Since he first released Reservoir Dogs in 1992, Quentin Tarantino has been one of the most-watched and most-talked-about directors in Hollywood. His movies are considered distinctive and easily recognizable by his snappy dialogue and over-the-top bloody action. He’s often called unique, divisive, and pretentious, as well as often being called something of a hack (among other unsavory things).
With his newest movie, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood coming out next month, I thought now was the best time to do a personal ranking of his nine movies currently out now – and then I realized, “Wow, I had some things to get off my chest with this one.”
Strap in, folks.
Everyone tends to think that this is Quentin Tarantino’s worst movie – including, Quentin Tarantino. And it’s hard to place a finger on what doesn’t exactly work here. A story like Game of Thrones can kill off main characters with a certain level of brutality and it feels refreshing and revolutionary; here, it just feels gratuitous.
There are praise-worthy elements in this movie. Kurt Russell plays an absolutely horrifying villain as Stuntman Mike, whose introduction comes as he is masticating on chicken wings in a way that is both gross and sinister. (However, the movie properly frames Stuntman Mike as a villain before rewarding him with a lapdance, a scene which should make most viewers uncomfortable.) One can never forget the way Stuntman Mike pulls up to the stoplight with Rose McGowan’s character, Pam:
Mike: “Well Pam, which way you going? Left or right?”
Mike: “Ah… That’s too bad.”
Mike: “Well, because it was a 50-50 shot on whether you’d be going left or right. See, we’re both going left, you could have just as easily been going left too, and if that was the case, it would have been a while before you started getting scared. But since you’re going the other way, I’m afraid you’re going have to start getting scared immediately.”
Not to mention, the final car chase scene is actually thrilling, and involves some pretty spectacular stunt choreography – which of course, makes sense because the characters involved are stunt actors.
The movie isn’t immune to praise, but things which would be virtues in other movies – the ambition to kill major characters, female empowerment (*Tarantino Brand Female Empowerment*), a horrifying villain, a great chase scene climax… I use this analogy pretty often, but Death Proof feels like looking at a puzzle with a lot of the right pieces that are somehow in the wrong places.
8. Kill Bill Vol. 1
This is probably the hottest take I’ve had on this blog (or at least one of them), but I think that the first volume of Kill Bill is perhaps the most overrated movie I’ve ever seen.
I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that it had some rather worthwhile moments, such as the Bride receiving her sword, the gimmick of beeping out the Bride’s name, and most things about Lucy Liu’s performance.
But the major action setpiece is the scene where she squares off against the hundred Yakuza warriors, which is admirable only in its ambition. In general, it’s just long and tedious. There’s no stakes here, not since we know there’s a second volume. And the whole thing is in black-and-white which just seems to be a little too pretentious.
The Yakuza fight scene just goes on for too long, it seems too full of itself, and after watching her cut off about a dozen arms, you just find yourself asking, “What the hell? Why the hell am I still watching this?” And to me, that’s a microcosm of Kill Bill Vol. 1.
And please, please please PLEASE, if you’re growling at your computer that I don’t know what I’m talking about and Kill Bill is the best movie ever made, PLEASE tell me why you love it in the comment section; I’m genuinely confused, and I want to figure it out. Is it just that ladies want a no-stakes, mindless genre-action thriller just as much as guys?
7. Kill Bill Vol. 2
Basically, everything I feel about Vol. 1, but probably just less of it. The revelation that [SPOILERS] the Bride has a child is the closest that this movie or the previous one gets to any kind of emotional impact. The final confrontation with Bill might be called anti-climactic after the over-the-top samurai swordfights of Vol. 1, but at that point it’s just refreshing. Maybe I’m complaining a bit more than I ought to, but on one last note, I don’t like that the Bride seems to forgive Bill at the end. It takes away a little bit of the punch from Vol. 1, I think.
6. Jackie Brown
Let me say this about Jackie Brown; I’m willing to bet that fewer people have seen this movie than the others on the list, and that’s a shame because it’s generally just a good movie. It’s got a great cast including actors who I wish collaborated with Tarantino more like Pam Greer, Michael Keaton, and Robert De Niro. It’s an exciting and pulpy modern noir that doesn’t get the appreciation that it deserves. Pam Greer’s title character is definitely a more nuanced and complex character than most of Tarantino’s women (*worth noting that although the screenplay was written by Tarantino, so far it’s his only adaptation of another work). Jackie is different from Kill Bill‘s Bride and Inglourious Basterds’ Shoshana (or the cast of Death Proof) in that she has a motivation outside of clear-cut revenge, and just feels more three-dimensional than two-dimensional.
But yeah, Jackie Brown. It’s good! Go watch it!
5. Inglourious Basterds
It’s hard to talk about this movie without spoilers, and I’ll be doing my best not to.
The movie is way more fun than a movie about Jews during World War II should probably be, but all of the characters are made to feel angry and vengeful in a righteous way that gives this movie a tone that is both defiant and… well, Tarantino-esque.
The characters seem larger than life – everyone from the glib and folksy Aldo the Apache and his Band of Basterds, Shoshana, Bridget von Hammersmark, and most of all the smooth-talking but incredibly evil Colonel Hans Landa, who really makes the movie what it is. It’s unsurprising that Christoph Waltz won an Oscar for his role here, just because of the way he manages to be charming and absolutely despicable. He took that character and made him something that other, lesser actors might not have been able to.
And in terms of specific scenes from Basterds that I love, I of course have to mention the shootout in the country pub, and the below clip which introduces Hugo Stiglitz – just because of the way this movie uses every small moment to inject a lot of personality.
Again, no spoilers, but as far as last shots go, Basterds has one of my personal favorites.
4. The Hateful Eight
This isn’t necessarily a statement about the overall quality of Hateful Eight, but I would love to see Hateful Eight as a stage play if it wasn’t so violent.
And actually, violence is the first thing I want to talk about with Hateful Eight – Tarantino’s movies are so constantly saturated with blood, that we spend the entire first act of this movie wondering when it’s going to payoff. We’ve got eight people – well, eight hateful people – snowed in together, pretty much all of them armed to the teeth and coming from some kind of dangerous background. Moreso than a lot of the movies on this list, Hateful Eight relies on the connection between the characters to build tension, and build tension it does.
And this is where we see some of Samuel L. Jackson’s best work – including one horrifying specific monologue (that took the closest thing the movie had to a hero and made him much more complex) – and I remember being mad that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for this movie. But y’know who did get an Oscar for this movie? Composer and genuine Hollywood legend Ennio Morricone, whose music for this movie properly set the stage in an overture scene.
3. Reservoir Dogs
Hateful Eight could make a decent stage play if properly adapted – but Reservoir Dogs is one that actually HAS been adapted to the stage. And it’s no surprise, these are the two movies of his that most rely on the characters and the relationships between them.
It’s a pretty interesting elevator pitch – a heist movie where you don’t see the heist! And it has somethings which should feel like thief-gang cliches – the snitch, the psychopath, the gruff crew leader, the pseudo-father figure, the comic relief… but these all manage to feel like lively characters, due in no small part to a superb cast including Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, and Michael Madsen.
While not quite reeking of Tarantino’s signature style, this is a debut that clearly indicated the substantial talent that was to come. I’ve done a few posts ranking directors’ filmographies on this website, and the first movie is usually the worst. Certainly not the case here.
2. Pulp Fiction
Listen, it’s Pulp Fiction, I don’t need to sing its praises. It’s been in the top ten of IMDb Top 250 for about a bajillion years now (not that that’s exactly the most rousing endorsement). It’s required viewing in film classes everywhere. It’s quoted and memed all day long. It’s a genuine classic. And it’s what made Tarantino Tarantino.
I love all the stories that make up Pulp Fiction – the first two certainly are pulp, telling the story of a hitman and his boss’ wife, and of a boxer on the run from a notorious gangster – but the last vignette in which Jules preaches to Tim Roth’s restaurant thief is in its own ways both beautiful and redemptive.
And the dialogue is really something to be admired – it just feels snappy and real in ways that other movies have a hard time emulating. And it’s absolutely hilarious, as evidenced in the scene where Marvin accidentally gets shot or Jules intimidates Brett. (And if you’ve ever seen Pulp Fiction on network TV where they have to blur the profanity, it’s a whole different experience – definitely bad, but definitely enlightening. It throws into sharp relief just how well Tarantino uses profanity.)
Speaking of which, that scene is with good reason this movie’s most iconic and memorable – the way it turns on a dime is impressive and effortless. Jules is amicable, funny, intimidating, and biblical all in the span of a few minutes.
If Kill Bill is Tarantino at his most indulgent, here he is at his peak. Here he successfully creates his own style, tone, and aesthetic. It’s unsurprising that his work has become about as distinctive as any director working today.
(Also, a brief tangent I feel the need to take about Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs versus Django Unchained and Hateful Eight; say what you will about the use of the N-word in the latter two movies, at least it has a the reasonable context of being a period piece when (more) people would actually talk that way. It’s brief use in Reservoir Dogs feels odd, but in Pulp Fiction it feels outright offensive and gratuitous. Part of me wants to quip that “Offensive and gratuitous is Tarantino’s way,” but like… the “Dead ****** storage” bit in PF feels like way too much.)
- Django Unchained
I probably don’t have as much justification for this as one would probably want. As I said, I’m a sucker for westerns, so it’s probably not too surprising that this would be my favorite. I’ll be the first to admit, this movie isn’t immune from flaws. The Candieland massacre at a certain point starts to feel like Kill Bill‘s Yakuza fight with all the excessive blood (but it never feels that absurd). Not to mention the pacing feels as messy as Star Wars: The Last Jedi (which is another movie I will defend till the death).
But it’s just so great – I’ve written about this movie at length before in my Personal Favorites series, so I won’t go too in depth, but I do think it is a clear cut above the rest of his movies (except Pulp Fiction). But everything is excellent – Django’s character arc, Christoph Waltz’s Oscar-winning performance as the immensely likable Dr. King Schultz, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar-worthy performance as the immensely despicable Calvin Candie, the superbly tense and frightening dinner scene, the well-choreographed action – it all just works so perfectly, to the point that makes me willing to – even eager to – overlook the movie’s flaws.
That this is Tarantino’s best movie is debatable – some will disagree, and that’s fine. But what is not debatable is that this is the best western of the 2010’s – it might be the best since Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992.
This movie has many highlights, but I want to conclude by sharing one of my favorite scenes; Django’s Superhero moment. This is a great scene obviously because of how exciting it is, but also it makes for a beautiful shot. Does he look a little doofy? Sure. But he looks like something out of a comic book. The movie makes a comment about Django’s odd choice of clothing, which now that I’m thinking about it is almost certainly a deliberate choice by Tarantino to create a unique and memorable shot. And so he did.