Let's rank Stanley Kubrick's best films...will the list surprise you?
Stanley Kubrick is one of the greatest directors of all time. He worked hard and obsessed over every detail in every frame. His best films not only exude this authoritarian control, but they also talk about our relationship with the world he presents.
As an auteur filmmaker, Kubrick made sure what ended up on the screen was all part of his grand vision.
All of his films have something to say. But let's be honest, some are just better than others. As a Kubrick fan, I wanted to take a critical eye to his 13 feature films and rank them in order of greatness.
This is just my opinion. You are entitled to your own, and I definitely want to know it. Put your lists in the comments below.
Kubrick is one of the handfuls of directors whose entire catalog I have seen multiple times so this was a fun exercise for me.
Without further ado, let's dive into ranking Stanley Kubrick's films.
What is Stanley Kubrick's Best Movie? Kubrick Films Ranked
13. Killer's Kiss (1955)
This was the movie that really got Kubrick started. It was well-reviewed and proved he could work within the studio system. I have it last because I think it was less adventurous than the others. Even if it was more successful than his earlier work, there's not much we learn about him as a man or a director.
New York Times film critic Janet Maslin reviewed the film, and wrote, "Killer's Kiss brought the director onto more conventional territory, with a film noir plot about a boxer, a gangster and a dance hall girl. Using Times Square and even the subway as his backdrop, Mr. Kubrick worked in an uncharacteristically naturalistic style despite the genre material, with mixed but still fascinating results. The actress playing the dance hall girl, billed as Irene Kane, is the writer Chris Chase, whose work has frequently appeared in The New York Times. Jamie Smith plays the boxer, whose career is described as 'one long promise without fulfillment.' In the case of Mr. Kubrick's own career, the fulfillment came later. But here is the promise."
12. Fear and Desire (1953)
Kubrick hated his first film. He worked tirelessly to make sure it was never seen. A lot might've gone wrong in this movie, but I think you can see Kubrick taking some chances. You can see his amazing camera work and touch coming into its own. We see themes that will become more important later.
Paul Mazursky starred in the film, and even though it's not great, Mazursky wrote. “Stanley did all the shooting. No matter what the problem, Kubrick always seemed to have an answer. To me, there was never a question that Stanley was already master of his universe.”
11. Lolita (1962)
A salacious novel, a hot director, and an author who wanted to write the screenplay. Lolita was a cavalcade of things going right when the odds were stacked against them. The sexual revolution had not yet hit when Kubrick wanted to take a bestselling novel and turn it into a feature film.
It wasn't easy, but he loved a challenge.
Kubrick said in an interview, "There's been such a revolution in Hollywood's treatment of sex over just the past few years that it's easy to forget that when I became interested in Lolita, a lot of people felt that such a film couldn't be made—or at least couldn't be shown. As it turned out, we didn't have any problems, but there was a lot of fear and trembling. And filming in England we obviously had no choice but to rely mainly on studio shooting."
10. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Here's a movie that feels like it's two different stories. One is about learning to cede your individuality and become part of a unit, the other is about how being part of that unit makes you responsible for losing your humanity.
Another war movie for Kubrick, and another look at man's inhumanity—at the bigger questions we ask—why do these things happen and what makes people react to atrocities differently? When asked about the film by the Washington Post, Kubrick said, "I certainly don't think the film is anti-American. I think it tries to give a sense of the war and the people, and how it affected them. I think with any work of art, if I can call it that, that stays around the truth and is effective, it's very hard to write a nice capsule explanation of what it's about."
9. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Sex and Stanley Kubrick have always gone hand in hand, but he's never explored the idea in full the way he did in this film. Casting real-life couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Kubrick's final film is a glimpse into the unknown. While he died before its release, the movie takes a complicated look at marriage. Even with two beautiful people, a relationship can get stale. Nevertheless, thinking the grass is always greener can get dangerous.
Martin Scorsese wrote about the film, "When Eyes Wide Shut came out a few months after Stanley Kubrick's death in 1999, it was severely misunderstood, which came as no surprise. If you go back and look at the contemporary reactions to any Kubrick picture (except the earliest ones), you'll see that all his films were initially misunderstood. Then, after five or ten years came the realization that 2001 or Barry Lyndon or The Shining was like nothing else before or since."
8. The Shining (1980)
Perhaps the second most famous of Kubrick's films, I don't think I'll ever be able to get the elevator full of blood out of my mind. The movie is intense, scary, and shows us a descent into madness that you have to think Kubrick felt himself at times.
Kubrick changed the ending of the original Stephen King book, focusing on the pure evil that is Jack.
Horror film critic Peter Bracke reviewed the movie in High-Def Digest, and wrote, "Just as the ghostly apparitions of the film's fictional Overlook Hotel would play tricks on the mind of poor Jack Torrance, so too has the passage of time changed the perception of The Shining itself. Many of the same reviewers who lambasted the film for 'not being scary' enough back in 1980 now rank it among the most effective horror films ever made, while audiences who hated the film back then now vividly recall being 'terrified' by the experience. The Shining has somehow risen from the ashes of its own bad press to redefine itself not only as a seminal work of the genre, but perhaps the most stately, artful horror ever made."
7. Spartacus (1960)
Perhaps the one Kubrick movie that has a line of dialogue more famous than his work in the film, this was Kubrick's first foray into studio blockbusters. He worked with Kirk Douglas for the second time, focusing on legacy and the impact of one man.
Still, this movie was not really Kubrick's—it was Douglas'. He went out and got Trumbo, he headlined.
But you can still feel Kubrick's touch. He said of the film, "The making of any film, whatever the historical setting or the size of the sets, has to be approached in much the same way. You have to figure out what is going on in each scene and what's the most interesting way to play it. With Spartacus, whether a scene had hundreds of people in the background or whether it was against a wall, I thought of everything first as if there was nothing back there. Once it was rehearsed, we worked out the background. When Spartacus was being made, I discussed this point with Olivier and Ustinov and they both said that they felt that their powers were just drifting off into space when they were working out of doors. Their minds weren’t sharp and their concentration seemed to evaporate. They preferred that kind of focusing-in that happens in a studio with the lights pointing at them and the sets around them. Whereas outside everything fades away, inside there is a kind of inner focusing of physical energy."
6. Barry Lyndon (1975)
It's hard to find a movie more beautiful to look at than Barry Lyndon. With scenes lit solely by candlelight, sweeping long takes, and incredible costuming, we are treated to a story about destiny. At times, it feels like Kubrick is testing his own fate. Trying to do things that no one else would, testing his own fate and the choices that brought him here.
Film critic-historian Richard Schickel wrote about the movie for Time, saying, “In it, he [Kubrick] demonstrates the qualities that eluded Thackeray: singularity of vision, mature mastery of his medium, near-reckless courage in asserting through his work a claim not just to the distinction critics have already granted him but to greatness that time alone can—and probably will—confirm.”
5. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
If humans are truly the amalgamation of their experiences, then how can we describe Kubrick? The most startling thing about Clockwork is how frank it is with sex and violence. We're presented with instances of truly horrific acts and are almost desensitized to it. We see them the way the protagonist does. And somehow, Kubrick does this magic trick where we begin to feel bad for Alex De Large. We want him to get better, but not via brainwashing. And we dread that the more evil is done to him, the more he will be capable of later.
Kubrick wrote this about A Clockwork Orange, "Social satire dealing with the question of whether behavioural psychology and psychological conditioning are dangerous new weapons for a totalitarian government to use to impose vast controls on its citizens and turn them into little more than robots."
4. The Killing (1956)
There's nothing more thrilling than a heist film, and The Killing delivers on all fronts. But this can also be seen as a movie where the sense of bitter irony and dark comedy that Kubrick loved so much first surfaced. Where he would signify his style with long takes and sequences focused only on visual storytelling.
Roger Ebert used this story top describe Kubrick's tendencies, which began with The Killing, "My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay. I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question."
3. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
A comedy about nuclear annihilation? That sounds hard to pull off. But Stanley Kubrick loved a challenge. The Atomic Age had Americans on edge. We had seen the bomb's devastation, but thanks to a lot of propaganda films, we had also been desensitized.
Kubrick said the reason to make this movie was to challenge those notions. "My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay. I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question."
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Few films have had a bigger impact on cinema than 2001. The movie was a phenomenon. One that made people think Kubrick helped fake the moon landing and one that put pot-smoking hippies and yuppie squares into theaters next to each other.
This was a movie about where humans have been and where they were going.
Of the enigmatic ending, Kubrick said in an interview, "The idea was supposed to be that he is taken in by godlike entities, creatures of pure energy and intelligence with no shape or form. They put him in what I suppose you could describe as a human zoo to study him, and his whole life passes from that point on in that room. And he has no sense of time. ... [W]hen they get finished with him, as happens in so many myths of all cultures in the world, he is transformed into some kind of super being and sent back to Earth, transformed and made some kind of superman. We have to only guess what happens when he goes back. It is the pattern of a great deal of mythology, and that is what we were trying to suggest."
1. Paths of Glory (1957)
There are few better movies about a personal moral compass than Paths of Glory. The story is simple. Men are on trial for doing the right thing—refusing to attack an enemy position. If they admit fault, their lives will be spared. If they do not, they'll be executed.
This is the central conundrum of the film, one way ahead of its time. This is also one of the only anti-war films ever made. One about humanity and justice.
Kubrick said the reason he made the film was as follow, "One of the attractions of a war or crime story is that it provides an almost unique opportunity to contrast an individual or our contemporary society with a solid framework of accepted value, which the audience becomes fully aware of, and which can be used as a counterpoint to a human, individual, emotional situation. Further, war acts as a kind of hothouse for forced, quick breeding of attitudes and feelings. Attitudes crystallise and come out into the open. Conflict is natural, when it would in a less critical situation have to be introduced almost as a contrivance, and would thus appear forced or, even worse, false."
Perhaps his deepest film, it stands the test of time.