There are only a few filmmakers who will deliver me into a cinema seat without any prior need for reviews, feedback, or in fact any details whatsoever. It’s a rare thing indeed, in this age of instant and total information, to only need to hear a name to be spurred into action. The Coen Brothers are one such an entity; as is David Fincher. Quentin Tarantino is another.
It happened organically. I saw Reservoir Dogs at some point in the nineties and was hooked. I suppose I was lucky, starting chronologically like that, as it has invested me in his journey as a writer and director and professional reprobate; and it has allowed me to view an artist’s work in both essential ways: on its own, and within the context of their evolution.
Having walked out after The Hateful Eight 70mm screening a few weeks ago, my mind was abuzz: how the hell do all of Tarantino’s movies stack up against each other? Two entries I could place immediately; the rest required a month’s fasting underneath a holy tree on a far-off planet to determine the sacred order. But I now return to you from this pilgrimage, and I bring the divine verdict.
Here it is:
9. Death Proof (2007)
Quentin Tarantino is a master homage craftsman; a collage artist; a remix merchant. Aside from his preternatural gift for dialogue, this is what marks him out. Death Proof is him acting as a sculptor of trash: taking the grindhouse fare that he loved as a youth and serving up his intentionally rough and semi-ironic take on an inherently rough and often completely un-ironic genre.
Split into two parts, Death Proof presents us with a diabolical beast of an antagonist whose perspective we are nonetheless invited to at least part-share — if not sympathise with — at the start, only to then flip the tables on him over the course of a fantastically constructed car chase and incredibly viscerally rewarding beat down.
The viewer’s affinity with (and affection for) grindhouse cinema will, to a certain extent, dictate their reaction to Death Proof, but it’s an entertaining enough watch the first time round regardless. Still, the drop-off in overall quality from number eight on this list to number nine is significant, as in some ways Tarantino’s worst instincts here are not tempered or balanced enough by his sheer craft and the better angels of his nature. That may well be intentional, but the results are just the same.
8. Django Unchained (2012)
I know what you’re thinking. Seems low down on the list, doesn’t it? I personally know a lot of people who absolutely adore Django, so I should say now that I don’t consider any movies on this list to be outright bad, or even particularly weak, but there is something in Django Unchained that makes me really aware of the distinction between a movie that just has fantastic components, and one where the collective sum takes my breath away. This movie lies in the former camp — I know that it hits all the right notes and carries off the melody in style: I can gape in awe at the way Tarantino weaves together threads of shocking violence and important, necessary subtext like a virtuoso; at the way he directs Waltz, Washington, and Jackson to deliver pitch-perfect performances; at how he composes his frames into a collection of images that maybe makes it his most purely visually impressive movie to date.
I can know all that perfectly well as I’m watching it, but at the end of it all, it never quite feels that impressive, and it kills me that I can’t precisely articulate why that is.
I will say this about the movie: it features, respectively, one of the best performances, and the best performance from two actors I am not usually that impressed with — Jamie Foxx is perfect in the lead role, quietly internalising, transforming, and tenaciously holding onto his quest; and Leonardo DiCaprio is so much better than in anything else in his role, mostly by virtue of not having the weight of the whole narrative sit on his shoulders.
The movie also has one of the straight-up funniest scenes in recent memory: the incompetent Klan posse who ‘can’t see fuckin’ shit outta’ their makeshift Klan masks, which I transcribed in part and realised how much of a joy it was just to read by itself:
‘Are we ready or hwhut?’
‘Ah hold on, I’m fuckin’ with mah eyehole! Oh! Oh, shit… Argh, just made it worse’
‘Who made this got-damn shit?!’
‘You make your own goddamn mask!’
‘Look, nobody’s sayin’ they don’t appreciate what Jenny did’
‘Well if all I had to do was cut a hole in a bag I coulda cut it better than this’
‘What about you, Robert? Can you see?’
‘Not too good. I mean, if I don’t move my head I can see you pretty good. More or less. But when I start riding the bags movin’ all over and I’m blind’
‘Ah shit. I just made mine worse. Anybody bring any extra bags?’
‘No! Nobody brought an extra bag’
‘I’m just asking’
‘Do we have to wear em when we ride?’
‘Oh well spitfire! If you don’t wear em as you’re ridin that just defeats the purpose’
‘I can’t see in this fucking thing! I can’t breathe in this fucking thing! And I can’t ride in this fucking thing!’
‘Fuck all y’all! I’m going home. I watched my wife work all day gettin’ thirty bags ready for you ungrateful sonsabitches! And all I hear is criticize, criticize, criticize. From now on don’t ask me or mine for nothin’!’
You can actually feel the rhythm there without even hearing it being spoken. That’s an incredible level of craft.
7. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Here’s the thing about The Hateful Eight: there is more to it than meets the eye, and it is a grower. If I were to re-write this list in a few years, I am almost certain that it would be higher up. There is the temptation to call it bloated, shallow, and nihilistic; and while it certainly has deep shades of the latter, and its languid pace can get confused for the former, ‘shallow’ is not a word I’d ever apply to Tarantino’s latest. This isn’t to say that I believe there to be some Upstream Color-levels of depth underneath the surface to discover — merely that to walk away with a shrug would be a mistake, and that to dismiss it will be harder as time goes on. Some of the ugliness of what goes on could be seen as regressive and needless (even for those accustomed to Tarantino’s perpetual trolling of society’s boundaries), and though it gets taken to such ridiculous lengths that I am inclined to recontextualise and forgive it, I am still not sure how I feel about it.
If the movie feels overlong it’s largely because it spends so long moving its pieces into position before setting them gloriously to topple, but the craft and care and sheer delight it expresses while doing so more than makes up for that. And what pieces they are. Every member of the tiny cast performs admirably, so to single out any particular role would be sill-… No, wait, that’s completely wrong: Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of Col. Marquis Warren is a performance that should come with a ‘Danger, High Voltage’ warning, and why when people talk about great modern director/actor partnerships they mention Scorsese and Leo but not Tarantino and Jackson will forever remain a complete mystery to me.
The Hateful Eight is one part tragedy, one part veritable feast of chewable Tarantino dialogue, and one part celebration of every inch of a cinema screen — all wrapped up in the skin of an amoral morality play that manages to be simultaneously of the time of its story’s setting, and of its making. A promise of an idealised America hangs over the events of the movie, battling the spectre of reality and history, and it doesn’t seem too much of a reach to hear an older, slightly more ‘mature’ and aware Tarantino saying, ‘Yes, this is how far we’ve come, but in a certain light and on certain days, it doesn’t seem like we’ve come very far at all.’
6. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
The Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2 double whammy occupies an interesting chapter in Quentin Tarantino’s career. His ‘middle period’ (the two Kill Bill movies and Death Proof) were seen by many of us at the time as a worrying sign that the director, who had once managed so well to balance nuance and characterisation with spectacle and bombast, had begun an irreversible James Cameron-esque slide into an exclusive preoccupation with the latter. It always seemed like a risk, and when the little hints of humanity in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 were all but erased by Death Proof it wasn’t until Inglourious Basterds came along in 2009 that we breathed a sigh of relief.
But hindsight is a funny thing, and just as the ‘middle period’ didn’t become worrying until Death Proof made it seem as if it were here to stay, the arrival of Basterds allowed both Kill Bill movies to be seen for what they are: gloriously indulgent, deliciously mixed genre ice cream cones.
Vol. 1 is of course the more showy, violent, and resplendent of the two. It doesn’t quite manage to provide as much of an emotional backbone to the ridiculous mayhem that Vol.2 does, but it doesn’t really matter that much; because maybe it’s Uma Thurman acting as his rather powerful muse, but Tarantino throws martial arts movies, samurai flicks, anime, and everything else at the wall, and manages to make a surprising amount of it stick — chief among which is the fight with Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), the action highlight among a series of them, and in fact one of the best controlled explosions of violence in the filmmaker’s whole oeuvre.
5. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
Vol. 2 takes off where Vol. 1 left off, and while it continues its multiple-genre love affair, it also scales down and makes things more personal and human — if that is a term that can be applied to a movie where the essentially resurrected main character comes back to life again by punching her way out of a shallow grave, and then goes on to be trained by a legendary ancient warrior called Pai Mei in the art of his Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, before exacting her ultimate, fatal, cathartic revenge using said mystical technique.
Almost a third of the movie is dedicated to the final meeting between the Bride, her daughter, and Bill. The whole act (almost a three-act arc by itself) takes place in a jarringly sweet and soft domestic setting, and while the characters unpack the themes and explicitly (occasionally a little too heavy-handedly) expose the emotional nerves underpinning the Bride’s quest, you can feel Tarantino slowly shift his weight from one foot to the other, and you know what is to come. It’s a real pleasure to watch.
And, again — that punch-your-way-out-of-the-grave sequence? Still gives me chills. He knows how to make an indelible sequence, does old Quentin.
4. Pulp Fiction (1994)
The elephant in the room. The colossal, American-indie-boom-igniting, seismic event elephant in the room is a fun and incredibly put together experience, but it is not Tarantino’s best movie (or second or third best while we’re at it).
It has become extraordinarily difficult over the years to separate Pulp Fiction the movie from Pulp Fiction the pillar of American cinema and cultural touchstone. While its latter credentials cannot be denied, they should nonetheless briefly be put aside in order to allow us to gaze unerringly at the molten core of this otherwise blinding entity.
What do we have there then? We have a very clever, time-hopping post-modern dance through the crime genre; one that weaves together divergent and converging narratives in order to tell a number of stories that ultimately zoom out to tell just one. We have a gallery of dazzlingly colourful, iconic characters, portrayed by and large amazingly by a roster of very capable actors; we have mise-en-scene after evocative mise-en-scene; and we have some of Tarantino the wordsmith’s most quotable dialogue.
And yet. And yet I’m not sure if it’s all so cleverly post-modern that it deprives itself of some vital oxygen, or if it suffers a tiny bit (if not as much) from the lack of an indefinably magical throughline the way that Django does, but either way this is where Pulp Fiction sits, comfortably among Tarantino’s best, but not quite amongst his top three.
3. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Pulp Fiction may be deified as indie cinema’s ground zero, but Reservoir Dogs did it first, and it did it tighter, leaner, and more compellingly. Fiction has multiple story threads, and it amps up the pop culture-peppered dialogue severalfold, but ‘bigger’ in this case does not mean ‘better’. To an extent, Reservoir Dogs is to Pulp Fiction what Led Zeppelin II is to that quartet’s fourth album: less ambitious, sure, but a statement of intent that ravages you with incredible talent and sums up just what makes its creator worthy of praise.
The genius of Reservoir Dogs is in the weight and presence it gives to absence: the central heist, of course, that we are not privy to; the characters who should be at the warehouse after the heist, but aren’t; the lack of a clear view of Mr. Blonde’s mutilation of an unfortunate cop’s head — the movie brims with things that should be shown, but aren’t. You could call it the gift of limitation and assume that budget considerations dictated certain creative choices be made and that through that the narrative transcended any inbuilt flaws; but that would be confusing cause and effect, I think, because Reservoir Dogs is like Alien: the limitations are the narrative. Although perhaps a better word than ‘limitations’ is ‘restraint’. That word seems odd-looking when applied to Quentin Tarantino, I know, but consider that a blood splatter pattern means nothing if it covers the entire wall. That’s not a pattern. That’s just a red wall.
2. Jackie Brown (1997)
Jackie Brown is a wonderful little marvel of a film, and after almost twenty years it still stands out from the crowd in Quentin Tarantino’s ever-expanding filmography.
It’s a marvel, both when seen within the context of the narrative of his career, and as a standalone entity. Coming hot on the heels of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, many people thought they knew exactly what to expect of Tarantino — another lurid, chrono-disconnected tale about men who deal in witty, pop culture-alluding repartee as much as they do in violence.
What they got instead was a relaxed, bittersweet Elmore Leonard adaptation with a strong, smart black woman as its protagonist, and a realistic, understated middle-aged romance as its backdrop. Of course, this being a Leonard-Tarantino joint, the foreground is crime — and the story about that is beautifully told — but part of the greatness of the movie is the way it lulls you into thinking that it is about the details of the plot; and while they are vital, and it is a great joy to watch the twisty tale of a desperate but implacable woman pitting two opposing factions of men against each other unfold, the real story lies in the characters themselves.
And, as usual, those characters mean everything. Everything flows naturally from them. It’s easy to forget that underneath all the shocking violence and provocative imagery, Quentin Tarantino has always (well, almost always) had a way of imbuing his characters with enough soul to buoy whatever gonzo reality he chooses to unleash upon the world. Jackie Brown is arguably the only movie of his where that balance of power is reversed.
As much as I love Quentin for doing Quentin, it really still is a helluva thing to think that he once had something like this in him. I think he still does.
1. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
As I said in the intro, the vast bulk of the time I spent writing this piece was spent not in the actual act of writing, but rather in thinking about how exactly to order the list. Deciding on the precise hierarchy was excruciating.
Except, that is, for numbers nine and one. They didn’t need much more than a half-second’s thought. Sorry, Death Proof, but you must have known straight away which one of those you would be.
A confession: I have seen Inglourious Basterds now maybe seven or eight times, and aside from noticing that it gets better and better with each viewing, I also realised how intimidating it is for me to think about why I love it so much. It’s such layered, intelligent, beautiful, entertaining, vibrant, virtuoso filmmaking that a critical deconstruction always seemed like an impossible task, or, perversely, like sacrilege. As if I’d be chiseling apart Michelangelo’s David to get at the perfect marble anatomy within. Where would I even start? I suppose I could go on about the inspired choice to give Shoshanna the most agency, while relegating the titular Basterds (as well as the English language) to supporting players; or the cinema-as-saviour subtext of Shoshanna’s revenge; or the bucket-loads of incredible humour, both visual and verbal, woven into the movie; or the sublime casting; or the brilliantly controlled bursts of violence… I could go about all that, but I don’t think that’d be the most productive approach.
I think, instead, that it might be instructive to zero in on two scenes. Two of the best scenes, in fact, that Tarantino, has ever filmed: that opening scene, and that bar scene. Together they illustrate just what makes him such a fantastically skilled technician.
It starts with that title card (‘Once upon a time…in Nazi-Occupied France’) and a view of a wide, verdant vista. The strains of Morricone fitfully crescendo, and wide vistas alternate with ominous close-ups. Immediately, Tarantino has set up — extremely efficiently and by invoking elements of different genres — what we are in for without us even registering it: a walk along the knife’s edge of a pseudo-Western showdown. And Jesus Christ, what a showdown. Hans Landa is one of Tarantino’s greatest creations, a villain so diabolical and terrifying, and yet absolutely beguiling; he is the filmmaker’s gift for dialogue made flesh. Christoph Waltz and Denis Menochet dance around each other in this scene with fluid grace; Landa’s endgame slowly and meticulously revealed as the conversation progresses, the camera staying two steps ahead of it all, carefully warning us of what’s to come. Then, the petrifying denouement, played with unspeaking horror, and resulting in the flight of a small, scared girl, who will eventually visit one of Tarantino’s signature retributions; though not directly on Landa himself — a clever example of a director acknowledging and half-subverting one of his tropes. This scene could be a movie in and of itself.
And then there’s that bar scene. I’ve written about it gushingly before, so I won’t repeat what I said there, but I will add that this scene is akin to a microcosm of a Tarantino movie: singular characters played by gifted actors, perfectly directed, delivering unique dialogue; precise, driven camera work; an adoring hewing to, and subversion of, genre conventions; masterful control and release of tension; and far, far more intelligence than can often be glimpsed at first.
In fact, all of that I just said? That sums up Inglourious Basterds as a whole, too.
What’d you say, Aldo?
‘You know somethin’, Utivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece!’
You’re goddamn right.
Special credit for this list must be given to one night’s drunken, rambling conversation with a Scotsman who knows and loves his Tarantino just as much, if not more than, I do. Cheers, Richard Pearce.
Petr Knava plays music