFellas cannot miss this one.
3. The Shining (1980)
This was my introduction to Stanley Kubrick and is one of the first films to really make me fall in love with cinema. I first saw it in the seventh grade and only knew about it because of the famous “Here’s Johnny!” scene. I thought it was going to be a slasher in the vein of Friday The 13th but instead I got the most remarkably atmospheric and terrifying film I’d ever seen at the time. I was absolutely stunned by how well made it is. It’s sense of dread and intrigue blew me away so much that a new high standard was set.
I love it more than ever now. It’s a film that has the power to intrigue like few others. I love how it works as a multilayered psychological study just as well as it does a simple ghost story. It’s full of symbolism that can be interpreted with countless meanings but it’s also just an absolute blast getting lost in this world of isolation and madness. The most striking aspect is the atmosphere itself, which is some of the greatest I’ve ever seen in a film. It’s a uniquely specific sensation that I’ve never felt from another film. It’s a mood of pure isolation and fear within cabin fever. The soundtrack is also one of the most horrifying I’ve ever heard. I wish more films would use haunting orchestrated scores like this. Another aspect I love is that, despite it being one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen, it’s also hysterical. Jack Nicholson is so deliciously over the top with his facial expressions that it’s genuinely a riot. Only Kubrick could pull off making a film this horrifying while also being hilarious.
The Shining is still the greatest horror film I’ve ever seen. When it comes to slow burners that have a strong pay off, this is immediately the film I think of.
2. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film as strange, bold, thought provoking and bizarrely fascinating as this. Like The Shining, it played a key role in shaping my love for cinema. I’ll never forget the first time I saw it. I was a sophomore in high school and was just getting serious about film after seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time. I’d always heard about this film and was intrigued as well as intimidated by its controversial nature. Going into it blindly, I found it to be completely different than I’d initially expected. I wasn’t even sure if I liked it but I knew I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was upon my second viewing that I realized what a special film I’d stumbled upon.
The premise is just brilliant. Kubrick creates such a fascinating futuristic atmosphere. While 2001: A Space Odyssey presented the future with astonishing technology and gadgets, A Clockwork Orange does so with strange outfits, a synthesized classical soundtrack, unique vocabulary and colorful direction. The cinematography is unreal; it creates a hypnotic and psychedelic world that is unlike anything else. Malcolm McDowell is absolutely legendary as Alex DeLarge. It’s truly an electrifying performance. You initially loathe him but the film challenges you to the point where you actually feel some sympathy towards him. It’s everything a satire should be, essentially satirizing humanity itself. It’s incredibly disturbing but Kubrick balances it out with his unique sense of black humor, which makes it endlessly entertaining. As unsettling as it is, it’s also so deliciously over the top that it’s incredibly wacky at times. Above all, it’s a film that will really get you thinking about some challenging questions involving choice, free-will, good vs evil, etc.
A Clockwork Orange is a true cinematic wonder that is endlessly challenging and fascinating.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
2001: A Space Odyssey is a film so massive and ambitious that it completely shook my perception of cinema and its possibilities. This is a film that wants to express an overwhelming amount of wonder, beauty and mystery. To me, it’s the most aesthetically pleasing film Kubrick ever made and is my favorite film of all time. Unlike A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, this isn’t one that immediately grabbed me. In all honestly, I didn’t fully appreciate the brilliance of this film until just a few years ago.
It’s absolutely insane just how timeless and forward thinking it really is. It doesn’t seem to age in the slightest. It’s an experience where the images and sounds completely wash over you, leaving one in a dreamlike transcendental state. Instead of presenting ideological ideas, it plunges you right into them. Although it’s a heavily debated and theorized film, I find that I don’t even want to deeply analyze the hidden meanings as much as I just want to dive into the cosmic scale and experience the child like wonder and mystery it evokes. It’s a film that’s ultimately meant to be felt like a piece of music. The greatest moment of all is the stargate sequence, when Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) transcends time and space. It’s a sequence full of overwhelming colorful and surreal imagery. It’s the most incredible and psychedelic sequence I’ve ever seen in a film. It’s indescribably brilliant.
There really isn’t anything out there quite like 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s an enigmatic wonder of a film. It’s the ultimate cinematic experience and is the only optimistic film in Kubrick’s filmography. I could watch it thousands of times and never tire of it.
Do you have a favorite Kubrick film? Let us know your thoughts!