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Monday, 10 April 2017

Ranking the Films of Quentin Tarantino


The road to liking a thing is not always a straightforward one. There are twists, turns, unexpected roadblocks where you question which way you should be going, a malfunctioning GPS which makes you question everything all the more and you begin to wonder if you’re genuinely missing the point of the entire road trip altogether.

This metaphor is a fairly decent retelling of the way that I first approached Quentin Tarantino, a director whose work, at first, confused me more than anything else. How, I wondered, was I supposed to feel after watching Reservoir Dogs or Django Unchained? Why, for heaven’s sake, did I feel like laughing at the all-out carnage which was unleashed in Inglourious Basterds, and what on earth did that mean about me?

And then, it was as if that road opened up before me and became one long freeway. My GPS stopped recalculating and I finally understood. I still stand by the assertion that the night some of my friends and I went to see a screening of the 70mm roadshow version of The Hateful Eight upon its initial release was some of the most fun I have ever had a movie. Come that film’s much-needed intermission, the deep breathes which the entire audience let out were almost palpable. I understood that everyone had been holding their breath just as I was. I’d gotten swept up into the story and we were all having…just…so…much…fun. I began to understand the subtle nuances and the sometimes outright brilliant technique which Tarantino used to bring his stories to life and I instantly began to appreciate his filmography so much more.

He is today one of my all-time favorite directors.

While I enjoy Quentin Tarantino’s entire body-of-work, some of it is just more appealing to me than others. So, today I have decided to rank his films from my least favorite to my favorite (just to keep you in suspense). Three minor disclaimers before we begin: 1) I am counting Kill Bill as one complete film and not as the two separate films it was released as. 2) I am only counting the films which Tarantino wrote and directed. Therefore, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn is not on this list nor is True Romance and others. I have also excluded Four Rooms. Lastly, 3) at the time of this writing, I have not seen Death Proof and therefore will not include it on this list. When I do watch it (which is, hopefully, soon) I will revise this list and add it in. Now, with all that out of the way, let us begin.

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7. Kill Bill (2003, 2004) – To some, Kill Bill is their favorite Tarantino film, and it’s understandable. It is a fun, absolutely crazy thrill-ride which, all together, lasts four hours. But, I think of all Tarantino’s films, this is just the one which does not gel with me the most. My main complaint with it is its scattered nature. I’m never entirely sure what kind of movie Kill Bill is trying to be. A thriller? An action film? A martial-arts showcase? For once, I felt that there were loose ends to tone and style which Tarantino did not tie up neatly (it’s animated sequence, for example, comes out of nowhere and feels, in the grand scheme of things to be pointless).

Kill Bill, I think, really is Tarantino at his most self-indulgent. And, I don’t have a problem in the slightest with self-indulgence as a director. While not a bad film by any means, it feels the most lacking in what make Tarantino films so good and still, I believe, stands out as quite an oddity in his filmography. 


6. Jackie Brown (1997) – Of all the films in his repertoire, I think Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino’s most underrated. Released on the heels of Pulp Fiction, I think audiences expected something more like its predecessor and, instead, we get a fairly slow-paced, understated film about a simple heist. But, the hallmarks of classic Tarantino are still stamped all over the film: great dialogue, an ensemble of fine actors (Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro), and some technical marvels. The heist scene itself – presented from all of the main characters’ points-of-view – is incredible work and is some of the most engrossing cinema I think I have ever watched.

So, if I feel so strongly about Jackie Brown why is it so low on this list? By necessity, really. I think it’s a testament to Tarantino that even one of his (personally) lowest-rated films has so much merit. I say that if you’ve been putting off watching Jackie Brown or haven’t watched it in some time, give it another chance. You’ll be surprised. 


5. Reservoir Dogs (1992) – Some have made the argument that Tarantino has never topped his first film. I don’t think I can say that, but as first films go, Reservoir Dogs is the gold-standard. It is a triumph of production on next-to-nothing and shows us – perhaps for the first time – that a truly good film can be driven by little more than dialogue. That is not to undermine any of the action which takes place in Reservoir Dogs, but its conversations, turns-of-phrase, and characters are at its heart. It is, for much of its runtime, an understated, simple story; its nonlinear presentation does not complicate the plot in the same way as Pulp Fiction, nor do we even see the heist which the entire film’s plot centers around.

If there is one thing which I can hold against Reservoir Dogs, however, it is that whenever I hear Stealers Wheel “Stuck in the Middle with You,” my mind instantly goes to this film and a chill or two is liable to run up and down my spine. 


4. Django Unchained (2012) – Two words: Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio has delivered some excellent performances – Catch Me If You Can, The Departed, The Revenant – but, I do believe that some of his finest work on screen is as the villainous Calvin Candie in Tarantino’s spaghetti western. DiCaprio is a truly nasty piece of work (surely one of Tarantino’s finest-written villains), but his cold ruthlessness is off-set by an at-times gentlemanly demeanor and you cannot help but like this despicable guy. Now, don’t get me wrong, before DiCaprio shows up in Django Unchained, it is a good movie; but his entrance elevates the film in no small measure and propels the story in a whole new direction.

But, let’s focus on the film before Leonardo DiCaprio’s entrance. Christoph Waltz is so incredibly watchable as the bounty hunter, Dr. Schultz, and Jamie Foxx presents us with a multifaceted, likable title character who manages to subvert so many of the genre conventions of the traditional western. And, to be entirely honest, the scene featuring the horseback-riding proto-KKK is surely one of the funniest that Tarantino has committed to film.

Not unlike its villain, Django Unchained is a nasty, at-times grim piece-of-work, but its underlying sense of fun and likability is infectious. 


3. The Hateful Eight (2015) – The work of Quentin Tarantino has, effectively, been broken into two distinct periods: his early crime thrillers and his later historical films. The Hateful Eight bridges the gap between those two periods seamlessly. At once harkening back to the days of Reservoir Dogs, wonderfully paying tribute to John Carpenter’s The Thing, and presenting a no-holds-barred thriller, The Hateful Eight is Tarantino at his most skilled revisiting the work of a talented amateur. Though it received mixed reviews upon its initial release, I think audiences missed the point of this taut, claustrophobic thriller, expecting instead a film akin to Django Unchained or Inglourious Basterds in its presentation of an epic story. But, like his first film, Reservoir Dogs, The Hateful Eight cuts back on all the distractions and presents us with nearly three-hours of rich, Tarantino dialogue...

...And an unfathomable amount of blood. It’s pretty shocking, honestly.

As I noted at the top of this post, The Hateful Eight was the film which really put me on the road to appreciating Tarantino. I was drawn into its deceptively simple story and its characters all of whom are – as the title might suggest – hateful in the extreme, but watching their journey from the beginning to end of this nearly three-hour film was an experience. Not one for the faint-of-heart, I’d say, but few of Tarantino’s films are so uniquely depictive of its director as The Hateful Eight


2. Inglourious Basterds (2009) – I think that it is safe to say that Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino at his most epic. The scale of the story and its interconnected pieces really does make the whole two and a half hours feel like the product of Hollywood’s Golden Age when the epic truly was in fashion. What also sets the film apart is its sheer boldness in presenting so much of the dialogue through subtitles. Never do you feel as though reading those subtitles becomes a burden, however; just another testament to Tarantino’s skill crafting fine dialogue.

But, for all its pomp, circumstance, and sheer overt theatricality, Inglourious Basterds still manages to remain focused on its characters, brought to life by a truly distinguished ensemble and some brilliant scenes. Christoph Waltz has been rightfully praised for his performance as SS Colonel Hans Landa, but special attention ought to be given to Mèlanie Laurent who effectively steals the whole show and Diane Kruger and Michael Fassbender who are central to the film’s crowning scene. Much is made of the film’s excellent prologue, but the protracted scene at the bar (running for 25 pages in the screenplay) is a master-class in building suspense.

Oh, and then there’s Brad Pitt obviously having a ball. And, can you blame him?


1. Pulp Fiction (1994) – What is there to say beyond the fact that this truly is Tarantino’s masterpiece? Everything about it comes together so well into a beautiful, cohesive whole. The acting is fantastic; John Travolta, for one, injects his role with an extra level of dry humor which makes this movie impossible to get through without grinning. Samuel L. Jackson, who simply dominated in The Hateful Eight, is so beautifully nuanced here and I think his role as Jules is among some of his all-time best work. Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, and Harvey Keitel round out the amazing ensemble and, truthfully, it’s hard to discuss this film’s acting because the cast is just so talented.

But, at the heart of Pulp Fiction – like all of Tarantino’s films – is its dialogue and I don’t think it has ever been matched. From its opening minutes as Tim Roth’s “Pumpkin” details why it’s easier to rob a restaurant than it is a convenience store, to its closing moments in that same dinner as Jules compliments whether “Mr. 9mm” is his only source of protection in a world “beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men,” Pulp Fiction features some of Tarantino’s finest dialogue ever. I recommend the film’s opening conversation about a royale with cheese and its subsequent use as a threat to anyone who wants to see what truly clever writing looks – or rather sounds – like.

I think it is fair to say that Pulp Fiction is one of my all-time favorite movies and holds an exalted place in my mind as a truly brilliant film.

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So, that is that, everybody. I hope, above all, that this post conveyed what appreciation I have for Quentin Tarantino as a director. His movies may be an acquired taste, for sure, but to my palette, his work can be enjoyed again and again. But, what about you? Agree with this ranking? If not, what’s your favorite Tarantino extravaganza? Feel free to leave a comment below and stop back soon for new reviews and content. 

1 comment:

  1. Just throwing this out there: Kill Bill is the most thematically complex of any Tarantino piece. The entire thing is an allegory for women in abusive relationships. The Bride is a woman who has been both emotionally and physically abused by both her father figure (Pai Mei) and her lover (Bill). For the first 2/3rds of The Bride's story arc, she is in battered spouse syndrome. All she wants is revenge for what she's been put through. The second she comes face to face with Bill though, the action slows down. All of the feelings she had for Bill begin bubbling up. She remembers exactly why she loves him, even if he's a monster. It isn't until he actively attacks her that she can bring herself to kill him. And even then, she needs to cry after all Bill put her through and to mourn the loss of someone that she still loved.

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