“If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.” – Stanley Kubrick
American auteur Stanley Kubrick is constantly counted among the greatest filmmakers of all time, known for his ambitious artistic vision and the relentless pursuit of perfection. Over the course of his brilliant career, Kubrick created several masterpieces like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining which are now considered to be defining works of their genre and have become an indispensable part of cinematic tradition.
In a wonderful interview, Kubrick once said: “I think it’s very hard to make a film that is both dramatically appealing to a wide audience and contains the kind of truth and perception which you associate with great literature. I suppose it’s hard enough to do something like that even if you don’t appeal to a wide audience… because films do cost a lost of money in the United States, people might be overtly concerned with appealing to a wide audience. Now, it should be possible to make something which is dramatically appealing and yet still not false. But it is difficult.”
He added, “There’s one great advantage taking it from literary material, and that is that you have the opportunity of reading the story for the first time. I’ve never written an original screenplay myself, so I’m only theorising as to what I think the effect would be, but I suppose that if you had an idea yourself that you liked and you developed, your sense of whether or not the story was interesting would be almost gone by the time you wrote it.”
On the 22nd anniversary of his death, we revisit Stanley Kubrick’s illustrious filmography as a celebration of his invaluable contribution to the world of cinema.
See the full list, below.
All Stanley Kubrick feature films ranked:
13. Fear and Desire (1953)
Probably Kubrick’s least-watched work, his 1953 feature film debut is an hour-long existential exploration of war. Created at the age of 24, Fear and Desire is evidently inferior to his other masterpieces but it is an important collection of pre-cursors that would define the burgeoning filmmaker’s artistic sensibilities later in his life.
Kubrick hated Fear and Desire, describing it as “a bumbling amateur film exercise” and “completely inept oddity”. In order to prevent people from seeing it, he even burnt the negative but his debut feature has survived and is now a part of the public domain.
12. Killer’s Kiss (1955)
An early crime noir by Kubrick, Killer’s Kiss tells the story of a fading 29-year-old boxer and a taxi dancer who decide to leave town in order to escape her violent boss. Although it received mixed reviews when it was first released, later re-evaluations have correctly observed the importance of the work in Kubrick’s filmography.
The filmmaker revealed: “I did all the work…on my first two feature films, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss. I was cameraman, director, editor, assistant editor, sound effects man — you name it, I did it. And it was invaluable experience, because being forced to do everything myself I gained a sound and comprehensive grasp of all the technical aspects of filmmaking.”
11. Spartacus (1960)
In this 1960 epic historical drama, Kubrick investigates the power of human will as he presents the inspiring case of Spartacus (played by Kirk Douglas). A slave leader who orchestrates a revolt, Spartacus undergoes a spectacular transformation on screen: from a chained human to a transcendental legend.
“I was hired to direct Spartacus with Kirk Douglas. It was the only one of my films over which I did not have complete control; although I was the director, mine was only one of many voices to which Kirk listened. I am disappointed in the film. It had everything but a good story,” Kubrick admitted.
10. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
The last film that Kubrick ever made, Eyes Wide Shut’s legacy is complicated because it was seen as the product of an ageing filmmaker’s decadence. Despite the critical dismissals, Eyes Wide Shut remains an exigent, hallucinogenic commentary on human depravity and the excesses of consumerism. It is Kubrick’s carnivalesque reflection on life and death.
“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,” Martin Scorsese wrote. “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 realisation that 2001 or Barry Lyndon or The Shining was like nothing else before or since.”
9. Lolita (1962)
Based on Vladimir Nabokov’s (in)famous 1955 novel of the same name, Lolita chronicles the obsession of a middle-aged teacher with a young adolescent girl. Due to strict censorship rules, Kubrick had to control his artistic vision and be less provocative than the source material but this worked in his favour because the film had a profound influence on the audience’s imagination.
The director said, “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.”
8. The Killing (1956)
Kubrick’s 1956 film noir is a fascinating exploration of criminal life, featuring a gang of petty criminals whose plans go awry. The Killing performed poorly at the box office but it is now considered a seminal work of the genre, influencing other masterpieces like Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. This is probably Stanley Kubrick’s first real masterpiece.
Kubrick recalled, “After Killer’s Kiss I met Jim Harris, who was interested in getting into films, and we formed a production company together. Our first property was The Killing, based on Lionel White’s story The Clean Break. This time we could afford good actors, such as Sterling Hayden, and a professional crew. The budget was larger than the earlier films — $320,000 — but still very low for a Hollywood production.”
7. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
An unforgettable account of the indoctrination and insanity in the military, Full Metal Jacket is divided into two distinct parts: the psychologically demanding incubation period of the boot camp and the viscerally unsettling Vietnam War. R. Lee Ermey’s performance as the brutal drill sergeant will go down in history as one of the all-time greats.
“I certainly don’t think the film is anti-American,” Kubrick clarified. “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.”
6. The Shining (1980)
The Shining is Stanley Kubrick’s immortal experiment with the horror genre. Based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, Kubrick manages to make the material his own and expresses his own artistic statement. By portraying a writer’s (played by Jack Nicholson) descent into madness in complete isolation, Kubrick insists that human evil is more terrifying than any supernatural entity.
Stephen King elaborated on the difference between Kubrick’s film and his book when he said, “I always thought that the real difference between my take on it and Stanley Kubrick’s take on it was this: in my novel, the hotel burns. In Kubrick’s movie, the hotel freezes. That’s the difference between warmth and cold.”
5. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A dystopian vision of a world that is ruled by juvenile delinquency and authoritarian rectification, Kubrick’s 1971 masterpiece is a brilliant rendition of Anthony Burgess’s vastly influential novel. Although it was criticised for its graphic depictions of violence, the film’s artistic merit cannot be denied in any way. Kubrick forces us to watch the disturbing images of humanity at its worst, an elaborate thesis on the voyeuristic perversions of the modern audience.
“The central idea of the film has to do with the question of free-will. Do we lose our humanity if we are deprived of the choice between good and evil? Do we become, as the title suggests, A Clockwork Orange? Recent experiments in conditioning and mind control on volunteer prisoners in America have taken this question out of the realm of science-fiction,” Kubrick elaborated.
He added, “At the same time, I think the dramatic impact of the film has principally to do with the extraordinary character of Alex, as conceived by Anthony Burgess in his brilliant and original novel. Aaron Stern, the former head of the MPAA rating board in America, who is also a practising psychiatrist, has suggested that Alex represents the unconscious: man in his natural state. After he is given the Ludovico ‘cure’ he has been ‘civilised’, and the sickness that follows may be viewed as the neurosis imposed by society.'”
4. Paths of Glory (1957)
Along with Elem Klimov’s Come and See and Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, Paths of Glory is one of the greatest anti-war films ever made. It is his definitive statement to the world that he was capable of creating an artistic product that could penetrate the soul of humanity. The film conducts a necessary investigation of war, mocking the futility of human conflict.
The director recalled, “I received no salary for The Killing or Paths of Glory but had worked on 100 per cent deferred salary — and since the films didn’t make any money, I had received nothing from either of them. I subsisted on loans from my partner, Jim Harris. Next I spent six months working on a screenplay for a Western, One-Eyed Jacks, with Marlon Brando and Calder Willingham. Our relationship ended amicably a few weeks before Marlon began directing the film himself.”
3. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Dr. Strangelove is undoubtedly the funniest film Kubrick ever made, a fact that becomes tragic when the film’s context is taken into consideration. An incisive satire about the paranoia of the US and the USSR during the Cold War, Dr. Strangelove presents hilarious glimpses of the failures of the officials who govern us.
“I started work on the screenplay with every intention of making the film a serious treatment of the problem of accidental nuclear war,” Kubrick said. “As I kept trying to imagine the way in which things would really happen, ideas kept coming to me which I would discard because they were so ludicrous. I kept saying to myself: ‘I can’t do this. People will laugh.’ But after a month or so I began to realise that all the things I was throwing out were the things which were most truthful.”
2. Barry Lyndon (1975)
Kubrick’s most visually stunning film, Barry Lyndon is often praised for its beautiful cinematography but its subtextual assertions subvert such appreciations of superficial façades. Originally intended as a biopic of Napoleon, the film tells the story of an 18th-century rogue who burns in the flames of his own ambitions. Deeply cynical and intellectually violent, Barry Lyndon is the powerful manifestation of Kubrick’s disillusionment with the world.
Cinematographer John Alcott revealed, “I think the most difficult bit was the scene in the club when Barry comes over to confront the nobleman sitting at the other table, is given the cold shoulder and then goes back to his own table. That involved a 180-degree pan and what made it difficult was the fluctuations in the weather outside. There were many windows and I had lights hidden behind the brickwork and beaming through the windows. The outside light was going up and down so much that we had to keep changing things to make sure the windows wouldn’t blow out excessively.
“This was the most difficult to do, because any time I changed the gels on the windows, I also had to change the lights outside in order to avoid getting too much light inside and not enough outside. I would say that was the most difficult shot in the whole picture, in terms of lighting. What complicated it further was the fact that this was one of those stately houses that had the public coming through and visiting at the same time we were shooting.”
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
2001 is not just Kubrick’s magnum opus but the 1968 film is often considered to be the apotheosis of the sci-fi genre. A revolutionary work that was way ahead of its time, 2001 examines the relationship between technology, evolution, human identity and the tragic silence of the universe. Even after all these years, the film resists any traditional interpretations and threatens to consume the viewer in the totality of its vision.
“2001:, Kubrick explained, “is basically a visual, nonverbal experience. It avoids intellectual verbalisation and reaches the viewer’s subconscious in a way that is essentially poetic and philosophic. The film thus becomes a subjective experience which hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.
“Actually, film operates on a level much closer to music and to painting than to the printed word, and, of course, movies present the opportunity to convey complex concepts and abstractions without the traditional reliance on words. I think that 2001, like music, succeeds in short-circuiting the rigid surface cultural blocks that shackle our consciousness to narrowly limited areas of experience and is able to cut directly through to areas of emotional comprehension.”