Ranking the Stanley Kubrick Films

Stanley Kubrick was one of the genuine masters of the filmmaking craft in the 20th century. He was one of the few impeccable filmographies. Not in the sense that all of his films are great (or even all good), but in the way that all of his films feel distinct and worthy of study. Here is how I rank them.

13. Lolita [1962]

As a high school teacher, I am surrounded by teenagers all day. This makes television shows and films particularly frustrating at times when they deal with teenagers because so many of them, either through casting or writing (or probably more often, both) present these supposed “youths” in a way that is completely unlike my experience of dealing with them.

This is not to say art needs to be “literal” but so few films manage to capture the pure immaturity of teenagers and all that that entails. Teenagers are a very specific type of immature that can both be maddening and endearing (and once again, often times it is both). But it is a very particular type that is best high-lighted by self-involvement, boundary pushing, and having very little sense of real life consequences to actions.

This is all to say that there are qualities about teenagers that marks them distinctly and unmistakably as **children**. There really is no grey area. It often feels like this undeniable fact is lost on Hollywood and it is never more squeamish when they do adult/teenager relationships. What this film nails is that Lolita is so obviously a child and it is so vital for the tone of the film. James Mason comes off like a sociopath throughout the film for ever viewing Lolita as anything but a child.

Obviously, the film takes these teenager qualities to the extreme (as revealed in the final act especially), but the spirit is true. Beyond that, the film drags a bit and does not nearly have enough to say. It is an average entry in Kubrick’s near-career long exploration of what the fuck is wrong with men.


12. Fear and Desire [1952]

“I guess I’m not built for this.”

“Nobody ever was. It’s all a trick we perform.”

Kubrick’s first film establishes his career-long interest in exploring what war does to people and (more importantly) what war says about humanity. The stroke of genius with this film is how the opening sequences of the film serve as a red herring. The setup feels like more of a traditional heroic war film; there are four soldiers trapped behind enemy lines after a plane crash or something, and these soldiers now have to figure out how to get home. That is a bit of misdirection though, as the film soon takes a much darker path. Once Kubrick starts down that road, it becomes clear that he has no intention of glamorizing soldiers or war or anything like that. Kubrick makes clear just how unnatural is or at least should be. A strong debut film that immediately establishes Kubrick’s voice and also shows his desire to create something visually interesting.


11. A Clockwork Orange [1971]

This film is more mood and emotion and vibes than anything else, and it just makes me feel so gross. Kubrick’s Clockwork captures what it might feel like for society to completely crumble and the government response to that, and dear readers, that unsurprisingly feels unpleasant to experience. It is a film at the moment I find more interesting and worth exploring rather than have a strong emotional connection to myself. Specifically, the film has a bleak view of humanity and connects well with Kubrick’s overall hopeless perspective of the human condition. What might be the most fascinating part of this film is how vibrant the colors and music are in the midst of all this chaos and turmoil. It makes for such an uneasy and utterly compelling watch.


10. Full Metal Jacket [1987]

Hollywood has no idea how to tell stories about the Vietnam War for the most part. It is an issue that has befuddled just about everyone. In one form or another, even the best and brightest of Hollywood have usually fallen into the trap of what the Vietnam War meant to “us” or did to “us” or what it says about “us.” The United States is completely unable to understand the impact of our empire-making, and Hollywood is unqualified to close the gap. But the opening 45 minutes with R. Lee Ermey are pretty electric, and he gives one of the most captivating performances in the history of cinema. So what can you do.


9. Spartacus [1960]

While this entire film was an impressive accomplishment in so many ways, the part that stuck out to me the most was the work and portrayal of Kirk Douglas. The “North-South” persona is tough and can make for a flat picture. Here, though the film takes full advantage of Kirk Douglas’ natural personality. When it comes to the question of liberation vs. slavery, there is no nuance required. There is no choice. The red pill is the only direction, and Kirk Douglas captured the burden of that perfectly.


8. Killer’s Kiss [1955]

As visually and thematically confident early film as there has ever been. Davey Gordon and Gloria Price are both caught up in their systems with limited means of escape. They not only find comfort in each other, but being together represents an opportunity for not just escape but for something more than what they have now. There are a number of stunning moments including a number of extended sequences without dialogue. There are two big standouts. An early one where Kubrick cuts back and forth between Gordon getting pummeled in what might be his last professional boxing match while Gloria gets harassed by her boss. The last big scene is the final terrifying fight where Gordon gets into an axe fight against Gloria’s boss in a mannequin factory. Kubrick’s first was one of his best.


7. The Killing [1956]

This late fifties film feels cutting edge both in how it looks and how the story plays out. The camera angles on this film seem so ahead of the curve that it does not feel like a black-and-white film from the fifties. It sometimes feels like a modern film trying to recreate black-and-white fifties films. That was downright bizarre and disorienting to experience. Whenever a modern film tries to recapture a 40s/50s noir look, it looks corny as hell. This somehow had just enough credibility for it to not be distracting in a bad way. You could talk about other positives about this overall fun film, but really it’s the camera that is the most memorable element. I don’t know if I will ever get over it.


6. Paths of Glory [1957]

You have your orders. Let’s carry them out.”

War films are incredibly tricky to pull off in a meaningful way. Too many films, despite the genuine (and stated!) intentions of the filmmakers, end up as pro-war, empire or imperialist propaganda. And frankly, life is just far too short to apologize for that shit.

More so than Full Metal Jacket thirty years later though, Kubrick is able to stake out an anti-war position here. This is not exactly The Thin Red Line, but it does accurately capture the futility and stupidity of war. Kubrick does that by painting a very cynical portrayal of humanity. War and the military is like everything else – decision-making is driven by selfish needs and desires.

It is a bleak view of humanity, but when examining war, it is virtually impossible to have anything but a grim outlook about people. The film leaves unexamined how we get into the war in the first place but it does not leave the question unasked. The film starts with one superior officer leaning on a subordinate to do the wrong thing for the wrong reasons…unseen is who leaned on said superior officer. (And then who leaned on them?) Is this an inevitable problem because of humanity? Is this a cycle that can be broken?


5. Barry Lyndon [1975]

“It’s a blessing to see my darling boy has attained a position I knew was his due.”

Watching this fucking bozo bumble his way upward in 18th century western Europe for three hours is just utterly compelling. The key to the film is the tone established by the unnamed narrator and the just gorgeous look of the film. The story is told in the same hagiographical manner so much of Western European/United States history is told. It is combined with an incredibly colorful look that seemingly makes the film look idyllic. On paper, it sounds like a cringe biopic, but instead that tone is contrasted with the absolute fuckery that is the details of Barry Lyndon’s life. This juxtaposition creates this delightful experience that captures the absolute sham that is the portrayal of the supposed “elite” ruling class. It’s all fucking fake, and the yarns they spin and get promoted as fact are one of the many banes of human existence.


4. Eyes Wide Shut [1999]

Going into this movie, the only thing I knew was that there was weird sex stuff with masks. That is to say I did not really know much about this film, and I was completely surprised to discover that it was a late-night in the city adventure film. You could even jokingly refer to it as a “Dark and Gritty” take on After Hours. It’s super reductive, but also not completely wrong!

What I most find fascinating about the film though is the trigger event that kicks off everything. When the film begins, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are in this status quo situation where everything about their normal life is at a baseline acceptable level for them to function as a family unit. It only takes a single push though for things to go off kilter and reveal just how fragile and false their supposed stability actually was.

Kidman reveals to Cruise that she once almost succumbed to the temptation of leaving their family and running off with a sailor. This knowledge very quietly pushes Cruise over the edge and sets him on his late-night adventure where he is continuously greeted with opportunity to jump off the metaphorical cliff. As he falls deeper and deeper into the abyss, his life and his family life comes progressively more dangerously close to being completely destroyed. It just took a little push for Cruise and Kidman’s peaceful coexistence of life to fall apart.


3. Dr. Strangelove [1964]

I must confess that it was hard to find genuine joy in watching this film back all these years later. It’s not that it’s not funny or that the humor isn’t successful. It is a film that forces you confront the fact that you are a citizen in the evil empire. Because you watch this film and think, “Man, this film may have literally been about the Cold War but its ideas and metaphors still feel really applicable today.” But coming to that idea then puts you in a far more uncomfortable position. It’s not that it’s regrettable that the United States has not grown/improved since this point in time. The film is an unmistakable reminder that the United States is designed specifically not to grow and improve in how it deals with the world. Empires crumble. They don’t grow up. And hopefully our empire crumbles before we take everyone and the whole planet down with us.


2. The Shining [1980]

While there must be countless smarter and witter people than I who have written about this film, the key scene I want to call attention to is “The Interview.” Jack Nicholson just brilliantly conveys this quiet desperation of simply trying. He is no way capable of surviving what he is to become. He so clearly wants wants to do better, but he also clearly understands on some deeper level that he cannot do better in life. This grounds the film from the get go and makes the film truly tragic. The picture is off to the races from there and then becomes equal parts truly terrifying and thrilling.


1. 2001: A Spacey Odyssey [1968]

No matter what stage of my life I am at, whenever I watch this film, I am struck by how much this film stands out to me as something wholly unique and spellbinding. Whenever 2001 is on the screen, you know you are watching an event. You know are watching something that only exists once and will never be see again. I know there is nothing profound about saying any of that, but it does not make what I wrote any less true.

That’s the bigger picture. But it’s made up of dozen of smaller photos that all stand out as equally impactful in their own right. The sequence that stays with me the most is when HAL kills Frank. Yes, it’s sudden and somewhat unexpected, but it is really about how it happens instead of what happens. The quick. The total silence. The rapidly rotating, floating body of Frank. It is all just so goddamn terrifying and ingenious.


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