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TOH! Ranks Quentin Tarantino’s Films

TOH! Ranks Quentin Tarantino's Films

The trouble with ranking iconoclastic auteur Quentin Tarantino’s nine features (including highly anticipated Christmas Day release “The Hateful Eight,” which has screened for critics and awards voters) is that he plays with so many genres, styles, and subjects.

Appropriately enough, considering that Tarantino’s spent a career resurrecting B-movies, the difference between one viewer’s trash and another’s treasure can seem razor-thin. Is “Pulp Fiction” too much, or just the right amount of “much”? How do you compare the broad-as-a-barn alternate histories of “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” with each other, much less with the simpler pleasures of “Jackie Brown”? Is “Kill Bill Vol. 1” or “Vol. 2” the “better” movie? Hell, are they separate movies in the first place? (We think so.)

Still, however you slice and dice the order of the list, it’s clear from our five contributors that Tarantino is one of the most impactful filmmakers of his generation: an agent provocateur who lives at the intersection of the drive-in and the arthouse, and about whom it is well nigh impossible not to have an opinion. Read on to find out ours. –Matt Brennan 

1. “Pulp Fiction”(1994) 
I had an inkling of what Tarantino might be capable of after he unleashed his pack of thieves in “Reservoir Dogs.” But no one back in 1994 was prepared for this onslaught of post-modern coolness with its fractured narrative and verbal kapows. Whenever hit men Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) got into one of their random debates  (“You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in Paris?… They call it a Royale with cheese”), it was like a priceless Abbott and Costello routine performed by erudite street scum. I finally fully understood the allure of Uma Thurman when mobster’s wife Mia did the swim and the Batman watusi with Mr. Saturday Night Fever  to the chunk-a-chunk rhythms of Chuck Berry’s “Never Can Tell.” Then there were the regular jolts of over-the-top violence, especially the carnage that results when Ving Rhames’ crime boss Marcellus Wallace and Bruce Willis’ boxer Butch wake up in a pawn shop basement with red-ball gags in their mouths—while being introduced to the leather-clad bondage monster known as the Gimp.

All these seminal moments and more are canon now, what with
“Pulp Fiction” reverentially placed among the pantheon of films earmarked for
preservation in the National Film Registry. But does it hold up now after
20-plus years? Judging by how I always get sucked in each time I run across it
on TV, I would answer in the affirmative. (Compare that to “Django Unchained,”
which I saw once—and that was more than enough.) I do prefer to re-watch “Pulp
Fiction” for individual scenes rather than the entire picture. But just as it
doesn’t matter if we never know the exact contents of the suitcase that glows
when unlocked by Vincent, it also doesn’t lessen your “Pulp Fiction” enjoyment
to view it in segments. I like to think of Tarantino’s masterwork as being akin
to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel mural, but with individual scenes based on
arcane B-movies instead of Biblical tales. – Susan Wloszczyna

2. “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) 
Its convolutions of time were humble, compared to what would follow in “Pulp Fiction.” The bloody violence got most of the attention, along with the James M. Cain-meets-Preston Sturges dialogue. But “Reservoir Dogs,” which blew in and out of Sundance ’92 like a dum-dum through a pumpkin, shredded presumptions and expectations of what American cinema was going to be, and represents as historic a moment in the indie continuum as Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies and & videotape” or Todd Haynes’ “Poison.” It also remains in many ways Tarantino’s most startling work, partly because no one had seen anything like it (or him) and partly because audiences had also seen it all — its creator was the product of a movie-besotted life and an education acquired, not in the film schools of Lucas and Spielberg, or the rainy day rialtos of a Scorsese, but through an immersion in the golden trash of the video store, where the director was influenced as much by Ringo Lam as he was by Stanley Kubrick. 

The movie’s nihilistic worldview was so contrary to the presiding wisdom of pop-cultural commerce that it frightened people; its revolutionary reimagining of the caper film, with Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) and their cohort all working at crossed-purposes and mixed allegiances, made “Reservoir Dogs” a provocation on the order of “Psycho.” It didn’t flourish financially on its initial release, but it certainly did usher in a new era of film obsession among several generations of would-be auteurs who believed they could be Tarantino if they just watched all the same movies. And baptized themselves in the same font of esoterica. And attained something uncomfortably close to knowledge. Tarantino, educator? Why not? Plus, the movie still works — this writer, for one, continues to watch Michael Madsen and his razor through only slightly splayed fingers. – John Anderson

3. “Kill Bill Vol. 1” (2003) 
A blood-splattered ode to movies (and loving movies), “Kill Bill: Volume 1” is pure pleasure top to toe, a pulse-popping setup to the quieter acts of more devastating revenge that go down in “Volume 2.” Uma Thurman makes the Bride as iconic as Mia Wallace, pirouetting through Tarantino’s obsessively orchestrated, ultra-violent world, most memorably in the nighttime showdown with scene-stealer Lucy Liu’s O-Ren Ishii in a magical set-piece set against the snow. Also burned on my brain is the tightly drummed one-act of female psychodrama that gets the gears going, as the Bride wiggles her way to the home of Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) for a ballet of bloody, bantery mayhem involving a pistol, a cereal box and a history of mirroring resentments. Tarantino throws every reference in his arsenal into this most satisfying pastiche blender, from spaghetti westerns to yakuza, wuxia and kung fu and manga. It’s like the most entertaining genre movie seminar ever. – Ryan Lattanzio

4. “Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004) 
To the cartoonish violence of “Vol. 1,” the second installment in Tarantino’s bloody revenge fantasy adds the rarest weapon in his arsenal: tenderness. As the Bride, Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman), pursues her targets, the director squares space for the usual flights of fancy—the devilishly entertaining chapter “The Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei,” featuring Gordon Liu as the legendary kung fu master of “Executioners from Shaolin” (1977), is an extended flashback nested within Beatrix’s narrow escape from the grave—but the titular act of violence is intimate enough to be held in the palm of your hand. Indeed, before the fateful moment arrives, confrontation turns to conversation, and Bill (David Carradine) and the Bride unearth a doomed love affair indebted less to comic books than to fables and fairy tales. She kills Bill, of course, but it’s quite possibly the sweetest assassination in the cinema. – Matt Brennan 

5. “Jackie Brown” (1997) 

This affectionate tribute to blaxploitation films of the early ’70s, about a flight attendant for a low-level Mexican airline trying to make ends meet by smuggling money for an illegal arms dealer, is considered Tarantino’s least violent film (with only nine gunshots fired). Which might be why it’s one of his less high-octane efforts, plot-wise. But he does more than right by the inspiration behind this crime thriller, the magnificent Pam Grier, starting with the first scene. There  she is, Foxy Brown, Coffy and Sheba, Baby herself, standing tall, proud and sexy as ever in her snug blue uniform on the moving walkway at LAX as Bobby Womack’s wistful “Across 110th Street” is heard on the soundtrack. That’s right before she’s hauled in by the police and placed in jail when an unexpected stash of cocaine is found in the cash she is carrying. Despite a weirdly braided goatee, Samuel L. Jackson’s gun seller Ordell Robbie is a more run-of-the-mill figure than “Pulp Fiction”’s Jules, and his partners in crime – pothead TV-addict surfer girl Bridget Fonda and lowlife thug Robert De Niro – aren’t exactly a barrel or even a bucket of laughs.

However, the rare restraint shown by Tarantino best serves the middle-age love connection that sparks between Grier’s Jackie and bail bondsman Max Cherry, played with gentlemanly grace by veteran actor Robert Forster. There is a palpable feeling of desire but also of respect between the two mature characters that shows in their body language and the glances they exchange. After Max goes out on a limb to help Jackie pull a double-cross, the pair get to share a soulful if bittersweet kiss before she embarks on her new life. Tarantino also provides the perfect  ending:  a close-up of Grier’s face as she sings along to “Across 110th Street” on the car radio. SW

6. “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) 
This defiantly artful World War II genre film inspired by the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, with splashes of Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack, is great fun to watch even when it isn’t entirely engaging. Tarantino throws you out of the movie with titles, chapter headings, and snatches of music: you don’t jump into the world of the film in a participatory way, you watch it from a distance, appreciating the references and the masterful mise-en-scene. Tarantino fashions a parallel World War II anti-Nazi fantasy that hangs on his characters. But he does not play by the rules. This is a world where anyone can get killed at any moment. The movie stirs up a mixed bag of references and knee-jerk reactions to Nazis as The Basterds, a Jewish-American army troop led by L.T. Aldo Raine (a redneck broadly rendered by Brad Pitt), set out on a mission to collect 100 Nazi scalps, each. The central plot is to destroy the entire Nazi high command at a movie theatre in one fell swoop. In this movie, as Tarantino says, “the power of cinema brings down the Third Reich.” Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent, Daniel Bruhl, Michael Fassbender and Diane Kruger all dazzle in their own inimitable way. – Anne Thompson

7. “The Hateful Eight” (2015) 
“The Hateful Eight” doesn’t need all the nostalgic roadshow pomp to work on its own terms as a giddily entertaining actors’ showcase that trucks luxuriously along, almost like a play. But the film really belongs to Tarantino’s DP Robert Richardson, who films the wintry Wyoming landscape in dazzling you-are-there 70mm tableaux. If only Quentin Tarantino would stop insisting on putting everything in quotation marks, from the Ennio Morricone score and the throwback opening titles to the post-intermission, Tarantino-narrated “recap.” Still, the cast is having a hell of a time, with Samuel L. Jackson leading the show as rogue Union soldier gone bounty hunter Marquis Warren, and Jennifer Jason Leigh getting her most toothsome role in ages as psychopathic gangster Daisy Domergue. After the punk historical vandalism of “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” it’s nice to see a Tarantino movie that’s really about nothing again.

8. “Django Unchained” (2012) 

If Tarantino’s quasi-historical epic is
scarcely the cunning critique of slavery he seems to think it is, “Django
Unchained” nevertheless marshals the director’s flair for genre in the
service of a brash and extraordinarily bloody spaghetti Western. As the
eponymous freedman (Jamie Foxx) and German bounty hunter King Schultz
(Christoph Waltz) trace Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), to the
Mississippi plantation of depraved slaveholder Calvin Candie (Leonardo
DiCaprio), Tarantino reconstructs the Old South as a visceral nightmare; even
the slop of beer and the clatter of spilled sweets are repugnant. Whether you
consider it a travesty or an instant classic (arguably, it’s a little of both),
“Django” has to be seen to be believed. It makes “The Wild
Bunch” look like Ibsen. – MB

9. “Death Proof” (2007)

The centerpiece, or hood ornament, of Tarantino’s Death
Proof” is stuntwoman Zoe Bell, who takes a viscerally terrifying ride aboard a
‘70s Dodge Challenger (the same car, it is always pointed out, as was in ‘71’s
“Vanishing Point”) and proved what was apparently Tarantino’s point — that
special effects take the blood out of the action sequence and there has to be
real terror at the heart of a movie to make one recoil and/or revel in horror.
There are plenty of hellacious moments, many of them delivered by Kurt Russell,
who in a Tarantino-esque bit of contrarian casting plays Stuntman Mike McKay, a
serial killer of young women whom he lures into his “death-proof” car. Paired
up with Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” for the double-feature spectacular
“Grindhouse” of 2007, “Death Proof” was a movie with an agenda, about the
charms of drive-in movies of the ‘70s, and their raggedy aesthetics. It’s not
first-rate Tarantino, perhaps, but it makes its point. – JA

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