Ranked: Stanley Kubrick Films from Worst to Best

Pin it

With the recent rediscovery of the master's lost first film, we look back at 2001, Dr. Strangelove, et al.

Archivists recently discovered a rare print of Stanley Kubrick's "lost" debut film, Fear and Desire, in a Puerto Rican film lab. They're now working to restore it (in the meantime, you can watch a warbly copy on Google Video). This exciting find gives us a rare excuse to examine Kubrick's filmography in full. Ranking the films is Matthew Dessem, whose own site, The Criterion Contraption, aims to review every Criterion Collection DVD, and is thoroughly worth repeated visits.


13. Fear and Desire (1953)

Kubrick's first feature acquired cult status over the years, mostly because almost no one could see it. There were very few surviving prints (supposedly because Kubrick was buying and destroying them) and when it was finally screened in New York, he issued a public statement discouraging people from seeing it. Now that Fear and Desire can be seen on the internet, it's easy to see why Kubrick did his best to keep it under wraps. Nominally a war film, it's really a misbegotten exercise in pop existentialism (sample dialogue: "It's better to roll up your whole life into one night and one man and one gun…"). Kubrick himself called this a "bumbling, amateur film exercise." He was right.


12. Spartacus (1960)

It's not entirely fair to call this a Stanley Kubrick film. He was hired a week into shooting, after Kirk Douglas fired original director Anthony Mann. Kubrick came on board a multi-million-dollar production with actors he didn't cast, sets he didn't design, a script he didn't like, and no time to change anything. The result is a film that, for all its grandeur, feels like it was designed by committee: there are Peter Ustinov scenes and Kirk Douglas scenes, and never the twain shall meet. There's no question this was a smart career move for Kubrick, though — under normal circumstances, he never would have been entrusted with such a massive production.


11. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

All of Kubrick's films have a certain coldness to them, but none are as misanthropic as this, easily his most overrated film. It occupies a similar place in our culture as Taxi Driver, which is to say that college-age sociopaths take to it like flies to corpses. But while college students like Taxi Driver for all the wrong reasons, they've got A Clockwork Orange dead to rights: Kubrick really does encourage the audience to identify with Malcolm McDowell's murderous rapist. And he doesn't do this by showing us anything about Alex's humanity, he does it by making the on-screen violence cool.


10. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut was marketed as an erotic thriller to audiences in 1999, which led to a lot of shocked moviegoers realizing they'd walked into a Stanley Kubrick film by mistake. Kubrick's last film was something of a shibboleth among cinephiles; you're supposed to call it dream-like, and hypnotic, and surreal, and it is. But it's also overlong and dull, and despite the pleasure of seeing Tom Cruise hit on by every character he meets, it's only barely in Kubrick's top ten.


 9. Killer's Kiss (1955)

The soundtrack is poorly dubbed, the foley work is laughable, the acting is wooden, and the less said about the script, the better: this is not a good movie. And yet there are two minutes and forty-one seconds in the middle of the film that represent the rawest work Kubrick ever did. As Jaime Smith's fading boxer gets pummeled in the ring in his last professional fight, the editing becomes more frenetic, the camera pushes in closer, the angles become odder. It's as subjective as the fights in Raging Bull (or the ballet in The Red Shoes) — perfect cinema. Unfortunately, the film around the boxing scene is nowhere near as good. I rate it higher than Eyes Wide Shut purely on the basis of its beautifully photographed New York. It also doesn't hurt that Kubrick ends the film with a sequence as gonzo as anything Samuel Fuller ever dreamed of: an ax fight in a mannequin factory.


8. Lolita (1962)

This is not a novel that should be made into a film. If you insist, most of Kubrick's choices are pretty good ones. James Mason is perfectly cast as Humbert Humbert, and Shelley Winters embodies Charlotte Haze from the moment she refers to Humbert as "Euro-peen." But as over-the-top as Winters is, Peter Sellers appears to be checking in from a completely different movie, and possibly a completely different planet. This reaches its apotheosis in the sequence where Sellers' Clare Quilty impersonates Lolita's school psychologist, basically performing an early version of Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick's film has its moments, but it's not Lolita.

7. The Shining (1980)

Jack Nicholson doesn't just chew the scenery — he swallows it, spits it back up, and builds a hedge maze out of it. But while the performances might have benefited from a bit more subtlety, Kubrick still managed to craft some of the most memorable images in any horror film: the deluge of blood in the hotel lobby, Lloyd the bartender presiding over the Gold Room, the Grady twins. And of course, Danny Torrance, speeding around the endless corridors of the Overlook Hotel on his Big Wheel.


6. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

So the Vietnam section of the film is unconvincing — so what? The first half of Full Metal Jacket might be the most perfect horror film ever made. Watching the machinery of Parris Island methodically break down the humanity of Marine recruits and rebuild them as killing machines is unrelentingly horrifying. R. Lee Ermey's instantly iconic performance as a sadistic drill instructor is as over-the-top as Jack Nicholson's in The Shining. The difference is that Ermey's character is real.


5. The Killing (1956)

Kubrick's most underrated film, and one of the all-time-great noirs. The screenplay was co-written with pulp king Jim Thompson, and it shows. Sterling Hayden gets top billing, and he's suitably square-jawed and doomed, but the great pleasure of this film are the scenes between Elisha Cook, Jr. — playing his least successful character in a long career of milquetoasts — and Marie Windsor, his scheming wife. The Killing has one glaring flaw: its distracting, stentorian narrator, who keeps informing us of the precise time of each scene. There have been hints that a Criterion edition of The Killing will be released soon — it's well-deserved.


4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The product of a four-year collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, 2001 puts Kubrick's greatest strengths and weaknesses on display in equal measure. Kubrick was always something of a techie, and 2001 would have earned its place in film history on the basis of special effects alone. More than forty years later, they're still jaw-dropping. The film also embodies Kubrick's legendary perfectionism: every frame is meticulously composed, with a geometric precision and elegance unmatched in cinema. So it seems churlish to point out that the only character with recognizable human emotions is a murderous computer.


3. Barry Lyndon (1975)

Kubrick's adaptation of Thackeray's novel is the most visually beautiful film he's ever made. Determined to create something that looked like it could have been shot before electricity, Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott retrofitted lenses designed by NASA to shoot still photographs on the moon. This allowed them to shoot by candlelight, giving the film a diffuse golden look that's completely hypnotic. Over the years, we've seen hundreds of movies that look like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nothing else has ever looked like Barry Lyndon.


2. Paths of Glory (1957)

The Wire's David Simon has called Paths of Glory "the most important political film of the twentieth century," and he's right. In a bravura sequence early in the film, Kubrick shows us hundreds of soldiers rushing across No Man's Land, getting torn to shreds by machine guns and mortar fire. And yet the most important deaths in the film happen later, as three soldiers are chosen at random to answer for the attack's failure, and are court-martialed for the crime of "cowardice," a capital offense. Kirk Douglas gives one of his best performances as a disillusioned colonel trying to stop the wheels of bureaucracy once they've started turning. Does he succeed? Would David Simon love this film if he did?


1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Paths of Glory may be the most important political film of the twentieth century, but this is undoubtedly the most important political film of the twenty-first. Dr. Strangelove is as pessimistic as The Wire about the triumph of institutions over individuals: witness how carefully the characters observe institutional protocol as they annihilate the planet. But Dr. Strangelove allows for the possibility that some individuals can triumph over institutions, just as long as their goals are crazy, stupid, and self-destructive. Kubrick's masterpiece is full of people who beat the system, from the general who manages to launch an unauthorized nuclear attack to the airmen who manage to get their bomber past the entire Soviet air force. They succeed by being supremely self-confident, completely unable to think about the consequences of their actions, and most importantly, batshit insane. In a world where Presidential aides claim they can "create our own reality," senators make things up and explain that their lies were "not intended to be… factual statement[s]," and Michelle Bachmann is a plausible candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, I don't think Paths of Glory is sufficient. It's General Jack D. Ripper's world. We're just living in it.