So far for this column, I’ve only been doing my top 5 films by a particular director. But, since Quentin Tarantino only has 8 feature films released, and none of his movies are bad, I thought I’d include all of them. Tarantino is a filmmaker who has always had a very distinct and unique voice, which is often replicated by people trying to catch lightning in a bottle themselves. In the ’90s, this manifested in a lot of would-be QTs making films where criminals talk a lot in between flashes of violence. But the man himself has gone beyond his street crime movie roots and has embraced different genre pastiches while never losing his brilliant ear for dialogue, even, as with later films, if that dialogue isn’t in English. I like all of these movies, so the ranking is merely which do I like the most. And now, from 8 to 1, here is how I would personally rank the films of Quentin Tarantino. As always, your mileage may vary.
8) Death Proof (2007)
Now, it’s not the biggest leap to say that Death Proof is Tarantino’s weakest film. Hell, he thinks so himself. But what’s disappointing about the director’s half of the Grindhouse experiment wasn’t that it was bad, it’s that it was mostly pretty good. There are some really excellent things about this movie, from the car stunts, to that horrendous car crash, to the brilliantly sinister/whimpering performance by Kurt Russell as the film’s baddie. But GOOD GOD, the talking. Tarantino prides himself in his ability to write women, and by and large he succeeds, but here, each of the film’s 8 main females seems like they THINK they’re in a Tarantino movie and not just that they’re in one. Visually excellent, but narratively weak, especially once we get to the second set of women.
7) Kill Bill vol. 2 (2004)
This is also a good movie. There are some excellent performances by pretty much everyone involved, especially Uma Thurman and David Carradine, but despite all the good stuff in it, it tends to lack the punch and the excitement of the first volume. They’re two completely different movies, obviously, and this one is much more in line with a western drama than a slice-em-up martial arts film. The body count in this film is a fraction of what it was in the first, which isn’t a slight, it’s just a fact. This movie’s much more melancholy, which works well, it just doesn’t stay with me the way some of his other movies do.
6) Kill Bill vol. 1 (2003)
What are the odds?! Yes, I think volume 1 is better than volume 2, but only just and only insofar as they’re both together not as good as the rest of his canon. Really fun movie, some amazing action, Uma Thurman kicks huge amounts of ass, and there are great weird sequences like the animated origin of O-Ren Ishii and The Bride attempting to wiggle her big toe. There’s a world happening in this movie that is unlike any other, and it’s only because this part is so frenetic and wild that I think it hangs together better than the second half.
5) Reservoir Dogs (1992)
This movie was revelatory for me; as an impressionable 19 year old who was just beginning to be interested in film, watching this as part of the Home Alone Halloween that also had me seeing Evil Dead 2 and Swingers for the first time, I was utterly blown away. I studied this movie over and over again for the next couple years, trying to glean everything I could from it. Watching it again last year for the first time in half a decade probably, I still found it hard-edged, but also found it to be Tarantino’s bleakest film. There’s always a modicum of hope or triumph in even his most violent pictures, but Dogs is about a bunch of doomed guys trying to wait out being doomed. The whole cast is brilliant, and the handheld nature of camerawork makes you feel like you’re watching something that’s really happening, despite the situations. And, like all of QT’s movies, the soundtrack is stellar. I’ve never listened to “Stuck in the Middle with You” the same way again.
4) Jackie Brown (1997)
Now, this is a movie that has grown exponentially in my estimation in the years since seeing it. While I loved Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill immediately, I regarded his adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch as merely very good. I wasn’t clamoring to watch that again, nor was I quoting that one time and again to friends. But now, as a grown up person who watches lots and lots of movies, Jackie Brown has become something of a sentimental favorite. It’s certainly not one I’ve watched as often, but every time I do, I enjoy it more and more. It’s a long movie, yes, but it’s also a supremely solid crime story with perfectly-played characters. These are all adults having adult conversations. Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert Forster play so much internally, even Jackson who is easily the most bombastic. Robert De Niro makes me laugh with every line he says, and seems to go from zero to sixty in record time. It’s also the soundtrack I find myself listening to the most. It’s a fantastic movie, and well worth a re-estimation.
3) Django Unchained (2012)
For much of the post-Jackie Brown career of Quentin Tarantino, he’s been toying with the trappings and aesthetic of Spaghetti Westerns without actually doing one, but in 2012, he finally went west, young man. Or, south, more accurately – the Deep South. Taking the title from a Sergio Corbucci western, as well as a Steve Reeves Hercules movie, Tarantino made a raucous and incredibly violent film featuring a slave who becomes a bounty hunter and goes on a quest to free his wife. It’s a long movie, sure, but it’s a mythical tale and our hero has to go further and further into the depths of Hell itself before he can escape victorious. It follows the legend of Siegfried which Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) explains at a certain point in the film, and if you notice that, the movie not exactly following the path you think it will makes perfect sense. Tarantino won his second screenplay Oscar for this film, and it’s very much deserved, and Waltz got his second Supporting Actor Oscar, which is great, but I think it’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s frothing plantation-owning villain that really steals the show. Not a movie for the faint of heart, or the sensitive of stomach, but it’s highly rewarding.
2) Pulp Fiction (1994)
Upset! Well, not really. This is a movie that I will always love and will always mean a great deal to me. It’s a movie I showed people for years and their minds were always blown, and with good reason. This film was a game-changer in Hollywood and elsewhere and is the reason pretenders to the throne like 2 Days in the Valley, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, and The Boondock Saints (which is just terrible, people, admit it) were made and got distribution. Crime movies with verbose characters is a result of Quentin Tarantino, but he’s always done it the best and Pulp Fiction is testament to that. Every time you watch it, you see how weak the knockoffs are. With this film, only his second, Tarantino began his trend of treating movies like novels, allowing them the time to breathe and the chance for characters to exist on their own. We feel like we know Jules, Vincent, Mia, Butch, and even Pumpkin and Honey Bunny though they aren’t in it much. We’re in the trenches with them, we see what they’re doing. And they’re likable even if they’re murderers or thieves or what have you. This is a movie I think I know every frame of but always enjoy revisiting.
1) Inglourious Basterds (2009)
When I first saw this movie, on opening night back in ’09 in a crappy theater in North Hollywood because I couldn’t afford a better one, I didn’t really like it. I didn’t hate it, but I certainly didn’t love it. I mean, it was zero percent what I thought it was going to be and even watching it, I couldn’t predict what was going on, and that sort of left me confused. A few days later, I felt compelled to see it again. A few days after that, I saw it a third time. Each subsequent viewing, I got more and more into the world of the film, and now, coming up on 6 years since its release, I think it’s the perfect Quentin Tarantino movie. It’s a movie where two of the heroes are a cinema owner and a film critic, where movies are both the catalyst and the resolution, and where legend and what they print in the history books is up for debate. It’s the most perfect Spaghetti Western ever made, and it isn’t one; it’s the least accurate WWII movie ever made, but couldn’t possibly care about that. It’s Tarantino at his most. Less than a third of the movie is actually in English, meaning the trailers could really only feature Brad Pitt’s Jewish Nazi-killers, but the real story is with a young woman who has the opportunity to avenge her slain family, AND take out the entire Nazi high command to do it. Waltz won a very deserved Oscar for his portrayal of a verbose and lingual Nazi who seeks to re-write history. Tension is built in almost every scene, like Hitchcock or Leone, but it’s done not through silences or ticking clocks, but through small talk, pleasantry, and sinister undertones. I could not love this movie more. One day, I’ll write a book about it, I’m sure. Pitt’s final line, the final line of the film, evokes Tarantino’s truth: “I think this just might be my masterpiece.”
Go ahead, tell me why I’m wrong. That’s what the comments section is for!