If you asked a group of people for their favourite living filmmaker, there is a strong chance that a large percentage of them will say the name: Quentin Tarantino. One of the greatest and most original minds to come out of the film industry in the history of film, Tarantino practically defined 90s cinema with his look into the gangster underworld of Los Angeles. His films are known for their strong use of language, gratuitous violence and the iconic writing style that Tarantino brings to his dialogue. The owner of two Best Original Screenplay Oscars (for Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained), he has yet to win a Best Director gong. With the release of this year’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, could this be another successful awards season for Tarantino?
Tarantino had always stated that he intended to make 10 features. Counting Kill Bill as one, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood would be his ninth and, therefore, penultimate picture. I thought it would be a great celebration of his work to revisit his films old and new and see how I would stack them up when compared to each other.
Here are the reviews for the films of Quentin Tarantino:
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Possibly one of the most (if not the most) iconic debuts ever to be delivered by a filmmaker, Reservoir Dogs follows a group of men who are given colour code names such as Mr. Orange and Mr. Brown and their attempt to carry out a diamond heist. A pretty simple plot but the genius of the film comes from Tarantino’s decision to not show the heist itself. What we are presented with is the run-up to the heist and it’s consequences when it goes wrong. Featuring a brilliant cast including Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen and Tim Roth. My favourite performance comes from Steve Buscemi who plays the fearfully paranoid Mr. Pink. Among the men, Pink is clearly the outsider from the beginning when he refuses to give the waitress a tip. The script may seem simple but it is anything but. There is a rhythm and style that would come to define a Tarantino feature such as extensive allegories and numerous pop culture references. The soundtrack for this film has also become somewhat of a legend in its own right and has become a reference point for a lot of modern filmmakers. Tarantino himself claims that this film is the closest to being a “perfect” film which although I see the argument for, I would say that he has managed to make even better films. It would be a shame to think that his first film was his best.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
If you had to say one film that defines the 1990s, I think the majority of people would say Pulp Fiction. From the iconic poster design, extreme violence and brilliant dialogue, Pulp Fiction catapulted Tarantino to the top of the A list, winning him the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival as well as an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as suave hitmen Vincent Vega and Jules Winnifield who work for drug lord Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) and his cocaine-addicted wife, Mia (Uma Thurman in her most recognisable role). Pulp Fiction is bigger and better than its predecessor with an even more starry cast, bigger budget and killer direction. Even 25 years on, it is still commonly referenced for its costumes and standout scenes such as Jules’ biblical recitation before blowing the brains out of a man who attempted to double-cross Wallace. It is undoubtedly Jackson who is the shining star of this gangster masterpiece as he brings his trademark attitude. You know you did a great job when the person who beat you to the Oscar says that you should have won. There’s a reason why Pulp Fiction marked the start of the iconic collaborations between Tarantino and Jackson. Their love of action, violence and strong language makes the perfect pairing. Besides every time Jackson is onscreen, my favourite scene is Christopher Walken’s iconic monologue as Captain Koons, an Army veteran who survived the war and is gifting his son, Butch (Chandler Lindauer and Brue Willis playing the younger and older versions, respectively) his prized watch. Only Walken could deliver the monologue with the sincerity and conviction that his does.
Jackie Brown (1997)
Jackie Brown is one of those films that finds itself among the top of people’s favourite Tarantino films or worst. Sadly, it is among the bottom of my list but not because it is a bad film by any means. It is simply because of its nature as an adaptation. When I watch a Tarantino, I want to see the usual quirks in the dialogue which I think isn’t there as much as other films. Following Pam Grier as the titular air stewardess who becomes embroiled in a smuggling scandal, Tarantino relies on a great cast to carry out this complex web and pulls it off which include Samuel L. Jackson with a fantastic haircut. Known for her starring roles in Blaxploitation flicks, Grier herself is amazing and had such a powerful presence onscreen. She doesn’t just give a great performances, she becomes Jackie. It’s one of my favourite performances in the Tarantino catalogue but I just feel that there are elements such as the odd pacing that let the film as a whole down. It would be nice to see Tarantino reunite with Grier on a new project, perhaps his 10th (and supposedly last) feature. The film is grounded in reality a bit more than the others and I think the fact that any director could have made this film is why it ranks low. When I watch a Tarantino film, I want it to be distinctively Tarantino but I don’t get that from this film and as previously stated, I think that comes from the fact that it is an adaptation. The man thrives from his originality and it’s what the audience loves.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)
I remember watching Kill Bill for the first time and being blown away by the strength of the protagonist. The film follows the vengeful ex-assassin The Bride who seeks revenge on her former colleagues when they kill her wedding rehearsal party on the orders of Bill, the man who runs the group. Kill Bill is intended to be watched as one film but due to running length was divided into two volumes. The first volume is seen as the Eastern installment as The Bride ventures to Japan to face the first assassin O-Ren Oshii (Lucy Liu). There are so many reasons why my love for this film is unequivocal such as the clear appreciation for Japanese cinema and culture, the amazing use of animation within the film and most of all, the wide abundance of fleshed out female characters. This film is known for its extreme violence and high body count but don’t let this put you off. Playing the woman who lost everything, including her unborn baby, Thurman’s performance is undeniably ruthless, unapologetic and emotionally charged to the max. Even though she seems unbreakable and unemotional on the surface but you sense her pain underneath the surface from the opening scene with Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox). Tarantino uses various elements such as sound mixing and colour giving the film its flamboyance and elevating it beyond realism and into fantasy.
Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004)
Following on from Vol 1, Kill Bill: Vol 2 takes us back to America where the Bride has the second half of her list left to kill in the form of Bill’s failure of a brother, Budd (Michael Madsen), the merciless Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) and Bill himself (David Carradine). This installment has a larger focus on the Bride’s background before the massacre took place and her journey to becoming an assassin. I love how both films have become a genre of their own. The body count may be a fraction of its predecessor but it still includes some of the most terrifying scenes in film (insert buried alive segment here) and is captivating in its own way. We see the Bride’s emotional journey and her guard slips as she makes some unexpected discoveries in her quest for blood. I think that together, Kill Bill makes for a fantastic saga and would definitely be among my favourite films of the 21st century so far.
Death Proof (2007)
I know there are some people that wouldn’t put Death Proof in the list due to it being part of a two-part feature titled Grindhouse with fellow director and friend, Robert Rodriguez directing Planet Terror (2007). Death Proof is a Texan action led by Kurt Russell as a stuntman who murders women with his car. The film is split into two parts with one group of women’s fates determined the first half and another group in the second half. Death Proof is often viewed as Tarantino’s worst and it is but it’s not a bad film. It is entertaining and Russell is brilliant as the killer in the “death-proof” car. It’s not as complex as other Tarantino films and doesn’t perhaps have the gumption or wow factor that the others have. That being said, for what it wants to be, it delivers in spades. The soundtrack is great and Rose McGowan and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are great in their roles as Pam and Lee, respectively. It’s pretty great that Tarantino and Rodriguez cast McGowan in a leading role in both films to spite Harvey Weinstein for what he did to her. McGowan shines in both films and it would be great to see her make a return to films in roles as amazing as the Grindhouse duo.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
The first Tarantino film I watched and boy was it a great pick. Undoubtedly one of the best opening scenes in film history, Tarantino manages to create tension with a glass of milk. The film is a reimagining of Nazi-occupied France during the war with Brad Pitt playing Aldo Raine who leads a group of men known as “The Basterds” who are set on killing Nazis and collecting their scalps. Inglourious Basterds also includes what I would argue is Tarantino’s best character today in the erringly charismatic SS Officer, Hans Landa. Played spectacularly by Christoph Waltz in a role that would see him in his Hollywood breakthrough and take home every Supporting Actor Award including the Cannes Film Festival, BAFTA and the Academy Award. Landa is a character who commands your attention. He’s despicable and manipulative, the sociopathic changes are intriguing to watch such as him loving his nickname “Jew Hunter” in the opening scene when intimidating a local farmer, to despising the name when realising that the Nazis are set on losing the war. His motives and outlook can never be understood because he is such a whirlwind character. He seems to take his job seriously one moment then not at all the next and flits the fate of others with ease, not finding it difficult to kill if he sees fit. I don’t think there’s a character that has unsettled a global audience as much as Hans Landa has and yet you long for him to be on the screen because the character is so engaging. Tarantino’s screenwriting is possibly his best, which he clearly knows from the final frame when Aldo looks into the camera and says “this might be my masterpiece”.
Django Unchained (2012)
Bringing his love for spaghetti westerns to the frontline for this Civil War epic, Tarantino’s 3 hour Django Unchained follows Jamie Foxx as the titular character and his quest to find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) in the Deep South were slavery is very much a thriving business. With the help of bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), Django’s adventure sees Tarantino using an endless amount of fake blood and a controversial multitude of n-words throughout which faced criticism from individuals such as Spike Lee. I do think this is a film plagued with indulgence and excess in its violence, language and numerous endings but it does have very strong points. The cast are perfect in their roles particularly Christoph Waltz as Schultz and Leonardo DiCaprio as plantation owner Calvin Candie. Waltz is charismatic and charming as a man set on freeing slaves and hunting killers and would go on to win a second Best Supporting Actor gong although I personally think his role is a lead not supporting performance. DiCaprio’s performance on the other side is chilling and captivating as he relishes in torturing the slaves.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
Concluding the western trilogy in Tarantino’s catalogue, we venture to Wyoming in the aftermath of the Civil War. There’s a heavy blizzard and eight murderous brutes are trapped in Minnie’s Haberdashery including the honourable John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), country hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and a career-best from Jennifer Jason Leigh as the disgustingly brilliant Daisy Domergue who John is bringing to Red Rock to hang. Like all Tarantino films, this one is also a mash-up of genres. It is primarily western but is also murder mystery, comedy and thriller. The film’s composer, Ennio Morricone stated that he wrote the score for a horror film which would end up being the film’s strongest point and leading to Morricone’s long-awaited Oscar. It’s a truly brilliant soundtrack and elevates the rhythm of the dialogue which is so important in the moments of extreme tension. Tarantino’s writing is tight and every character has been fleshed out, admittedly some more than others, but each one is memorable in their own way. It’s an interesting inclusion and the film shows a maturity in Tarantino’s filmmaking. There is violence, granted, as expected but Tarantino is more focused on his script and positioning of characters than the actual violence.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
I have already written an extensive review on this one (which you can read here) so I won’t go into too much detail. What I will say is that it has a very good chance of scoring some nominations and potential wins going into awards season. It’s nice seeing Tarantino returning to California for his penultimate film and it seems like a film that he was destined to make. The personal touches are definitely here in what seems to be a return to the place where he grew up.
So we’re all up to date and I eagerly await to see what Tarantino has up his sleeve for his tenth and supposed final feature. Undoubtedly, it will be one of the biggest events in film history with actors and crew members alike clambering at the chance to work with him. There’s only one Tarantino and there certainly won’t be another director like him again.
With all that said and done, here is my final ranking:
1) Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)
2) Inglourious Basterds (2009)
3) Reservoir Dogs (1992)
4) Pulp Fiction (1994)
5) Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004)
6) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
7) The Hateful Eight (2015)
8) Django Unchained (2012)
9) Jackie Brown (1997)
10) Death Proof (2007)
I know it’s probably shocking having Kill Bill: Volume 1 at the top, but there is something incredibly empowering to me seeing a female character leading a blockbuster four hour saga. I hope people refer back to this when people claim that audiences don’t want to see women in film.
Which Tarantino is your favourite? Let me know in the comments below!