The mind of Stanley Kubrick was like an intricate ornate ticking clock, made up of several springs, sprockets and cogs that each worked to faultless, careful perfection. Taking inspiration from not only the history of cinema but also from literature and classical art, Stanley Kubrick was a filmmaker who was constantly striving to better his own craft, dedicated to ambitious projects of science fiction, horror and historical drama.
For Kubrick, however, the application of his desire was not always as easy as his imagination had conjured, often experiencing complications on set. As he stated in his video acceptance speech of the D.W. Griffiths Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999, “Anyone who has ever been privileged to direct a film also knows that, although it can be like trying to write War and Peace in a bumper car in an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling”.
As a result of his own pure dedication and perfectionism, Stanley Kubrick made eight (at least) masterpieces that covered several genres, styles and forms. Working with the likes of Kirk Douglas, Jack Nicholson, Peter Sellers and Keir Dullea, Kubrick also had the privilege of a dedicated crew surrounding him, including cinematographers Geoffrey Unsworth, John Alcott and Martin Kenzie who each helped him create the ten best shots of his career.
The 10 greatest shots of Stanley Kubrick
10. Full Metal Jacket (1987, Cinematography: Douglas Milsome)
Stanley Kubrick’s penultimate film tackles the mid-20th century conflict of the Vietnam War and 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.
The separation helps to expose the true ugliness and brutality of war, giving the audience time to attach to the characters before they’re brutally thrown into battle. Despite much of the film being filmed in the English countryside of the Norfolk Broads among other locations, Kubrick and cinematographer Douglas Milsome do well to transport the viewer to a faraway nightmare well-illustrated by this haunting shot.
9. Eyes Wide Shut (1999, Cinematography: Larry Smith)
The great, understated Eyes Wide Shut stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as a couple going through a tumultuous relationship when they discover the smutty, corrupt underbelly of New York.
An intoxicating dream that is more akin to the works of David Lynch than of Kubrick’s own previous films, Eyes Wide Shut sees Cruise’s Bill Harford stagger around the city as the director’s vessel to explore the ethereal underworld. A strange film with a magnificent vision, the allure of Kubrick’s final film is in the anxiety, jealousy and paranoia of the central character, heightened by the contrast of New York’s glitzy pretentiousness.
8. A Clockwork Orange (1971, Cinematography: John Alcott)
Adapted from the iconic novel of the same name from Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange is a controversial classic that sees Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his gang of droogs wreak havoc on a strange futuristic English town.
A violent attack on the higher powers, the concepts of cultural control and the morality of free will, A Clockwork Orange has much to say beneath its provocative surface. Alex and his droogs are violent contradictions, embracing the art and nuance of Beethoven whilst using this to inspire scenes of disturbing violence. As demonic, shadowy forces in their town, the moment in which the Droogs beat up a homeless man in an overpass serves as a scene indicative of the group’s mindless terror.
7. Barry Lyndon (1971, Cinematography: John Alcott)
Whilst many turn to 2001: A Space Odyssey when thinking of the director’s finest looking film, there is no doubt that Barry Lyndon need also be considered thanks to its luscious environmental landscapes.
His seventh book-to-screen adaptation, Stanley Kubrick’s period piece Barry Lyndon is possibly his most compelling to behold. His three-hour dive into the world of 18th-century England sees him and cinematographer John Alcott use lenses designed for the Apollo Space Programme to capture extraordinary vistas using natural light. Inspired by classical paintings in the composition of his shots, the incredible backdrop of the intimidating British skies and countryside is captured throughout the film as in the shot below.
6. Paths of Glory (1957, Cinematography: Georg Krause)
Possibly Stanley Kubrick’s most compact and complete film, this anti-war parable discussing the folly of war and marginalisation of soldiers is a compelling piece of work starring Kirk Douglas as the great Colonel Dax.
Simple and succinct, Kubrick’s fierce war film is a tale of morality more than the act of battle itself, studying a group of soldiers accused of cowardice and the general enraged to defend them. The tracking shot following the colonel down the trenches of WWI whilst bombs explode in the surrounding area remains one of the most iconic shots in all of cinema, let alone Kubrick’s celebrated career.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth and John Alcott)
Despite being over 50 years old, 2001: A Space Odyssey still looks like it could’ve been made just yesterday with a sharp, ambitious cinematic eye that inspires awe throughout its lengthy runtime.
One of the greatest science fiction films of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey is responsible for inspiring countless films to date thanks to its innovative, hypnotic visuals that make it a pioneering masterpiece. Achieving such shots of ‘zero-gravity’ by creating a giant rig that rotates to give the effect of such weightlessness, Stanley Kubrick, Geoffrey Unsworth and John Alcott demonstrated talent way beyond their technological boundaries.
4. The Shining (1980, Cinematography: Martin Kenzie and John Alcott)
Recreating the Overlook Hotel from Stephen King’s novel with great artistry, The Shining is a creepy, unnerving haunted house film suffused with beauty, vibrant colour and careful composition.
Considered to be an exemplary piece of 20th-century horror, The Shining reflects a psychological web of terror, a slow and steady creaking winch that steadily hastens as Jack Torrance’s insanity grows. A hotpot of dread, from the pale beige walls to the hypnotic carpets, Kubrick and his cinematographers ingeniously design the space to depict the fragmented maze of a broken mind with hallucinations and visions galore.
3. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor)
An amalgamation of tragedy, comedy and farce, Dr. Strangelove is a dry satire, starring Peter Sellers in three different roles, on the futility of war, particularly in the hands of some of the most erratic minds of the military.
Proudly silly whilst deeply poignant, Dr. Strangelove strikes an ingenious balance between comedy and sincerity that leads to a truly ominous final conclusion. The film itself follows a collection of military leaders sitting at a large round table, discussing the dropping of a nuclear bomb. Made to look like a poker table, together with a green felt tabletop and overhead lights, the iconic war-room of Kubrick’s film was so convincing that Ronald Regan thought the room itself was real.
2. Barry Lyndon (1971, Cinematography: John Alcott)
Perfectly mimicking the style and composition of classical art, Barry Lyndon features some truly stunning shots thanks to the film’s innovative use of lenses taken from the Apollo Space Programme.
Such lenses helped Kubrick to better-capture natural light, in particular, the soft glow of candlelight that is used throughout the film to convey a strong sense of time, place and mood. Looking much like a classic painting, Stanley Kubrick’s work alongside John Alcott on the shot below is exceptional with each individual perfectly lit to create a compelling portrait of aristocratic life.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth and John Alcott)
Even today it would be difficult to recreate many of the shots in 2001: A Space Odyssey, particularly to the same proficiency as Stanley Kubrick, Geoffrey Unsworth and John Alcott achieved.
The epic conclusion of the 1968 science fiction classic sees the lead character metamorphosis from a dying man into a newborn baby. It’s an extraordinary scene that plays out in an experimental, fragmented sequence, using models to create the might of a space station among other props. In one of the film’s final shots, we see the newborn baby, encased in an ethereal shroud glare at planet earth from space. It’s one of the greatest shots in cinema history.