” When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, ‘no, I went to films.’ “
Quentin Tarantino is often the gatekeeper to a new film fan’s passion as viewing Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction is a rite of passage for any adolescent. Two decades and two Oscars later, Tarantino has deserved the right to stay relevant. His deep understanding of how a story works in every detail is inimitable, although they may try. Realistic isn’t the word to describe his films considering the hyper-violence, but his near-verite style resonates with audiences in a refreshing way. As Tarantino explores his own film world and his influences, his work continues to be embraced, admired and influential. It may have seemed he caught lightning in a bottle with his early films, but as he slowly pours more of it out, it’s clear he’s not dry yet.
01. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent
Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (winner), Original Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
While most Tarantino films have been very small scale, Inglourious Basterds intelligently and frenziedly rewrites history with an infectious smirk. Of course, it’s in the cinema that defeats Hitler. What else does Tarantino know? It oozes of his love for film and tickles the imagination with its short and shorter vignettes. The most unforgettable part is, naturally, Christoph Waltz’ career-kicking Hans Landa, a performance of intricate detail and vast expression and an iconic villain for the ages. Yes, Quentin, this is your masterpiece.
02. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Starring: John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson
Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay (winner), Editing
To be at the premiere screening of Pulp Fiction must have felt like a once in a lifetime event. How I envy them. Where to begin. A film treasured for its subversion and its references, a film cool and explosive with nothing and everything to say. What holds Pulp Fiction together is an invisible layer of suspense. It’s not Hitchcockian tension, but Tarantino understands the screenwriting technique of impending doom without abusing it. Almost every sequence ends in a disaster to overcome and the road to it is paved with trivial slates. Anything is around the corner in Pulp Fiction and you feel it in the air in every frame.
03. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Starring: Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi
Oscar Nominations: none
A heist without the heist. Who needs it? Tarantino begins his career darting back and forth between characters and time, slowly weaving the introduction to his world. It’s the committed performances that sell the film. Tim Roth’s unbearable agony, Harvey Keitel’s quiet anguish, Steve Buscemi’s restless recklessness and Michael Madsen’s sinister menace. Already Tarantino takes songs we can never listen to again without seeing his vision.
04. Django Unchained (2012)
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
Oscar Nominations: Picture, Supporting Actor (winner), Original Screenplay (winner), Cinematography, Sound Editing
Tarantino sinks deeper into history to give it his spin and I certainly welcome him to delve further. An ode to spaghetti westerns including some of his most unrestrained violence. This is revisionism at a very interesting level. However, it’s a victim of its own length and fact it comes after Inglourious Basterds which shares the same blood in its veins. It’s difficult to not see a lot of its events coming. But this doesn’t stop it from being a thoroughly entertaining and brutal thrill-ride and a joy to see the other side of Christoph Waltz. It makes me miss regular editor Sally Menke though, she could’ve smoothed it out.
05. Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004)
Starring: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Darryl Hannah
Oscar Nominations: none
The second instalment of The Bride duo hits a nerve the other struggles with. Its third act takes it to an unexpected place where we finally meet, confront and explore the eponymous Bill. While the first is a fierce and cathartic pastiche of samurai films, Kill Bill Vol. 2 is deliberately exhausted from the effort. It’s only after that point where we can find the meaningful answers. Its structure, pace and violence may not be as slick, but its power is much more profound.
06. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)
Starring: Uma Thurman, Lucy Lui, Vivica A. Fox
Oscar Nominations: none
By this point we were used to Tarantino’s style. Characters talk and talk and sometimes a dude dies. Kill Bill raised the bar, plummeting us immediately into the surreal, loud and kinetic violence. There’s so many buckets of blood that they had to saturate a whole sequence in black and white just so it would pass the censors. But our protagonist has such a tragic backstory that it leaves us hungry for more bloodshed. It’s a shame its teasing ending only nearly satisfied what it started.
07. Jackie Brown (1997)
Starring: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster
Oscar Nominations: Supporting Actor
After major success with Pulp Fiction, Tarantino decided to tone it down a notch. A few too many notches for my liking. I haven’t seen Jackie Brown in many years but my only memory of it is Robert De Niro and Sam Jackson doing very little on a sofa. I don’t remember that scene going anywhere. I’m eager to give it a second chance given a new appreciation of Robert Forster, but I can’t see my appreciation topping its current position.
08. Death Proof (2007)
Starring: Kurt Russell,
Oscar Nominations: none
The second part of a film experiment with friend and filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. Grindhouse sounded like an interesting idea but unfortunately it doesn’t work. Perhaps it would work in the cinema with a bunch of friends and knowing not to take it seriously, but it only slightly thrills on occasion and all those occasions are called Kurt Russell. An unfortunate but fortunately forgettable misfire. Here’s hoping The Hateful Eight (if it gets made) is a step forward for him rather than an all too familiar setting.
Natural Born Killers (1994) – Tarantino wrote this film that Oliver Stone directed. It’s an odd and abrasive film, shot in a disconcerting but engaging way. Many hate it, but I’m in the camp who love it and think it’s disturbing, entertaining and thoughtful. It would be between Inglourious Basterds and Pulp Fiction in my list.
Sin City (2005) – Directed by friend Robert Rodriguez, this film is essential for Tarantino fan regardless. He only directed a single scene but it’s an immaculately memorable scene at that. It’s the sequence where Clive Owen drives Benicio Del Toro’s body to the tar pit and has a conversation with his corpse. It would rank below Pulp Fiction and above Reservoir Dogs.
True Romance (1993) – Written by Tarantino, True Romance is often remembered for an early and small role for Brad Pitt, but the film also boasts an impeccable cast with James Gandolfini, Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, Dennis Hopper and Val Kilmer, and it’s lead by Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette. I haven’t seen it in many years but I remember enjoying it. Would rank behind Kill Bill.
From Dusk Til Dawn (1996) – A film that Tarantino wrote and co-starred in with George Clooney. What a pair. If you need an example of a film that takes an unbelievably and significant turn in the middle its this one. Who knows what nightmare conjured this film. At least it’s mostly fun. It would rank below Kill Bill for me.