“Watching a Kubrick film is like gazing up at a mountain top. You look up and wonder, ‘How could anyone have climbed that high?'”—Martin Scorsese
Whether you think he’s the complete master of cinema, or if he sits in second place to Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese or Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick’s dedication to the cinematic craft, with meticulous attention to detail, makes him the unique talent in the world of film.
Studying photography long before he became a filmmaker, Kubrick’s filmography retains a careful focus on cinematography, creating countless iconic stills in the process.
Confronting some of the most complicated of life’s moralistic questions, themes that range across a number of different genres, Kubrick effortlessly fuses together meticulous cinematography, dynamic use of sound, and some of cinema’s most compelling tales, tying it together with an inspiring ambition.
To rank his films at all seems somewhat fruitless, as standing individually, they reflect the work of a director so precise and so radical, that they each behold unique merit. However, we gave it a go.
See the full list, below.
Stanley Kubrick’s 10 greatest films of all time:
10. Lolita (1962)
Kubrick’s first foray into comedy, Lolita tells the infamously controversial tale of a middle-aged college professor who falls for the 14-year-old daughter of an elderly widow.
Based on Vladimir Nabokov’s book of the same name, Lolita offers Kubrick the chance to spread his wings, branching out in tone and content from his previous works. A sharp satire on lust and masculinity, this adaptation of the ‘unadaptable’ novel pushes the thematic barriers as far as it’s undeniably restrained to.
9. The Killing (1956)
The first of Kubrick’s major cinematic releases, 1956 effort The Killing is a frantic heist film showcasing many subversive plot devices that would later become commonplace in blockbuster cinema.
Peppered with flashbacks and jump-forwards, the film concerns a veteran criminal who masterminds a heist to steal millions of dollars from a racetrack, a plan hampered by the foolishness of the unruly gang he employs. Characterised in-part by Kubrick’s soon-to-be established cinematic dynamism, the film is among his simplest works but is undoubtedly one of his most enjoyable.
8. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Kubrick’s penultimate film tackling the mid-20th century conflict of the Vietnam War takes shape in two distinct parts; the first covering the training of the recruits themselves, and the second delving into the horror and torment of combat.
Exposing the true ugliness and brutality of war, Full Metal Jacket’s segmentation reflects the protagonist’s central conflict, the first half studying dehumanisation, and the other half reflecting the consequence of this loss.
The staggering difference between the two halves is both compelling and a little floundering.
7. Barry Lyndon (1975)
His seventh book-to-screen adaptation, Kubrick’s period piece, Barry Lyndon is possibly his most compelling to behold—a three-hour dive into the wormhole of 18th-century England.
Shot using lenses designed for the Apollo Space Programme, the technique allowed Kubrick to choreograph his scenes around the use of natural light, shooting several candlelit scenes which absorb you comprehensively into its grasp.
With assistance from photographer John Alcott, Kubrick recreates an unparalleled vision of 18th-century England to house the story of the slimy social climber Redmond Barry and is all the more gripping and tangible as a result.
6. The Shining (1980)
Considered by many as one of the exemplary pieces of 20th-century horror, The Shining marks Kubrick’s foray into the genre, not with blood splatters but with psychological dynamism.
A world away from modern horror, the film is a slow and steady creaking winch, exemplified by Jack Nicholson’s careful rise to insanity and Shelley Duvall’s increasing despair. Meticulously designed to bleed unease, the Overlook Hotel is a hotpot of dread, from the dying beige walls to the dreamlike carpets.
5. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Kubrick’s critical ugly duckling and final cinematic outing is an intoxicating dream, a film more akin to the works of David Lynch than of Kubrick’s own previous films.
Staggering around an erotically dressed New York city, Tom Cruise’s central character Dr. William Harford is a vessel to explore the locations’ ethereal underworld. As he is led through depraved parties, sleazy costume shops and foggy jazz bars, his own fragility is exposed and killed by his own curiosity.
Eyes Wide Shut tracks the dark descent of a made man, broken down by anxiety, jealousy and paranoia.
4. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
In a peculiar futuristic period, time-locked in a kitsch ’60s aesthetic, Alex and his gang of droogs wreck havoc in Kubrick’s mental, furious adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel.
Banned by the director himself until his death in 1999, A Clockwork Orange is a violent, antagonistic attack on the higher powers of government, picking apart concepts of cultural control as Kubrick dives into the moral wormhole of free-will.
Possessing a conflict of intellectual prowess and primal violence, Alex is a violent contradiction, a personification of his own intellectual struggle. This is a rich, provocative film experience, driving a disturbing allegory through the fuel of Beethoven.
3. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
A counterpart to his later war film Full Metal Jacket, though no-less critical of the farce of military aggression, Dr Strangelove is a bone dry satire on the panic and fear of war.
Exemplified by Peter Sellers’ multi-faceted thespian tour-de-force, from the closeted Nazi Dr. Strangelove to the sharply serious President Merkin Muffley, Kubrick’s comedy is both proudly silly and also deeply tragic, representative of all great, poignant comedies.
This conflict is deftly portrayed by the film’s climax where comedy is immediately hijacked by tragedy, commencing one of cinema’s greatest ever, ominous endings.
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Kubrick’s sci-fi epic is likely the genre’s very best, responsible for a plethora of visual iconography that has inspired countless films to date.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a hypnotic cinematic journey truly like no other, and is, on a technical level, a pioneering masterpiece of its form. Superlatives barely justify just how impressive the spaceship-docking scene remains, despite being over 50 years old — its ability to baffle and inspire is seemingly effortless.
As narratively ambitious as it is visually breathtaking, Kubrick attempts to tackle themes of artificial intelligence, life, death, rebirth and the journey of humankind and does so with playful artistry—it’s a bewildering achievement.
1. Paths of Glory (1957)
This 1957 anti-war parable discussing the folly of war and the marginalisation of the individual is possibly Kubrick’s most complete film.
Where his other projects seem distracted by peripheral messages and meanings, Paths of Glory is simple and succinct, a fierce film encapsulating every aspect of what makes Kubrick the cinematic figure he is today.
A humble tale of morality told with a roar, the film is based on the book of the same name by Humphrey Cobb, studying a group of soldiers accused of cowardice and the general enraged to defend them. Examining patriotism and the hierarchy of structural powers, Paths of Glory is a small film that takes on the world, often melodramatic and hard-wired in passionate-empathy.