A visionary and intelligent filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick’s films are often at the forefront of cinephiles minds. Over a four-decade career, Kubrick’s films have defined cinema, and many have left lasting impressions on the industry as a whole. Always challenging the boundaries, he was a filmmaker with multiple masterpieces. With vision, come challenges his films for whatever reason. His more popular works seem to polarize, and nearly all of his films have passionate defenders or detractors. He made visually stunning but thought-provoking films and always seemed to explore humanity through the lens of various iconic characters. He made thirteen films altogether, but these are his ten best movies.
#10. Eyes Wide Shut
With convincing performances from then married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut delivers a solid morality tale. Kubrick’s final film is without a doubt an intense one. True to most of his films, despite it’s two and a half hour runtime, he manages to keep the movie engaging enough while paradoxically taking his time to unravel the story. For a movie about sex, it certainly isn’t meant to be erotic. All that said, it never seems to go quite as deep as some of Kubrick’s works do.
A fast-paced, twisty crime thriller, The Killing is one of Kubrick’s earliest and most engrossing films. A group of criminals conspire to rip off a horse race track in a movie that, despite familiar themes, manages to feel entirely authentic. This hardboiled heist movie offers a frenetic energy throughout and offered an early look at Kubrick’s style. The legendary director certainly found an interesting voice in just his third feature film. In the end, Kubrick believes in the idea of karma when it comes to his lead character, a man whose hubris is ultimately his downfall.
A sprawling epic, and possibly the least “Kubrick” movie the master filmmaker made, Spartacus is an anomaly within his career. Essentially, Kubrick was a hired hand. Though he had experience directing other scripts at that point, Kubrick found success with his own screenplays. Regardless, Spartacus is a tried and true Hollywood epic. Reuniting with Kirk Douglas, Kubrick’s vision and famous Black List writer Dalton Trumbo’s film is beaming with old Hollywood charm. Douglas is terrific and so is Peter Ustinov as the slave owner. Overall, Spartacus is a film classic from the sword-and-sandals genre, that is entirely indelible.
Kubrick’s three-hour exploration of his central character can often be a chore to watch. However, with a compelling performance from Ryan O’Neal, Barry Lyndon offers a dramatic portrait of its ambitious title character. It is hard to respect Redmond Barry, the movie shows him constantly getting in his own way, and even through obtaining wealth, he is still never someone to truly marvel at. The film offers a cynical look at the importance of relationships over money. Barry searches for wealth and upon finding it, it skews his already shallow perspective on life for the worse. Its sweeping shots of eighteenth-century England are stunning, and the movie looks great.
One of Kubrick’s most debated endings, Paths of Glory explores the humanity within the nastiness of war. It is an intense and affecting movie that showed early Kubrick’s interest in telling stories about humanity. He crafts an intelligent and emotional anti-war story with stellar performances from Kirk Douglas and the entire cast. One could draw comparisons to the great anti-war film, and possibly one of the best war films of all time, All Quiet on the Western Front. In these two films, the brutality of war and its role in shaping human beings is explored along with the perverse effects power has on someone.
A darkly funny, highly intense war film, Full Metal Jacket hits the mark on nearly every facet of filmmaking. Matthew Modine is terrific but the real scene stealer of the film is Vincent D’Onofrio. Playing Private Pyle, D’Onofrio offers an intensity and authenticity to his heartbreaking story arc. Authenticity is the key word here, everything about the movie is authentic and it is meticulous in its details. Its first act is undoubtedly stronger than the films second half. All that considered, Kubrick’s look at Vietnam is unsettling, as it should be. In the end, he never makes the safe choice, and it’s a refreshing sentiment in a war film.
Influential, iconic and chilling, Kubrick, slightly steering away from Stephen King’s novel, perhaps crafted his most widely known film in The Shining. Jack Nicholson gives one of his most widely recognized performances, and it’s a terrific terrifying portrait. Overflowing with iconic quotes and images, The Shining explores human behavior like no other Kubrick film. Nicholson’s portrayal of a man slowly descending into madness is effective and creepy. Altogether, The Shining is a masterpiece of the horror genre and essential viewing for anyone looking to explore Kubrick’s filmography or cinema in general.
Highly controversial at the time, Kubrick’s exploration of human nature offers another sharply constructed film. Like The Shining, A Clockwork Orange offers a different portrait of human behavior through a very different lens. The movie’s disturbing dystopian worldview is accented by extreme violence and perversion. Still, it remains one of Kubrick’s most thought-provoking films. He explores a character who is so vile, the only treatment for what ails him is to strip him of his free will. As a result of this, the movie chronicles a battle for order over freedom which our main character, Alex, agrees to side with order without knowing the full consequences. For the viewer, it is an engaging and rewarding watch to see the character progression, and certainly will get them talking.
#2. Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
This deeply satirical movie is a comedy masterpiece. Yet, in true Kubrick style, it never sacrifices its sharp political commentary for the laugh. Peter Sellers is riotously funny in the movie and George C. Scott even offers some very funny moments. As a whole, the movies sharp political commentary is where this movie truly stands out. It is still just as relevant today as it was to filmgoers in 1964. Though it is shrouded in laughs, there is an excellent, dark political subtext to the movie. Ultimately, it stokes all the fear and paranoia of the Cold War era with its simple idea of possible catastrophe with the wrong people at the helm.
Epic in its scope, 2001 is a masterpiece, and to this day, remains arguably the greatest sci-fi film of all time. It certainly has been entirely influential for five decades, and its themes remain timeless as well. Ultimately, the movie’s meditation on mankind is groundbreaking. It is a challenging film, and in the end is entirely re-watchable, in fact it demands multiple viewings. Undoubtedly, anyone will discover something new upon each viewing. 2001 is a visual spectacle and a landmark in the history of cinema that cements Stanley Kubrick’s status as one of our great filmmakers of all time. It is profound, gripping and altogether a stunning achievement in the history of motion pictures.