Ever wondered what the actual best Stanley Kubrick movie of all time is? Kubrick’s work and style are one of the most recognisable in the history of cinema. Each of us has our favourite of his thirteen masterworks, but we often find ourselves arguing over which is well and truly the very best. Whether you need to see the science to get to the bottom of your argument or aren’t sure which Stanley Kubrik film to start with on your journey of discovery, we’ve got you covered.
“Over 40 years the enigmatic and reclusive director Stanley Kubrick, who has died suddenly aged 70, made only 13 feature films, yet the scrupulous care with which he chose his subjects, his extremely slow method of working… his obsessive personality and the nature of his films built up an aura around every new work which ensured serious critical attention, as well as interest from the general public.” - Ronald Bergan, The Guardian.
Just like we did when trying to prove the excellence of our favourite Christmas films, we've made this list from worst to best of the Stanley Kubrik filmography. Using a combination of their Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB and Letterboxd scores, we’ve given each an average score out of 100 to give them an official ranking. (For reference, IMDB is out of 10, and Letterboxd is out of 5).
Rotten Tomatoes: 71%
Average Score: 57.67
Famously, Kubrick wasn’t happy with this project. From an outsider’s perspective, this may be due to one of many elements. The dialogue and narration don’t seem fine-tuned and the acting has been labelled as so-so. However, the majority of the production design and lighting look great, and you can see the beginnings of a deep-thinking director. It’s about four soldiers, whose
aeroplane crashes behind enemy lines. They must try to survive and find a way back to their battalion but, when they come across a local peasant girl along the way, they are given a rude awakening to the true horrors of war.
Rotten Tomatoes: 82%
Average Score: 68.67
Kubrick's first "real" feature film. While generally viewed as merely a flash of the brilliance which would come to fruition in Kubrick's later work, it shows early signs of his genius. The plot tells the tales of two urban strugglers who live in shabby apartments across from each other in Manhattan’s asphalt jungle—a washed-up boxer and an aspiring ballerina, slumming as a dance hall girl. Both of their lives are cheap imitations of their glorious ambitions until both of their lives are both of their lives are violently upended.
Rotten Tomatoes: 75%
Average Score: 76.67
Eyes Wide Shut, a sexual odyssey starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, was Kubrick’s final film. Set against a dream-like Christmas backdrop, Eyes Wide Shut steers Cruise’s upper-crust doctor through a hazy mess of conspiracies and perversions, leading to a masked orgy in a private mansion; the most resounding and talked-about sequence in the film.
Eyes Wide Shut had an incredible 14-month shoot. Kubrick managed to complete the editing and witnessed the first (enthusiastic) responses to the film shortly before his death. Despite the prurience of its premise, Eyes Wide Shut ranks among the director’s best for its thematic nuance and dense, unsettling ambience.
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Average Score: 79
Oftentimes, critics who reviewed ‘Lolita’ urged audiences to read the book instead. Kubrick was told he left too much out, made Lolita herself unlikable and added too much of a sheen to a story with such raw and dark subject matter. On the other hand, at the time of its release, it may have very well been a breakthrough in terms of its content and stylings. The story follows Humbert Humbert (James Mason), a European professor who moved to an American suburb, renting a room from a Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), a lonely widow. Humbert eventually marries Charlotte, but only to nurture his obsession with her teenage daughter, Lolita (Sue Lyon). After Charlotte's sudden death, Humbert has Lolita all to himself.
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Average Score: 82
With a cast made up of Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov (who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), it’s a testament to Kubrick and how adored his films are that this isn’t higher on the list. Long before the martyrs of the 60s (JFK - MLK - RFK), before Lincoln, even before the Prophets, there was the Thracian gladiator turned freedom-fighter, Spartacus, pushing the idea of enlightenment in 72 BC. This film is part romance, part war film, part history lesson and part strategy seminar in battle tactics and prison escape.
Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
Average Score: 83.67
One word that can be used unanimously to describe this film is unforgettable. The first time you watch this movie you will not stop thinking about it, for better or for worse. This is often described as a seminal film, up there with The Godfather and Citizen Kane as well as one of the most gripping and original. Rather unprecedented and gory, the opening scenes are intended to make viewers uncomfortable. It’s about Alex, a psychopathic delinquent, who gets sent to jail for murder and assault. In order to reduce his sentence, he volunteers for an experimental therapy conducted by the government, but things go askew.
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Average Score: 84.67
An exciting, fast-tracked film noir. ‘The Killing’ shows the lead-up to a $2 million racetrack heist from the point of view of each individual gang member. It is a finely tuned operation planned down to the last detail by the gang leader, played by Sterling Hayden. Kubrick enduringly sets his own creative standards in this brilliant thriller - though slightly worn with age and acting that looks a little over the top by today’s standards, we think this is still one to watch.
Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Average Score: 85
The Shining was met with mixed reviews and scorn from Stephen King (on whose novel it is based) when it was released, but in the years since, Kubrick’s adaptation has been recognised as a classic of the horror genre. The director was famously cruel in his treatment of Shelley Duvall (who played the terrified wife of Jack Nicholson’s homicidal patriarch), with one scene requiring a staggering 127 takes. In Kubrick’s mind, the treatment was simply a means to an end; he once told Duvall that “nothing great was ever accomplished without suffering”. The Shining is a labyrinth of suffering, on-screen and off, but its greatness is plain to see.
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Average Score: 85
Critics were not massively impressed with this film when it was initially released, but today’s viewers hail it as an integral part of the Kubrick Cannon. What it may appear to lack in dialogue and extraordinary acting, it makes up for in every other category. Each frame looks like a classical painting and, as ever, the cinematography is extraordinary. The film is an adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 picaresque novel, ‘The Luck of Barry Lyndon’, about a member of the Irish gentry trying to become a member of the English aristocracy.
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Average Score: 85.33
Kubrick’s shocking take on the Vietnam war arrived in the wake of several other classic Vietnam movies (Apocalypse Now; Platoon; The Deer Hunter) but found its own place in the public imagination thanks to its unusual diptych structure. Most of the film’s famous imagery comes from the first half, set in an American training camp. Full Metal Jacket’s second half, a descent into the hell of the Vietnamese warzone, is slick and appropriately harrowing but never quite fulfils the promise of the beginning. Kubrick showed his usual flair for casting when he chose former marine R Lee Ermey to play an abusive drill sergeant.
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Average Score: 87
None of Kubrick's other films can quite match the influence, ambition or visionary inspiration of his 1968 sci-fi opus. A transcendent epic that charts the evolution of humanity from prehistoric apes through to our unknowable interstellar future, 2001: A Space Odyssey redrew the limits of what science fiction could achieve. Co-writing the script with sci-fi legend Arthur C Clarke, the director employed revolutionary practical effects to depict the future of space travel, balletically juxtaposing images of moving spacecrafts with classical music. Kubrick’s reputation as a cold, mechanical director stems in large part from this film, but 2001 understands that humanity and technology are two sides of the same evolutionary coin.
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Average Score: 88.67
The war film that leaves you craving more. It turns out to be more of a courtroom battle with exchanges of sharp dialogue and power struggles, making it a very pleasant surprise for those of us who don’t love hardcore war epics. All of Kubrick's films have an outstanding look and this is no exception, it’s smooth yet expressive and the use of tracking shots and intense close-ups is delightful. The closing sequence with the German singer is a memorable standout.
Rotten Tomatoes: 98
Average Score: 88.67
After originally optioning the Cold War novel Red Alert for adaptation as a political drama, Kubrick found the subject matter perversely suited for black comedy. Peter Sellars gives three stellar performances (as US president Merkin Muffley, toadying officer Group Captain Mandrake, and the deranged ex-Nazi scientist Dr Strangelove) and Strangelove’s stream of quotable lines helps make it one of the most iconic satires of all time. Some of the behind-the-scenes stories have become notorious in their own right – such as Kubrick insisting on a bright green casino-style table-top for the film, which is shot entirely in black-and-white.
If you enjoyed our List of the best Stanley Kubrik films - check out the best films based on Stephen King books