Quentin Tarantino. The rock-star auteur has been delivering memorable cinema for nearly thirty years now. He, along with others, fast-tracked the independent film boom of the ’90s and he hasn’t slowed down since. He’s a filmmaker who I’d say hasn’t ever delivered a bad movie. This past weekend he delivered his ninth film, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, and after letting it sit with me for some time now, I feel I’m ready to go through his entire filmography and rank each individual film.
9. Death Proof (2007)
Tarantino’s half of the 2007 double-feature Grindhouse that he did with Robert Rodriguez, Death Proof is probably the closest Tarantino has gotten to doing a horror film. But unlike Rodriguez’s half, Planet Terror, which is bigger and crazier than its source material, Death Proof accurately re-creates the low-budget, talky aesthetic of films of the genre who could only afford to have two cool set pieces back in the day. It’s a film that brilliantly inverts the predator-prey relationship between its two halves, which are bridged with a very shocking death scene. A charming yet dangerous Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike, a misogynist serial-killer who kills women with his car, is a standout. And there’s also the phenomenal car chase, where Zoe Bell spends a majority of the time strapped to the hood of car. Though elements of the film do become muddled by being part of a double-feature, in the end I’d say the positives outweigh the negatives.
8. Kill Bill (2003-2004)
Though many constantly argue every couple of years if Kill Bill is one movie or two, I’m someone that feels it’s one. Saying that though, doesn’t mean that both volumes aren’t very different. The first part is a straight forward action movie full of stylish, violent vengeance with fantastic fight choreography. All of it though, light on subtext. It’s a lot of fun, the set pieces are unforgettable and the characters are fascinating, the Crazy 88 action sequence is one of the all time great action set pieces. It’s knowingly cartoony and a love-letter to Japanese action films. Maybe most importantly, it also proves that Uma Thurman (and her stuntwoman Zoe Bell) is one of the best action stars of this century even if no other filmmaker gave her another shot. The problem the entire first half does have though is that it lacks emotional heft; it’s held off for later. Which leads to the second part, which has a few action beats, but is way more conversational than the first half. It dives into the relationship between Bill and Beatrix to show how it’s both fundamentally broken and yet love remains between these two people as twisted as it may be. While, if you consider this one movie, you could say its front loaded and gets caught between indulging the revenge movie and deconstructing it and that could be a fair statement. But its first half is also exhilarating and its second is chockful of character subtext to really chew on and together they blend pretty well.
7. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Safe to call Tarantino’s most divisive movie, The Hateful Eight is his meanest, ugliest, most cynical movie by far. The title itself lets you know that you’re not supposed to like these titular eight people, and this film is a perfect example of how your lead characters don’t have to be likeable (a criticism of some movies that’s forever bothered me), they simply need to be compelling. Tarantino walks the line brilliantly in testing how “compelling” these people are, making you torn between charismatic yet varying degrees monstrous characters. The film’s bleak, actively pumping, heart is powered by the notion that people will destroy each other, and the only trust is in mutual self-interest. Which the opening of the film hammers hard with the John Ruth (a great Kurt Russell) character. There’s no compassion, empathy, or trust in this world, only self-interest. A cold world which is brought to life in 70mm for both some bizarre and fascinating reasons; though the first forty-five minutes are outside and are captured quite epically, a large majority of this film takes place in one-room. Though it’s a bizarre choice for 70mm, I’m not going to sit here and lie and say that cinematographer Robert Richardson doesn’t shoot the hell out of this movie. Extremely theatrical, painfully relevant in its themes and featuring possible career-best performances from Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight is a gruesomely cynical film that ends with an enigmatic, disquieting note of hope.
6. Django Unchained (2012)
The Oscar-winning Western that took the racist dialogue Tarantino often gives his characters and gives it to truly horrendous people and lets Jamie Foxx brutally murder them. Django Unchained is a landmark film for Tarantino: it was his first film without his longtime editor Sally Menke, who sadly passed away in 2010. And, in some ways, you can feel her absence in the film, as the film isn’t as tight as other Tarantino’s films had been. While there’s not a scene that deserves to be outright cut, the movie relishes the length of scenes and every shot to where the film can start to lose its urgency some. Still with that said though, Django Unchained has some of Tarantino’s strongest thematic material as he pinpoints racial power dynamics with the trappings of a grindhouse western (while also possibly being cinematographer Robert Richardson’s strongest work). The film is fascinated with what it means to be “civilized,” constantly tearing away at the societal norms that go unquestioned. Even the heroic Dr. Schultz (Oscar-winning Christoph Waltz) engages in a barbaric practice of murder, but since that murder is sanctioned by the state, he’s not only free to do it, but gets paid handsomely. Django, himself, is really a revolutionary character because he exists outside the bounds of the oppressive, racist society he lives in. He’s broken free from slavery and then given the tools to enact his purpose of saving his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). While the rest of the characters wallow in the muck of American society, Django is rendered into a mythic figure, exceptional by all standards and who knows that the only way to deal with such a corrupt society is to burn it all down in one of Tarantino’s most satisfying films.
5. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Most directors would settle for having a movie as good as Reservoir Dogs just simply in their filmography let alone having it be their directorial debut. It’s a heist film where you never see the heist. It’s an assured and confident introduction for Tarantino that introduces all of his future hallmarks that he’d become known for. But it also hits on the themes that Tarantino would return to as he focuses on power dynamics, masculinity and self-destruction. Of course, those elements don’t jump out immediately. What you first notice are cool guys in cool suits talking like we wish we could with our friends. But the film works beautifully because rather than holding up his group of thieves as the epitome of cool, Tarantino’s made a movie about tearing them down. It’s not a mistake that the film opens with the guys laughing, throwing around lines like, “You shoot me in a dream you better wake up and apologize,” and in the next scene one of them is crying out in pain and bleeding to death. What Reservoir Dogs does, and what both Tarantino’s fans and detractors often miss, is that beneath the swearing, quick-witted dialogue and excellent performances, is that Tarantino does not admire these kinds of characters. He sees them as tragic at best and grotesque at worst. The line between each character isn’t all that distinct. They’re a bunch of murderers and crooks, and while you can protest otherwise at the end they’re all dead or captured. To quote Tim Roth’s Freddy, “They don’t know. They don’t know shit… They believe every fucking word ’cause you’re super cool.”
4. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (2019)
Arguably Tarantino’s second hangout movie but very much his most meandering and leisurely movie, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is a luxuriant ode to a bygone era of filmmaking and a singular bold reinterpretation of a violent chapter of history. In this is film we see the writer-director wrestling with his own inevitable obsolescence. Set in 1969, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood takes place at the end of an era, a big moment of transition for the entertainment industry, when the New Hollywood was rushing in fast to kill the old one. Much of the dramatic tension comes from the Manson Family who lurks at the edges of the narrative, but the focus of the film is really three people just trying to make their way in 1969 Los Angeles. There’s Rick Dalton (an amazing Leonardo DiCaprio), a has-been TV actor struggling to find whatever parts he can; Cliff Booth (a fantastic Brad Pitt), Rick’s amiable stunt double, best friend, who has been drubbed out the industry for his reasons; and Sharon Tate (a luminating Margot Robbie), who represents the future of Hollywood and, as history tells us, a future that never realized because she, along with three of her friends and her unborn child, were murdered by the Manson Family. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood both does and doesn’t behave the way you might expect a Quentin Tarantino movie to behave. The storytelling is pretty linear, with some flashbacks and cutaways thrown in. The talk loops are endless, as usual, but the film takes its time to gather momentum. The loose hangout vibe achieves some of the mellowness and melancholy of Jackie Brown. This was hardly the first time that this director has melded fiction and reality into blood-soaked partners; nor is it the first time he has made the outrageous suggestion that cinema, as both an art and an industry, can make up for some of life’s most grievous imperfections in ways that nothing else can.
3. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
The first of Tarantino’s movies to rewrite history, Inglourious Basterds shows a remarkable amount of maturity from the director while still maintaining his voice and style. It’s a film that’s far more controlled and willing to revel in long conversations. It uses notions of observed and unobserved (every character is hiding something and putting on a show for the others) to ultimately make a movie about movies. And yet that never feels offhand in its WWII setting. Tarantino knows how gruesome and ugly war — and especially the Holocaust— can be, but rather than show those directly, he chooses to dive into the power dynamics that can be destroyed through putting on a façade. What makes Inglourious Basterds so riveting is that you have Tarantino playing to this strengths, but clearly taking his game to the next level. The opening conversation between Hans Landa (a mesmeric, Oscar-winning Christoph Waltz) and the dairy farmer (Denis Ménochet) is so extremely tense that you at times forget to breathe, until it’s over. And then Tarantino provides a nice reprieve with the Basterds themselves and one of Brad Pitt’s best, funniest performances as Lt. Aldo Raine. But it’s fascinating to watch the film continually layer over itself and see how depictions are successfully made and completely obliterated. And yet the heart of the film is Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent), a Jewish woman passing as gentile who not only wins the war (the joke becoming that the Basterds’ work is literal and figurative overkill), but also shows the enduring power of cinema. Even after she’s dead, her ghostly face laughs over her victims, showing them “the face of Jewish vengeance,” as they burn alive. For Tarantino, there’s no more potent symbol than using cinema to defeat one’s enemies and letting that legacy endure.
2. Jackie Brown (1997)
Tarantino’s only adaptation is one that many call his best film. Some of his detractors will say it’s telling that one of his, if not his, best movie is an adaptation, but I’d counter that Jackie Brown shows a remarkable amount of daring from the director. Yes, it’s based off the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch, but it’s still unmistakably a Tarantino movie while also pushing the director out of his comfort zone. He could have kept doing the same thing after the massive success of Pulp Fiction, he instead keeps the themes and goes a drastically different direction with them. The first noticeable difference about Jackie Brown is how Tarantino readjusts his entire style from taking cool people and tearing them down to having a protagonist that’s an underdog who’s going to show she’s the cool person in the whole movie. Which means there needs to be a balancing act showing Jackie (a career-best Pam Grier) as overwhelmed and downtrodden, but also confident enough that she can pull off a fairly complex caper. The opening credits of the movie speak volumes, almost telling you what Jackie’s life is without a single line of dialogue as she’s carried along, going against the grain (an ingenuous shot where Jackie is walking in one direction and all the extras walk the opposite) before rushing to make her gate, showing she’s struggling just to keep up these days. It’s this kind of masterful direction that carries throughout Jackie Brown. But what makes Jackie Brown so special is that’s a romance. Sure, you’ve still got some violence and Ordell (a very memorable Samuel L. Jackson) playing a criminal who thinks he’s smarter than he actually is, but at the heart of the movie is the relationship between Jackie and Max Cherry (an Oscar-nominated Robert Forster). Up to this point, Tarantino had written characters who grabbed your attention, but they weren’t people you could really genuinely root for. The relationship between Jackie and Max is what gets you cheering, and what makes the ending so heartbreaking, as you have two people who are old enough to know they want different things, and know that they can’t ask the other one to give up their interest. It’s nothing short of beautiful.
1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
The film that made Tarantino a household name, Pulp Fiction is a landmark, and for a very good reason. In many ways, it feels like Tarantino refines and expands upon the talent he showed in Reservoir Dogs. You’ve still got criminals in the black-and-white suits and they’re still shooting the shit on their way to crimes, but there’s much more depth and nuance to Jules (a robbed of an Oscar Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (an Oscar-nominated John Travolta) than any of the crooks from Tarantino’s first film. A second film shouldn’t be as brash and confident as Pulp Fiction, but Tarantino knows exactly what he wants to do and has no reservations pushing his style. It’s a movie that’s constantly throwing curveballs at the audience, but that’s kind of the point. Every major character in this movie thinks they have things totally figured out and knows how the game is played. But they’re completely confident in their lifestyle and what they do, and then Tarantino comes along to mess it all up and see what these characters are really about. That’s why the ending of the film is an all-time ending. You finally have one of the characters, Jules, examining his posturing and realizing that he doesn’t have everything figured out and that he has to find a new path. Pulp Fiction is not only one of the finest films of ’90s or one of the finest films around period, it’s Tarantino’s magnum opus.