Stanley Kubrick's best films – ranked!

From 1951’s Day of the Fight to his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, in 1999, we order the director’s work as A Clockwork Orange is re-released

16. The Seafarers (1953)

A half-hour short commissioned by the the Seafarers International Union. It is not without observational interest, but with repeated big-ups for the union’s facilities and bargaining power, this is basically an extended commercial/propaganda piece.

15. Fear and Desire (1953)

Virginia Leith and Paul Mazursky in Fear and Desire.
Virginia Leith and Paul Mazursky in Fear and Desire. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Stanley Kubrick disowned his first feature as a “bumbling amateur film exercise”, and did his considerable best to stop anyone showing it, even after any copyright had lapsed. Is it really that bad? Well, it’s not great. But it demonstrates very much Kubrick’s ability to point the camera in the right direction, and his interest in war as a theme, so it’s not a complete write-off.

14. Flying Padre (1951)

Having sold his first short, Day of the Fight, Kubrick embarked on another speculative newsreel item: a 10-minute human-interest feature about a priest who gets about his enormous New Mexico parish in a two-seater aeroplane. It’s a decent watch, with some nice aerial photography and to finish, an impressive high-speed reverse track on the padre as he stands next to his plane.

13. Spartacus (1960)

Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode in Spartacus.
Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode in Spartacus. Photograph: The Ronald Grant Archive

Kubrick took over this cast-of-thousands Roman epic after its star-producer, Kirk Douglas, fired the original director, Anthony Mann, a week into the shoot. But with Kubrick essentially a Hollywood hireling, this is by far the least personalised of his films: a lumbering, preachy epic that, despite the instant-classic “I’m Spartacus” scene, never manages to generate the momentum it requires.

12. Killer’s Kiss (1955)

After Fear and Desire failed to get him noticed, Kubrick tried again, this time with a much more marketable proposition: a feature about a washed-up boxer and the dancer he falls in love with. It’s hampered by wooden acting and some hokey narrative architecture. But it does the job – and got Kubrick on his way.

11. Day of the Fight (1951)

For a first-timer, this is simply extraordinary. Kubrick was 21 when he shot this documentary about boxer Walter Cartier in 1950. It’s small, but perfectly formed, which is why it rates higher than some of his later features; Kubrick wisely carried it with him into Killer’s Kiss, and you can see its DNA in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.

10. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut.
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut. Photograph: AP

A disappointing way to go out. After all the great achievements of the 70s and 80s, Kubrick’s final film is a perplexingly underwhelming study of sociosexual paranoia that, despite the heavyweight cast and muscular direction, comes across as a headswimmingly barmy depiction of the dangers of messing with the elite. There’s something very cable-TV about its conception of sophisticated depravity, and while this contains one of Kubrick’s few substantial female performances (from Nicole Kidman), his queasy predilection for female nudity is hopelessly exposed; as male-gaze cinema goes, this is exhibit A.

9. The Killing (1956)

Kubrick pushed on from Killer’s Kiss with this entertaining racetrack heist movie, tricked out with a mosaic of flashbacks, rewinds and jump-forwards that gave it, for the time, a radical sheen. For all that, it’s not that different from The Asphalt Jungle from a few years before, with whom it shares its topline name, Sterling Hayden. But alongside the B-movie tropes and well-used character arcs, Kubrick’s elegant, fluid camerawork is starting to exert its influence, pointing the way ahead.

8. Paths of Glory (1957)

At this point, in the late 50s, Kubrick was all about progression: each project was a jump up from the one before. Having proved his worth in genre film-making, this ambitious first-world-war drama was Kubrick’s step up to the big league. His comfort in the mainstream is very much in evidence: its big moral themes are delineated with lucidity, though perhaps without the subtlety he would achieve in later films. Kubrick is also beginning to impose his directorial signature, most famously in the lengthy reverse tracking shots that escort Douglas as he stalks the trenches, and the beautifully constructed execution scene.

7. Lolita (1962)

Even more than Eyes Wide Shut, this remains Kubrick’s most problematic film. Whichever way you cut it, a black comedy about a paedophile rapist, however high-status the source material, is not going to remain unchallenged. But as a film, it’s a breakthrough for Kubrick: the point at which he came into his own. Who knew, for example, he had a sense of humour? Nothing in his previous career had indicated it. Hauling Peter Sellers in for one of those multi-character roles pioneered in Ealing comedies was a masterstroke; the sly comic tone offsets the sleaze.

6. The Shining (1980)

Shelley Duvall in The Shining
Shelley Duvall in The Shining Photograph: Films/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

By 1980 Kubrick had nothing left to prove: a shift in genre position was a statement in itself. Yet despite his austere reputation, he was always after a box office hit, and after the disappointing results for Barry Lyndon, Stephen King’s chiller got the nod. The Shining works by incrementally ratcheting up the creepiness while extracting top-notch performances from its leads: Jack Nicholson is as mesmerically heavy-lidded as he ever was and Shelley Duvall – treated with disdain by Kubrick during the shoot – achieves an amazing level of desperation. Kubrick stuffs the film with idea after idea, from the elevator blood wave to the living maze model; everyone from the Coen brothers to Ari Aster has taken note.

5. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

R Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sgt Hartman in Full Metal Jacket.
R Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sgt Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

Sidetracked by other projects, Kubrick’s output began to slow down in the 1980s. By the time this brutal Vietnam movie made it into cinemas it, had been overtaken and overshadowed by Oliver Stone’s Platoon, released a year earlierBut it stands up incredibly well – principally down to the inspired inclusion of R Lee Ermey’s non-stop stream of creative foulmouthed abuse. The film’s diptych structure is designed to equate the trauma of training and combat, capped by the still-disturbing murders at the climax of each half. Kubrick’s refusal to leave England to shoot meant that, despite creative use of the Beckton gas works and hundreds of imported palm trees, it lacks the visual expansiveness that Coppola and Cimino brought to their Vietnam films; but Full Metal Jacket still packs a massive wallop.

4. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Kubrick greeted the 1970s with this massive howl of rage: a boiling, combative screed as different as humanly possible from 2001’s paean to cosmic harmony which preceded it. Kubrick is taking aim at the powers-that-be, unable to effectively contain the problems in their midst, alternating between quasi-fascist social control and absurdly indulgent liberalism. Like Full Metal Jacket, this film’s first half is where the real goodies are: if truth be told, the fireworks tail off towards the back end as Alex successively re-encounters his victims. But what fireworks they are.

3. Barry Lyndon (1975)

How do you compare Barry Lyndon with A Clockwork Orange? Both are exceptional, but Barry Lyndon has to be the more perfect achievement. In yet another genre about-face, Kubrick made his contribution to the stately literary dramaKubrick liked a movie star, and took a lot of flak casting Ryan O’Neal; now the dust has settled O’Neal’s vacant prettiness is a perfect, unreadable mask for the slippery social climber Redmond Barry. As always, Kubrick pushed the boat out technically, using Nasa lenses on those wondrous candlelit card-game scenes, and took his fondness for choreographing action to classical pieces to possibly its most intense pitch, as Barry courts Marisa Berenson’s Lady Lyndon to Schubert’s Trio No 2, a Gainsborough portrait come to life. Barry Lyndon really is a flawless film.

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

Kubrick’s second Peter Sellers comedy is up there with the all-time greats: a brilliant assault on the US’s cold-war mindset, ballasted by a Sellers multiple-character tour de force. Like Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick locates a sublimated sexualisation at the heart of militarist aggression; it would be a frightening enough film at the best of times; and in the age of Trump it’s even more nightmarish – no Merkin Muffley to stand up for decency. As he so often managed, Kubrick creates a pop-culture instant classic in Slim Pickens’ bomb-ride to oblivion, but the final nuclear-blast montage, with Vera Lynn warbling on the soundtrack, is a coup de cinema of the highest order – and almost impossible to top.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Kubrick’s masterpiece. The spaceship-docking scenes, scored to The Blue Danube – following the inspired thrown-bone match cut – are justly renowned; a hypnotically brilliant conflation of technological agility and cosmic wonder. No sequence in cinema has dated less, even with subsequent advances of CGI and visual effects. It’s hard to see any current film-maker having the intellectual courage to attempt anything similar. 2001 gets the nod for other reasons, of course: its thematic ambition, the near-perfection of its craft (I still can’t get over Keir Dullea’s zero-gravity jogging in the round) and the profusion of unexpected tiny pleasures – it’s always flabbergasting to see Leonard Rossiter sliming away as a nosy Russian scientist. With this film, Kubrick aimed at telling the story of the evolution of human consciousness: nothing else in cinema comes near it. A monumental, towering achievement.

•A Clockwork Orange is released on Friday, as part of a retrospective of Stanley Kubrick’s films at BFI Southbank, London in April and May.


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