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Ranking the 10 best scenes from Stanley Kubrick films

Stanley Kubrick is widely regarded as one of the most innovative practitioners of 20th-century cinema, responsible for creating enigmatic masterpieces which continue to generate heated discussions. Kubrick’s vision of cinema stands alone in history, with no direct predecessors or worthy successors.

Through his cinema, Kubrick captured unforgettable portraits of the human condition while simultaneously reinventing several genres. From his radical reinterpretation of horror cinema in The Shining to his clever take on heist films in The Killing, Kubrick’s investigations continue to haunt newer generations of film fans and artists.

As a tribute to the late pioneer, we have curated a list of some of the most memorable scenes from Kubrick’s illustrious filmography. While some fans might recognise these selections at once, a few of these entries might help you to revisit Kubrick’s masterpieces with fresh perspectives and a deeper understanding of the filmmaker’s genius.

The 10 greatest Stanley Kubrick scenes:

10. Pvt. Pyle’s suicide – Full Metal Jacket

One of the most disturbing scenes in Kubrick’s war epic Full Metal Jacket arrives as the culmination of a series of unstoppable events. Private Pyle’s role in the group of young men who tortured and trained in the name of freedom to kill another set of young men fighting for the same thing was to be the whipping boy. A favourite of Sergeant Hartman’s battering words, Pyle eventually takes Hartman and his own life in a chilling scene.

As constant emotional torment begins to loom over his being, Pyle’s decision to end his own life comes complete with some classic Kubrickian notions. The maniacal stare, the long-drawn-out and seemingly innocuous monologue, and the blood-curdling brutality of the event itself make this a wondrous piece of cinema.

9. “I’m sorry, Dave” – 2001: A Space Odyssey

“Open the pod bay doors, HAL”, astronaut Dave Bowman tells the HAL supercomputer toward the epic climax of Kubrick’s sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Eerily responding in a robotic monotone, HAL replies, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that…this mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardise it”. 

Speaking in an interview with Joseph Gelmis, Kubrick spoke of his intentions to take on human consciousness in this scene. The filmmaker explained, “we wanted to stimulate people to think what it would be like to share a planet with such creatures,” wishing to reflect what the director saw as an “inevitable” reality. Creepy.

8. The Party – Eyes Wide Shut

Sadly passing away before he could see his final movie hit the big screen, the Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman-led picture is currently being revised by a whole new generation of cinephiles. One scene, in particular, typifies the movie ‘the party’.

Like a dream half-remembered, there’s an ethereal terror to Kubrick’s final movie, Eyes Wide Shut, that stays with the viewer long after they’ve finished watching the film. The film’s most disturbing moment comes, however, when Tom Cruise’s protagonist walks into a strange sexual ritual at an exclusive party featuring masked guests in elaborate gowns or stark birthday suits. Feeling as if you’ve been transported into a nightmare, the scene plays out with a truly eerie, detached feel that humiliates the lead character and the audience as a result.

7. Heist – The Killing

One of Stanley Kubrick’s most overlooked titles, The Killing, is the closest the director ever got to creating a film noir. Murky and moody in equal measure, the film remains a classic piece of cinema regardless of its position in countless ranking lists.

A heist movie that would lay out the blueprint for modern reincarnations — Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was reportedly heavily influenced by the picture — of course, the film’s best scene comes from the heist itself. Sharp and stylish, it provides a sequence that Kubrick would have surely been proud of.

6. The Ludovico Technique – A Clockwork Orange

One of the most disturbing films in Kubrick’s arsenal is A Clockwork Orange, the movie adapted from Anthony Burgess’ chilling novel. A vision of Britain’s not-to-distant future, we see Alex and his gang of droogs terrorise all who dare cross their path.

There’s a reason the disturbing ‘eye drop’ scene in A Clockwork Orange remains one of Kubrick’s most infamous moments, shocking audiences across the world when the film was released in 1971. 

As Alex, the protagonist of the film sits braced to a cinema seat, eyes forced open, watching scenes of ‘ultraviolence’, his torturous screams reach unprecedented octaves way beyond the realms of normal reason. It’s an iconic scene and one which manages to allocate the film’s central focus of the relationship between pleasure and violence, the conscious and the unconscious. 

5. Execution – Paths of Glory

A vocal anti-war movie, Kubrick’s 1957 film follows a French Colonel (Kirk Douglas) in WWI who refuses to go over the top of the trenches due to heavy bombardment. Having to choose three soldiers to take the wrap and receive a court-martial, Kubrick explores the morally corrupt nature of war and the toll it brings on those who must serve under its brutal circumstances. The execution scene in question occurs at the end of the film, with the moment having arrived as an inevitable fate for the soldiers who long-challenged their sentence.

Speaking about the immorality of war and the warped morality and cowardice of those who lead such soldiers to their death, Kubrick created his finest war movie and one of his most disturbing moments. 

4. Bathroom Scene – The Shining

This may well be the most famous of Kubrick’s classic scenes. A piece of cinematic iconography that will likely never fade, the image of Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance bursting through the bathroom door with an axe in hand remains emblazoned on the cerebral cortexes of everyone who has had the pleasure of watching The Shining.

Nicholson spent most of the time between scenes hyping himself up into the oddball Torrance’s descent into full-blown murderous madness, while Shelley Duvall was apparently poked and prodded by the director himself to induce real terror. Here we have the culmination of those two practices working in perfect tandem.

3. Apocalypse – Dr. Strangelove

There’s something beautifully finite about the term apocalypse that seemed too alluring for directors to turn down. When it came to Kubrick’s 1964 satirical epic Dr Strangelove, it proved to be the only way the director could conceive of ending the film.

For a filmmaker who is in full control of each and every word and widget of his films, the finale of his 1964 anti-war satire feels like the perfect ending to a film about nuclear war. With pertinent terror that remains as terrifying today as it did in 1964, the bumbling characters of the story mistakenly drop a nuclear bomb on the Soviet Union and trigger atomic warfare in the process. 

Cue Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’, and one of cinema’s most haunting final sequences as Kubrick uses archival footage of nuclear tests to provide a disturbing and timeless warning to humanity. 

2. Initiation – Full Metal Jacket

We only have one film gain two entries on our list, and this is it. The initiation scene of any war film is always worth revisiting, but the use of clever cinematic techniques means Kubrick’s for Full Metal Jacket is one of the best in the business.

While the director should take a lot of credit for this wild and wonderful introduction to our main protagonists, the real plaudits should go to Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann.

Played by R. Lee Emery – who allegedly got the role after insulting casting staff for 15 straight minutes while they threw objects at him – we are given a scene flecked with humour, doused in danger and perfectly balanced to deliver the shocking crescendoes that await.

1. Candlelight – Barry Lyndon

Arguably Kubrick’s most widely underrated film, Barry Lyndon, saw the premiere director veer into a brand new space as he stretched his creative muscles to provide a period piece that few could hold against him. While there are many scenes from the movie one might call iconic, the duel, for instance, remains a classic piece of cinema, but it is the infamous candle scene that still reigns supreme.

Fully lit by only candlelight, the scene captures not only Kubrick’s passion for visual enjoyment, nor his determination to use the medium to tell his story expertly, but the director’s meticulous dedication to detail. The shot was only made possible when Kubrick got in contact with NASA to use a special lens that captured footage in incredibly low light.

As Barry and the Chevalier cheat Lord Ludd at cards, the story rolls by as Kubrick’s techniques, notably the double shots and slow backwards zooms, take precedent.