Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Director Essentials: Quentin Tarantino

by Patrick Bromley
Spoiler alert! It's all of them.

It might be textbook Film Bro to say that Quentin Tarantino is one of the best to ever do it, but Quentin Tarantino is one of the best to ever do it. Picking his "essential" films is a fool's errand because a) he only has nine films and b) they're all fucking essential.  Rather than trying to cherry pick a few titles, I decided to include the whole filmography and tried to justify why each one made the cut. And because watching a Tarantino movie always makes me want to watch more movies, hopefully this list inspires a binge for everyone who reads it.

1. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
You might think that my first Tarantino might still be my favorite Tarantino by virtue of who I was when I saw it in 1992 and how it chemically changed me forever. And while I will always love Reservoir Dogs -- it's the movie that made me aware of the director and what was possible in movies -- I think it still feels like a first film. The tale of a bank robbery gone awry features a mix of turns from great character actors (Lawrence Tierny, Eddie Bunker) and star-making performances (Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen). While Pulp Fiction would be the bigger hit and create a true cultural crater, it's Reservoir Dogs that so many filmmakers would rip off for the rest of the decade.

2. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Pulp Fiction is a masterpiece. It changed the face of film and it reshaped the culture forever. But if you're of a certain generation like I am, it has almost become the "Happy Birthday" of movies -- so familiar, so ubiquitous, that it can be hard to remain objective and still recognize its brilliance. Having just rewatched it a few weeks ago, I can attest that the film loses none of its power when you actually sit down to watch it instead of just considering it as a series of pop culture echoes. Even if Tarantino never made another movie as good as this one, there's so much the movie would be known and remembered for, from the music to the set pieces to the comeback of John Travolta, who once again became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood after his performance here. The movie is a gift that keeps on giving, even if (through no fault of Tarantino's) it did poison the well for a while.

3. Jackie Brown (1997)
A huge leap forward for the filmmaker, and not just because it shows a willingness to adapt a previous work (in this case Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch). Jackie Brown remains Tarantino's most mature and achingly romantic effort, with Pam Grier and Robert Forster (who should have had a Travolta-style comeback that didn't quite materialize) giving career-best performances as a flight attendant and bail bondsman, respectively, whose paths cross when they both enter into business with a criminal (Samuel L. Jackson, who is never better than when he's speaking Tarantino's dialogue). When I fall in love with a Tarantino movie -- which is basically every time he puts one out -- it's his characters that I fall in love with. Nobody writes better characters, and Jackie Brown features his best.

4. Kill Bill (2004)
Tarantino's fourth film, Kill Bill, is sometimes seen as a step backwards from the thematic maturity of Jackie Brown because it's his "mash-up" movie in which he pays tribute to all the kinds of action and exploitation movies he grew up loving, but that's dismissive. Once you get past all the action and bloodshed, there's a lot of maturity in Kill Bill, particularly in Vol. 2 when the film has a lot to say about family, specifically motherhood and the lengths to which we will go for our children. I've long called this my "favorite" Tarantino movie in its full form (I maintain that it was hurt by splitting it up into two parts) because it gives me so much of what I want from him, but now making this list I can't make that claim.

5. Death Proof (2007)
I suspect a lot of people making a list like this would leave off Death Proof, as it's often called Tarantino's weakest film (at worst) and/or disposable (at best). Because it was made largely as an exercise, filling out one half of his 2007 Grindhouse project with Robert Rodriguez, the movie gets written off by its detractors as being sluggish for most of its runtime until the bravura climax, which everyone can agree is fucking awesome. I think it's a brilliant exercise and that Tarantino gets almost every single detail perfect, from the long stretches of dialogue to the way the actual print improves over the course of the movie. I also think it's Tarantino's most personal movie, full of his obsessions and perversions and certainly the most explicit about the power dynamics between men and women, a theme to which he returns again and again. To suggest it doesn't belong on a list of his essential works is to ignore a big part of who he is as a filmmaker.

6. Inglorious Basterds (2009)
It's no mistake that Inglorious Basterds -- the writer/director's take on the WWII/"men on a mission" movie -- ends with Brad Pitt looking into the camera and saying "I think this just might be my masterpiece." When he made the movie in 2009, it was his masterpiece: the culmination of everything he had been doing on film to date and a layered, fascinating statement on the power of cinema. That he would outdo the movie later in his career is not a slight against Inglorious Basterds, but rather a testament to Tarantino's constant ability to grow and improve as a storyteller even when so many of his critics accuse him of being all surfaces and revisionism. He's so much smarter and more sophisticated than he often gets credit for being.

7. Django Unchained (2012)
If there was one movie I could make a case for leaving off the list, it would probably be Django Unchained. It repeats some elements of past Tarantino films, while others are better served in later movies. But to exclude it from his essential works is to deny just how awesome it is, which I cannot in good conscience do. Tarantino once again writes an incredible cast of characters, from Jamie Foxx's revenge-seeking former slave Django to Christoph Waltz's Oscar-winning turn as his bounty hunting partner Dr. King Schultz to Leonardo DiCaprio's villainous Calvin Candie. Even the small roles are brilliantly written, cast, and acted. It lacks the thematic depth of his best work, but it's such a satisfying watch. 

8. The Hateful Eight (2015)
If there's such a thing as Tarantino's most "underrated" movie, it's this one. The Hateful Eight is pure acid, living up to its title and then some. Part western, part mystery, part chamber drama, it's an angry and poisonous treatise on race relations, on American myths, and, once again, on power dynamics between men and women. Tarantino doesn't have nice things to say about any of it. Reviewed for its length and its format upon release ("How dare he make a 70mm western about people talking in a room?"), The Hateful Eight has only improved in the years since it came out. I suspect had the movie hit theaters just a few years later -- say, during the Trump administration, #MeToo, and the Black Lives Matter movement -- audiences would have caught on to just how prescient Tarantino was. This one was ahead of its time.

9. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
Each time I fall in love with a new Tarantino movie, I think I won't love a new one any harder. I've been proven wrong several times, none more so than with his ninth (and penultimate?) film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The tale of a somewhat washed-up actor (Leonardo DiCaprio in the performance of his career) looking to make a comeback and his loyal stunt double (Brad Pitt in the performance of his career) tangling with the Manson Family and preventing the murder of Sharon Tate is the director's ultimate hangout movie, bringing back the warmth and maturity of Jackie Brown while still incorporating the playful revisionism of Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. Like so many Tarantino movies -- Grindhouse sent me down a rabbit hole of exploitation, Kill Bill a rabbit hole of kung fu and spaghetti westerns -- this one opened new doors into 1960s cinema for me. I don't want Tarantino to stop making movies, but if this were to be his last (it isn't), it's a beautiful note on which to go out.

1 comment:

  1. "How dare he make a 70mm western about people talking in a room?"

    That was the funniest review of the movie.