In spite of his legendary reputation, American film director, producer, screenwriter and photographer Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) only ever made 13 films over the course of his 48 year career. Notoriously meticulous and often unpredictable, Kubrick’s films spanned a wide range of genres and subjects, and are widely watched and studied because of their innovative cinematography, macabre humour, intense attention to detail and extensive set designs.
Born in New York City, Kubrick started out as a photographer before moving into directing short documentaries. His first feature films were produced on a shoestring budget; however, it wasn’t long until the young filmmaker moved into directing films such as the epic Spartacus (1960) and the controversial Lolita (1952). Classics such as The Shining (1980) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) followed, and remain some of his most studied, beloved work.
Though most of his films received mixed reviews upon their first release, Kubrick’s work earned him Golden Globe, BAFTA and Academy Award wins. In spite of his fame, Kubrick became increasingly reclusive towards the end of his life, and died shortly after wrapping on the filming of Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
Here’s a breakdown of 10 of Stanley Kubrick’s key films, in chronological order.
Filmed when he was just 27 years old, Kubrick’s third film The Killing is a visually snappy heist noir starring Sterling Hayden as a career criminal assembling a team of thieves for a race-track robbery before he retires. Owing to union regulations, Kubrick had to hire a separate cinematographer, and Oscar-winning Lucien Ballard was chosen. The pair clashed extensively on set. Nonetheless, the film marked a huge leap in quality for the films for the director, and went on to inspire many modern heist movies such as Reservoir Dogs, Ocean’s Eleven and Logan Lucky.
Paths of Glory
Though this war film would later be overshadowed by his later work via Full Metal Jacket, it remains an effective and moving portrayal of bureaucracy and injustice during World War One. The camera follows Kirk Douglas around the trenches, while the famous battlefield tracking shot positions it as an early influence for films such as Saving Private Ryan. The film’s intensely tough, anti-war portrayal meant that it was banned in France until 1975.
Lolita was the first of Kubrick’s films to earn him a reputation for controversy. An adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s equally unsettling novel, which is written from the perspective of a child sexual predator, the film was a tricky sell for distributors. Nonetheless, James Mason is perfectly creepy as Humbert Humbert, the academic who is attracted to teenage Dolores Haze, played by Sue Lyon. The film is often cited as Kubrick’s first ‘mature’ feature.
Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb
Though Kubrick originally optioned a political drama film adaptation of Cold War novel Red Alert, he realised that the subject matter was better suited for black comedy. The film revolves around a general setting a nuke for the Soviet Union and generals in the war room manically attempting to stop the nuclear strike and world mass destruction. Strangelove’s many quotable lines have cemented the film as one of the most iconic satires of all time, while Peter Sellers’ performance in three separate roles within the film is equally remarkable.
2001: A Space Odyssey
2001: A Space Odyssey was radically ahead of its time, expertly using sight and sound to grip the audience as the story follows an investigation into a strange object found buried beneath the lunar surface. Along the way, Kubrick’s epic sci-fi charts humanity from its early evolution right up to our unknowable interstellar future. It is epic in scale, ambition and theme, and is widely celebrated as one of Kubrick’s most significant and lasting filmmaking feats.
A Clockwork Orange
Featuring Malcolm McDowell as the leader of a violent group of delinquents in a dystopian English future, A Clockwork Orange is Kubrick’s only film that was awarded an X rating, before it was lowered to an 18 in 1999 following submission for a modern classification certificate. The lead character is the epitome of evil and has no likeable or redeeming qualities. Instead, the film is unflinchingly brutal and graphic; elements which continue to inspire debate and controversy today.
Arguably one of Kubrick’s most challenging works, Barry Lyndon was praised for its beautiful visuals – Kubrick lit all of the interiors solely with candlelight – but criticised for its slow pace, running at nearly three hours long. Based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, it centres on a poor Irishman, played by Ryan O’Neal, who schemes his way into British high society. It won Oscars for costume, art direction and cinematography, which is unsurprising given that many of the shots were composed to look like classical paintings.
Perhaps Kubrick’s most famous film, The Shining was originally met with condemnation from Stephen King fans, as well as the author himself, who criticised the film’s many deviations from the novel. However, Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance as the terrifying Jack Torrance was heightened by Kubrick’s use of the then-new Steadicam, which allowed him to build tension via long, drawn-out shots of the haunted inn. Kubrick was notoriously cruel in the making of the film, particularly towards Shelley Duvall (who played Torrance’s wife), with one scene requiring a staggering 127 takes.
Full Metal Jacket
The horror of the Vietnam War is well-realised in Full Metal Jacket, which follows Private Joker (Matthew Modine) as he first makes his way through boot camp and then to the bloody fights in Vietnam. The chilling, anti-war story demonstrates the dehumanising effect of war upon the young soldiers, and is as tough a watch as it is entertaining. It is still frequently cited as one of the best war films ever made.
Eyes Wide Shut
Kubrick died shortly before the release of Eyes Wide Shut, his final film. The story follows Dr. William Harford – played in a career-best performance by Tom Cruise – who becomes obsessed with having a sexual encounter upon hearing that his wife – played similarly expertly by Nicole Kidman – has sexual fantasies about a young naval officer. The couple then go through a dizzying odyssey of New York’s underbelly, meeting dreamlike characters along the way.