Today I'll be discussing the films of one of my favorite writer/directors, Quentin Tarantino. Exploding on the scene in 1992, Tarantino brought a "film geek" sensibility to Hollywood, having absorbed decades of movies while working as a video store clerk and using his natural stylistic ability to create a new genre of films. He sold his first two screenplays to the studios before making his directorial debut with Reservoir Dogs, and then became a household name with his second film Pulp Fiction. Since then Tarantino has created pastiches of crime dramas, samurai films, Westerns, and even horror movies with unabashed glee and incredible attention to memorable characters and quirky dialogue. When you sit down to watch a Tarantino film you know you're getting an unforgettable (and likely very uncomfortable) cinematic experience.
Note: I'm including three films Tarantino wrote but didn't direct, as I felt they all warranted inclusion. Also you'll find Death Proof didn't make the cut. I absolutely love the first half of that film - the characters are strong and colorful, the villain is compelling, the style feels like a grindhouse flick. But in the second half I found the characters fairly dull and overly chatty, and the climactic car chase is pretty uninteresting, not to mention QT inexplicably abandoned the "scratchy footage" gimmick.
10. From Dusk Till Dawn
Probably the lowest-quality of these ten films, From Dusk Till Dawn is nonetheless a skillfully-made roller coaster of a horror film starring an exceedingly compelling George Clooney and Tarantino himself as Seth and Richard Gecko, two escaped criminals attempting to reach the Mexican border before the authorities catch them. On the way they take a family of three hostage and hijack their mobile home before stopping off at a Mexican strip club to await an associate. The first half of the film plays out in typical Tarantino fashion, with playfully vulgar dialogue and high-tension standoffs, with director Robert Rodriguez lending his own visual style to the proceedings. In the second half though the film takes a 90-degree turn when it's revealed the strip club is a vampire lair, and our protagonists must fight for their lives against a gaggle of bloodsuckers to make it till morning. Structurally this plays out like a Romero zombie film but with a much more sardonic tone and a ton of uncomfortable laughs. Clooney demonstrated in his first major Hollywood role what a strong leading man he was - Seth is an eminently likable bastard - and his chemistry with Tarantino is undeniable. The two leads and scores of snappy lines of dialogue really carry this film past being a crappy horror film and into the realm of a loving homage.
9. Jackie Brown
The only direct adaptation he's ever written, Jackie Brown is based on Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch, and tells the story of a middle aged flight attendant who works for a gun-runner, smuggling cash into the country from Mexico. Jackie gets caught by the Feds who recruit her to help bring down her boss Ordell, and she eventually concocts a plan to bring in Ordell's $500,000 in retirement money, in exchange for sparing her life. However her real plan is to keep all the money for herself and disappear, and she befriends a bail bondsman who offers to help her. This dialogue-driven heist film is smartly written and full of colorful characters, including Jackie (Pam Grier), the gun-runner Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson), the bail bondsman (Robert Forster), ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton), Ordell's girlfriend Melanie (Bridget Fonda), and his old buddy Louis (Robert DeNiro). The complex story has a ton of moving parts but Tarantino's script keeps everything clear and pretty taut. While this is a very fine film I've ranked it ninth mostly because it feels the least Tarantino-ish. While he's made much of it his own, the story and most of the characters still belong to Leonard, who kept everything pretty toned down. Thus QT's personality isn't as strongly felt as it might've been.
8. The Hateful Eight
QT's latest opus is an ultra-violent powderkeg dressed up as a Western, where a smorgasbord of outlaws and bloodthirsty lawmen get snowed in together at a single-room cabin in Wyoming, and disaster is inevitable. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, and Walton Goggins, the script contains Tarantino's usual flair for strangely poetic (and vulgar) dialogue but no characters we're really rooting for, nor that one really magnetic performance. It's a staple of Tarantino's films that they often don't contain a true protagonist, but H8 takes that a step further, and while I appreciated this from a filmmaking perspective I was less emotionally invested than I'd hoped. Still the score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, the 70mm cinematography (an odd choice given that 90% of this takes place in one room), the colorful performances, and the over-the-top set pieces make this a fun exploitation film, even despite a rather plodding first act. If there's one thing you can count on with QT's movies it's that they're certainly never boring.
7. Reservoir Dogs
Tarantino's 1992 directorial debut is another film that largely takes place in a single room, as a handful of armed robbers convene in a warehouse after a jewelry store theft gone awry. In its wake are dead cops, dead civilians, and the likelihood that one of them is an undercover police officer. Starring Harvey Keitel (who was so impressed with the script he worked hard to make the film happen), Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Steve Buscemi, Reservoir Dogs introduced us all to Tarantino's distinctive writing style and ability to play with scene order. The film's opening scene may be its best, as the crooks are enjoying a pre-heist breakfast while discussing the meaning of Madonna lyrics and whether restaurant waitstaff deserve tips. The humor and violence are mixed freely in this creatively-structured thriller, and as would become the norm, the dialogue is what drives the story. This film hasn't aged quite as well as others, but it certainly demonstrated Tarantino's unique gifts as a budding filmmaker.
6. Django Unchained
Django Unchained, another Western-influenced exercise in excess, is the story of a pre-Civil War slave on a quest to rescue his wife, from whom he was separated when they were sold to different owners. He is stolen by a German abolitionist bounty hunter named King Schultz (the always excellent Christoph Waltz), who in exchange for Django's assistance in tracking down three criminals, frees Django and offers to help him find his wife Broomhilda. The film is full of Tarantino's trademark quirky, amusing, and profanity-laced dialogue and over-the-top stylized violence. The plot thickens about an hour in with the introduction of two villainous characters, plantation owner Calvin Candie (played with malicious glee by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his house slave Stephen (one of Samuel L. Jackson's best and most memorable performances). Django's 2:45 running time is a little long (the two climactic shootout sequences felt a little redundant), but overall it's a very engaging homage to Spaghetti Westerns and blaxplotation films of the 70s. It features three terrific supporting performances, plenty of uncomfortable laughs, and enough cartoonish gun violence to please any splatter-film fan. Above all it's obvious Tarantino (who in a third act cameo sports one of the worst Australian accents in cinema history) is having a helluva good time as usual.
5. Kill Bill (1 & 2)
QT's fourth film got away from him a bit, to the point that he had to release it as two separate volumes. This simple revenge story involves "The Bride" (Uma Thurman) going on a bloodthirsty rampage across the globe to kill her former assassination squad partners after their attempt on her life left her comatose for four years. The film's two halves almost play like a double album, with Volume 1 containing almost wall-to-wall samurai film-inspired action, and Volume 2 lending depth to the story with Western-flavored character development. Taken as a whole they add up to an epic journey for the protagonist, as well as a rare occasion for the female characters to take center stage in a violent action vehicle. With strong supporting performances by Michael Madsen, Lucy Liu, and kung fu movie veterans David Carradine, Sonny Chiba and Gordon Liu, Kill Bill feels totally authentic and shows a 70s film enthusiast at the top of his game.
4. True Romance
Tarantino's first script was this non-traditional love story/crime adventure wherein a comic book store clerk/kung fu movie fan (Christian Slater) falls for a call girl (Patricia Arquette) and the two unwittingly find themselves in possession of half a million dollars worth of cocaine stolen from a feared mafioso. They plan to sell the lot of it to a high-profile movie producer and are pursued across the country by the mob killers, and the movie builds to a sensational climax. Directed by the late Tony Scott, True Romance is chock full of incredible scenes, like the one in which Slater confronts Arquette's pimp Drexl (played brilliantly by a nearly unrecognizable Gary Oldman), or the one between Christopher Walken's mafioso and Slater's father (Dennis Hopper) where the two have a hilariously uncomfortable discussion about the origin of dark-skinned Italians. Tarantino's amazing screenwriting chops are on full display even in his first screenplay and, bolstered by an all-star cast, this film still holds up as an over-the-top, seedy crime movie.
3. Natural Born Killers
The most bizarre Tarantino script was this story of serial killers Mickey and Mallory Knox, who were exploited by the media to the point of nationwide celebrity. Natural Born Killers was QT's second screenplay, and he was so unsatisfied with Oliver Stone's film version he asked to have his name removed. But there's no denying NBK is a unique, visceral cinematic experience, and in my opinion Stone's best work. Making use of multiple film and video formats, Stone has assembled a surrealistic fireworks display of violence, carnage and ultimately a kind of weird redemption for its murderous anti-heroes. Leads Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis are pitch-perfect as these redneck killers, playing the characters as severely damaged adult children who are initially products of abusive homes and later of opportunistic media sharks. Supporting turns by Robert Downey Jr. and Tommy Lee Jones round out this superb cast, and everyone plays their roles in operatic fashion. The extended prison break sequence in the second half is one of the most chaotic I've ever seen, yet Stone manages to keep everything clear.
2. Inglourious Basterds
This fictional retconning of the end of World War II involves a small band of Jewish-American soldiers who go on a Nazi-hunting crusade across occupied Europe. Led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the Basterds wreak havoc on the Nazis and eventually rendezvous with the British, hatching a plan to destroy the entire Third Reich at a propaganda film premiere. The story is divided into five sections, each dealing with the various involved parties, from Raine's crew to the Jewish-French moviehouse owner Shoshanna Dreyfus, to the delightfully evil Nazi Col. Hans Landa, played to sinister perfection by Christoph Waltz. The assorted narrative threads interweave and build to an explosive, trademark Tarantino climax that takes some extreme historic liberties while bringing the film (and the war) to a satisfyingly righteous conclusion. Tarantino's writing is brilliant as always, subtly piling on tension in every scene as characters engage in small talk, eschewing the larger situation at hand. Case in point are the opening scene involving Col. Landa interrogating a French farmer about whether or not he is abetting Jews in his home; and the later scene where British Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) meets up with a German spy in an underground bar that happens to be full of Nazi soldiers. In both scenes we are fully aware of the inherent danger the characters find themselves in, but we don't completely sense the volatility of their situation until it's reached a fever pitch. Inglourious Basterds is almost a Western disguised as a World War II picture, written and directed with a degree of twisted jubilation only Quentin Tarantino possesses.
1. Pulp Fiction
Pulp Fiction was the film that made Quentin Tarantino a household name and spawned an entire subgenre of crime movies centered around flawed, likable dirtbags. Case in point John Travolta's Vincent Vega - a somewhat dimwitted, insecure hitman who nonetheless keeps our sympathy throughout the film. His partner Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) speaks with swear-laden eloquence and on some level knows he's above the life of organized crime, ultimately redeeming himself at the end by walking away. The pair are the main characters in this hilarious, fascinating, structurally non-traditional collection of stories, and their misadventures comprise roughly two-thirds of the 2:35 running time. The other main plot involves a down-and-out boxer (Bruce Willis) who's been paid by the mob to take a dive but screws them over (in fact killing his opponent by accident) and goes on the lam. The mob boss Marcellus Wallace tracks him down and the two are taken prisoner by a trio of perverted rednecks (They don't call it Pulp Fiction for nothing). These interlocking stories have been brilliantly crafted by Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avary, and are driven by quirky, believable dialogue that organically reveals character details. This was the first film I can remember being fully aware of the importance of strong dialogue, where the script really propels the story. These characters talk like real people, not plot devices. It was also one of the first movies I remember not having a traditional score. Instead QT carefully selected rock songs and surf music to punctuate the action, making Dick Dale's "Miserlou" an essential part of 90s pop culture in the process. Over 20 years later Pulp Fiction still holds up as a masterpiece of "film geek" cinema that reinvigorated Travolta's career and made a star of Jackson. I don't see QT ever topping this one.
Well that's the list. Comment below with your thoughts and any changes you'd make. Thanks for reading!