The notoriously meticulous Stanley Kubrick only completed 13 features before his death in 1999, but several of those titles remain groundbreaking classics, spanning a variety of genres and themes. Let’s take a look back at all 13 of those films, ranked worst to best.
Born in 1928 in New York City, Kubrick got his start as a photographer for Look magazine before directing short documentaries. His first features, “Fear and Desire” (1953) and “Killer’s Kiss” (1955), were produced out of his own pocket on shoestring budgets. It was with the noir thriller “The Killing” (1956) and the antiwar drama “Paths of Glory” (1957) that his talent fully blossomed, and before long he was helming the epic “Spartacus” (1960) and an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov‘s controversial novel “Lolita” (1962), both of which brought him Golden Globe nominations for Best Director.
He hit the Oscar jackpot for the first time with “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), a pitch-black nuclear war satire that featured Peter Sellers in three of his best roles. Considered by many to be one of the funniest film ever made, it brought Kubrick nominations for writing, directing and producing, and earned Sellers a Best Actor bid.
Just four years later, he was given a blank check to produce the confounding and highly influential sci-fi hit “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), a decidedly non-narrative look at man’s intergalactic journeys through time and the solar system. Kubrick won an Oscar for the film’s revolutionary special effects and received additional bids for writing and directing.
Kubrick earned seven additional Oscar nominations throughout his career: three each for writing, directing and producing “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) and “Barry Lyndon” (1975) and one for penning “Full Metal Jacket” (1987). Both “A Clockwork Orange” and “Barry Lyndon” brought him Golden Globe bids for Best Director, while “Lyndon” won the BAFTA in that category. Surprisingly, he competed at the Razzies for “The Shining” (1980), the horror film that featured Jack Nicholson at his manic best.
As the years passed, Kubrick became increasingly reclusive, setting up shop in London and (slowly) completing his films there. He managed to command big talents for his projects, enlisting Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to shoot for over a year on “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999), which was finished shortly before his death.
Tour our photo gallery of Kubrick’s films, and see if your favorite title topped the list.
13. FEAR AND DESIRE (1953)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Written by Howard Sackler. Starring Frank Silvera, Paul Mazursky, Kenneth Harp, Steve Coit, Virginia Leith.
Everybody’s gotta start somewhere, and Kubrick cut his teeth with this low-budget antiwar drama, for which he also served as cinematographer and film editor. Shot on a shoestring with minimal crew, “Fear and Desire” centers on four soldiers (Frank Silvera, Paul Mazursky, Kenneth Harp and Steve Coit) trying desperately to survive after crash-landing behind enemy lines in an unspecified conflict. The director long sought to keep this out of circulation, embarrassed by the amateurish filmmaking. And indeed, it is pretty shaggy, especially compared to his later masterpieces. Yet curious viewers should seek it out if for no other reason than to see the origins of a great talent.
12. KILLER’S KISS (1955)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Howard Sackler, story by Stanley Kubrick. Starring Frank Silvera, Jamie Smith, Irene Kane, Ruth Sobotka.
Like his debut, Kubrick’s sophomore effort was a micro-budget effort financed almost entirely by his family and friends. While it’s a stylistic step-up from “Fear and Desire,” there’s still a few kinks the director ironed out in his later work. Written by Howard Sackler (who also penned the filmmaker’s first movie), it stars Jamie Smith as a boxer trying to rescue a beautiful dancer (Irene Kane) from her violent employer (Frank Silvera). At a brief 65-minutes, this is a fascinating-enough noir quickie, shot in gloomy black-and-white on the mean streets of New York City. Kubrick also served as the cinematographer and film editor, and he does manage to get some striking images. Of special note, Kane later became self-help author Chris Chase.
11. SPARTACUS (1960)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, based on the novel by Howard Fast. Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, Tony Curtis.
Kirk Douglas personally produced and starred in this sword-and-sandals epic about the slave Spartacus, who leads a revolt against the tyrannical Roman Republic. He ensured that blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo would be given credit, and brought on Kubrick after firing Anthony Mann. Though certain aspects have dated, the film is surprisingly modern in its view of politics and sexuality (“I like both snails and oysters,” Laurence Olivier tells Tony Curtis as the two share a bath in a famous restored scene). Peter Ustinov won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing a gladiator manager, and prizes also went to its cinematography, art direction and costumes. Kubrick competed at the Golden Globes for directing.
10. EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael, based on the novella ‘Traumnovelle’ by Arthur Schnitzler. Starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Todd Field, Marie Richardson, Sky du Mont, Rade Serbedzija, Vinessa Shaw, Fay Masterson, Alan Cumming, Leelee Sobieski, Leon Vitali, Julienne Davis.
Kubrick died shortly before the release of his final film, the sexually-charged fantasia “Eyes Wide Shut.” Much was made of its explicit orgy scene, digitally altered after the director’s death by CGI figures obscuring naked tussling (the original version is now on video). The entire narrative, in fact, is driven by sex, with then-couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman starring as married doctors whose relationship is tested when Kidman reveals a fantasy she had about a young Naval officer, sending Cruise on an odyssey through the mysterious underbelly of New York City. It’s absolutely spellbinding, with Kubrick creating a dreamworld filled with odd side characters, most notably Sydney Pollack as a wealthy businessman with sinister connections.
9. FULL METAL JACKET (1987)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford, based on Hasford’s novel ‘The Short-Timers.’ Starring Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, Dorian Harewood, Arliss Howard, Kevyn Major Howard, Ed O’Ross.
Kubrick spent much of his career arguing against man’s proclivity for combat, perhaps never so effectively than in this chilling Vietnam War drama. “Full Metal Jacket” divides itself into two halves to show the ways in which the military turns young men into dehumanized killing machines, seen through the eyes of a young grunt (Matthew Modine). The first part takes place at boot camp, where the sadistic drill sergeant (real-life instructor R. Lee Ermey in his acting debut) continuously browbeats the sensitive Pvt. Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio), leading to tragedy. The second part takes us into battle, culminating in a stunning sniper sequence. Kubrick earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, adapted from Gustav Hasford’s novel.
8. LOLITA (1962)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Vladimir Nabokov, based on his novel. Starring James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon, Peter Sellers.
Fans of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel gasped when Kubrick decided to turn it into a movie, and for good reason: after all, how could anyone adapt this story of a middle-aged professor (James Mason) falling in love with a 14-year-old nymphet (Sue Lyon) for the screen, especially after the censors got ahold of it? But the director pulls it off (heavy cuts aside) by turning it into a biting satire of love stories. Mason is surprisingly empathetic as the professor, while Shelley Winters is a hoot as Lolita’s mother and Peter Sellers steals the show as the eccentric playwright Clare Quilty. Nabokov earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, while Kubrick competed at the Golden Globes and DGA for Best Director.
7. BARRY LYNDON (1975)
Written and directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. Starring Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Kruger, Diana Koerner, Gay Hamilton.
Perhaps the most challenging of Kubrick’s major works, “Barry Lyndon” has been praised for its stunning visuals and panned for its laborious pace in equal measure. Yet time has ultimately been very kind to the film, which drains the period drama of all its pomp and circumstance. Based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, it centers on a poor Irishman (Ryan O’Neal) who schemes his way into British high society. One of the most beautiful movies ever made, with sumptuous costumes and art direction and groundbreaking cinematography (the filmmaker took painstaking measures to shoot interiors with candlelight), all of which won Oscars. Kubrick earned bids for writing, directing and producing the Best Picture contender.
6. THE KILLING (1956)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, dialogue by Jim Thompson, based on the novel ‘Clean Break’ by Lionel White. Starring Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor, Ted de Corsia.
The third time was the charm for Kubrick, who knocked it out of the park with “The Killing” after the practice runs “Fear and Desire” and “Killer’s Kiss.” It’s a tough, gritty little heist movie, a pure exercise in style made when the director was just 28-years-old. Sterling Hayden stars as a career crook assembling a rogue’s gallery of thieves to pull off a race-track robbery before he retires to Florida with his fiancee (Coleen Gray). But, of course, nothing goes according to plan. Told nonlinearly with hard-nosed dialogue by crime novelist Jim Thompson (“The Grifters,” “The Getaway”), it’s a deliciously black noir with a dour, cynical finale. A small-scale masterpiece that helped pave the way for Kubrick’s more ambitious directorial outings.
5. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
Written and directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel by Anthony Burgess. Starring Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri, Miriam Karlin.
Undoubtedly the most controversial effort from a notoriously rabbler-rousing filmmaker, “A Clockwork Orange” caused a stir for its graphic depictions of “ultra-violence.” Kubrick, in fact, pulled it from distribution in the U.K. after a series of copycat crimes. Yet it’s far from a glorification of violence; rather, this adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel is a pointed satire about society breeding malice. Malcolm McDowell is frighteningly good as Alex DeLarge, a sadistic gangster who spends his nights causing mayhem in futuristic London. When he’s arrested, he volunteers for a brainwashing experiment to cure him of his wicked ways. Kubrick earned Oscar nominations in Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.
4. PATHS OF GLORY (1957)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, Jim Thompson, based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb. Starring Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson.
“Paths of Glory” comes about as close to draining the thrill and spectacle out of combat as any antiwar movie ever made. It finds Kirk Douglas at his most heroic as a French Colonel in WWI who refuses to continue with a suicide mission, much to the consternation of the generals sitting comfortably in their ornate offices. When three soldiers are selected for execution, it’s up to Douglas to defend them against charges of cowardice. Anchored by a startlingly realistic battle sequence and a famous gut-punch of an ending, this is a career highlight for both its director and star, who provide the story with their respective grit and gravitas. Though the film was completely overlooked by the Oscars, it did earn Kubrick a WGA nomination.
3. THE SHINING (1980)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson, based on the novel by Stephen King. Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, Danny Lloyd.
When it was released in 1980, “The Shining” was met with ire from Stephen King fans (not to mention the author himself) who balked at its many alterations from the novel. Yet its esteem grows with each passing year, an amazing feat for a film that brought its director his sole Razzie nomination. Jack Nicholson gives one of his best manic performances as Jack Torrance, a writer who goes slowly mad while tending to an isolated motel with his wife (Shelley Duvall) and psychic son (Danny Lloyd). Kubrick makes great use of the then-new Steadicam, which allows him to cast an eerie spell over us with long, roving shots down the creepy hallways of the haunted inn, where there’s a sinister surprise around every corner.
2. DR. STRANGELOVE OR; HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George, based on George’s novel ‘Red Alert.’ Starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones, Tracy Reed, Shane Rimmer.
Only Kubrick could’ve taken the threat of nuclear annihilation and turned it into one of the funniest comedies ever made. “Dr. Strangelove” gleefully mocks the paranoid hysteria that gipped our nation throughout the Cold War, taking for its target the inept leaders with their finger on the button. Peter Sellers headlines in three roles: Col. Mandrake, who must reverse an attack launched by the crazed Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden); President Muffley, who tries to stop the conflict from the war room with Gen. Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott); and Dr. Strangelove himself, who’s got a plan for life after the Earth becomes a wasteland. Kubrick reaped Oscar bids for writing, directing and producing, while Sellers competed in Best Actor.
1. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, based on Clarke’s novel. Starring Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Douglas Rain.
There are few films as awe-inspiring as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Kubrick’s highly-influential sci-fi masterpiece. Decidedly non-narrative and confounding, it starts with the dawn of man and the discovery of a giant monolith, which centuries later turns up on the moon. An expedition to Jupiter turns deadly when the supercomputer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) tries to kill off the human scientists (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) onboard. Dullea then goes through a wormhole into another dimension, where he spends his remaining years in a mysterious room before being reborn as a star child. Kubrick won his one and only Oscar for the film’s groundbreaking special effects, competing for writing and directing as well.