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Quentin Tarantino Films Ranked Worst to First


Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes 01 seconds

Quentin Tarantino is the most important filmmaker of his generation. That isn’t to say he is the best…just the most important. Tarantino’s distinctive aesthetic, a dialogue and violence driven stew of pop culture, spaghetti westerns, kung fu movies, film noir, pulp fiction, and satirical comedy, revolutionized movies.

Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs, hit theatres in 1992 at the height of the grunge rock revolution. Popular music was being turned upside down by the gritty, yet stylized, realism of grunge which was eviscerating the manufactured, corporate rock preening of the previous decade. Tarantino’s uber-confident brand of filmmaking was to Hollywood what Nirvana’s music was to the music industry, an artistic nuclear bomb obliterating business as usual.

Reservoir Dogs, like grunge, created a stylized, gritty realism that was fictional but seemed more true, and honest, than the fairy tale bullshit Hollywood and the music industry had been selling Generation X for the entirety of their lives.

If Reservoir Dogs was akin to Nirvana’s cult hit album Bleach, then Tarantino’s second feature, Pulp Fiction, was Nevermind. Pulp Fiction was the ultimate game changer as it was both populist entertainment, yet also an unorthodox arthouse movie, and it became an instant classic, a box office smash and a critical darling. With Pulp Fiction, Tarantino managed to resurrect not only John Travolta’s moribund career, but also give artistic credibility to Bruce Willis of all people, and catapulted both Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman onto the A list.

Like Nirvana, Tarantino spawned a myriad of copycats who watered down his stylistic brand over the years that followed his breakthrough success. Like grunge, Tarantino went into a deep lull after his initial glorious burst of creativity as his follow up to Pulp Fiction, 1997’s Jackie Brown, fizzled both critically and commercially.

A new wave of independent minded auteurs hit the theatres in the mid to late 90’s, directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson, and they were quickly putting Tarantino in the critical rear view mirror as the millennium closed. It would be six long years after Jackie Brown before another Tarantino film would hit the theatres, and during this time it certainly had felt like the Tarantino moment had passed.

During post-production there was a steady stream of bad press leaking out about Kill Bill, Tarantino’s Kung Fu movie. When word came out that Tarantino was going to split the film into two features to be released in back to back years (2003-2004), I thought that was a very, very bad sign. If the rumors were to be believed it seemed as though Tarantino’s ego was quickly becoming inversely proportionate to his directing ability. Then Kill Bill Vol. 1 came out…and not only was Tarantino not becoming irrelevant and obsolete…he was proving himself as the master of edgy populist arthouse American cinema. Kill Bill solidified his status of king of cool cinema who ruled over Hollywood, indie-land and the arthouse.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 saved Tarantino and Tarantino-ism, which long outlived its musical counterpart, grunge. For the next 15 years Tarantino has churned out big movies…they weren’t always great…but they were always cinematic events. No one makes movies like Quentin Tarantino, and as the years have passed people have even stopped making the type of movies Tarantino can make…big populist Hollywood movies that aren’t part of a franchise or comic book universe.

Tarantino’s career has not only survived but thrived despite his multitude of naysayers, and nowadays the naysayers include the cultural revolutionaries and revisionist historians of the woke brigade. If you read or listen to pc establishment film critics nowadays you hear them describe Tarantino the man, and his films, as “problematic”. He is accused of all sorts of things…like using too much violence and racially charged language in his films…and of filling his films with violence against women and “sex”. Even though I disagree with these criticisms, I will admit that some of these charges, such as the violence and racial language, can at least be made in good faith, but claims of violence against women and too much sex are absolutely absurd and reveal either a staggering ignorance of Tarantino’s work or a dubious and dishonest assessment of his intentions.

The point of all this is to say that, like him or not, Tarantino has cemented his place in our popular culture and in the history of cinema. To ignore this fact would be to ignore reality. With this in mind, and since Tarantino’s new film Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, opens this weekend, I thought it would be wise to try and put together my rankings of Tarantino films.

Ranking Tarantino films is no easy task as my list is almost always in a state of flux. My top four Tarantino films are always the same, but their order can flip by the second. So this list is just capturing my thinking…and feeling…at this very moment. With that in mind…sit back…be like Fonzie and stay motherfuckin cool…and enjoy the list.

8. DEATH PROOF (2007) - Death Proof is a 2007 “exploitation horror film” starring Kurt Russell that pays homage to 1970’s slasher and muscle car movies. Death Proof is undeniable proof that paying homage to a shitty genre will result in a shitty movie. I have seen this exactly once and have zero interest in seeing it ever again. Death Proof is a bad idea made manifest which not surprisingly is a badly made, bad movie. Death Proof is what happens when you become a super successful director and no one has the balls to tell you no.

7. JACKIE BROWN (1997) - Something funny has happened in recent years where aging hipster douchebags (there is an important distinction to be made at this point…while I am aging, am a hipster, and am widely regarded as a douchebag, I am most definitely not the specific breed of monster known as an “aging hipster douchebag”) have decided that Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s homage to blaxploitation movies, is a great movie. In fact, some have gone so far as to claim that Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s greatest film. Let me be as clear as I can about this…Jackie Brown is an actively awful movie. The script is dreadful, the directing abysmal, the pacing lethargic and the acting comatose.

Jackie Brown was a Tarantino flex where he thought he could pull his Lazarus routine on some more actors just like he did with Travolta on Pulp Fiction. But this was where Tarantino’s ego got kicked in the nuts by cold hard reality. There is a reason Pam Grier and Robert Forster were, at the height of their careers, D-level movie actors…it is because they are not good actors. Building a film around such minimal talents ended with…not surprisingly…a really shitty and entirely forgettable movie. This movie was so highly anticipated and so fucking terrible it almost ended Tarantino’s career.

And if you are an aging, hipster douchebag who thinks this is Tarantino’s greatest film, I’m going to Tony Rocky Horror you’re ass and throw you out a four story window and then I’m gonna get medieval on your ass. Got it?

6. THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015) - The Hateful Eight is a pseudo-western thriller that attempts to make grand statements on race in America all while trying to suss out a second rate Agatha Christie type of whodunnit. There are some good things in The Hateful Eight…like Robert Richardson’s stellar cinematography, particularly his glorious opening sequence. But overall…this is a terribly flawed film that suffocates under the weight of its unwieldy and impotent script.

Tarantino succumbs to his lesser instincts and ego in The Hateful Eight when he fatally undermines the archetypal, mythic and narrative structure of the film by making his “hero”, played by Sam Jackson, a male rapist. The film lacks cohesion and tension and devolves into a rather vacuous bloodbath that bores more than it repulses or titillates.

This film is a frustrating cinematic venture, sort of like being marched at gunpoint naked through a blizzard.

5. INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009) - This is where things start to get interesting on the list as Inglorious Basterds is at once a brilliant and yet also a troublesome film. This movie boasts the single greatest scene of any of Tarantino’s films and among the greatest in film history…the opening sequence where SS Officer Hans Landa question a French farmer, Monsieur LaPadite, in his farmhouse. The film also boasts the masterfully tense and taut “basement bar” scene which is a thing of cinematic beauty. In contrast it also has some awful scenes, like the Mike Myers scene and the climactic orgy of ridiculous Hitler slaughtering violence in the movie theatre.

On the bright side the movie boasts tremendous performances from Christoph Waltz (as the aforementioned Landa), Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt but on the dark side it is saddled with the single worst performance ever in a Tarantino film…the utterly abysmal Eli Roth as The Bear Jew is excruciatingly awful and set the art and craft of acting back centuries.

The thing I disliked the most about Inglorious Basterds though was that it came out during a time when the torture of “enemy combatants” in the war on terror was being debated and it very surreptitiously acted as a piece of vociferous pro-torture propaganda. Anyone who couldn’t see the Manichean philosophical underpinnings of beating captured German soldiers to death with a baseball bat being equivalent to torturing Muslims in Guantanamo Bay or Bagram or Abu Ghraib is being willfully obtuse. And it should be noted here that the German soldiers in the Wermacht getting their skulls bashed in and being scalped by "The Basterds’ were not Nazis party members. Some may see this as a distinction without a difference, and Wermacht complicity and guilt is a contentious historical debate, but considering the context of the torture discussion when the film was released, I find this distinction of note.

Another thing that bothered me about the film was that it was, at its core, nothing but a Jewish revenge fantasy. of course, there is nothing wrong with a Jewish revenge fantasy, in particular a Jewish revenge fantasy against Hitler, who certainly deserves whatever horrors we can imagine for him, but what felt uncomfortable to me was that in Tarantino’s case his revenge fantasy felt manipulative and pandering. Context is important here, as Tarantino is not Jewish, but even though you are not allowed to say it, the majority of Academy members and studio heads are and it felt like Tarantino was trying to make a movie to shamelessly pander to them in order to win an elusive Best Picture and/or best Director Oscar.

Bottomline is this…as great as Inglorious Basterds can be, its failures make it an uneven cinematic experience. Of all my conflicting feelings over this movie, the most overwhelming one is my impulse to bash Eli Roth’s head in with a baseball bat after taunting him with a dreadful Boston accent.

4. DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) - Some would argue that Django is, like Inglorious Basterds, just a revenge fantasy, except this time for African Americans against slavery. I think this point is terribly off the mark. Yes, there is a certain level of revenge fueling Django Unchained, but the archetype driving the film is not revenge but love, as Django Unchained is a mythic love story. Django is not fighting for any grandiose principles or objectives like freeing the slaves or to punish slave owners, he is just trying to get back to his wife and save her. In contrast, Inglorious Basterds is NOTHING BUT a revenge fantasy where love is nowhere to be found.

Django Unchained is, like the other films in the top four, a masterpiece in its own right. This movie is a thrilling and exhilarating ride that only suffers from one minor (although it felt major at the time) lull, and that is when Tarantino himself is on-screen as an Australian slave trader. As great a movie as this is, and it is great, Tarantino’s sloppy and narcissistic cameo nearly scuttles the entire enterprise.

That said, the film highlights exquisite and sterling performances from Jamie Foxx (easily the best work of his career), Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. The film was pilloried for its use of violence and exploiting slavery for entertainment, but these criticism hold no water. The violence in the film is cartoonish…except when it involves slaves…then it is handled with brutal realism and gravity. Tarantino’s dance between the polar opposites of his entertaining, over-the-top violence and acknowledgement of the horrors of slavery is actually very well-done and shows a deft directing touch.

if you ask me on another day I may say that Django Unchained is Tarantino’s best film…but today I put it at #4. Even though I have it at #4, make no mistake, it is a first ballot hall of fame movie.

3. RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) - There are times where I have Reservoir Dogs as the top film in this list…and even more times when I have it ranked ahead of Pulp Fiction….but today isn’t one of those days. Like Django Unchained, Reservoir Dogs is a first ballot hall of famer.

This movie hit theatres like a hand grenade and launched Tarantino as a serious auteur. This staggeringly confident film is like a neo-noir stage play set in this well-defined but not overly explained universe where thugs, hitmen, cons and shady people all live and work. This world is not real but is so thoroughly put together it feels hyper-real.

The low budget for the film adds to its mystique and highlights Tarantino’s real talent as a writer and director. The rawness of the movie is part of its great appeal.

Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi and Michael Madsen all give stellar performances and Tarantino’s script is explosively good. His use of music, camera movement, pop culture dialogue and violence make for a combustible and compelling feature film debut for Tarantino.

A truly great movie and an instant classic that launched Tarantino’s journey to the top of Hollywood’s Mount Olympus.

2. PULP FICTION (1994) - Pulp Fiction garnered Tarantino a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, and rightfully so. This script crackles with life and is a master class in world and character building. The terrific script is elevated even more by sublime performances from Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson, Harvery Keitel, John Travolta, Christopher Walken and even that dullard Bruce Willis.

Tarantino’s ability to mess with narrative structure, to masterfully use music and pop culture as reference points and his exquisite ability to place multi-dimensional characters into a palpably real but entirely manufactured world, is what makes Pulp Fiction the iconic film that it is.

Pulp Fiction reinvented the Hollywood film, and for good or for ill, forever changed the movie industry. It is the type of film that if you stumble across it on cable, you will sit and watch it from any point in the story through to the end.

1. KILL BILL VOL. 1 & 2 (2003-2004) - I realize I am in the minority on this but I think Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 combined is the greatest Tarantino film….it is certainly my favorite.

Some have accused these films of exploiting and encouraging violence against women, this strikes me as a short cut to thinking. Uma Thurman is the lead in the movie, she is an action hero, she is beaten, shot, stabbed, you name it. Just because violence happens to a women doesn’t make it misogynist…and in this case the exact opposite is true. The weak kneed, mealy mouthed woke clowns who claim this film is misogynist should ask themselves…are the Lethal Weapon movies anti-male because Mel Gibson gets the crap kicked out him in every movie? No, of course not. Tarantino empowers his female lead, an astounding Uma Thurman as The Bride/Black Mamba, to be an action hero not despite of her gender…but because of it…and that is not misogyny.

Like Django, Kill Bill is on its surface a revenge story but in its soul is a love story. The love is that of a mother for her daughter. Thurman’s Black Mamba character is unconsciously tracking down her daughter while consciously slaying all who are impediments to her maternal bond.

The brilliance of Kill Bill is in the world and character building. Tarantino’s kung fu world is populated by ninja and samurai assassins with distinct and specific histories and motivations. A rich, textured, vivid and vibrant creation that is Tarantino at his very best.

In conclusion, while there are some misfires, like Death Proof , Jackie Brown and The Hateful Eight, Tarantino has over the span of his career been a must-see filmmaker who has heightened the craft of moviemaking while celebrating the art of cinema.

The bottom line in regards to Tarantino’s best movies is this…you simply can’t go wrong with Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Django Unchained in any order, as they are among the very best films of the last thirty years and are monuments to Tarantino’s unique vision and singular genius.

The question now becomes…where does Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood rank in Tarantino’s canon? My verdict will be in shortly, but in the mean time why not go re-watch Django unchained, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill or even Inglorious Basterds, as a primer before you see Tarantino’s newest offering. It will get you into the Tarantino spirit and you will not be disappointed.

©2019

Are the Grammys Racist?

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes 58 seconds

The Grammy Awards were this past Sunday night and in their wake there have been charges of racism and misogyny leveled at the awards. The reason for the cry of racism and misogyny is that according to some in the media, Rap music did not win a major award and women were under represented in award wins.

Last year I wrote an article about how declarations of Grammy racism were statistically unfounded, and that piece stands up well against the test of time especially with 4 of 5 nominees for Album of the Year, 5 of 6 nominees for Record of the Year, and 5 out of 5 nominees for Song of the Year being minorities (non-White). 

What is funny in reading that piece now is that last year the racism uproar was over Adele, a White woman, beating out Beyonce, a Black woman, for the Best Album award. The thing that is striking about the competition between those two artists is that…THEY ARE BOTH WOMEN. For those who do not suffer from historical amnesia, myopia or otherwise have the long term memory of a Tsetse fly, this would seem to prove the absurdity of the misogyny charge against the Grammys. Add in the fact that of the last ten Album of the Year awards, five went to men, four went to women and one went to a man and a woman (Robert Plant and Alison Krause). 

The reason the pussy-hat brigade are up in arms this year is because that ginger lightning rod, Ed Sheeran, a male artist for the patriarchy, beat out four female artists for best pop solo performance. From what I have read, the real reason people are upset over Sheeran's victory is not because his work is comparatively sub-standard but rather because of the "message it sends" since at the moment we are in the midst of a cultural female renaissance (#MeToo, #TimesUp). I find this to be a short cut to thinking. Look, God knows I am no Ed Sheeran fan, but on the merits is it totally incomprehensible that his song was a better Pop Solo Performance than the songs from Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Kesha and Lady Gaga? Sheeran is obviously a viable candidate for the Grammy for Best Pop Solo Performance because he won that exact award in 2016 along with a Song of the Year Grammy. Claiming Sheeran is out of his depth or entirely unworthy compared to his female opponents or only won because of misogyny is a tenuous argument at best and a frivolous one at worst. 

The other big scandal is that people are screaming "racism!" because R&B singer Bruno Mars won Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Album and in so doing beat out two rappers, Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar. The argument is that the Grammys are racist because they do not appreciate Rap music. 

Here is the thing about the Recording Academy, it is made up of musicians, producers and engineers. You know what musicians respect…musicianship. Musicians spend an inordinate amount of their time growing up sitting alone in their rooms learning their instrument and honing their craft. No matter how talented you are as a musician, you will not achieve greatness without committing a great deal of time and energy to master your instrument (voice included). You know who doesn't spend an inordinate amount of time learning and mastering their instrument…rappers. You know why? Because rappers do not play instruments, they do not sing, and most cannot read music. Could it be that rap does not win big Grammy awards because it is seen as a cheap shortcut to success, as opposed to rock and R&B which require years and years of working to hone ones craft and skill just to be proficient, never mind transcendent?

Rap music is certainly popular (although not as popular as you think - more on that later), but that doesn't make it artistically worthwhile or notable. To put Rap music in context, it is like reality television. Reality television is very popular, for instance the Kardashians are enormously famous across the globe. But that doesn't mean that what they do is a result of skill or craft or is artistically noteworthy. You can turn on your television and see Kim Kardashian and then turn the channel and see Meryl Streep, but that doesn't mean that they are equal or that Kim Kardashian is even an "actress". The same is true of Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar, they sell a lot of albums but that still does not make them musicians, especially in the eyes of actual musicians. 

This is not to say that rap does not have cultural value or anything like that, it certainly does. What it is to say is that Rap is not deemed award worthy music by musicians because it is devoid of musicianship, and this is why the musicians, producers and engineers in the Recording Academy have been reticent to award Rap their top prizes. The point being that the alleged Grammy snubs of Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar are not about racism, but about musicianship. Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z may be brilliant rappers, but that is entirely irrelevant, for neither of them can read music, play an instrument or sing, the three skills that musicians would respect because they worked so hard at them. 

The other thing that is kind of funny to me is that people were crying racism about the Grammys this year, and yet the guy who won the three big awards (Record, Song and Album of the Year) Bruno Mars, is a Filipino-Puerto Rican. If those awards went to some pasty white guy like Justin Beiber or someone equally awful and White, then the argument for racism would at least be coherent, but they didn't and it isn't. 

In terms of Rap's popularity, there were a lot of headlines this year that Rap music was now the most popular genre of music in America, overtaking rock music for the first time. When you look at the statistics though, they are terribly, and in my opinion, intentionally, misleading. Billboard claims that Hip-Hop accounts for 24.5% of music consumed (measured by a combination of album sales, track equivalent album units and streaming equivalent album units -- including both on-demand audio and video streams) , and Rock for 20.8% of music consumed, which would be big news if true. But it isn't true because the reality is that Hip-Hop has not overtaken Rock in terms of popularity, the actual category that has overtaken Rock is Hip-Hop AND R&B combined. What these statistics are really saying is that when you combine two popular forms of music, Hip-Hop and R&B, they are slightly more popular than Rock music. Since I could not find the statistics for music consumption for Hip-Hop alone without R&B, the next best thing is to look at statistics of "Album Consumption", which shows that Hip-Hop/Rap is second on the overall list at 17.5% and R&B is fourth at 8.7%, with Rock atop the list at 22.2%. This shows that Hip-Hop on its own would be well behind Rock, and frankly, so would R&B.

Backing up this argument of Rock's superior popularity, is that Rock is still the genre with the most record sales (40% of all record sales are Rock), which is a pretty good indicator of its viability as a musical genre. There is also the peculiar statistic that the Grammy awards this year had no Rock acts nominated in any of the Big Four categories (New Artist, Album, Song, Record of the Year) and the television ratings were down a staggering 24%. The Grammy show also had a dearth of rock acts performing, and a plethora of Rap/R&B acts performing, which begs the question, did people not tune in because there was no rock? Or because Rap is atrociously bad in live performance? (That said, I am not arguing that because Rock is "more popular" or sells more albums than Rap or R&B, that it is more culturally relevant, because I do not think that it is, but that is a long discussion for another day.)

It is also important to note, at least in terms of the Grammys and popularity argument, that R&B and Rap/Hip-Hop are two very, very different and distinct forms of music. One, R&B, demands a high level of musicianship, most notably the ability to sing, and the other, Rap/Hip-Hop, requires absolutely no musicianship whatsoever. A brief look at the list of top R&B performers in the last thirty years or so reveals a cornucopia of enormously skilled and talented musicians. Prince and Stevie Wonder are arguably two of the greatest musicians to have ever lived, and Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey two of the greatest singers. By the way, all of these performers are Black and all of them have won Grammys which is further proof against claims of Grammys racism. 

If you want to make the argument that the Grammys suck, are irrelevant or idiotic, you will get no pushback from me. But racist? Were the Grammys racist when they awarded Natalie Cole for the Frankenstein-ian sentimentality of Unforgettable over REM's vastly superior Out of Time? Or when they awarded Whitney Houston's Bodyguard soundtrack over REM's Automatic for the People? No, the Grammys weren't racist in making those decisions, they were just way behind the times. And for those who think Rap is an artistically worthwhile musical genre, don't take the Grammy slights personally because the Recording Academy has throughout its history consistently fucked over artistically superior music of the moment for less challenging and more mainstream fare and race has had nothing to do with it. 

The proof that the Grammys are awful to cutting-edge artists of all colors is pretty easy to see. For instance, in 1993, U2's seminal album, and arguably one of the greatest rock albums of all-time, Achtung Baby, lost out to Eric Clapton's schmaltzy Unplugged album. Another example is that In 1992 when Natalie Cole was beating out REM for Album of the Year, the best, most consequential album of that year and of that generation, Nirvana's Nevermind, WASN'T EVEN NOMINATED. 

 

In 1997, Celine Dion beat out Smashing Pumpkin's alternative anthem Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness for Album of the Year. In 1998, Bob Dylan's Time out of Mind beat out Radiohead's brilliant masterpiece OK Computer. In 2001, Steely Dan's flaccid Two Against Nature beat out Radiohead's Kid A and Beck's Midnite Vultures, two extraordinary pieces of work.

The list goes on, in 2002 the mundane soundtrack to Oh Brother Where Art Thou beat U2's redefining renaissance album, All That You Can't Leave Behind. 2003 Norah Jones lush snooze-fest Come Away With Me beat out Springsteen's American epic The Rising. In 2005 Ray Charles nostalgic Genius Loves Company beat out Green Day's instant classic American Idiot. 

Obviously, none of these examples were the result of racism on the part of the Grammys, but were due to the Recording Academy skewing more towards the established acceptable music rather than anything that is pushing boundaries. When you add the Academy's inclination to look backwards with their memberships prejudice toward musicianship, then you get a scenario where Rap/Hip-Hop music is less appreciated than popular music fans may like and racism is not even remotely the reason. 

To me, the real scandal is not Grammy (or Oscar) "racism", it is the neutering of that word through continued overuse. Racism simply no longer has any force as a pejorative, and that is why we have seen recent attempts to up the ante on charges of racism by using the terms White supremacy, White privilege or institutional racism. The word "racism" has become like antibiotics, its overuse has made it less effective which is ultimately dangerous to us all. 

Crying racism over perceived awards slights is absurd and frankly, entirely counter-productive. Is the problem with race in America really the collection of artists in the Recording Academy or in the Motion Picture Academy? In industries where Blacks have thrived well beyond their demographic reality is that really the best place to point the finger of racism?

My advice to those crying racism over the Grammys awarding a Filipino-Puerto Rican singer over Black rappers…stop being emotional and irrational and get serious. Stop making "racism" your instinctual response to any failure on the part of Black people, especially when it comes to something so subjective as musical tastes. You are doing your noble cause no favors by tilting at such ridiculous and easily disprovable windmills. 

 

©2017