Stanley Kubrick is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. With so many classics under his belt, it’s difficult and inevitably controversial to rank them — but I’m doing it anyway.
13. Fear and Desire
Stanley Kubrick’s debut feature film is certainly his worst. There’s a plethora of laughable dubbing and awkward performances. It’s incredibly pretentious and self-indulgent (something Kubrick himself had even admitted). Much of the dialogue is poorly written, with characters essentially saying the themes instead of the story presenting its message through their struggles. This is most apparent at the beginning when the narrator (who only speaks once and never returns) lectures the audience about how wonderful the film is because the war in the background “is not a war that has been fought, or one that will be, but any war,” as if to say that “Fear and Desire” is some allegorical masterwork. It also doesn’t help that the costumes all look like WWII uniforms; there’s no hiding any of that.
With all that being said, I still wouldn’t call this a bad movie by any means. It’s well shot, moves at a decent pace, and is extremely competent for a debut film made on a shoestring budget by a 24-year-old director. The film also has a ton of charm to it, as well as a clear abundance of effort put in behind the camera. Kubrick showed immense visual talent right out of the gate. “Fear and Desire” isn’t very good, but it’s nowhere near as embarrassing as its reputation makes it out to be.
12. Killer’s Kiss
“Killer’s Kiss” is easily Stanley Kubrick’s most forgettable film, largely because it’s his most generic. A down on his luck boxer falls in love with a beautiful woman living across the street and must then save her from some gangsters she got mixed up with. Each character is one-dimensional, which is likely why the actors seem bored throughout the film. There’s very little soul here, save for some gorgeous cinematography here and there. “Killer’s Kiss” is slightly better than “Fear and Desire,” but you’ll forget about this movie’s existence five minutes after watching it.
“Spartacus” is a debilitating 3 hours and 17 minutes long, and I felt every second of it. There’s something about this era of 1950s-60s 3+ hour historical epics that’s just so boring and soulless. It was like those decades’ version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: factory filmmaking.
On a positive note, the entire film is breathtaking from start to finish. The set design, costumes, and (of course) Kubrick’s cinematography were all immaculate. The film is a treat to look at. While it’s on record that Kubrick directed this film to get more recognition in Hollywood rather than out of any artistic drive, it’s clear that he was still trying to do his best with what he was given. I also think that the first hour of this film is pretty enjoyable. It’s more focused on Spartacus before he led the slave revolution, allowing for a smaller scale (and therefore less bloated) narrative with more action and character development with less talking in tents, gardens, or bathhouses.
However, once Spartacus suddenly becomes this heroic figure and starts a war against the Romans, the eyelids start getting heavy. The emphasis shifts to a chemistry-lacking romance and some Roman politicians plotting against each other. The characters relentlessly talk about the war and how important it is and why the Romans are evil and how come the wind blows, but rarely ever engage in war. There’s no scene in which Spartacus actually plans battle strategies yet we’re supposed to believe he’s some terrific leader because people tell us he is.
The main issue with the film’s narrative is how inconsistent the Spartacus character is written. In the first act, he’s a quiet and brooding Man With No Name figure with almost no human connection. But all of a sudden he punches a guard, starting and subsequently leading a revolution as a holy figure. Why didn’t the slaves try to escape before? Don’t know. Why would they follow this cold loner of all people? Don’t know. How did Spartacus gain leadership skills? Don’t know. How did Spartacus and the other slaves understand how to ride a horse? Don’t know. How did Spartacus build an army capable of fighting the most advanced military in the world? Don’t know. How did Spartacus become such a friendly, inspirational, and loving individual all of a sudden? Don’t know.
“Spartacus” is frustrating because it had every potential to be fantastic. It had Kubrick at the helm, a great star in Kirk Douglas, an enormous budget, gorgeous production design, and a potentially interesting story. But the screenplay is just so by-the-numbers that no matter how well constructed or performed the film was, it was impossible for it to succeed. With the exception of 1959’s “Ben-Hur” (which is phenomenal by the way), “Spartacus” and other backdrop epics simply don’t hold up under much scrutiny.
10. The Killing
There’s a massive gap in quality between “Spartacus” and “The Killing.” From here on, I’d give all the films on this list a positive review. In this noir heist film, Kubrick crafted an intriguing and exciting story with a fun cast of characters. Sterling Hayden is great in the lead role as Johnny Clay (essentially the Danny Ocean of the film), an intelligent yet overconfident leader. The film moves at a fast pace and has a highly satisfying climax with a darkly comedic and Kubrickian ending.
Now, there are some issues here. Kubrick chose to tell the story in a nonlinear structure to thoroughly recount each piece of the heist, and while it sometimes works, it can also distract from tense sequences. This is made a lot worse by the use of an incredibly unnecessary narrator who goes into way too much detail about each event. Not only does he confuse the audience by giving the time of day every few minutes, but many of his lines are just lazily written, almost to an embarrassing degree. One banger he delivers is, “At 7:00 that morning, Johnny Clay began what might be the last day of his life.” Wow, thanks for letting us know. How else could we figure out that armed robbery is risky? It’s a classic example of telling rather than showing, something that screenwriters should always avoid.
9. Full Metal Jacket
“Full Metal Jacket” is so strange to me. I certainly fall into the camp of people who believe that the first 45 minutes are far more compelling than the rest of the movie. Watching Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, played to perfection by R. Lee Ermey, absolutely destroy the soul of Pvt. Pyle is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. It shows how the dehumanization of war doesn’t only start on the battlefield, taking the audience through this devastating downward spiral. It’s a story about compassion and the chaos that can come about without it. Personally, I think it’s the best, most engaging, and most profound filmmaking Stanley Kubrick has ever done. Period. If the first act was just stretched out into a ninety minute movie, this would skyrocket to the top three in my Kubrick ranking.
Once the boot camp segment ends, “Full Metal Jacket” is still good (this is a Stanley Kubrick film after all), but it’s sort of forgettable. Basically it’s just Pvt. Joker accompanying a platoon as they try to survive and defeat a sniper for an hour. I enjoyed myself while watching it, but it’s definitely not top tier storytelling.
I wish I loved “Full Metal Jacket” a lot more, but because of the disjointed structure and jarring gap in quality between the two central stories, it doesn’t reach its lofty ambitions.
“Lolita” is a two-and-a-half-hour movie about a pedophile, so going into this I was skeptical to say the least. But after watching it, I was amazed by what Kubrick created. It’s an extremely tasteful film, thankfully never showing Humbert and Lolita’s…um…relations. “Lolita” is actually a satire on the selfishness, pretentiousness, and hypocrisy of human nature, using humor to bring its point across. There’s so many hilariously awkward moments between Humbert and Lolita’s overstimulated mother, as well as between Humbert and his nemesis Clare Quilty, played to perfection by Peter Sellers (fun fact: Sellers based Quilty’s voice on Stanley Kubrick’s New York accent).
Beyond its dry humor, “Lolita” has plenty of emotional substance. Humbert is utterly despicable in how controlling he is of this young girl, even to the point where he becomes her stepfather just to get closer to her. Ultimately, “Lolita” is a cautionary tale of desire which effectively balances comedy and drama.
7. 2001: A Space Odyssey
I know, I know. How could I not put “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the top spot? In all seriousness, I do actually enjoy 2001 quite a bit, but I can’t ignore its pacing issues simply because of how acclaimed it is.
2001 struggles with making its first act as compelling as its second and third. The film has a terrific opening with the Dawn of Man and the introduction of the Black Monolith. Yet once it transitions to Dr. Scientist Man and his mission to the Clavius lunar outpost and the long, drawn-out, self-indulgent sequences of ships slowly entering bigger ships, it loses me. I understand Kubrick’s intention was to hypnotize the audience and immerse them into the astonishing atmosphere of space, but the audience can’t get lost in the story when they start counting the seconds that go by for each shot. The first act has zero momentum or urgency that drives the plot along, and to make matters worse, Dr. Scientist Man is an awful protagonist. He lacks any character traits or complexity and is played by a charisma-vacuum of an actor. William Sylvester (the vacuum) was miscast in the role. He feels like an impersonator of a classy 1940s movie star, like a knockoff version of Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne or Henry Fonda, but without the acting chops or screen presence. So when there’s no forward-moving momentum, interesting characters, or plot development, visuals simply aren’t enough to keep me interested, no matter how gorgeous they are.
However, once the story transitions to Dave (Keir Dullea) and Frank (Gary Lockwood), it almost feels like a different movie. Suddenly the pace, visuals, and atmosphere all come together and Kubrick succeeds in his ambitions. The new leads are charismatic and give subdued, thoughtful, and deeply human performances. The slow-moving visuals also have more of a purpose, as they’re used to build tension and intrigue rather than simply be there.
2001 wouldn’t be as great as it is without HAL 9000, one of the best villains in cinema history. The red eye, haunting lines (“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”), and eerie voice-over work by Douglas Rain are rightfully iconic. The way Rain over-pronounces every word, savoring each line of dialogue is spine-chilling. Even when he isn’t speaking he’s terrifying, namely the scene where he disconnects the life support of the crewmen in suspended animation. Yet despite all his evil, HAL’s motives are actually understandable. HAL is essentially programmed to advance the human race, so when he senses the Monolith and decides to jeopardize the mission in favor of a new one, he believes he’s being utilitarian, bringing about a new species of humans. He’s the hero of his own story, despite ultimately being a monster.
The film then crescendos in its magnificent finale with the gorgeous stargate sequence and Dave’s transformation into the new species created by the Monolith. It’s sequences such as these that prove why Kubrick is one of the greatest directors of all time.
While I don’t quite love the film, I greatly appreciate it and enjoy it more and more upon each rewatch. In time, I can definitely see this moving up higher on my Kubrick ranking. Even now I recognize that it’s a masterpiece, albeit a flawed one.
6. A Clockwork Orange
Likely Kubrick’s most disturbing work, “A Clockwork Orange” is a visceral experience. The ultra-violence and the ol’ Ludwig Van aren’t for everybody, but I love the film. Kubrick forces the audience into the sadistic mind of Alex, a despicable creature and one of the most horrifying villains in movie history. While he’s certainly a monster, Malcom McDowell’s complex performance brings something so tragic to the character. You certainly don’t feel bad for him, but you do find yourself disgusted by this dystopian future that’s very much the cause of his nature.
The world-building of “A Clockwork Orange” is truly exceptional, bringing a unique take on a futuristic society with perpetually relevant messaging about corruption in society, where public figures and politicians are more concerned about their image than protecting the citizens of their country. It’s a deeply cynical, exaggerated, and pessimistic view of humanity, but an important one.
5. Eyes Wide Shut
Similar to “Lolita,” I went into “Eyes Wide Shut” with a lot of skepticism. I heard it was somewhat disjointed and obviously knew about its extreme subject matter. Luckily, I was immensely surprised at just how magnificent it was.
“Eyes Wide Shut” is Kubrick’s detective film, following Bill (Tom Cruise) on a journey that becomes more and more nightmarish as he discovers how deep the hole he dug himself into is. The film is a tragedy about self-doubt, loneliness, and inadequacy. Instead of trying to rebuild his struggling marriage and become a warmer, more open person, he runs away from his issues and endangers those he loves.
This film has my favorite Tom Cruise performance. It’s appropriately subtle and full of contemplation, with Cruise consistently appearing tired and/or looking inward throughout the film. I also think “Eyes Wide Shut” has the best dialogue out of any Kubrick film (except for one monologue at the end, which I’ll get to). There’s a perfect balance of realism and sensationalism in the conversations and monologues, adding to the nightmare setting. Plus, I need to mention the score by György Ligeti and Jocelyn Pook. It’s such a simple theme that’s so effective and just as chilling as any other element of “Eyes Wide Shut.” Every aspect of the film is engineered to put the audience on edge.
While I adore “Eyes Wide Shut,” I do have a relatively large nitpick, which is the exposition dump toward the end. Sydney Pollack’s monologue in the billiard room was surprisingly lazy for a Kubrick film. The entire mystery is explained to the audience, even though many of the answers are either implied or unnecessary. That said, this is only one scene in an otherwise phenomenal movie.
4. Barry Lyndon
“Barry Lyndon” is one of Kubrick’s most visually impressive films, as it looks more like a motion painting than a motion picture. Using special lenses from NASA and slow zoom techniques, Kubrick crafted one of the most gorgeous films ever made. Each frame looks like an 18th century painting with the brilliant costume design, precise movements of the actors, and immaculate sets. This is one of the most immersive cinematic experiences I’ve ever had.
The film tells a typical yet well executed 1970’s story of a man’s self-inflicted downfall. Barry, despite being somewhat dim, becomes increasingly ruthless in his dedication to climb up the social ladder, and the film expertly presents his gradual descent from an innocent young man to a conniving, cold manipulator. It’s a great underrated character who, alongside Kubrick’s stunning direction, makes this three hour epic fly by.
3. Paths of Glory
“Paths of Glory” is simply the greatest anti-war film ever made. In under ninety minutes, Kubrick drags the audience through the mud with the unfortunate French soldiers betrayed by their “superiors” in World War I. The film emphasizes just how unfair war can be, with decorated generals callously sending soldiers to their deaths for a few more medals. Part of what makes “Paths of Glory” so captivating is its structure. The film is split into two halves, the first taking place in blood-soaked trenches as Col. Dax’s men attempt and fail to take the German Anthill, and the second acting as a courtroom drama exposing the absurdity of war.
Kirk Douglas gives the best performance of his career as Col. Dax, a man with a strong moral compass doing everything he can to save the lives of three scapegoated men on trial for their lives following the attack on the German Anthill. The men are ultimately ordered to their deaths, proving this was always a no-win scenario.
Whereas most war films in the 1950’s were sprawling epics that celebrated American victory in battle, “Paths of Glory” went against the grain and instead told a somber and brutal tragedy. When the three scapegoats are faced with death, they don’t celebrate it with pride. They break down into tears as they realize their demise will be by their fellow men, not the enemy. For me, this is easily Kubrick’s most emotional film, and a true masterpiece in storytelling.
2. The Shining
Possibly Kubrick’s most iconic film, “The Shining” is an absolute masterpiece deserving of its reputation. It’s absolutely horrifying, with some of the most terrifying sequences in film history and a never-ending sense of isolation, tension, and dread. It also has a great score to emphasize the intensity and brave performances from the cast. Every time I watch it I see something new in it and want to keep exploring the mythology. There’s not much more to say, except that it’s my favorite horror film of all time.
1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
There’s absolutely no competition for me. Dr. Strangelove is arguably a perfect film. Of course, it’s hilarious. Peter Sellers kills it as three totally different characters, giving each of them wildly different mannerisms while always maintaining some of the best comedic timing I’ve ever seen. Yet George C. Scott is really the standout performer as General Turgidson (this film has great names by the way). His over-the-top enthusiasm and energy never get old. He devours the screen and savors every single line. It’s easily my favorite performance of any Kubrick film.
The film is so inventive in its humor, with ironic puns such as “Gentlemen you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!,” great monologues and dialogue exchanges (particularly the phone call between the President and the incredibly sensitive Dmitri), and ridiculous situations. Major Kong riding the bomb is one of the most iconic and hysterical shots in film history. What a wild and original concept.
Additionally, this film is the perfect model of how to do messaging right. It doesn’t hold anything back, but it always has the goal of entertaining the audience — not Hollywood producers. Dr. Strangelove, while certainly profound, is incredibly exciting and warm, which is necessary for a comedy with such dark subject matter. Although the film ends in nuclear apocalypse there’s still some optimism and hope for humanity. While our main characters are largely incompetent, it’s at least comforting to know that the human race doesn’t go completely extinct. There’s a chance for humanity to learn from its mistakes, both inside of the film and in the real world.
Dr. Strangelove is a stunning achievement. It’s able to be hysterical while upholding its timeless and significant warnings for the world. I adore everything about it, from the magnificent cast of characters to Kubrick’s wicked sense of humor. For me, Dr. Strangelove is Kubrick’s magnum opus.