By John H. Foote
His very name, like Spielberg or Scorsese, suggests cinema. However, the films of Quentin Tarantino unfold like a jolt of electricity applied to your brain. Like the shot of adrenaline given to Mia in Pulp Fiction (1994) so are his films a shot of instant energy to the audience. His characters, speaking unique Tarantino-speak feel both familiar and somehow original to us, like old friends we have not encountered for years. And his twisting, turning narratives, the freedom to rewrite history because in his universe on film, history does not yet exist. Nothing is in stone, which is refreshing when you think about it.
For twenty-six years he has been a part of the cinema lexicon, often rewriting it along the way. No question his impact on modern film was immediate and profound.
Few directors have had the sort of profound impact on cinema as Tarantino has had. Griffith, Renoir, Welles, Kazan, Bergman, Lean, Ray, Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, PT Anderson, Bigelow, Polanski, And Woody Allen before him, Tarantino joins this group (and there are others of course) as being among the most influential filmmakers in history.
Now with the release of his stunning new film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I go back and look at his nine features, ranking them in order of preference. Very little separates the top five, just as the bottom nine are dangerously close.
Dark, funny, irreverent, violent, profane, exciting, thrilling and wild, Tarantino’s work is like experiencing a hurricane, you know it is dangerous but damn, is it fun. Like a shot of adrenaline to the brain, his films make us instantly alert, thrilled to be watching, and like a rollercoaster, thrilling and terrifying at the same time.
In reverse order, here are his nine greatest features.
9. THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)
His second western was like the adaptation of a great play, talky, set in the same place, with fascinating characters you just knew were doomed. A group made up of criminals, lawmen, bounty hunter, former General and wanted killer, end up in a haberdashery in the old west during a violent snowstorm. Each has their story, and at least one of them suspects some of them are there to free a wanted woman. Kurt Russell dominates the first half as a bounty hunter before giving way to Samuel L. Jackson’s bounty hunter who fought for the North. One by one the people in the place are eliminated, just like a nasty Agatha Christie film, though this one is drenched in blood. Jennifer Jason Leigh was Oscar-nominated, the rest of the cast is terrific, especially Bruce Dern, Jackson, and Russell. Sadly Michael Madsen is given little to do, Tim Roth is wasted, and unlike Tarantino, the film bogs down badly headed towards the finale. Usually, his characters are people we might like to get to know, no matter how dangerous, but not here. Though the least of his films it still has moments that rock.
8. RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)
After breakfast, an argument about Madonna and leaving the tip, the men, all dressed the same walk down the street to the tune “Little Green Bag” and you are watching the birth of The Cinema Of Cool. So fucking cool. The film jumps around in time, showing a botched robbery, a man horribly injured, gunshot, losing copious amounts of blood and the efforts to save him. The performances are brilliant but Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, and Harvey Keitel are especially strong. This was the first time Tarantino was unleashed on audiences and critics and the violence shocked many, but people were seen leaving as Madsen tortured the young cop, only to go back in when the scene was over. A smashing debut, a star-making debut which displayed his gifts with dialogue and guiding actors.
7. KILL BILL VOLUME ONE (2003)
Hellbent on revenge after being nearly killed, sent into a coma for five years by those she trusted on her wedding day, the bride (Uma Thurman) is focused, with fury. One by one she moves through the group of trained killers responsible for her near death, moving fearlessly towards their leader, her former lover, Bill (David Carradine). For me, the film peaks with the massacre at the beautiful, strange restaurant where Beatrix (Thurman) slaughters countless henchman before hacking off the scalp of a deadly assassin portrayed with arrogance and smugness by Lucy Liu. The fights are staged with extraordinary realism, and in paying homage to the Hong Kong cinema he so loved, Tarantino achieved a unique level of art. Thurman, for me, did not get the recognition for her performance she deserved, hers is a great physical performance to be sure, but her rage never wavers. And that last line perfectly sets up the sequel.
6. KILL BILL VOLUME TWO (2004)
Less frenetic than the first, more focused on the Bride getting to Bill to kill him, we see the events that led to the massacre in the church that left the Bride comatose. She hacked and slashed her way through Hong Kong, and is now closer than ever to Bill and the daughter she never met. But before she finds him she will be shot with rock salt, buried alive, and forced to fight a formidable opponent who killed her master trainer. All this to get her chance to kill Bill. Uma Thurman is again exquisite as the kick-ass warrior seeking justice, David Carradine is the deadly, whispery Bill, Michael Madsen superb as Bill’s brother, and Darryl Hannah all blonde fury as a toxic killer. Less fighting allows the characters to deepen, gives the actors room to grow, to evolve. The final moments between Thurman and Carradine are wonderful, as you can feel the love they once had replaced by regret and hate.,
5. DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)
A seething western about the horrors of slavery in the South, some of the finest performances in any Tarantino film comes out of this movie. Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is both bounty hunter and dentist, taking under his wing, the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) who he treats as an equal, pays and befriends. As Django helps him through the winter, the good doctor promises to help free Django’s wife. To do so they must enter the vile and violent world of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) a wealthy plantation owner who uses his slaves to fight to the death. It becomes clear the pair are over their heads and need to get away from Candie. His treacherous slave Steven (Samuel L. Jackson) makes that impossible. Waltz won his second Oscar in three years, Foxx, DiCaprio, and especially Jackson are magnificent. Glorious Cinematography is used to create this dark film, and the blood flows freely. Django proves to be a smart and highly resourceful killer.
4. JACKIE BROWNE (1997)
Based on the Elmore Leonard book Rum Punch, Tarantino managed to improve the novel and make a brilliant film that paid homage to the blaxploitation films of the seventies without becoming one. Casting Pam Grier, herself a star of the blaxploitation genre in the seventies, she is weary, bone-tired and incredibly smart as the title character. Outwitting a vicious criminal portrayed with quiet fury by Samuel L. Jackson, and falling for an equally tired bail bondsman portrayed beautifully by Robert Forester, Jackie deserves happiness she might actually get if she can get away with her caper. Robert De Niro is exceptional as a dumb but dangerous hood while Bridget Fonda was never better as a blonde harpy who harasses a man into killing her. A smooth, fine film that deserved better when it was released. Outstanding.
3. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)
Once Upon a time during WWII, a group of American soldiers, mostly Jews were told to collect bounties in the form of Nazi scalps. Leading them was a tough cracker Aldo (Brad Pitt) who understands what rules he can break and which he must uphold. Stealing the film in a slimy, exceptionally confident performance is Christoph Waltz, who went on to win an Oscar as the monstrous Nazi who is infamous for hunting and finding Jews. The film is also incredibly about the movies, chiefly the showing of a film, and in this case how a film can help re-write history. The film stunned critics and audiences with its twisting narrative, the conclusion a shocker but perfect. Standing above the mutilated Waltz, Pitt looks directly into the camera and states, “This might just be my masterpiece.” It just might. Strong performances dominate with Melanie Laurent a ferocious standout.
(SPOILERS) Having the courage, the sheer audacity to create a film where Hitler is murdered, altering the course of the war, of history was risky, but it works. It works because deep down this could be what we desired all along, for someone to kill the monster before he got moving on his plans. As the bullets tear dear Adolf apart, a delicious glee rippled through the screening room.
2. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)
I know, I know, not enough time has passed to make this call but I am making it. Tarantino’s brash, an exciting love letter to Hollywood of the sixties, to the movies and TV shows he grew up with, is an absolute knockout and could be the year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture. Plunging audiences into sun-kissed Hollywood in the late sixties, there is always an undercurrent of doom given one of the lead character’s lives next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) who was murdered by the Manson family. Leonardo DiCaprio is a washed-up star holding on to the tatters of his career, Brad Pitt his best friend, bodyguard, and driver, and the pair move through the pop culture world of 1969. Encounters with Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen, the Playboy mansion, Squeaky Fromme, And Charles Manson will eventually shape and forever alter their lives. DiCaprio And Pitt are sensational, but then the film is littered with stunning performances. Dakota Fanning is frightening as the contentious Fromme, while Margot Robbie is sunny and perfect as the doomed Tate. Seen for just thirty seconds, Manson is a haunting presence throughout the film. The times were indeed, a-changin’. Hollywood would never be the same after 1969. Brilliant… might be the film of the year.
1. PULP FICTION (1994)
The most extraordinary independent film ever released, this movie made in excess of two hundred million dollars on a budget of just eight million dollars. No wonder disgraced studio chief called Miramax, “the house that Quentin built.” With its thundering surfer guitar riffs, we are at once plunged into the seedy world of criminals, two of whom are on their way to do a hit. They are Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) who banter like an old married couple before they kill whoever they have been sent to execute. They are but part of several stories which all converge, connecting characters to each other, and narratives together. Where to start? That opening in the restaurant? The first killing? Marvin getting his face shot off? Jack Rabbit Slims and the twist competition? Mia bursting to life with a shot of adrenaline to the heart? Butch throws a fight, pockets the cash and attempts to get out of town? Butch guns down Vincent in his apartment? Butch and Wallace are taken prisoner by a couple of S and M rapists? Butch saves Marcellus? In a clever bending of the narrative, Vincent and Jules walk out of the diner from the beginning of the film? Where can you begin to start discussing the brilliant moments within this film when they run together, connecting perfectly. Travolta reminds us of his gifts as an actor, his droll, grave Vincent is a comic delight, we almost forget he is a stone-cold killer; Jackson is superbly terrifying, his ominous glare, the reading of the Biblical quote, each frightening. Thurman is wonderfully confident yet vulnerable, Ving Rhames downright frightening, and Bruce Willis outstanding as a boxer who makes a mistake he is given the chance to redeem. Bouncing through time, the film is deliciously broken narrative allowing a beloved character to return after we see him killed, but we are with the director/ writer all the way. In a word, the film is astounding. ASTOUNDING.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.