Stanley Kubrick made only 13 films. Most are edgy, violent, or provocative. Almost all had political agendas. Many created unprecedented controversy.

He was known for his argumentative (and abusive) temper and his uncompromising standards. Films could take years to complete, and he broke creative relationships faster than he could build them.

But his standards of achievement mean many Kubrick films are nearly universally considered pinnacles of achievement. While filming each, Kubrick learnt more about his craft. At the time of his death at age 70, Kubrick likely could’ve reached higher potentials.

Even with only 13 films to watch, new audiences might feel daunted by this cinematic body, and it can feel hard to know where to start.

This article isn’t to put a definitive rating system on Kubrick’s films, but I tried to give quick ratings and analyses of what Kubrick’s films offer, but also, their respective drawbacks.

13. Fear and Desire (1953)

Synopsis: soldiers survive a plane crash behind enemy lines, kidnap a native woman, one soldier goes nuts, others attack an enemy base, things get worse.

What’s Good: it’s comforting to know that everyone starts somewhere. Kubrick began his career as a photographer; he has precious little to tell, but his use of angles and lighting shows much more. Kubrick establishes anti-war sentiments in his first film.

What’s Not: Fear’s tone and temper varies when it should’ve told a straightforward tale. Later experiments were guided by purpose. Fear resembles Kubrick’s other films in almost no fashion.

12. Barry Lyndon (1975)

Synopsis: a historical romance period piece details every event the title character’s experience in trying to escape revenge, gain fortune, chase adventures, find love, claim noble titles, become depressed, turn to drink, and lose it all again.

What’s Good: Kubrick invented a lens that could film precise details by candlelight to make this period piece. Kubrick realized that artificial lighting ruined the immersion into films set before the invention of the light bulb. Kubrick can make a candlelit scene look as lush as a Renaissance painting. It’s Kubrick’s most elegant film.

What’s Not: the film doesn’t have much suspense. It’s like an opera (Kubrick was a fan of classical music and opera). At its length, that’s problematic. It feels more like an art exhibit than a film.

11. Lolita (1962)

Synopsis: Humbert Humbert marries Lolita’s mother for opportunity to groom her 14-year-old daughter, her mother commits suicide, he “raises” Lolita, she tires of his abuse and runs off, comes back years later looking for cash, he shoots the man who “stole” her.

What’s Good: nobody was courageous enough to adapt Nabokov’s material before and wouldn’t’ve if Kubrick hadn’t. James Mason makes a prim fatherly predator of Humbert Humbert, but never lets go of the controlling ways, which come off naturalistically. Then film opens when Humbert Humbert kills Clare Quilty at the start of Lolita as vengeance for tempting “his” Lolita away, giving audiences questions from the start. Kubrick’s flashback style plot makes all the difference.

What’s Not: Lolita’s novel is about a sexual predator preying on his teenaged stepdaughter. He plans a lust cult where he impregnates her offspring for generations. That’s never onscreen. It’s comedy. There’s no sex and shockingly few bad vibes in Lolita. Perhaps this is due to (many) restrictions and changes Kubrick had to obey to avoid X ratings. But Lolita misses emotional tones from the source material. Lolita ages like bad milk; it doesn’t become cheese, it’s nauseating. We view sexual predators differently today.

10. Killer’s Kiss (1955)

Synopsis: afailing boxer meets a damsel-in-distress dancer who is employed by an abusive gangster. They dream of better lives. The gangster doesn’t allow her to leave, the boxer kills the bad guy, they escape, happy end.

What’s Good: Kiss proved Kubrick could tell a straightforward story. It’s a relatable noir tale which delves into genre without bending or breaking it. Kubrick’s background as a news photographer puts it a step above most noir pictures since noir thrives on angle, light, and shadow. Kubrick’s in his artistic element.

What’s Not: the worst one can say about Kiss is it could’ve been directed by anyone. Kubrick proved he could direct conventional films, but that’s its drawback: it’s more like a professional exercise than a passion project.

9. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Synopsis: a gynecologist runs into a friend who sneaks him into a spooky elites-only orgy. A “sacred whore” protects him from punishment when discovered, he’s kicked out, the friend vanishes, the “sacred whore” dies mysteriously, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

What’s Good: the visuals from the orgy’s ritualistic scenes will invade one’s nightmares, drawing upon imagery from the ritual witchcraft, Baroque and Renaissance Art, and supposed orgies organized by 15th and 16th century Italian mafia families and clergy. Shut’s set designs are immersive. The paranoid tale becomes a whodunnit that’s never resolved. Shut toys with conspiracy theories of rich elite debaucheries such as those purported at Bohemian Grove. The multi-partner orgy never comes off as pornographic, but coldly sensual. It’s Kubrick’s most erotic film.

What’s Not: Stanley Kubrick had a habit of filming without a complete vision until the last edit, sometimes spending months and years experimenting with alternate edits and footage. Shut’s no different. Kubrick dies before Shut’s completed, leaving others to interpret his intentions. The result? Something’s unfinished about Shut. The chemistry between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman was lacking, making inciting crises less believable.

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

Synopsis: when a psychotic American general launches an unprovoked attack on the Soviets, the world’s threatened with mutually assured destruction. Politicians from both countries scheme to shoot the plane down but fail, an automatic one “lucky” plane hits its target and triggers a global nuke network.

What’s Good: it’s the anti-Cold War film to watch that lampoons the era’s fears. Peter Sellers plays three roles and is incredibly funny in diverse ways in each. Sterling Hayden, who ruined his reputation by “naming names” during the blacklist era, mocks his coerced interview in his role as the paranoid General Ripper. The film starts with satire, zanier elements build progressively. Trivia: Strangelove was edited overnight twice. Once, this was at request of the FBI: Strangelove’s model of the B-52 had to be altered because it resembled the real thing too much when that craft was classified. They also required Kubrick include a voice over informing audiences Strangelove is a work of speculation. Strangelove was edited again to remove circumstantial references to JFK’s assassination. It’s Kubrick’s funniest film.

What’s Not: Dr. Strangelove stands, addresses the President as Fuhrer, the world explodes. Perhaps Strangelove couldn’t’ve ended any other way, but audiences are abruptly greeted to montages of nukes while Vera Lynd sings “We’ll Meet Again.” It feels like the end to some Monty Python’s Flying Circus skits.

7. Paths of Glory (1957)

Synopsis: after a risky WWI military loss, a corrupt French general demands three arbitrarily selected soldiers be tried, convicted, and executed as example. Colonel Dax struggles, and fails, to save them, fails, but finds another way to seek justice.

What’s Good: Kirk Douglas shined when directed by Kubrick, and Paths is one of the first examples of the classic dramatic Douglas. Paths makes a strong antiwar stance, which was rare and risky during the paranoid times of the Red Scare and the Hollywood blacklist. For its time, the battle scenes were considered graphic. The film portrays a character suffering from “shellshock” and commonly held biases about it. The arbitrary nature of the soldiers’ trial and executions speaks to abuses of power which are all too familiar. The last scene, with the singing German girl and French soldiers, are emotional. It’s Kubrick’s most compassionate film.

What’s Not: Kubrick would make more nuanced antiwar films later in his career. Moral grandstanding wouldn’t’ve been an issue for filmmakers of the 1950’s (and sometimes passes now), but for modern audiences, it’s noticeable.

6. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Synopsis: boot camp recruits train for Vietnam. One goes insane and kills the drill sergeant and himself. Two recruits meet later during the Tet offensive; their platoon is lured into a Vietcong trap. Several soldiers die, but the remaining kill the enemy.

What’s Good: Jacket’s Kubrick’s morally complex antiwar film. Joker’s situation doesn’t have a clear moral center. When Joker executes the wounded 14-year-old Vietcong girl, he’s making the best choice possible. Soldiers singing :Mickey Mouse March” aren’t mocking her death; that’s recognizing Vietnam War soldiers were largely teenagers, and immaturity is part of the madness. In Jacket, the symptoms are delirious, rebellious glee. Casting is key in Jacket. Vincent D’Onofrio was almost unknown when he portrayed the disturbed Private Pyle. R. Lee Ermey couldn’t have been a better cast as the abusive Sergeant Hartmann. The last lines of Jacket might be philosophy to live by. It’s Kubrick’s most balanced, realistic film.

What’s Not: there’re two films in Jacket. One takes place at boot camp on Parris Island, the second during the Tet offensive. The blind brutality and brazen sexual humor of the second half of Jacket cannot rival the events of Pyle’s murder/suicide. The film’s conclusion is saved by Joker’s meditations, but audiences wait through the decidedly less emotionally-invested half of Jacket for it.

5. The Shining (1980)

Synopsis: Jack, an abusive failing author, accepts a job caretaking a remote hotel during off-season winter months, bringing his possibly autistic child and meek wife along. The hotel’s full of evil spirits and Jack becomes violently possessed. His wife and son defend themselves and escape.

What’s Good: Shining highlights the dangers and barriers extreme weather conditions pose and hearkens to primitive fears of nature. It belongs among the best horror movies. The couple’s explosive emotional tensions and eeriness of the Overlook Hotel’s halls and gardens are on forefront. One cannot unsee a naked elderly ghost woman, twin ghost girls, hundreds of pages of the same typed sentence, or an elevator overflowing with blood. The Johnny Carson show catchphrase will never be the same: Nicholson’s axe attacks rise to the occasion. Wendy’s emotional resignation throughout Shining is sadly familiar considering Jack’s abuse. Danny’s character is phenomenal considering actor Danny Lloyd’s age. Kubrick’s use of the Steadicam put the camera at child’s perspective level, making adults seem menacing. Shining is stronger than its source material, though changes irritated Stephen King. It’s Kubrick’s most focused film.

What’s Not: there’s an elephant in Kubrick’s room: he had uncompromising standards and an argumentative nature. Shelley Duvall never adjusted to this, and their working relationship bordered on enmity. It should disturb audiences that Wendy’s stressed appearance is Duvall’s genuine reaction. This isn’t hearsay: it’s documented that Kubrick singled Duvall out for frequent verbal tirades. Duvall complained of hair loss during filming. Nicholson’s performance has strong points, but Jack Torrance is going gradually insane. Nicholson’s portrayal is unhinged from the start, his rage simply becomes more physical and more animated during Shining. It’s sometimes cartoonish and distracting.

4. Spartacus (1960)

Synopsis: Spartacus is a headstrong Thracian slave selected to fight as a gladiator. He falls in love with a female slave. He inspires other slaves to escape and rebel. The rebel slave army resists, fails, Spartacus and other survivors are crucified. Spartacus’s lover and newborn son escape to freedom.

What’s Good: it was that year’s most lucrative film. Kubrick risked crediting screenwriter Dalton Trumbo by name rather than pseudonym. Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten, ten Hollywood professionals who were baselessly accused and convicted of being communists, blacklisted, then legally barred from working in Hollywood. That blacklist was still in effect. Kubrick and Trumbo could’ve been investigated by the federal government. That risk paid off: the unpopularity of the blacklist meant most Hollywood professionals supported Trumbo. Douglas’s portrayal of a Thracian slave and gladiator turned rebel leader is one his most iconic, complex roles. Spartacus can inspire others, but he doubts his chances, yet promises to die fighting. His rebellion stands against slavery itself. Laurence Olivier’s portrayal as a corrupt senator is strong. The slave army’s willingness to sacrifice themselves rather than identify Spartacus is inspiring. Kubrick’s attention to accurate historical details is remarkable. The film doesn’t romanticize history: thousands of rebel slaves are crucified along a Roman road. It’s Kubrick’s most inspiring film.

What’s Not: the ending moments of this film are close to impossible. It’s like the end of Braveheart: nobody can shout “Freedom!” after being disemboweled. Spartacus wouldn’t’ve been conscious enough to listen or speak after being crucified if he’s alive. It’s fantasy indulgence and unnecessary.

3. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Synopsis: a psychopathic, fashionable British teenager and his gang enjoy crime, rape, and violence until he’s betrayed, caught and imprisoned. He accepts freedom in exchange for a manipulative psychiatric process that deprives him of free will. He eventually recovers and becomes himself again.

What’s Good: Orange’s aggressive colors, angles and shadows make monstrosities of the 1960’s psychedelia. Orange opens with an iconic dolly shot, focusing on Alex’s face, then reversing through a nightmarish bar. Malcolm McDowell is unforgettable as Alex DeLarge, who cares for nothing but sex, violence, violent sex, and Beethoven. How Orange later portrayed Alex as sympathetic is impressive. It’s bizarre to watch McDowell sing and soft shoe to “Singing in the Rain” before a sexual assault. Stunts in Orange are borderline acrobatic. Alex and his droogs speak in Nadsat, a pidgin slang, and remain comprehensible. The Ludovico Treatment seems unethical by modern psychiatric standards, but Alex’s recovery is more troubling. Kubrick hired Wendy Carlos, a classical/electric composer, to interpret classical music for a unique score. Orange’s unafraid to refocus morality onto philosophy and asks: can good or evil be genuine if involuntary? It’s Kubrick’s bleakest film, embracing amorality and social decay.

What’s Not: Kubrick stepped into the legal mire with Orange. In the U.S., Kubrick cut 30 seconds to receive an R rating rather than X. But Orange was erroneously implicated in copycat crimes across the U.K. Kubrick and Malcolm McDowell received death threats and protestors protested outside their homes. Kubrick withdrew Orange from U.K. theaters. Orange was banned there until 2001. I don’t suggest Orange inspired any crimes, but one wonders if some restraint could’ve been prudent.

2. The Killing (1956)

Synopsis: aix men hatch a plan to steal $2 million from a high-stake horserace. A gunman’s killed; the theft is successful. One thief tells his gold-digger wife, who tells her mafia hitman lover; the lover tries to steal the money himself. One thief survives the ensuing bloodbath, almost escapes with the cash.

What’s Good: a multi-perspective noir. Six men participate in a heist, each makes minor mistakes, resulting first in success, then in failure. Its rhythm flows from one perspective to another in a fascinating way; Quentin Tarantino took inspiration from Killing, using a non-centralized storyline in Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). Tarantino homages the blocking and editing from a shootout from Killing in the latter. It’s the best example of the black-and-white-photography-oriented style Kubrick excelled in. Sterling Hayden’s role as recent ex-convict become heist mastermind comes off as a nuanced, but all the cast give memorable performances. Pacing’s beautifully balanced in Killing, so unlike in Kubrick’s other films, it never drags. Though several of the same actors were in another noir film, Crime Wave (1954), Killing’s a superior film. It’s incredibly impressive considering Killing is Kubrick’s third film. Famous crime author Jim Thompson penned the script. Though Killing was a box office failure, it’s cited as an influential film by many. It’s Kubrick’s most cohesive film.

What’s Not: I hate to make his point, but in Killing, Nikki Arane (portrayed by Timothy Carey) calls a black character the N-word in frustration. It makes sense for the plot, but in 1956, the fight for civil rights was still roiling. Kubrick believed strongly in social justice. The line’s not worth the shock it delivers. Sadly, the N-word is also featured in Shining.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Synopsis: an obelisk appears to pre-human apes, triggering evolution. Later, a monolith’s found on the moon. A space journey goes to investigate, but homicidal computer program HAL attacks the astronauts when they attempt to turn it off. One astronaut dies, one survives and shuts HAL off. He survives intergalactic travel, meets the obelisk, and ascends.

What’s Good: visuals in 2001 can feel mind expanding and psychedelic. It offers an ancient alien theory as an explanation for mankind’s evolution, which starts violently, but has a spiritual conclusion. The obelisk alien has a unique nonbiological design. HAL the homicidal, sentient spaceship AI is a widely recognized character. 2001 portrays a somewhat accurate lunar landscape and interstellar phenomena thanks to astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s research. Scenes set in space were filmed in slow motion and simulated low gravity. Adaptations of classical music in 2001 are markedly eerie and otherworldly. Some audience members took LSD while watching 2001 to infamous histrionics. Some conspiracy theorists believe the U.S. never traveled to the moon, but Kubrick filmed it instead. It’s Kubrick’s most spiritual film. It’s considered a psychedelic film that represents the 1960’s and is cited by many critics as one of the greatest films. 2001 was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

What’s Not: many of the scenes in 2001 are very slow to mimic space travel, and one must be in the right mindset to enjoy it. It’s a cognitively demanding watch, something to consider before putting on a 161-minute-long film.

Again, the purpose of this article wasn’t to give objective ratings on Kubrick’s films (such lists aren’t ever accurate). I hope to give audiences a guide where they can decide where to start exploring Kubrick’s decidedly challenging filmography (it’s not background content or light film). Additionally, I wanted to make it clear that even one of the most academically-celebrated directors can make mistakes, ones which he learned and adjusted from each time. Every artist can learn from Kubrick’s open, adaptive, constructive approach to failures.