With the release of Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, now is an excellent time to reexamine the controversial director’s filmography. We examine his feature films as director, ranking them from worst to best.
Quantin Tarantino’s films tend to be violent, full of themselves, and foul-mouthed. All attributes which have at one time or another been criticisms for other filmmakers. But Tarantino is an enigma in the world of cinema, taking these qualities which have traditionally been controversial and embracing them. To understand how this approach has worked out for him, I have ranked all of his films from worst to best. This ranking is based on my personal opinion of course, and be careful because some references may be considered light spoilers…
Let’s get started!
10. Death Proof
I’m almost willing to look at Death Proof as more of a piece of collaboratory work than a feature film. However, Tarantino counts it as one of his films, and so that makes it officially part of the club.
Death Proof isn’t a bad film, Tarantino has yet to make one. It accomplishes exactly what it set out to do – delivers grind house action thrills. It is full of fantastic stunts, high-octane action, an equally hard-edged soundtrack, and of course Kurt Russel. All good things. It is pure and simple gritty entertainment harkening back to low-budget stunt-heavy vehicular flicks of the 70’s and 80’s.
But that is exactly where it goes wrong. Death Proof is not a typical Tarantino film with detailed complex storyline, high production values, and intelligent script. Tarantino takes a more low-brow approach in order to mimic the low-budget restrictions of his inspirations. When we think of Tarantino, this is the film that least exudes his most-beloved hallmarks. It is mindless action, not an example of work which will advance the art of film making. For these reasons, I consider it Tarantino’s worst.
9. The Hateful Eight
The Hateful Eight is Tarantino at his most mundane. It is the closest we’ve seen so far to Tarantino resting on his laurels. He takes his most common inspiration, the western, and marries it with a mystery. Those two types of films don’t normally go together. Westerns we think of epic sprawling adventures (look at Django Unchained). Mysteries are dark, claustrophobic, slow burners. From the get go, the film’s inspirations are working against each other.
To make it worse, Tarantino decides to set most of his 3-hour film in a single room. Let’s be honest, this is a stage play set on the big screen. What keeps the film moving is lots and lots of dialogue, charisma from a great cast, and finally violence. I realize you could argue these three attributes are what makes all of Tarantino’s films work. But for this film, it feels like the first time Tarantino’s approach is wearing thin. It did win Morricone an Oscar for best score, so there are some redeeming qualities. But compared with the rest of his filmography, this film is zzzzzz.
8. Kill Bill: Volume 2
Speaking of Tarantino’s most boring moments, Kill Bill: Volume 2 is a worthy candidate. Where the first part of the Kill Bill was in-your-face exciting (see below), Volume 2 is more run-of-the-mill. Volume 2 is like a retroactive dose of narrative to help fill in some of the gaps of the first film. Indeed, it almost feels like Volume 1 had to take certain shortcuts in order to deliver such an exciting journey. Volume 2 is damage control – the necessary buzzkill to make the picture narratively complete.
What that means is lots of talking. So much talking. Back and forth. Endlessly. Volume 1 trained us to expect kicks and punches and slashing swords with squirting blood and exploding cereal boxes. Volume 2’s lack of those things leaves the audience frustrated. This is the type of character setup you’re supposed to get over with at the beginning of the first film, to ramp up to that action-packed finale. Tarantino does things backwards because he is Quentin Tarantino, and it just doesn’t work out as well.
7. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
From the #8 film on this list, it was apparent Tarantino needed to change up his approach to making movies. He rightly figured he couldn’t keep doing the same thing over and over. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is therefore a bit of a welcome change from his earlier work. It is presented in a mostly straightforward and traditional manner compared with some of his earlier films. It is more concerned with exploring its historical setting and reminiscing about classic film than it is in engaging in witty banter or spending time with vicious characters.
So, in many ways, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a more mature film from a filmmaker who has traditionally relied on glorified violence and foul language. But without heavy use of these aforementioned attributes, it seems like Tarantino loses his focus. For the first time, Tarantino hands in a sub-par script and lets his own excitement for the subject matter come before audience engagement. He gives us a typical Tarantino ending for ‘old times sake’, but it still wasn’t enough to convince me to forget the struggles of the film’s previous 2 hours.
6. Jackie Brown
Jackie Brown is a good representation of a typical Quentin Tarantino film. It has all of the attributes which we most strongly associated with the film maker. The main characters are criminals, and the plot has to do with criminal activity. Dialogue is utilized to set up the situation, define the characters, and drive the plot. The characters themselves are not necessarily as we would expect for this type of film, and are portrayed by big-name actors. There’s plenty of foul language, violence, a soulful soundtrack, and plenty of homages to classic cinema from the 70’s and 80’s.
Compared to his first two films, Jackie Brown is more mundane, takes longer to set up and get going, and is simpler in intent and execution. Those aren’t faults per se, but they do make for a film which isn’t as creative or flashy. As such, it may require a bit more patience to yield a satisfactory viewing experience, but is no less impactful. HIghlights include the performances of Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Forster. The film’s title alludes to a strong female protagonist, and seeing Pam Grier in that role makes it even more powerful.
5. Django Unchained
Django Unchained is very similar to the #1 film on this list in many ways. First, we have a historical setting with social injustice, and our protagonists are struggling in some way against this injustice. At the end of the film we have an explosive climax fueled by a protagonist’s motivation for revenge. But while Inglourious Basterds is an homage to classic 60’s and 70’s WWII special forces action films, Django Unchained is a spaghetti western set against the atrocities of slavery.
The spaghetti western has long been a source of inspiration for Tarantino, and so Tarantino’s approach to frame Django Unchained as a spaghetti western was a perfect fit. We feel the director’s excitement and energy, and the film has an immediacy which draws you in. The subject matter is always going to be difficult to address no matter who is writing and directing. Thankfully, the heaviness of the subject matter does not bog down the ability of the film to entertain. Just like in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino finds a way to make his audience revel in his violence by aiming it against the source of the injustice.
Django Unchained doesn’t quite come together as well as Inglourious Basterds though. The plot weaves around a bit more, and the characters are not as endearing. The tone of the film fluctuates between screwball comedy and haunting social drama, making us wonder whether Tarantino is taking this seriously or just exploiting another bleak moment in history for the sake of entertainment.
4. Kill Bill: Volume 1
Kill Bill marked the first big change in direction for Tarantino as a director. Where his previous films were crime dramas motivated by dialogue, Kill Bill: Volume 1 was a revenge story motivated by action. To make the change, Tarantino relies heavily on his influences. Most immediate is his use of heavily choreographed fight sequences not unlike what the Wachowskis had accomplished with The Matrix, and as they had been inspired by classic Hong Kong martial arts films. The protagonist seeks her revenge using wit and incredible skill, not unlike the main characters in Spaghetti westerns. The challenges she faces and her drive to persevere reminds us of the strong female characters in blaxploitation cinema.
The result is a very unique film. Tarantino’s idiosyncrasies as director push it towards self-indulgence, but they also give the film its character. Simply taking ideas from classic cinema would have resulted in a copycat movie – thrilling for the same reasons as those previous films were, but not adding anything we haven’t already seen before. Tarantino finds a way to enhance the ideas he borrowed from other places. The animated flashback scene gives us a juxtaposition from the main plotline while increasing the artistry and visual texture of the film. Likewise, the back and forth storytelling makes the plot unfold like a mystery – not just a straightforward action slog. Finally, Tarantino’s ability to mix the real and unreal during the action sequences gives us the connotation of a graphic novel coming to life – a novel idea at the time. All of these make for one of Tarantino’s most exciting and diverse films.
3. Reservoir Dogs
Reservoir Dogs is a gutsy debut. A heist movie that doesn’t actually concern itself with the heist – only the aftermath when egos, greed, and suspicion start to take over the minds of our team of criminals. Tarantino establishes himself as a new breed of brash auteur, one as selfish as any other, but his vision is geared towards creating visceral excitement. He showed us that he really understood what it took to make films entertaining on the most immediate level, and geared his approach to maximizing that impact.
Reservoir Dogs also showed us how new movies don’t have to be new. Tarantino is the ultimate film junkie, obsessing over the tendencies and aesthetics of films which have already been released. He picks and chooses inspirations from the past in order to create something new. He doesn’t hide the fact that he stole ideas from his forebears, and re-purposes them with gleeful abandon.
Reservoir Dogs is somewhat more direct and constrained than Tarantino’s later films (that is, if you consider a gratuitous torture scene as constrained). He doesn’t yet have the freedom to do everything he wants, and so Reservoir Dogs is less burdened by some of the more obsessive qualities his later films would exude. It is the type of film which grabs you by the neck and demands for you to pay attention, even if you may find yourself uncomfortably squirming in your seat. Tarantino promises entertainment, and Reservoir Dogs delivers.
2. Pulp Fiction
At a time when Hollywood’s focus moved more strongly towards big budget films, an opportunity for smaller independent movies opened up. Pulp Fiction is one of those ‘smaller’ films, and yet it has had as much of an impact on pop culture compared to most of Hollywood’s biggest films of the era. Accolades belong to Tarantino’s thoughtful approach. Like Reservoir Dogs, he finds success in both doing things a bit differently but also adhering to the hallmarks and tropes of the genres he draws his inspirations from.
The utilization of ideas from films in the past makes audiences more receptive. Despite doing things differently, the film isn’t so far out of left field that we reject it immediately. More importantly, Tarantino embraces the ideas which have shown success in the past, and Pulp Fiction shares those successes. One thing Tarantino changes is by making crime intelligent and witty. The characters aren’t just thugs, but neither are their lives glamorized. Like the best noir films of the 30’s and 40’s, the plot is driven by dialogue, but not in a way that is straightforward and predictable. On top of the excellent writing, the film has an effortlessly cool vibe. The intelligence, humor, and emotional release afforded by the gratuitous violence makes it timeless as well. Pulp Fiction is one of the best films of the 1990’s.
1. Inglourious Basterds
10 years ago, Pulp Fiction would have been the number one film on this list. Upon its release, Inglourious Basterds was certainly appreciated, but I don’t think we fully understood its genius. Films rarely rewrite history for the sake of entertainment, let alone touch on such a delicate subject as the Nazi crusade against the Jews. So perhaps in 2009, Inglourious Basterds shocked us, and we were somewhat hesitant to embrace its brash charms. Over time, that shock has been worn down a bit, and yet the film is no less captivating. Inglourious Basterds is one of those rare movies that is enjoyable no matter if you are watching it for the first time or the tenth time. That is the sign of a great film.
What makes Basterds so great are all of the little parts which make up the whole. Some of the most revered films in history are well loved because they have a fantastic villain. Inglourious Basterds is one of those films with a legendary villain. Christoph Waltz’s performance is chilling, it gets under the nerves of everyone in the audience and we can’t wait to see him get his due (Tarantino happily obliged, of course). Then you have the film’s fantastic dialogue sequences. They are at times funny, at times depressing, at times terrifying – sometimes all three emotions at once. The script is nothing short of a masterpiece in modern revenge filmmaking.
Compared to Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds is more effortlessly entertaining. Its straightforward premise doesn’t require as much thinking from the audience. The violence is more easily embraced because it is against one of history’s greatest monsters. The character’s motivations are plain and easy to understand. The star power of Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, and Christoph Waltz appeals more to today’s audience than John Travolta, Uma Thurman, and Bruce Willis do. Who knows, ten years from now our opinions could change once again. But for today, Inglourious Basterds is the best Tarantino film.