Every Stanley Kubrick Movie, Ranked

Movies Lists Stanley Kubrick
Every Stanley Kubrick Movie, Ranked

Few see their names become so famous in their industry that they become synonymous with their style. Fewer still see it mean something positive. Director Stanley Kubrick, a man who made just over a dozen feature films during his four-decade career, remains one of those rare titans who has entered the lexicon, infused with meaning by his artistry. That means ranking the work by Kubrick is an intensely difficult task.

Eclectic in genre yet almost always pure in vision, Kubrick’s films remain the gold standards in sci-fi, horror, war, noir and erotic thrills. From wunderkind to old master, his “challenging, multilayered and immaculately designed films,” as our own Jim Vorel put it when defining “Kubrickian” cinema, inspired countless waves of obsessives looking to pick apart his art in order to better make their own.

A black-humored anti-establishment streak running through his work—though it came dictated by an iron-fisted creator—Kubrick’s filmography catches you off-guard no matter how many times you’ve watched it through. When you expect cold detachment, unexpected compassion bubbles up; when you expect damnation, you get a bitter laugh. But when you expect some of the most commanding, technically-minded construction in modern film, you get exactly what you wanted.

Here is every movie by Stanley Kubrick, ranked:

13. Fear and Desire (1953)fear-and-desire-inline.jpg

A 24-year-old Stanley Kubrick’s feature debut, which he later described as “a bumbling amateur film exercise,” Fear and Desire proves the filmmaker a clear-eyed judge of his own work. That’s not to say there’s nothing to like in the hour-long war film, a meandering and tepid critique of the ahem “police action” in Korea, but that those things to like are immature interests engaged with by a filmmaker still learning the craft. The purple prose of future Pulitzer-winner Howard Sackler fills both dialogue and voiceover with strained metaphors and abstract intellectualizing, and the actors, by and large, respond to the overwritten material by overacting it. Frank Silvera, who would appear in Kubrick’s much better follow-up Killer’s Kiss, finds the most humanity in the quartet of soldiers crash-landed behind enemy lines by going grimier and gruffer than the rest. His no-frills blue collar approach—contrasted against the simpering mania of Paul Mazursky (the Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice filmmaker making his acting debut here) and near comic-strip sincerity of Kenneth Harp—encourage us to read some of the intentional ambiguity of the film’s emotions on his face. And Kubrick’s faces are still at the forefront: A mid-movie freakout between Mazursky’s private and a local woman he’s captured is both the film’s best scene and perhaps the director’s first example of that disconcerting straight-at-the-camera look that—thanks to A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Fear and Desire’s superior foil, Full Metal Jacket, and others—has become known as the Kubrick Stare. Representative of violence and desire and how those two always seem to be neighbors in men, the look is a brief but telling stylistic choice in a scene filled with pet themes and physicalizations of these ideas. Grasping hands and spilled stew create some of the most memorable images, but that the images are what remain most memorable from the movie is itself a kind of indicator. As a film, Fear and Desire doesn’t live up to its experimental ambitions; as a “film exercise,” it’s a showcase for a director who’s got an eye and is quickly developing everything else.—Jacob Oller


12. Killer’s Kiss (1955)killers-kiss-inline.jpg

One of the remarkable things about Stanley Kubrick’s career is that stylistically he seemed to appear fully formed. That’s partially a result of suppressing his own first feature, the interesting but disappointing Fear and Desire, but regardless of this Killer’s Kiss announced a bold new directorial talent, even while not being particularly great. The way he moved the camera and picked stunning compositions for even the most banal scenes was immediately evident, and the feature was promising in the same way that a great music video would be for a director today. An incredibly simple story about a couple trying to run away together when the man gets framed for murder, Kubrick’s second feature is short on storytelling but big on style. Its dialogue isn’t so much unbelievable as it is cliched, drawn straight from other noirs of the period but without any of the zest seen in the great ones. Its performance are serviceable but it’s obvious that the only character Kubrick really cared about in Killer’s Kiss was the camera. The film goes out of its way to show that its director can work in a multitude of styles, direct action or dialogue and make an interesting picture out of material that would seem overlong in a five-page short story. It’s a calling card film that offers a glimpse of its director’s mind, since even while working with a micro-budget and real locations the same measure of exacting control that imbued the rest of his pictures is here in every scene. It’s just disappointing when you stop watching it for photographic skill and return to the story, which is merely passable.—Sean Gandert


11. Lolita (1962)lolita-inline.jpg

A broad farce about an owlish hebephile’s downfall peppered with Peter Sellers? Only Stanley Kubrick could make that even remotely watchable, and his adaptation of Lolita (scripted by original novelist Vladimir Nabokov) is disarmingly amusing. While Kubrick’s dry sense of humor, mere competence with slapstick and historical inability to rein Sellers in don’t ever work as well as some of the film’s crueler laughs, that inhumanity becomes the film’s festering point. Beginning as a nagging piece of character humor between James Mason’s lodging professor and his horny, widowed and desperately smitten landlady (Shelley Winters), the selfish mean streak of the film’s perspective informs us of its protagonist, his lust for and eventual rape of his landlady’s adolescent daughter (Sue Lyon), and his thorough ruin. Mason is sweaty, ogling and constantly uncomfortable as Kubrick arranges Humbert Humbert into increasingly awkward positions, while Lyon truly earns her spotlight. Confident and sharp, flitting between playing Humbert’s game and playing her own—letting her own pain and loathing briefly fade in when she thinks it’s safe or simply can’t keep up the shallow façade any longer—Lyon’s Lolita is a fascinating ‘60s character you wish had even more screentime…time Kubrick often fills with meandering Sellers indulgence. The director’s ability to stage a scene that’s both torrid and distant is a necessity here, striking the right kind of off-color in arresting black-and-white, but after the film confronts its central sexual taboo and its stream of in-your-face innuendos (Camp Climax?) dries up, Lolita loses some of its shine.—Jacob Oller


10. Spartacus (1960)spartacus-inline.jpg

The epic that Stanley Kubrick took over from Anthony Mann after a single week of shooting, Spartacus’ daring drama threatens to sprawl off the edges of its ultra-wide screen and bleed its blending of Roman and American histories into modernity. Bolstered by Alex North’s bombastic and unrelenting score, the legions under the director’s strict command are impressive when they wage war and even more impressive when they’re turning Dalton Trumbo’s HUAC-skewering script into psychological reality. Laurence Olivier’s shrewd and spineless Crassus, Charles Laughton’s bemused Gracchus and a scene-stealing Peter Ustinov make these ritzy Romans both pathetic and powerful, ready to be defeated in the colosseum of ideas by the broad strokes of Kirk Douglas’ ex-slave everyman rebels. An impressive scaling-up of Kubrick’s ambitions, Spartacus’ philosophical framing (thanks to voiceover setting up the empire’s precarious footing) makes it heady in addition to meticulous—though these hallmarks of Kubrickian filmmaking still render unto Caesar the more middling necessities of its genre. For all its politicking and pontificating on the powers of martyrdom, it obeys (however subversively) lackluster demands for stiff romance, a blocky leading man and the plodding logistics of survival.—Jacob Oller


9. The Killing (1956)the-killing-inline.jpg

Once upon a time, before Stanley Kubrick entered the pupal stages of his career and subsequently emerged as a god and master of his medium, he made movies like The Killing. Lean, mean and economical to a fault, The Killing gets lost in the shuffle of Kubrick’s career landmarks, but the man wielded impressive influence even in overlooked 80-minute heist flicks. (The Quentin Tarantino we all know and love and loathe might be a very different filmmaker today if not for The Killing.) Kubrick’s work here is no-frills and elegantly straightforward: Sterling Hayden plans one final holdup before retiring and settling down with Coleen Gray. No twists and turns, just good old-fashioned theft at the racetrack. The film revels in the gray morality of Hayden’s good intentions. Crime pays, at least until it doesn’t. —Andy Crump


8. Full Metal Jacket (1987)14-Full-Metal-Jacket-Best-War-Movies.jpg

It’s a non-controversial opinion that Full Metal Jacket’s worth extends as far as its first half and declines from there as the film nosedives into conventionality. But the second chapter of Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam horror story is responsible for creating the conventions by which we’re able to judge the picture in retrospect, and even conventional material as delivered by an artist like Kubrick is worth watching: Full Metal Jacket’s back half is, all told, pleasingly gripping and dark, a naked portrait of how war changes people in contrast to how the military culture depicted in the front half changes people. Being subject to debasement on a routine basis will break a person’s mind in twain. Being forced to kill another human will collapse their soul. Really, there’s nothing about Full Metal Jacket that doesn’t work or get Kubrick’s point across, but there’s also no denying just how indelible its pre-war sequence is, in particular due to R. Lee Ermey’s immortal performance as the world’s most terrifying Gunnery Sergeant. —Andy Crump


7. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)dr-strangelove-inline.jpg

While attempting to adapt Peter George’s novel Red Alert for the big screen, director Stanley Kubrick found that he kept needing to cut out certain real-life details about the emergency nuclear bomb procedures because they were simply too absurd to work in a serious drama. Deciding to rewrite the project as a dark comedy, he recruited renowned satirist Terry Southern to help pen the script. From there, it’s all history. To this day, Peter Sellers’ three very different (and very funny) performances remain a feat by which few actors have matched. Moreover, the image of Slim Pickens riding the bomb to its destination as well as the final montage of destruction set to the wistful “We’ll Meet Again” are the stuff of movie legend. Worldwide Armageddon has never been so hilarious.—Mark Rozeman


6. Paths of Glory (1957)49-Paths-of-Glory-1950s-List.jpg

François Truffaut is notoriously and sort of erroneously credited as having said that, “There is no such thing as an anti-war movie.” He did say that he could not make a war movie about Algiers on the basis that, “to show something is to ennoble it.” He also said that “every film about war ends up being pro-war.” If this is true then maybe Paths of Glory is the closest the movies will ever get to producing an anti-war statement, though Stanley Kubrick’s trim World War I opus is better qualified as being disdainful of war: You can sense Kubrick’s contempt for his antagonists seething from behind the camera, his righteous indignation at the unapologetic cowardice of the craven old men who send others off to die on the field of battle at their behest. Maybe Paths of Glory isn’t anti-war, but it is pro-human, a film that celebrates true dignity and honor by recognizing that one need not rush forth to meet their inevitable death to be brave.—Andy Crump


5. A Clockwork Orange (1971)a-clockwork-orange-inline.jpg

As with most (well, probably all) of Stanley Kubrick’s book-to-screen adaptations, A Clockwork Orange remixes several aspects from Anthony Burgess’s novel, and probably for the better (at least Alex [a terrifyingly electric Malcolm McDowell] isn’t a pedophile in Kubrick’s film, for example). It’s still a relentlessly vicious satire portraying a society permissive of brutal youth culture, one where modern science and psychology are the best countermeasures in combating the ultra-violence™ that men like Alex and his fellow “droogs” commit. It’s painfully clear that when Alex is cast as a victim by the British Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharp) that—spoiler alert!—evil wins. Christ, can any of us ever hear “Singing in the Rain” the same again after this nightmare? —Scott Wold


4. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)eyes-wide-shut-inline.jpg

It’s always fascinating to see what the old masters come up with at the end of their careers. Eyes Wide Shut was Kubrick’s final message before he passed away, and it reveals an artist still grappling with the complexities and vagaries of the human heart, as well as organs slightly southward. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are brilliantly cast, and the eerie, dreamlike atmosphere that pervades the film is palpable. When you re-emerge into the world of light outside the theater (or your darkened living room), you won’t quite be able to explain the journey you’ve been on. But it will stay with you for a long, long time. —Michael Dunaway


3. The Shining (1980)3-The-shining.jpg

As an aural-visual experience, The Shining is likely the single most distinctive horror film ever made. Its droning soundtrack, innovative Steadicam shots and singular images, like that of the two little Grady girls standing in the hallway, beckoning to Danny, are instantly recognizable even to people who have never explored horror cinema. Its most famous sequences, such as Danny scrawling “redrum” on the wall or Jack chopping down the bathroom door to get to Wendy, are so deeply embedded in pop culture at this point that references to them will be easily understood until the end of recorded history. At the same time, though, The Shining also still rewards scholarly analysis of its elements that are less known to the casual cinemagoer, such as Kubrick’s unique use of dissolves layered on top of one another to create composite images, or the seemingly purposeful continuity errors that pop up in a handful of scenes. These small details have for decades fueled mysteries and conspiracy theories about the director’s true intent, as was captured beautifully in The Shining documentary Room 237 by Rodney Ascher. Watching that film, one begins to understand how a movie such as The Shining can draw forth deep, primordial responses from its audience, such as the all-consuming need to understand. It is telling that, unlike some of the other great horror films on this list, The Shining saw few attempts at what you’d call direct imitation in the years that followed. It was too much the product of an auteur mind to be so easily unwrapped and reverse engineered; nor was its initial reaction entirely positive, contrary to what you might now assume. It was and remains an exceptional film of great beauty, coldness, precision, calculation and yes, fright.—Jim Vorel


2. Barry Lyndon (1975)barry-lyndon-inline.jpg

Stanley Kubrick is one of the few filmmakers in the medium’s history to have multiple masterpieces to his name, but among those masterpieces, it’s Barry Lyndon that’s both most masterful and least appreciated. Barry Lyndon embodies everything about Kubrick that today we identify as “Kubrickian”— His rigorous construction, his attention to detail, his sheer ambition—all while offering the polite argument that maybe history doesn’t give him proper credit for his skill as an actor’s director. Maybe that’s because most of Kubrick’s other films don’t exactly hinge on great performances as much as they pivot on great craft and great screenwriting (though this isn’t a bulletproof argument; see The Shining, for instance). Barry Lyndon is an actor’s stage, handsomely, deliberately, impeccably constructed for the sake of Kubrick’s cast—this is a movie designed to cede the spotlight to stars Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, et al. while making damn well sure that they’re working against the most beautiful backdrop possible.—Andy Crump


1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)1-2001-a-space-odyssey-100-best-sci-fi.jpg

Half a century ago, Stanley Kubrick told the story of everything—of life, of the universe, of pain and loss and the way reality and time changes as we, these insignificant voyagers, sail through it all, attempting to change it all, unsure if we’ve changed anything. Written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke (whose novel, conceived alongside the screenplay, saw release not long after the film’s premiere), 2001: A Space Odyssey begins with the origins of the human race and ends with the dawn of whatever comes after us—spinning above our planet, god-like, a seemingly all-knowing, hopefully benevolent fifth-dimensional space fetus—spanning countless light years and millennia between. And yet, despite its ambitious leaps and barely comprehensible scope, every lofty symbolic gesture Kubrick matches with a moment of intimate humanity: The sadness of a mighty intellect’s death; the shock of cold-blooded murder; the minutiae and boredom of keeping our bodies functioning on a daily basis; the struggle and awe of encountering something we can’t explain; the unspoken need to survive, never questioned because it will never be answered. So much more than a speculative document about the human race colonizing the solar system, 2001 asks why we do what we do—why, against so many oppositional forces, seen and otherwise, do we push outward, past the fringes of all that we know, all that we ever need to know? Amidst long shots of bodies sifting through space, of vessels and cosmonauts floating silently through the unknown, Kubrick finds grace—aided, of course, by an epic classical soundtrack we today can’t extricate from Kubrick’s indelible images—and in grace he finds purpose: If we can transcend our terrestrial roots with curiosity and fearlessness, then we should. Because we can. That the end of Kubrick’s odyssey returns us to the beginning only reaffirms that purpose: We are, and have always been, the navigators of our destiny. —Dom Sinacola

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