With the filmmaker’s latest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, set to drop this week, surely this is the best time to argue over which of the previous entries in Quentin Tarantino’s filmography can be held up as the greatest. In ascending order, these are the movies that made a man into an icon of modern cinema:
9: Jackie Brown (1997)
Jackie Brown is by no means a bad film. In fact, a lot of critics regard Tarantino’s third feature as one of his best, or at least one of his least self-indulgent. But for me, something doesn’t sit quite right in Jackie Brown; it doesn’t feel like a true Tarantino in some way, probably because it is his only adaptation, from the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard. The director’s trademark dialogue drips deliciously from the tongue of one of best characters of the decade – Ordell Robbie – but the con at the centre of the plot never really takes flight, and much of the cast, including the titular heroine, remain underdeveloped. Still, the movie boasts astounding turns from its leads Pam Grier and Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert De Niro’s performance was his best in a good while. Plus, as far as Leonard adaptations go, it outshines Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight from the following year.
8: The Hateful Eight (2015)
Tarantino’s eighth feature did away with the grand scale of his previous few films, without sacrificing any sense of the grandiosity. Delivered in 70mm for a special cinematic event on its release, complete with musical overture and interval, The Hateful Eight harked back to the epic feel of 20th-century masterpieces, but was most reminiscent of the director’s earliest work in its writing style. Effortlessly smart and occasionally hilarious, the film was dismissed by many for its excruciatingly slow build-up. And upon second viewing, it is easy to see why. There is a great reliance on a number of twists, whose impact vary considerably, and in the end this build-up gives way to an all-too-quick resolution. Nevertheless, the setup of strangers forced together to interact matched the brilliance of films like Stagecoach, and Tarantino masterfully cultivates distrust and tension, helped by Robert Richardson’s beautiful framing of the snowy landscape setting, and one of the best scores of the decade courtesy of genius composer Ennio Morricone.
7: Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004)
Tarantino himself may consider the two volumes of this series to be a single film (otherwise how is he calling Once Upon a Time in Hollywood his ninth film?), but for two films with the same set of characters and continuation of the plot, they couldn’t really be more different. But then, that is the wonderful nature of the Kill Bill saga, if two films can be called a saga. Eclectic, thrilling, and popping with homages to world cinema. Influences from Kung Fu and later western films are fantastically unrestrained, and the complex relationship between Bill and the Bride is surprisingly heartbreaking. It is probably better written, therefore, than its predecessor, featuring brilliant character creations Elle Driver (a never-better Daryl Hannah) and Michael Madsen’s perfectly rendered Budd. And then there’s Bill himself, a role David Carradine was born to play. The reality, though, is that when thinking of all the greatest scenes from the Kill Bill films, the ones you remember with the most amazement are from the first volume.
6: Death Proof (2007)
Quentin Tarantino is nothing if not the master of homage. After his crime flicks of the 90s and revenge double feature, Tarantino turned to Grindhouse art and sexploitation cinema. Featuring a powerful ensemble cast led by an utterly chilling Kurt Russell, Death Proof builds tension imperceptibly slowly, and capitalises on it with incredible explosions of violent pay off. Whilst Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds get carried away with their multiple influences, Death Proof succeeds thanks to its total commitment to genre. No one writes like Tarantino, and the extended back and forth in the first half of Death Proof are the best examples of scene by scene writing since his early scripts. It is quite surprising that Death Proof has not gone on to be considered one of the best cult films of the decade, for its impressive car sequence if nothing else. If anything lets the film down it is the (literal) rinse and repeat plot, never managing to be quite as thrilling in the second half as it should.
5: Django Unchained (2012)
From the first few guitar notes of Luis Bacalov’s “Django”, you know that Tarantino’s love letter to westerns is going to be one epic adventure. Probably the funniest of the director’s films, Tarantino yet again manages to balance a super talented cast, all on top form, and deliver requisite laughs, thrills, and drama. Christoph Waltz won his second Oscar, but it should have gone to Leonardo DiCaprio for his towering performance as the unhinged Calvin Candie. Once again, Robert Richardson’s magnificent cinematography captivates, and despite the truly dark subject matter, there is an inescapable sense of fun on a grand scale. The climactic shootout is easily one of the best set pieces of the director’s career, complete with impressive sound editing and non-stop blood pack explosions. An awesome remix of James Brown’s The Payback and Tupac’s Untouchable kicks in midway through, cementing Tarantino’s tongue firmly in his cheek and demonstrating his clear love for such an awesome, action filled genre.
4: Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Of all the fantastic performances across Tarantino’s filmography – and there are multiple per film – Christoph Waltz’s portrayal of Hans Landa is possibly the greatest, and certainly the most chilling. The opening scene’s unbelievable tension sets a precedent for the rest of the film, as Waltz floors us with his relished monologue, glass of milk in hand. Inglourious is admittedly Tarantino at his most self indulgent, but all of the elements come together so cohesively and impressively that there is little to complain about. The basement bar sequence should be counted among some of the best scenes of Tarantino’s entire work, and the entire design of the production is on another level to all of his previous work. But, as the director readily admits, there are influences from a huge range of cinematic sources. Not so many as Kill Bill, but here it doesn’t really feel like the rapid pinballing of tones quite works all of the time. Part war-time revenge story, part armed forces adventure escapade, the two plot lines are at odds, and though they come together there is something not totally perfect in the writing, which, perhaps unfairly, we have come to expect from Tarantino. It’s a minor thing, maybe, but it can be tough to identify a protagonist to invest in – it certainly isn’t Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine or Michael Fassbender’s Lt. Archie Hicox, but Melanie Laurant’s Shosanna doesn’t get the screen time, or the dialogue, she deserves.
3: Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003)
Oscillating magnificently between the dulcet yet chilling tones of Nancy Sinatra and that abrasive klaxon theme of revenge, the first volume of Tarantino’s Bride story is a cartoonish masterpiece. Quite literally at one point, using manga inspired graphics to give backstory. The cinematic influences are uncountable, utterly diverse but somehow so coherent. Dialogue is sparse compared to the director’s other works, but it is not missed, as words are only used here to give necessary details. And everything else is a pure and relentless path to vengeance – and scene after scene impresses, shocks and delights. It is impossible to imagine anyone but Uma Thurman as The Bride, and Lucy Liu is fine support in the second half. What a second half it is, culminating in the infamous House of Blues segment. Stylish to the extreme, for any other director this would be a career defining sequence. But for Tarantino, pitching his heroine against the Crazy 88 is just a step in the process. Kill Bill, Vol. 1 is maybe Tarantino’s best directorial effort, despite being possibly his most unapologetic film.
2: Pulp Fiction (1994)
“Don’t be a-” Uma Thurman says, drawing three sides of a rectangle in the air with her fingers. There’s hardly a more quotable film, surely, with multiple scenes achieving instant classic status. Dancing to Chuck Berry, “Royale with Cheese”, Christopher Walken’s monologue, Ezekiel 25:17, “Bring out the gimp”; it is the sum of its incredible parts and so much more. Fiercely intelligent and stylish in every single second, Pulp Fiction emanates brilliance from start to finish. The dialogue never falters, and it is one of Tarantino’s only works where all of the characters are completely individual and fully defined. Offering career highs for Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman and John Travolta, the entire cast is absolutely excellent. It is hard to say a bad word about such a film, and it takes second place through no real fault of its own. As with any collection of short stories, some are simply better than others, and in re-watching it can be hard not to be impatient for your favourite, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Pulp Fiction is Tarantino’s opus, eclectically fantastic, but because of it’s structure, it is just that little bit less focused than some of the director’s other work. For that and no other reason, it misses the top spot.
1: Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Perhaps it isn’t a popular opinion, but for its simplicity, its total commitment to its contained, claustrophobic conceit, Reservoir Dogs ever so slightly outclasses its successor. From the opening, Tarantino’s script is a masterclass in stylish yet efficient dialogue, beautifully managing to define and differentiate each member of the group within just a few pages. And from there, not a moment is wasted. Even in his debut, Tarantino announced himself as an unapologetic, self confident auteur, but all his showing off is never more focused than it is here – perfectly suited to the primary goal of telling the story. The performances are so strong, from Tim Roth’s horribly tangible pain and Harvey Keitel’s unwavering loyalty, to Steve Buscemi’s hilarious whining and Michael Madsen’s terrifying cool. An awesome soundtrack, and scene after scene that captivates, entertains and astounds, Reservoir Dogs is one of the greatest debuts of all time. Never in the entirety of Tarantino’s filmography have all the disparate elements come together quite so harmoniously.