Stanley Kubrick, the enigmatic filmmaker from the Bronx, is my favorite director of all time.
There are other directors I like, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Billy Wilder, Ridley Scott, Elia Kazan, Christopher Nolan, Francis Ford Coppola and others.
But what makes Kubrick stand out are three things:
Every movie of his is unique and he worked in so many genres. Sci-Fi. War movies. Horror. Period-piece drama. Political satire. Sexual thriller. (He even almost directed a Western once. Marlon Brando contacted Kubrick, asking him to direct an adaptation of a western novel. Brando ended up directing it himself, becoming “One-Eyed Jacks.”) The only other director with as much variety on their resume is Spielberg, but he’s had a few misses.
His lack of flops.
He directed 13 feature films between 1953 and 1999 and the lowest ranking on Rotten Tomatoes is 75 percent for “Eyes Wide Shut.” Four of those 13 movies made the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies of all time.
In my opinion, he never made a single bad movie. I might like some better than others, but each one contains a nugget of genius. This isn’t true for every great director. Coppola directed “Jack,” a comedy in which Robin Williams plays a kid who ages fast, an embarrassing flop. Spielberg has critical flops like “1941” and “The Terminal” and others like “Hook,” “War of the Worlds” and “Ready Player One” aren’t universally loved.
Whether it was the lighting for his shots or a prop in the background, Kubrick paid attention to every detail in his movies. His movies were not quick to shoot as a result. “Eyes Wide Shut” took 14 months to film and he’s famous for doing hundreds of takes of the same scene over and over again to get it just right. While none of his movies are completely perfect, they all seem to have a strong passion behind them. Nothing is mailed in ever. He’s not a “director for hire” who dispassionately makes movies to get a paycheck. Kubrick liked to tell his family, “You either care about something or you don’t.” To him, caring isn’t a halfway thing. It’s 100 percent.
So I’ve watched every feature-length film directed by Kubrick and I’ve arranged the list according to my personal preference. I didn’t include “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” since he did not direct that movie.
13 — Fear and Desire
Kubrick was only 25 years when he let his father mortgage his home in order to finance his 62-minute feature debut which cost about $50,000 to make. The entire film crew only consisted of 15 people. The movie itself, an anti-war film about a fictional war, isn’t amazing on its own but there are elements of Kubrick’s style that you could see even in his first movie. The use of close-ups and lighting. Kubrick was a professional photographer for Look Magazine and you can see his ability to put great images up on a screen. The acting and story could use some work, but you could see the potential.
12 — Killer’s Kiss
In Kubrick’s second film, he focuses on a boxer who gets tangled with a crime boss who has his claws around a ballerina he’s in love with. Scorsese said he was influenced by “Killer’s Kiss” when shooting “Raging Bull.” The shadows and lighting are exceptional. This one is also short, only 67 minutes long. Kubrick had to borrow $40,000 from his uncle to make this movie and it didn’t recoup its budget but it impressed some film producers who helped him make his next movie, “The Killing.”
11 — The Killing
His third feature, this is Kubrick’s first great film. A film noir heist film, this is the first Kubrick movie with a strong plot and acting. Quentin Tarantino said he was inspired by this movie when he made “Reservoir Dogs.” Sterling Hayden, who would work with Kubrick again on “Dr. Strangelove,” stars as a con man who enlists a corrupt cop and a cashier to help him rob a race track. It unfurls similar to “The Sting” or “Ocean’s Eleven” with everything conceivably going off as well as planned, but jealousies and mistrust start to put a knot into the proceedings. Finally, an ironic twist visualized by cash floating away in the wind shows how life doesn’t turn out how you plan. At the end, Hayden’s character has the last line of the movie: “What does it matter?” In this film, we really start to see Kubrick’s cynical view of humankind. The standout in my mind was the dynamic between the teller and his wife. He tells her about the heist in hopes that getting the money will help his wife finally love him. She belittles him constantly but when she hears about the money, she’s quiet. Instead she runs to her lover-on-the-side and hatches a plan to rob her husband and his cohorts after the job is done. This is also the beginning of Kubrick’s biggest criticism as a director: he never creates strong likable female characters. Indeed, his movies are mostly focused on men and the few lead women, such as Shelly Duvall’s Mrs. Torrance in “The Shining,” aren’t particularly likable. Probably his best female representation on the big screen was Nicole Kidman’s character in “Eyes Wide Shut.”
10 — Eyes Wide Shut
This movie is unfairly maligned. Critics said they were disappointed, having waited more than a decade for a new Kubrick movie to end up with this confusing, ambiguous, dream-like story. This is the third Kubrick movie to be create controversy and be censored, following “Lolita” and “A Clockwork Orange.” In the case of “Eyes Wide Shut,” the controversy might have overshadowed the final product. Kubrick worked on filming for 14 months and died a week after a private screening of the finished film. He was satisfied with his work and passed away quietly.
The whole idea of this movie is about the strength of marriages. Infidelity and doubt chipping away at the foundations. So it makes sense that a married couple in real life took the lead roles in Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. The problem is that Kidman is a much better actor than Cruise. He’s fine. It’s actually one of his better performances, but you never see anything deeper in his face. Maybe that’s because his character is meant to be guarded, detached and emotionless, similar to Ryan O’Neal’s character in “Barry Lyndon,” but this strong facade put up by Cruise’s character leads us to a familiar criticism of this actor: He’s always just playing Tom Cruise in his movies.
Cruise’s acting is one flaw in “Eyes Wide Shut” and the other problem is that narratively the movie loses steam after the infamous night at the mansion. The film climaxes too soon and the viewer wishes there was more exploration of that world. We want answers or at the very least we want to see Cruise’s character return to the mansion. I understand why he doesn’t. It adds to the feeling that it’s all just a dream and the mystery is key. But it’s not very satisfying for the viewer.
Despite any missteps, there are some strong scenes in this movie. The costumes are award-worthy and as usual Kubrick incorporates music masterfully. There’s music by Hungarian composer György Ligeti incorporated into the famous mask-orgy scene that beautifully creates the tension. Interesting enough, people seem to think that Ligeti wrote music for Kubrick but his pieces were always created independent of Kubrick and later used in his movies, such as this one and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In addition, Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2 creates that playful vibe at the beginning of the movie which is later contrasted with the dark scenes full of danger and mystery.
This is the only Kubrick movie that seems reminiscent of another director. Certainly you can see shades of David Lynch (“Blue Velvet,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Twin Peaks”) in the dream-like sexual fantasy. Kubrick was actually a fan of Lynch and showed “Eraserhead” to his crew while filming “The Shining.” But I doubt Kubrick is copying Lynch.
9 — Barry Lyndon
This 1975 period-piece drama earned more Oscars than any other Kubrick work and earned nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. Commercially, the film was a flop. Audiences found it to be overly long, dull and emotionless. Some critics compared it to a beautiful book of artwork. It’s big and gorgeous and you love to have it sit on your coffee table, but you don’t actually read it.
Kubrick had long wanted to make a movie about French emperor Napoleon but unfortunately another Napoleon movie called “Waterloo” came out and as a result the financing for his picture dried up. Kubrick had done quite a bit of research on the wars between France and England and wanted to incorporate that into some film, which is why this became a nice fit for him.
Ryan O’Neal was a star at the time, coming off of “Love Story” and “Paper Moon.” He was loved by critics and audiences in the 1970s, but his emotionless performance leaves much to be desired. I understand that’s the way the character was meant to be — a detached social climber — but you don’t feel you get to know him in the three-hour slog. The movie itself has seen its reputation increase over the years and some consider it to be a classic or among his best works. While I might not love this movie, I respect it. The cinematography might be among the best in movie history. Seriously, it’s that good. It looks like a living painting and many of the scenes were modeled after famous pieces of artwork. This is because of Kubrick’s innovation in using special NASA cameras and altering them in order to be able to shoot scenes with natural lighting, including scenes with just candlelight. That wasn’t possible before this movie. The beautiful natural-light cinematography in “The Revenant” owes considerable credit to “Barry Lyndon.” While it’s in the bottom half of Kubrick’s work in my personal opinion, parts of it are a masterpiece. It’s not a failure by any means. After the tepid commercial response, Kubrick decided to film a sure-fire hit for his next movie and adapted Stephen King’s popular novel “The Shining” to a huge box office.
8 — Spartacus
This was the movie that made Kubrick a household name among everyday people. Kirk Douglas wanted to produce a big gladiator movie. Douglas himself was a Christian and wanted to parallel the persecution of slaves with the stories of the Old Testament, but screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (made famous to today’s audiences by Bryan Cranston’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of him) decided to instead make parallels to McCarthyism. Douglas was the star but he was also the producer, so he was the big boss. After a week of filming, he was unhappy with the director so he fired him and brought aboard Kubrick who had just worked with Douglas on “Paths of Glory.” Kubrick was only 30 years old and never made a movie with the budget of “Spartacus” so it was a big challenge. It cost $12 million to make, which is like $100 million for a movie today.
“Ben-Hur” came out the year before “Spartacus” which stole some of its thunder, but it’s a great movie. Kubrick creates a beautiful-looking war epic with action scenes that still hold up 60 years later. The dialogue is clever and there are great performances from some of the greatest actors of all time: Sir Lawrence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis and Peter Ustinov. Ustinov steals every scene he’s in and he ended up winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Kubrick had a tough task in making this movie. He jumped in after production had started and he did not have creative control. He had to navigate competing big personalities/egos in Douglas/Trumbo/Olivier/Laughton. Many of the actors did not like one another and Trumbo and Douglas argued on the script. Despite all of that, he made a movie that holds up to this day and includes one of the most iconic scenes in all of movies when each slave stands up and says, “I am Spartacus!” (a scene that has been parodied or homaged many times).
One interesting thing I picked up on that I’m sure many missed was the hidden sexuality in “Spartacus.” There’s a scene in which Olivier’s character is in a hot tub with a male slave who is bathing him and Olivier talks about how he likes “both oysters and snails” in an obvious metaphor for bisexuality. It makes sense in context of ancient Rome, but I wonder if 1960 audiences picked up on that.
“Spartacus” gave Kubrick the clout to make the movies he wanted to make. In the future, he focused on more nuanced characters rather than flawless ones like the hero of “Spartacus.” His movies in the future tended to be more cynical and he had absolute creative control.
7 — Lolita
Immediately after “Spartacus,” Kubrick decided to adapt the controversial novel by Vladimir Nabokov, which deals with a man sexually obsessed with a 14-year-old girl. A movie that amounts to essentially depicting pedophilia? That would be controversial in 2020, let alone 1962 when it was made. Kubrick faced a lot of censorship so he had to cut most of the overt romantic references. For example, he has a scene in which James Mason’s character is making love to his landlord but looks over at the picture on the nightstand of her 14-year-old daughter Lolita. Religious groups demanded that the number of glances had to be limited. Kubrick himself said he would never have made this movie if he knew how much censorship he would have faced. But the controversy made the movie a huge commercial hit and established Kubrick as a director who liked to push the envelope. Mason gives a deliciously creepy performance and Shelley Winters excels as the jealous man-crazy mother of Lolita who ends up marrying Mason’s character. The real standout is Peter Sellers, who ad-libs many of his lines and plays multiple characters, which obviously inspired Kubrick to cast him in his very next feature: “Dr. Strangelove.” It also was the first time that Kubrick was teamed with an excellent actor who knew how to improvise, something that he tried to replicate in each of his movies. He found those brilliant improvisational actors again with Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” and R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket.” “Lolita” starts to drag in its second half and the ending is ruined by the “in medias res” beginning but there’s amazing acting and a clever screenplay that pushed the limits. It’s David Lynch’s favorite Kubrick movie and although you might feel dirty after watching “Lolita” and need a shower, it’s a powerful work that sticks with you.
6 — Full Metal Jacket
Kubrick decided he wanted to make a war movie. His friends told him he already made war movies in “Paths of Glory” and “Dr. Strangelove.” He replied those were anti-war movies and he wanted to show the beautiful chaos of war without any political commentary. He worked on adapting a novel for years but when “Full Metal Jacket” finally came out in 1987, other Vietnam War Movies had already come out: “Platoon,” “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now.” The first two won Best Picture at the Oscars and the third should have beaten “Kramer vs. Kramer.” The year before “Full Metal Jacket” came out is when “Platoon” was released so it’s possible that audiences had Vietnam War war movie fatigue. Despite all of that “Full Metal Jacket” is brilliant and surpasses, in my mind, all of those movies except “Apocalypse Now.” It’s bleak and cynical and beautifully shot and realistic. Everything you want in a Kubrick movie.
The biggest problem with “Full Metal Jacket” is it feels like two movies. The first half is a masterpiece. You see Vincent D’Onofrio take abuse from a drill sergeant played by R. Lee Ermey (he should have won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role, in which he wrote most of his own lines). The ending of the first half is poignant and shocking and so it’s a letdown when the movie transitions into a typical exploration of war featuring a military journalist played by Matthew Modine, a mediocre actor with no charisma. The second half is very episodic and there are scenes that are brilliant but a lot of it feels like DVD extras with deleted scenes inserted between great ones. The ending is brilliant and you’ll have The Mickey Mouse Club theme song stuck in your head. And you’ll marvel at the wartime scenes shot at “magic hour” with the lighting just perfect and flames flickering in the background. Something so horrible (war) never looked so beautiful.
Years later, Kubrick wanted to make a Holocaust movie — not a true war movie — called “The Aryan Papers” but when he saw “Schindler’s List” he scrapped those plans. Again, Kubrick worked too slowly.
“Full Metal Jacket” is a work of genius but it’s not without its flaws which keeps it out of the top 5 best Kubrick movies ever.
5 — Paths of Glory
It might be somewhat controversial that I’m putting Kubrick’s fourth feature — made in his twenties — as one of his best movies, but it’s so very underrated. Many people haven’t seen this black and white World War I movie about a French solider who defies his general when sent on a mindless suicide mission that was ordered only to satisfy the general’s ego. His troops stay in their trenches and the general decides to have a court-martial and sentence a few representatives of all of the troops to death. Kirk Douglass plays a colonel who defends the men in the kangaroo court trial and it’s truly a smart commentary on the absurdity of war and the insecure world leaders who decide if people live or die. There’s humor that we’ll see again in “Dr. Strangelove”, witty dialogue and great use of shadows in the cinematography. It’s hard to watch the scenes of soldiers walking through the trenches and not think it looks just like “1917” (another WWI movie that obviously is inspired by this film).
The ending is haunting in its beauty and Kubrick himself ended up marrying the actress who played the German singer at the end. They remained married until his death.
Interesting side note: The French weren’t happy with this portrayal of cowardice and the movie was not available in French until 1975, 18 years after its release.
“Paths of Glory” might have been overshadowed by the bigger budget (and better made) war film “The Bridge on the River Kwai” that came out the same year. “Paths of Glory” might not reach that height but it’s a smart anti-war film that really impresses considering its small budget and young director.
4 — A Clockwork Orange
Something extraordinary happened when Kubrick adapted Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel (which many thought would be unadaptable due to the made-up slang), the extreme violence in this film was shocking. And when similar attacks took place in England, Kubrick asked that the movie be pulled from theaters. It was a huge box office hit and so the studio lost a lot of money. No other director would have enough influence to get their movie pulled in the middle of a theatrical run. And the fact that he did it shows that he does feel responsibility for his work’s influence on others.
“A Clockwork Orange” is a shocking film. It’s depiction of “ultra-violence” and breaking into homes of innocent people definitely makes audiences uncomfortable. It’s contrasted with music by Beethoven, a favorite of the protagonist Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell) who called it, “the Ludwig Van.” It’s full of Kubrick-esque imagery. Close ups. Intricate costumes. Unique backgrounds, colors and props. It’s very stylistic.
It’s influenced several modern horror films like Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” or “The Purge” series.
The second half of the movie is the most interesting to me. I am fascinated by Kubrick’s commentary on reforming criminals and the psychology of morals. The scene where Alex is brainwashed with his eyes forced open has been parodied many times and there’s some dark humor in “A Clockwork Orange” as well. Kubrick eventually makes you care and root for this despicable protagonist by the end of the movie.
Kubrick’s first two movies used narration in a somewhat lazy fashion (although that was common in film noir movies of that day). In “A Clockwork Orange” the narration is effective in letting you inside the brain of this sociopath.
Kubrick uses a wide-angle lense to distort images in a way that makes the whole thing feel like it’s happening inside the brain of Alex.
Some said this movie was dangerous but that’s because it’s so intriguing and effective.
The movie received an X rating upon release and it still pushes the envelope nearly 50 years later.
3 — Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Kubrick’s first masterpiece doesn’t neatly fit into a genre. It’s a dark comedy and a political satire, but it’s not the most hilarious movie ever made. It’s not sentimental or dramatic. It’s just smart and biting. And it shows the ridiculousness of war contrasted with a pie fight of all scenes.
Peter Sellers gives one of the best performances in movie history, playing three very different roles. George C. Scott also shines.
So many political satires owe their pedigree to “Dr. Strangelove,” even the comical way in which the situation room was designed. I can’t watch the TV show “Veep” without thinking of this movie.
It’s beautifully shot in black and white with sharp contrast and shadows. The scene of Slim Pickens riding the bomb is one of the most iconic in movie history.
It’s full of amazing memorable quotes like: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”
The amazing (and scary thing) about this movie is how close to reality it actually is. It’s a farce, but military journalists say that it actually was a chaotic mess back then.
2 — The Shining
I haven’t been shy about declaring that “The Shining” is one of my favorite movies of all time. Kubrick creates one of the most iconic settings in movie history in the Overlook Hotel. It’s a large, empty, expansive building but it also feels small and claustrophobic and filled with doom and terror. A lot of times it’s a cliche to say the setting is a character in and of itself but in this case it’s really true. Every detail stands out. I can see that carpet print in my head when I close my eyes. And Kubrick truly explores the space with a revolutionary use of the new SteadiCam technology, which had only been used on three other films prior to “The Shining.” He uses it to glide seamlessly between spaces with a ghost-like effect, most notable with Danny Torrance rides his tricycle through the halls.
Production was difficult on “The Shining” as it is with most Kubrick films. There were hundreds of takes and Kubrick was so cruel to Shelley Duvall (who legitimately is a bad actress) that her hair started to fall out. Kubrick was creeping into David O. Russell territory with his mistreatment of her, but I like to think it was actually similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s process on “The Birds.” He terrorized the actress to get the frightened performance out of her.
Jack Nicholson was easier to work with and he ended up throwing away his scripts because they would change all of the time. He ended up ad-libbing, which Kubrick loved and the famous line, “Here’s Johnny!” wasn’t in the script.
Kubrick’s interest all started when he was immersed in Stephen King’s 1977 novel and decided to adapt it. Kubrick liked to base his movies on books so he had a source material to work from and then he liked to “improve upon it.” Generally the books he picked weren’t bestsellers. But “The Shining” was different. It had a following. And as a result some people — including King himself — weren’t happy with the major changes he made from the book. King even decided to make the movie himself many years later as a made-for-TV miniseries starring Steven Weber (a step down from Jack Nicholson).
King felt that Kubrick missed the point of the book. And maybe he did. King’s book is about how alcoholism can destroy a family and in the book the ghosts in the Overlook Hotel are literally real. Kubrick’s movie is about the evil that lurks inside all men and how that can be awakened (whether by alcoholism or cabin fever). The ghosts in his movie are open to interpretation. Are they real or are they part of Jack Torrance’s madness? One interesting thing to note is every time Jack sees a ghost there’s a mirror or reflective surface nearby, which shows he’s looking into his own soul.
King thought that Nicholson was wrong for the part since he just played a mad man in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” King believed they should cast an ordinary nice guy so the descent into madness and the transformation is more pronounced.
I love the book and I love the movie, but they’re different animals. The movie is great because it’s so ambiguous, although that lack of clarity confounded and angered critics immediately after its release. It was even nominated for two Razzies. Kubrick and actress Shelley Duvall both received nominations. No Oscar nominations came.
Despite being released the same weekend as “The Empire Strikes Back,” the movie went out to make a lot of money for the studio. Although Kubrick liked to have film production stretch on for more than a year with so many takes, he had a skeleton crew and so daily costs were lower.
Forty years later, film buffs are still analyzing what “The Shining” is all about. Some have crazy theories that it’s about how Kubrick faked the moon landing. (I kid you not. Someone made a whole documentary about it.) Some think it’s about the massacre of the Native Americans. Some think it’s about World War II. Again, I think it’s more about the evil inside all people and what it takes to awaken that. Is it supernatural forces or psychological? It’s up to the viewer to decide.
Besides perhaps “2001: A Space Odyssey,” it’s the Kubrick film that can be analyzed most. There are so many clues to pick up on. What does the photograph at the end of the movie mean? Some have theorized that it means that Jack Torrance has been absorbed by the hotel, but Kubrick himself said it means some version of him has been reincarnated, which harkens back to Jack’s conversation with Grady about how he’s “always been the caretaker.”
Every time I watch this movie I pick up on something new that I had not noticed before. That’s the mark of a great movie.
1 — 2001: A Space Odyssey
How much would we appreciate La Gioconda today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: “This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth” — or “because she’s hiding a secret from her lover”? It would shut off the viewer’s appreciation and shackle him to a reality other than his own. I don’t want that to happen to 2001.
— Stanley Kubrick, Playboy interview 1968
This is in my top 10 films ever made. It connects with you visually and musically and I believe it makes you feel a truth rather than know one.
The ambiguity of the movie is what divides people. It’s vague and nonverbal. There are long stretches without any dialogue or narration. It doesn’t explain itself. But I think when you are tackling a subject like the vastness of outer space, the existence of aliens and man’s connection to God and the Universe, ambiguity and mystery are not only understandable but required. This movie would not have worked if it explained itself.
In essence, I believe the film is about evolution both physically and spiritually. In the novel that accompanied the movie (which differs from the screenplay, so I wouldn’t say it’s a complete skeleton key to deciphering the movie’s code), it’s explained that the monolith is an alien tool that helps lesser beings evolve onto a higher plane. That’s why it’s seen at the dawn of man and that’s why it’s seen at the end before the Star Child emerges and brings the viewer to a new form of Heaven.
Hal 9000, the artificial intelligence captain, is a perfect example of the next form of evolution beyond human life, into a robotic form. The Star Gate sequence, in which the character travels into a colorful dimension (they used slit-scan photography to achieve this effect) visualizes for the viewer what it would feel like to move on into a higher plane of existence.
The movie itself was a technical breakthrough and Kubrick earned his only Oscar win ever for this film for its special effects. Similar to Hitchcock, Kubrick didn’t earn the Academy Awards he deserved (Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director five times, but never won. The Academy did give him the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, but that’s technically not an Oscar).
“2001: A Space Odyssey” made a ton of money at the box office ($60 million then, or $400 million if you adjust for inflation). Without its box office success, who knows if “Star Wars” would have been made. It certainly did change movies.
The special effects in “2001: A Space Odyssey” actually do hold up today. The rotating centrifuge used to film zero-gravity is ingenious and the models used to film outer space look fantastic on film.
I can watch this movie again and again and interpret it different ways. And it’s fitting that the final line of the movie is: “Its origin and purpose still a total mystery.”
That kind of sums of many of Kubrick’s movies … in a good way.