What is Stanley Kubrick’s Best Film?
There are few auteurs as instantly recognizable and divisive as Stanley Kubrick, few filmmakers as idiosyncratic or groundbreaking. His work spans the entirety of life itself–sometimes in the same film–and has inspired almost as much derision as hosannas. There is no easy consensus on Kubrick’s films–though you may not be terribly surprised by our writers’ choice for his best, it’s hard to imagine that your ranking of his work will line up wholly with ours–nor on the messages imparted within. Is The Shining secretly about the moon landing? Is 2001? What is he really saying about violence in society in A Clockwork Orange? And so on. That said, here is our ranking of the films of Stanley Kubrick. Enjoy. Share. Debate. We know you’ll want to debate.
Editor’s Note: Just as Kubrick wished to disown Fear and Desire after it was released, it’s perhaps fitting that the film wound up as last among our writers’ responses, so we’ll steer clear of including a capsule.
12) Killer’s Kiss
Like Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick’s noirs always find a way to transcend their generic material, however you define the genre. An interesting bit of history behind this film is that Kubrick wrote the story rather than adapting a novel, which would become him his preferred source for stories in the future. While the story is derivative of many other noirs that featured down-on-their-luck boxers and femme fatales who seduce men to do their dirty work, Kubrick collaborated with Howard Sackler on the script and shot, cut, produced, and directed this 67-minute feature on a budget of $40,000 borrowed from his uncle under his company Minotaur Productions.
Always the visualist, Kubrick fired his sound technician after he intruded too many times in wonderfully composed shots and decided to record all of the sound in post-production. What we find in Killer’s Kiss is a story of desire, greed, and violence. Desperate individuals at each other’s throats combined with location photography made this noir look more like the work from famous NYC street photographers than Kiss Me Deadly or The Big Combo, two excellent noirs released the same year as Kubrick’s film. While not as good as his masterpiece The Killing, Killer’s Kiss deserves our attention and contemporary cinephilia is better off now that it is has been beautifully restored and made available by Criterion as a special feature on their latest release of The Killing. Within this highly familiar film is evidence of a master filmmaker, one who knew exactly what kind of images he wanted to create and how they should be put together. There are also hints of the grotesque, a trademark of Kubrick’s cinema, like the final, bizarre fight in the mannequin warehouse where lifeless, plastic bodies are being tossed around while two men try to stab each other to death. (Cody Lang)
It’s often said that you can’t really see Stanley Kubrick or any of his thematic motifs in Spartacus, the 1960 swords-and-sandals epic starring Kirk Douglas as a rebel slave in the Roman Republic, circa 1st century BC. It’s a full-fledged epic in the spirit of Ben-Hur, and meant to be far less cynical than Kubrick’s films–before and after–were. But there are some glimmers of the Kubrickian style in Spartacus, primarily in its mostly bleak view of humanity. (“Mostly” because the film’s best-known moment features a massive group of slaves banding together to save Spartacus the only way they know how, by co-opting his heroic identity and making him part of the faceless group.) Over 50 years after its release, Spartacus may be the greatest curiosity in Kubrick’s filmography, featuring a huge ensemble of respected British actors (Lawrence Olivier, Peter Ustinov in an Oscar-winning role, Charles Laughton, etc.), but to ignore it entirely is to miss a fascinating tale of righteous rebellion, even if it’s from a most unlikely source. (Josh Spiegel)
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of the many unfilmable novels, not simply because of the sheer size of the plot but, more importantly, because it would be a tricky endeavor to transcode his inventive writing style to film. It is to Kubrick’s credit that he did not even attempt this in his adaptation and that he decided not to use Nabokov’s 400-page script. Given the subject matter, the story of a pedophile enamored with a nymphet, Kubrick’s film was destined to be controversial even if he was not able to include as much sexuality as he would have liked. While Kubrick and his collaborator, James Harris, embarked on an extensive rewrite of Nabokov’s script, they had to deal with the Secretary of the British Board of Film Censors. The censors did not believe this novel deserved comic treatment in a film and were especially offended by the dialogue. The script went through many revisions because of the censors, but when it was released through MGM, it was given an ‘A’ for Adult by the MPAA and an ‘X’ rating from the British Board of Censors.
Kubrick decided to warp a straightforward film in the tradition of Hollywood romantic comedies. Satire and irony, whether intended or otherwise, could only be the result given the subject matter. It was a bold move to treat a love story involving a pedophile and young girl in the same way as a love story in a Leo McCarey film. The depiction of pedophilia is mostly implicit, however, and Kubrick was able to hint at a lot of abject subject matter even if he was not able to show it. One of the most disturbing (and intensely erotic) scenes is when Humbert paints the young nymphet’s nails, unintentionally referencing a similar scene in Scarlet Street (1945), where Edward G. Robinson’s character paints the femme fatale’s nails, both scenes depicting the subordination of these men. Love is then treated ironically here, and Humbert’s double, the conniving Clare Quilty, is able to scoop Lolita away from Humbert without much effort at all, turning this bizarre love story into a tragedy. (Cody Lang)
9) The Killing
Stanley Kubrick was the Steven Soderbergh of his time. Granted, the staunchly idiosyncratic director did not take on projects with the primary objective of finding mainstream commercial success but he was capable of adapting himself to any genre. His early film The Killing, from 1956, is his take on film noir. In it, Sterling Hayden and a small band of cohorts organize a risky heist operation that has them steal betting money from a racetrack stadium.
Whereas most of Kubrick’s later works are proof of how powerfully his distinctive voice resonates through whatever story he chooses to tell, The Killing features fewer Kubrickian eccentricities than those coming to the film for the first time but familiar with the director’s more popular efforts might expect. It is a rather clean, straightforward noir although boosted by the director’s already apparent gifted talent as a storyteller. All heists in such films must be timed to perfection, the film plays on this very notion by employing a nondescript narrator who intermittently chimes in with the exact time of day at which various events are taking place. The robbers adorn incredibly eerie clown masks whilst performing the operation as if to reveal their attitude towards the victims of the crime while still concealing their identities. Sterling Hayden anchors the project, playing his naturally strong-willed, steadfast self, juggling intimidation with expert planning. If one is just beginning to explore Kubrick’s filmography, The Killing is not as seminal as his later masterworks and therefore is not an immediate must-see. As an example of just good noir handled by a master, The Killing is essential viewing. (Edgar Chaput)
8) Full Metal Jacket
Full Metal Jacket is a film about the terrible, brutal nature of war, done only in a way that Stanley Kubrick could. At moments it’s unbearably brutal and honest. On its surface, it’s a war film but really it’s about the deconstruction and brainwashing of these boys. Full Metal Jacket is, in many ways, a very difficult film to get a handle on. It moves from scene to scene turning into a film that is hard to conventionally enjoy. The characters are held at arm’s length but really that’s the point. You’re not meant to particularly like these young men, you are simply asked to recognize how difficult their terribly tragic, stupid, and unnecessary situation really is. And that’s really where Full Metal Jacket shines. It’s all about tone, feeling, even if that feeling is cold and unnerving for the viewer. It settles into your mind, just like it is meant to. Kubrick did not design Full Metal Jacket to be a thoroughly enjoyable, tidy film. It’s supposed to be unsettling and fearsome. In that goal, Kubrick creates Full Metal Jacket from the ground up. Everything about the film is immersive and powerful. Full Metal Jacket remains one of Stanley Kubrick’s finest pieces of work. (Tressa Eckerman)
7) Eyes Wide Shut
Upon release, the hype for Stanley Kubrick’s final film could not have been higher. With his death only months earlier, Eyes Wide Shut was expected to be the mega-director’s star-powered swan song. Having not released a film since 1987, expectations outweighed reality, and the film’s reception suffered from all the build-up. Critics were primed for an easily identifiable masterpiece, ripe with hot steamy sex, and what they got was a deeply layered work of art; a film that gets better with multiple viewings.
On the surface, Eyes Wide Shut is about a marriage. Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicoel Kidman) have what society would deem a successful life. Bill is a bit naive, though. In all his self-absorption, he only sees what he wants to see, and when Alice reveals her past desire for infidelity, Bill’s self-perceived dominance is lost. What ensues is a dream-like adventure through New York City, filled with odd moments, erotic tension, and even more ambiguity for Bill. Structured episodically, sequences are interconnected through recurring visual motifs (entering and exiting is a big one), shot selection, color schemes, natural and artificial lighting, music, and self-reflexivity. Looking to restore his position, Bill searches for control through conquest, but what he finds is awareness through failure.
An awareness we have seen in almost all of Kubrick’s output. And like his other films, Eyes Wide Shut is not strictly focused on the individual. Through Bill, Kubrick investigates the viciousness of male subjectivity, while also stressing the complicated, chaotic nature of human existence. Kubrick’s films are affecting because they immerse you in the unknown; presenting a sensory experience that stays with you long after the credits roll. Eyes Wide Shut is not sexy or erotic, nor does it pretend to be. It is a work that resists easy categorization and one that demands investment. (Griffin Bell)
6) Paths of Glory
Compared to the outsize parody of Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory seems subtle in its skewering of contradictions and rigid military structures. The director’s knack for inciting biting criticism on visceral imagery alone plays like gangbusters against precisely-arranged palace interiors and courtyards stacked with soldiers like dominoes. Cracks in the military facade show when exhausted French soldiers stiffen and salute as General Mireau (George MacReady) makes a visit to the trenches to offer commendations. Any illusion of decorum whatsoever is outright obliterated in sparse, deeply-staged battle charges, where artillery explosions plume behind troops that scurry and stumble over one another.
The French army’s failure to take the German-fortified “Anthill” is thoroughly un-glamorous, enough to draw the ire of Mireau and his bruised ego. His suicide mission having failed, the brigadier general orders a court martial for three soldiers on charges of desertion, soldiers whom Kirk Douglas’ noble Colonel Dax tries to defend. Douglas’ impassioned performance erases any suspicion that Kubrick’s adaptation of Humphrey Cobb’s novel is purely concerned with the rotting power of authority on man’s compassion; with pistol in hand and whistle in mouth, Dax is first to lead the failed charge. Paths of Glory doesn’t discriminate between troops and their commanding officers, despite the latter group cavalierly counting casualties like cigarettes over lunch and cognac. Regardless of rank, all manner of organization disappears in the face of death, a theme bluntly but hauntingly communicated in a bunk-side conversation.
A brisk blend of war film, courtroom drama, and existentialism, Dax’s final plea for a few moments of respite for his men makes for an affecting denouement in a bar room’s unison singing but is more of a moving addendum to the greater contradiction: An unnerving execution sequence feels far more tragic when caused by bureaucratic buffoonery. What Kubrick asks is what’s the difference between that firing squad and the enemy’s mustard gas? (David Klein)
5) Barry Lyndon
Barry Lyndon is nothing short of a masterpiece, and in this critic’s eyes, it is Kubrick’s best. It’s an epic, brilliant film about class privileges and an opportunist of dubious morals – a film in which every single frame is gorgeous to watch with a director pushing the limits of film technology to realize his singular vision. Barry Lyndon was a showcase of major innovation in technique. If 2001: A Space Odyssey is known for its revolutionary special effects, The Shining for its heavy use of the Steadicam, and A Clockwork Orange for its controversial scenes; Barry Lyndon is groundbreaking for its cinematography. Overseen by the director of photography John Alcott (who won an Oscar for his work), Barry Lyndon is photographed using special lenses developed by NASA for the Apollo moon landings. The film features the lowest f/stop in film history and fixed focal length, with Kubrick relying solely on sunlight for the exterior shots and candlelight for interior scenes. His meticulous attention to detail; the baroque imagery (reminiscent of paintings from the story’s 18th century period); the deliberate pacing; and the score by Johann Sebastian Bach makes Barry Lyndon a work of technical brilliance. The film’s most outstanding performance is by Patrick Magee, an actor of terrifying intensity, whose Chevalier de Balibari goes down as one of Kubrick’s greatest creations. Much has been said about Ryan O’Neal’s performance; his Irish accent isn’t perfect, but he somehow works as the slightly detestable anti-hero. Barry Lyndon also features the best pistol duel ever filmed, and one of the greatest endings of all time. Barry Lyndon was part of Time magazine’s poll of the 100 best films as well as the Village Voice poll conducted in 1999 and was ranked #27 in Sight and Sound’s 2002 film critics poll. Director Martin Scorsese has also cited Barry Lyndon as his favourite Kubrick film; all of these august publications and filmmakers aren’t wrong. (Ricky D)
4) A Clockwork Orange
Kicking off with a glare directly into the camera, A Clockwork Orange announces itself as a film up to no good. The film is viewed through the notorious narrator Alex DeLarge, whose propensity for “the old ultra-violence” is indulged and blended with the sophistication of his wardrobe, speech patterns, and love of Ludwig Van (Beethoven). Kubrick gives Alex free reign over art design and score, idealizing his exploits and coloring everything “societal” with blasé blankness. Perhaps his mother’s bafflingly purple hair is one of the jokes. It’s basic provocation, pairing the objectively wrong acts with canonical and beloved music. The choice of Beethoven, maybe the most popular classical composer, screams youthful pretense, as his first-name basis with the artist echoes current fandoms’ same wishful colloquialism: Justin, Selena, and so on.
Kubrick’s trademark performance style plays into this gaze, as if Alex sees society as an angry old man shaking his fist at his cavalcade of “epic trolls.” This only ceases, or at least ceases to be noticeable, in the victims’ instinctual, animalistic reaction to immediate violence. These instances function as the warped Rorschach for the audience and the character to split on, the former already repulsed, and the latter a sadist. But once Alex is with us in his physical aversion to violence, he turns the film into his pity party. Oddly, he is pitiful in this latter half, though his plight is heightened in its portrayal to a suffocatingly false level. Comical even. Violence has gone from being funny to Alex and disgusting to us, to disgusting to both, but simultaneously funny only to us.
Also, it’s impossible to discuss the film without praising Wendy Carlos’ score. Her slinky, medieval fairground backdrop cheekily lends the first half a sinister innocence, while the perfectly overwrought music of the second half lends it so much of its goofy sympathy. The synth drum with every blow of the cop’s nightstick is a transcendentally twisted pairing, nearly on the level of the Ludivico serum. (Racine Charlotte)
3) The Shining
Nearly 35 years after its release, The Shining is best defined by its deliberately inexplicable nature. So often, people attempt to concoct explanations for the unknowable in art and popular culture; it’s no surprise that this horror classic inspired the recent documentary Room 237, in which a series of obsessed and unseen individuals explicate their theories that are meant to make The Shining become logical. But The Shining is scary precisely because Stanley Kubrick’s take on Stephen King’s novel offers very few answers. We know that Jack Torrance is driven to the point of madness, either because of the isolation of his job as the caretaker at the mysterious Overlook Hotel or because the hotel gets its supernatural hooks in him early. But what to make of the apparitions he sees in the second half of the film, or of the ghosts, his wife Wendy encounters in the third act? And what can we possibly make of the final shot, revealing that, as Delbert Grady menacingly says, Jack was always the caretaker? We can speculate and theorize until our faces turn blue, but The Shining‘s brilliance is precisely due to its impenetrable, impossible nature. It is a maze from which we can never escape. (Josh Spiegel)
2) Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Widely considered Kubrick’s other greatest film–2001 is still more celebrated by cinephiles, as this list attests–Dr. Strangelove is a comedic depiction of Cold War politics and the military on both sides of the conflict. After Lolita, Kubrick became very interested in the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Russia. He read Herman Kohn’s On Thermonuclear War and Henry Kissinger’s The Necessity for Choice, and decided he wanted to explore the paranoid political policies revolving around nuclear war in a film. After amassing a personal library of over 70 books on the subject and acquiring the rights to adapt Red Alert by Peter George. During the initial writing stage, Kubrick discovered how so much of what he was adapted had a comedic element to it and decided to contact Terry Southern, author of The Magical Christian, to help him satirize the script. Many believe that Southern was the principal screenwriter, but that was not the case. Kubrick is the author of this film from the script to the directing of the actors and to the editing of the final cut. Southern’s own comedic sensibilities only complemented what was already there by Kubrick’s typewriter; even more, humor was created with Peter Sellers’ improvisation on the set.
Kubrick and Sellers created some great work and Kubrick knew how to channel Sellers’ talent in the right way. There were reportedly three cameras on Sellers at all times, just in case he had a moment of inspiration and improvised something hilarious. Not only was Sellers at a comic high, but the entire cast Kubrick used were in top form. George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden, in particular, have many great lines in the film and give terrific performances, satirizing the military to a degree not done before in film history.
Comedy is such a hard genre to pull off; it’s even more difficult to make a comedy that is funny beyond the immediate context and time of its production. It is, thus, an immense achievement that this film is so beloved given that it deals with a specific period in geopolitical history that shouldn’t be applicable today. Maybe it’s because our world has not progressed, but simply remained where it was when Dr. Strangelove was made that we can still enjoy this film so much today. Its dark and tragic undertones are no less applicable and it’s another testament to Kubrick as a filmmaker, a storyteller, that he is able to combine such horrible nightmares with such side-splitting laughter. (Cody Lang)
1) 2001: A Space Odyssey
Starting off life as an exploratory science fiction adventure formed in the tandem with the literal interpretation of Arthur C. Clarke, the constant and restless drive to find something fresh, original and daringly experimental led Stanley Kubrick to routinely change, edit and mutate his piece until it became the 1968 expressionist epic that has inspired countless filmmakers. Already a director with a head for ambitious highs, Kubrick’s tableau of ambiguous mystery and visual storytelling confirmed him as something of an art-house genius playing the mainstream game.
Through three interlocking segments stretching from the dawn of man to the apparent discovery of alien life in our realm of existence, 2001 chooses not to simply spin a yarn but instead attempts to cover every aspect of humanity, good and bad (mostly bad), that stretches into the far reaches of a cold, calculating and misunderstanding future. While the prehistoric progeny of mankind – discovering violence as a tool and thus unable to comprehend the first alien message – and the ill-fated voyage of a spacecraft with an AI program acting as a steward – showcasing our species creating life only to destroy it – are the most iconic pieces in the puzzle, credit where credit is due to the whole. The culture of secrecy which covers up the appearance of the alien monoliths and the intended unintelligible meaning behind Dave Bowman’s final years are equally symbolic, cutting, and fitting.
While indicating his disdain for his own species, Kubrick perhaps unintentionally provides a shining example of our redeeming qualities. Enigmatic, baffling, and unforgettable, his is indeed an odyssey and this is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time. (Scott Patterson)
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand Sound On Sight on April 23, 2014.