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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.