There’s a reason why Stanley Kubrick is regarded as one of the finest filmmakers who ever lived. It’s because he always demanded perfection. Every shot, every cut, every line, every set, every costume, every light, every sound – it all had to be perfect. And this paid off in spades when his films were complete, because he never made a movie that couldn’t be described as a masterpiece. Like pizza, there are no bad Kubrick films. There are only some Kubrick films that are better than others. So, with that in mind, here is every film that Stanley Kubrick ever directed, ranked from worst to best.
13. Fear and Desire
Stanley Kubrick himself does not speak kindly of his feature directorial debut, shrugging it off as “a bumbling amateur film exercise.” The style of the film is more experimental and less precise and refined than some of Kubrick’s later work, which makes it seem a little messy and unstructured, but the potential that the director was brimming with in his early career is on clear display here. You can tell that this is a director to watch, but with the knowledge of what came later, this does seem like one of the weaker films in the entire spectrum of the guy’s impressive filmography.
12. Eyes Wide Shut
With the final film that he managed to complete before his death, Stanley Kubrick showed E.L. James how you make a story about depraved sex acts that isn’t completely bereft of character development or plot development or, well, being good. Compared to the rest of Kubrick’s movies, this one isn’t his finest, but there is a lot to enjoy. He really went to town with the symbolism of color in this one, and the iconography of masked high society orgies makes it a very cinematic and iconic piece. It’s been parodied by all kinds of comedy movies and sitcoms since, which is, believe it or not, one of the highest forms of flattery in art.
11. Killer’s Kiss
The problem with Stanley Kubrick’s second feature film was that he didn’t have the reputation yet to earn the funding that his vision deserved, so he couldn’t quite carry out his beautiful, perfectly constructed shooting style and instead had to cut corners on a shoestring budget. The director had always said, “We want to make good movies, and make them cheap. The two are not incompatible.” This movie is not a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece, but it is the filmic promise that Stanley Kubrick would eventually give us a masterpiece – several, even. He was just a few years away from fully developing his talents and his process and getting known as a successful enough filmmaker to warrant millions of dollars in funding.
10. Paths of Glory
Hollywood movies set during the First World War are in short supply, since studios seem to gravitate more towards the Second World War, and Hollywood movies that take an anti-war stance are in short supply, since big budget movies are regulated for the messages being peddled in them by the U.S. government. But in the 1950s, a young Stanley Kubrick somehow managed to get an anti-war movie about the First World War made. It’s the story of a commanding officer who refuses to let his men continue on a suicide mission and then defends them when they get court martialed. The censors and the armed forces hated this movie, but its cinematography and storytelling and staging are damned impressive.
9. The Killing
Throughout his career, Stanley Kubrick tried his hand at most genres: war, swords and sandals, horror, science fiction etc. This was one of his earliest films, and it was his attempt at a film noir that also harked back to the first ever gangster movies of the 1930s. It’s a small movie, made for a very low budget, as opposed to some of the grander epics that Kubrick would go on to direct, but it is still an engrossing and cinematic piece. The director himself wanted this to be considered his first true movie, as this was the point when he matured as a filmmaker. Quentin Tarantino took a lot of inspiration from this movie when he was putting together his own directorial debut feature, Reservoir Dogs. He clarified, “I didn’t go out of my way to do a rip-off of The Killing, but I did think of it as my Killing; my take on that kind of heist movie.”
8. Barry Lyndon
This bleak historical piece is a movie that looks so beautiful and immerses you so deeply in the time period that it’s set in, and yet has such a shallow and empty plot. Stanley Kubrick got NASA to give him cameras with astrophysics research grade lenses, just so he could get the shots that he wanted and capture the historical setting of the movie and shoot with no lighting besides candles – because candles were all they had back then. See, there was method to Kubrick’s madness. So, it’s a movie that is great to look at with a lot to enjoy and analyze, but it’s not particularly engaging as a movie in and of itself, which is a real shame. It’s far from a bad movie, and it is relatively underrated when compared to Kubrick’s other best known films, but it’s not quite the kind of masterpiece that the director has crafted at his best. The audience just isn’t as invested in these characters as they are with the likes of Jack Torrance or Alex DeLarge.
This movie was overshadowed when it first came out by the political climate that surrounded it. In the lead up to this film’s release, its star Kirk Douglas announced publicly that the screenwriter of the movie was Dalton Trumbo, one of the blacklisted writers from the Hollywood Ten, echoing the iconic “I’m Spartacus!” ending scene, so people were up in arms about it. Right after he was first elected to be the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy crossed picket lines to watch this movie. It was a very important political event. So, it’s only recently that we’ve been able to view it as a movie and not a sign of the times. And it’s great. It has some interesting character moments as well as some beautifully shot and breathtaking action set pieces.
6. A Clockwork Orange
This movie, set in a dystopian future that is rife with crime and debauchery and unusual fashion and architecture, is really well designed and it has its own distinctive look and style, which is always a great thing to have in a movie. The lead character goes on a very clear journey that is engaging – not necessarily on an emotional level, but it is intriguing and watchable – and he’s played to terrific effect by Malcolm McDowell, whose performance has inspired countless actors who have played villains in the years since. If there is a negative thing or two to say about the film, it would be that it is a difficult watch, thanks to graphic rape scenes that are played for comic effect, and it is also a very cold and unforgiving film – but then that actually adds to its dystopian, chilling feel, so maybe that’s a good thing. But if you want a movie that’s entertaining, you should look to a few more movies before settling on A Clockwork Orange.
Stanley Kubrick made a smart choice when he was writing a film adaption of this Vladimir Nabokov classic and that was to leave Nabokov’s plot intact. Sure, the story of a grown man who falls for his landlady’s young teenage daughter – and not in a loving way, but rather in a very sexual way – does not seem very palatable to a mainstream movie audience. But it is an incredibly engaging and delicious dark story and Kubrick told it just as shockingly as it should be – he didn’t water it down or try to normalize it. The girl who played the titular love interest in the movie was literally fourteen years old when they shot a movie about a middle aged man’s sexual infatuation with her.
4. Dr. Strangelove
Stanley Kubrick always made smart moves in the making of his films that ended up being the decisions that made them a success. In the case of this hilarious Cold War satire, his wisest decision was to let Peter Sellers do his thing. He gave him a handful of roles in the movie, pointed his camera at him in every scene, and let him go nuts. Kubrick usually sticks to his very specific plan, so it was bold of him to let Sellers have so much control – and it ended up making the movie one of the funniest ever made. Every political satire that has followed since this ‘60s classic owes a debt to this movie. The screenplay is one of the sharpest and funniest ever written, with hysterical lines like “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!” The movie took on the U.S. government and how they were spinning the conflict. It’s a brash, spot on, beautifully shot study of American nationalism – filmed through the lens of silly comedy. Brilliant, right?
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey
George Lucas is thought to have made the definitive space movie, but Stanley Kubrick already covered it all in this epic masterpiece. The movie is separated into segments, all of which collectively encompass the past, present, and future of mankind’s existence. It starts off with the powerful idea that apes evolved into humans when they learned how to use animal bones as weapons. Then we get all kinds of ideas – intelligent life on other planets, A.I.s that become sentient and turn on their masters, a whole ton of concepts that have been done to death in the decades since. Kubrick directed this movie with such technical and creative gusto. The shot where a bone flying through the air cuts to a satellite sums up the entire evolution of human existence in one iconic, cinematic moment.
2. Full Metal Jacket
At a certain point in the counterculture movement of the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of directors starting offering up their cinematic take on the Vietnam War: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, Michael Cinimo – and Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick’s depiction of the war in a darkly comic way is one of the best and most entertaining of the lot. The first half of the movie focuses on the training, as R. Lee Ermey’s iconic performance defined the cliché of the angry drill sergeant, and it ends with a hypnotic and entrancing and harrowing suicide scene that really brings us down to Earth. Then all of a sudden, we cut to black and the next image we see is some troops stationed out in ‘Nam, negotiating price with some prostitutes. The soundtrack, which uses songs like “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen to juxtapose the horrors of war with the fun of cinema, is awesome. All things considered, as far as Vietnam War movies go and as far as Stanley Kubrick movies go, this is one of the best on both counts.
1. The Shining
Stephen King, the literary horror master whose novel this chilling cinematic classic is based on, absolutely hates the movie. The way he sees it, he wrote a book that was filled with passion and soul and emotion, and then Kubrick came in and adapted it as a cold, callous, unsettling movie. King sees the book as fire and the movie as ice. But so what? Kubrick was a visionary. He wouldn’t serve someone else’s vision – he had his own vision for every movie he did and this was no different. The movie that he crafted has so many iconic horror set pieces in it – the elevator doors pouring blood all down the hallway, Jack chasing Danny through the snowy maze, “Here’s Johnny!” etc. – and it leaves so many things ambiguous and open for interpretation that it stands countless rewatchings. It’s the quintessential Kubrick movie.