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Quentin Tarantino Movies Ranked
A Sunday Special: ranking the Maestro of Cool's movies from worst to best.
Last Monday, I went down memory lane for Quentin Tarantino’s 60th birthday, writing about my personal journey with his movies. It’s been a rocky road, but I’m glad to have come almost full circle with him.
Today, I’m not sure how highly I’d rank QT on my “Best Director” list, but he’s 100% in the top five of my “Most Important.”
When I picked up the latest copy of Sight & Sound, where we see the full list of the Top 250 “Greatest Films Of All Time” - not sure you can see the extra emphasis on the quotation marks, but they’re there - selected by a wide group of critics, academics, curators etc., I was disheartened to see that only one Tarantino film makes an appearance.
Pulp Fiction (1994) is tied at 129th place with Raging Bull (1980), Fanny and Alexander (1982) and His Girl Friday (1939). That’s not bad company at all, but it just goes to show how much the optics of the movie landscape have changed - at least from the lens that’s on the outside looking in.
While it’s disappointing that not a single Tarantino film cracked the Top 100, on a list that claims Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman is the “Greatest Film Of All Time” it’s not all that surprising.
So, to honor the Maestro of Cool, and remind myself just how skewed those optics actually are, I wanted to cap off Tarantino’s birthday week with a ranked list of all of his movies, in reverse order. Let’s get to it.
9. The Hateful Eight (2015)
“The good part about frontier justice, is it's very thirst quenching. The bad part is it's apt to be wrong as right!” - Oswaldo Mobray
My relationship with Tarantino’s movies hit rock bottom with The Hateful Eight. So I re-watched it a few days ago, and to its credit, it aged more like wine than vinegar.
Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance as the despicable Daisy Domergue is an all-time great Tarantino performance, the cloak-and-dagger parlor mystery vibe is immersive as hell, Samuel L. Jackson reminds us why he’s the greatest orator of Tarantino’s dialogue, it’s the most beautiful looking of all of QT’s films, and traversing the rugged terrain of broken moral codes, twisted principles and ambiguous ethics in a post-Civil War 1870s Western is bloody entertaining.
Nevertheless, The Hateful Eight still lives at the bottom of Tarantino’s filmography. It’s the most tonally jarring of all his films, with a few uncharacteristic choices that break the magic spell; an off-putting, anachronistic use of a Roy Orbison song; a horribly miscast Channing Tatum in what ends up being a pivotal role; Quentin’s own narration; a bizarre use of slow motion; and more than a handful of moments when even some of Tarantino’s regulars like Michael Madsen and Kurt Russell don’t sync with the dialogue.
8. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
“You probably heard we ain't in the prisoner-takin' business; we in the killin' Nazi business. And cousin, business is a-boomin'” - Lt. Aldo Raine
Inglourious Basterds is one of Tarantino’s most popular movies, rated as highly as Reservoir Dogs on iMDB, so I guess it’s time I give this one a re-watch too because it most definitely did not blow my mind.
The good will always outweigh the bad in a Tarantino picture (the man doesn’t know how to make a boring film) and so it is with this WWII historical revenge fantasy that sees Adolf Hitler meet a much bloodier, get-up-off-your-seat-and-roar-with-delight end.
It’s just about the funniest Tarantino film to date, the cast is near-perfect as ever, with Brad Pitt chewing Tarantino’s dialogue in an unforgettable blend of southern drawl, the build up in the tavern with Michael Fassbender is one of Tarantino’s greatest scene constructions and the previously-unknown Christoph Waltz deservedly won an Oscar for his portrayal of the charismatic, multilingual psychopath Nazi, Hans Landa.
But it’s still too messy for my taste, and marks the first time Tarantino got high on his own supply by getting over-excited with paying homage to his favorite war films and directors. There are three films in one here, and if he focused more on The Dirty Dozen (1967) storyline, it could’ve been a masterpiece. As it stands though, it’s a hodgepodge of WWII ideas and influences, ending with a whimper and not a bang, which is quite un-Tarantino-like.
7. Death Proof (2007)
“This car is 100% death proof. Only to get the benefit of it, honey, you REALLY need to be sitting in my seat.” - Stuntman Mike
The lowest rated Tarantino film on iMDB and with a measly 66% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, Death Proof is the most common answer to the “what’s the worst Tarantino film?” question. Not for me though.
Sure, it doesn’t have a lot of meat on its narrative bones, but it was originally constructed as part of a double-feature Grindhouse experience alongside Robert Rodriguez’ Planet Terror, which accounts for its lack of depth and multi-layered Tarantino dialogue. It’s also an homage to the violent, gritty exploitation films of the 1970s like Vanishing Point (1971) and Switchblade Sisters (1975) whose depth is only measured in how knee-deep in over-the-top violence they are.
Death Proof features one of the greatest action sequence in the Tarantino repertoire, an exciting build-up with a wonderful payoff, one of Kurt Russell’s career-best performances, one of Tarantino’s best soundtracks (that’s saying a lot, considering this is the director who redefined movie soundtracks) and a feminist manifesto tucked between its viscerally exploitative frames that’s more potent, compelling and authentic than half the contemporary crap that poses as progressive these days.
6. Django Unchained (2012)
“Gentlemen, you had my curiosity, now you have my attention.” - Calvin Candie
The second in Tarantino’s “revisionist revenge history” is in a different league than Inglourious Basterds because of its clear focus on a single character’s revenge arc. Racism and America’s dark history with slavery is tackled head-on, and like Eminem embedding himself into rap culture as one of the best to ever do it even though he’s white, so too does Quentin Tarantino here. A white guy who reminds us that skin colour doesn’t mean shit when it comes to directing fantastic films featuring black history and culture.
I’m not convinced that Waltz deserved his second Oscar for this role, even though he’s wonderful as Dr. King Schultz, the bounty hunter with a heart of gold. It’s Leonardo DiCaprio who steals the show, in his first and only role as an unrepentantly evil character, the horribly racist plantation owner Calvin Candie. Following Django (Jamie Foxx) and Schultz, as they infiltrate Candyland and maneuver their way around Candie’s most trusted servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) is some of Tarantino’s highest highs as a director.
He loses me with the unnecessary bloodbath during the film’s climax, though. It’s some kind of symbolic nod to all the blood that has been shed for real during the slavery period in America, I imagine, but feels completely out of kilter with the rest of the film.
5. Kill Bill (2003-04)
“Revenge is never a straight line. It's a forest, And like a forest it's easy to lose your way... To get lost... To forget where you came in” - Hattori Hanzo
October 10th will mark the 20th anniversary of Kill Bill Vol. 1, so I’ll strive to dedicate a piece on what is Tarantino’s greatest foray into pastiche cinema. Some of his biggest critics love to point out that QT isn’t very original because of how much he borrows from his encyclopedic vault filled with movie memories. And yes, the two-part Kill Bill saga leans heavily on the director’s favorite martial arts flicks with some Spaghetti Western, samurai and anime cinema thrown into the mix.
But, you know what? When the result is this entertaining and perfectly synced up, does it really matter?
Following The Bride (an Oscar-worthy Uma Thurman) and her journey to find and kill Bill (the late, great Kung Fu star David Carradine) through two volumes, cutting her way through a list of assassins that are some of Tarantino’s most memorable characters (Michael Madsen peaks here) and fighting her way through the greatest action set pieces you’ll find in a Tarantino film, is pure unadulterated joy that could only be concocted from the mind of Tarantino.
4. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
“Mr. Pink sounds like Mr. Pussy. How 'bout if I'm Mr. Purple? That sounds good to me. I'll be Mr. Purple.” - Mr. Pink
Tarantino’s first and simplest film is still one of his very best. It’s easy to forget Reservoir Dogs is not technically Tarantino’s debut - that would be the unfinished My Best Friend’s Birthday (1987) - but it’s his first fully-fledged feature film, so it’s insanely impressive how it still holds up after 30 years and counting.
The unrefined dialogue, the raw performances from veterans Harvey Keitel and Lawrence Tierney compounded with future vets in Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Steve Buscemi, and featuring the greatest performance of Chris Penn’s much-too-short career, Reservoir Dogs stands as one of the greatest heist films ever made.
Its iconic scenes are too numerous to list out in full, but stand outs include Madsen’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” moment of pure sadism that should be studied in film class for its use of tension, Buscemi’s “world’s smallest violin” for waiters, the assigned colours for each criminal, among many more.
Tarantino burst onto the scene and never looked back after Reservoir Dogs; it’ll always hold a special place in his filmography, even if it moves down a few notches with age.
3. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
“It's official, old buddy. I'm a has-been.” - Rick Dalton
Tarantino’s most recent film reignited my love for the Maestro of Cool with incredible verve. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a masterwork of the highest order; a total time capsule to 1960s Los Angeles, a passionate love-letter to Hollywood outcasts, his funniest film by far, with an entertaining climax that’s unrivaled in Tarantino’s entire catalogue.
Hollywood is deceptively emotional too, filled with pathos and melancholy for a particular moment in Hollywood that clearly holds a special place in Tarantino’s heart, and featuring the second-strongest bond between two Tarantino characters. Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, who have never been better in anything) are professional partners and best friends, and their bond carries throughout the film in an exceptionally resonant way.
The film caps off Tarantino’s unofficial revenge-history-fantasy trilogy after Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, and blows them both out the water thanks to the hyper-focused, personal history it revists and twists into the most beautiful of fairy tales. Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate is an angelic beauty, doing more with her screen presence than most actors can do with a three pages of Shakespearean monologue.
2. Pulp Fiction (1994)
“That's when you know you've found somebody special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.” - Mia Wallace
If you’ve read my birthday piece on Tarantino, you know how highly I rate Pulp Fiction. The movie that boosted my love for movies, the most Tarantino-y Tarantino film of all time.
Everything sings in perfect unison in this nonlinear drug-and-crime masterpiece that’s impossible to pigeon hole into a single genre. The cast is incredible, a never-better ensemble that hits every note of dialogue the right way, right down to Steve Buscemi’s cameo as a Buddy Holly waiter in Jack Rabbit Slims.
For all intents and purposes, Pulp Fiction is as near a perfect film as you can make, and its iconic scenes that are earmarked by Tarantino’s greatest dialogue - “Ezekiel 25:17,” “$10-dollar milkshake,” “Zed’s dead baby,” etc. - are only surpassed by its larger-than-life characters that have grown into cultural staples. John Travolta was revived, Samuel L. Jackson was made, and the collection of songs featured combine into the greatest soundtrack ever assembled for a movie.
For how it influenced the zeitgeist, spawned innumerable copy cats, and inspired a generation of filmmakers, Pulp Fiction is the clearest miss in Sight & Sound’s GOAT poll and an obvious indication that lists made with today’s standards should not be trusted.
1. Jackie Brown (1997)
“When you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherfucker in the room, accept no substitutes.” - Ordell Robbie
Here we are then. How is it possible that a near-perfect film like Pulp Fiction isn’t at the very top of the list? It was, for a long time, until I kept re-watching Jackie Brown and realized that it’s objectively - as objective as it’s possible to be when it comes to movies - Tarantino’s greatest filmmaking achievement.
The man himself would vehemently disagree with this choice (he considers Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to be his best, but take that with a grain of recently-biased salt). Not least because it’s the only film in his collection that isn’t an original. As an adaption of Elmore Leonard’s novel of the same name, Jackie Brown ironically proves that it takes someone else’s material to keep Tarantino grounded. The result is his most mature piece of work, the most balanced and complex wine in his cellar.
A film centered around a 50-something black stewardess was a rare thing indeed (Leonard’s character in the book is white), and along with Django, shows the impressive strides Tarantino has made for black cinema. But its cultural significance is not the only reason Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s best.
The main reason is the love that develops between Jackie and Max Cherry (the sensational pairing of Pam Grief and the late Robert Forster), creating the strongest bond in any Tarantino film. The trio of criminals in Ordell Robbie (a perfect Samuel L. Jackson as Tarantino’s chillest villain), Louis Gara (a wonderfully spaced out Robert De Niro) and surfer bunny Melani (Bridget Fonda), and the gum-chewing ATF agent (a wonderfully stress out Michael Keaton), complete the perfect triangle for a story that’s as simple as it is nail-biting every time you watch it.
Jackie Brown is the definition of cool, in setting, story, characters, dialogue, music, build up and climax. The balance of Tarantino’s dialogue and direction, that never crosses the line into indulgence, on Elmore Leonard’s canvass results in the director’s greatest masterpiece.
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