Ranking the Tarantino Films

I re-watched Django Unchained recently and it got me all inspired to finish up something I’ve been contemplating for a while now: a ranking of Quentin Tarantino’s films, from the best to the worst. I’ve often found that I enjoy each Tarantino movie a lot more the second time around, most likely because I have another opportunity to take in the numerous nods to old cult films that pepper each of his works. For instance, when I first watched Kill Bill Vol. 1, the constant allusions to the cheesy spaghetti western Death Rides a Horse were completely lost on me. When I later watched Death Rides a Horse (and loved it), then later watched Vol. 1 a second time, my enjoyment of the movie escalated a thousandfold.

Tarantino, of course, is one of Hollywood’s foremost autuers, and he happens to be one of my personal favorite filmmakers (and I’m hardly alone in that). As any fan of his can tell you, his films are distinctive for their hip, smart dialogue, myriad references to past pop culture, and their tendency to be extremely (and often almost cartoonishly) violent.

Each of Tarantino’s films are odes to the movies (mostly exploitation or drive-in cult movies) that inspired him as he grew up. His early works borrow heavily from French New Wave films by directors such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. His later movies have tilted more toward homages to kung fu films and cheesy ’60’s spaghetti westerns. Due to their violent nature and coarse language, Tarantino’s films are almost always controversial, but even his most vocal critics can’t deny that they’re unique, especially in this age of never-ending reboots and retreads.

This ranking only applies to the full-length features that Tarantino has directed. True Romance and From Dusk Til Dawn are both amazing movies which he scripted, but since he wasn’t behind the camera for those, they aren’t included. Also, I obviously didn’t include the sequences in Four Rooms and Sin City which he directed, nor, God forbid, My Best Friend’s Birthday. Enjoy!

8. Death Proof

I admit I haven’t watched this since it first appeared in theaters in 2007, and frankly I have absolutely no desire to watch it again. I nearly walked out of the theater the first time I saw it. Tarantino’s entry in the Grindhouse double feature (along with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror) is an utter slog, a long, boring mess until an exhilarating final fifteen minutes or so that don’t even come close to redeeming the movie. The plot centers around Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a deranged stunt car driver (Kurt Russell) who is invincible as long as he stays behind the wheel of his Chevy Nova. He targets and kills pretty young girls, but eventually he screws with the wrong group of ladies and ends up getting his ass handed to him by a trio of free-spirited chicks on a roadie.

Tarantino falls victim to his worst indulgences in this one, as in a scene where the four female leads engage in catty banter in a restaurant for twenty straight minutes, which should lead any moviegoer sprinting for the fire exits. The overall result is basically unwatchable. The Grindhouse films were meant as a tribute to the gory exploitation double features of the ’60’s and ’70’s. Rodriguez made Planet Terror over-the-top and entertaining. Tarantino made this one stupid and boring.

Best scene: There aren’t a whole lot, but the film’s final chase sequence, featuring real life stuntwoman Zoe Bell clinging to the hood of a speeding Dodge Challenger, is undeniably awesome.

7. Jackie Brown

Tarantino’s only film thus far that was taken from a source other than one of his own original screenplays (it was adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel), and that’s probably why it seems like his most, dare I say it, conventional. Jackie Brown serves essentially as a showcase for Pam Grier, the star of so many blaxploitation films from the 1970’s (which this film pays tribute to), and that certainly isn’t a bad thing. The film retains Tarantino’s gift for colorful dialogue and is certainly watchable, but it goes on too long and there’s not a lot to distinguish it from any other late-90’s crime drama, much less any of Tarantino’s other work.

Best scene: Samuel L. Jackson trying to explain to Chris Tucker why he should climb into the trunk of his car for a rendezvous with some Chinese gun dealers. Note: never let Samuel L. Jackson convince you to climb into the trunk of his car for any reason.

6. Kill Bill Vol. 2

The second act of Tarantino’s revenge saga is a lot talkier than its predecessor and, as a result, doesn’t live up to the lofty standard set by Vol. 1. It takes place right where the first movie left off, with Uma Thurman’s revenge-hungry bride Beatrix Kiddo going after the two assassins she didn’t knock off in the first film. Vol. 2 moves at a much more leisurely pace, and anyone expecting the supercharged, non-stop action of Vol. 1 is going to be sorely disappointed.

On its own, though, it’s a clever tribute to the spaghetti western genre, with the requisite Ennio Morricone cuts all over the soundtrack. Every frame is basically one pop culture reference or another, and David Carradine’s charming but sadistic Bill foreshadows another of Tarantino’s great villains, the “Jew Hunter” from Inglorious Basterds.

Best scene: The hilariously cramped trailer battle between Beatrix and one-eyed (soon-to-be no-eyed) Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah).

5. Django Unchained

Tarantino tackles slavery this time, as Jamie Foxx plays Django, a slave freed by bounty hunter Christoph Waltz who joins his rescuer by going into business killing bad guys for money. When he learns his wife is in the clutches of slimy plantation owner Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), he and Waltz develop a scheme to try to rescue her. Waltz more or less takes over the film here, charmingly playing a character who is essentially the moral antithesis of his “Jew Hunter” from Inglorious Basterds. Django is bereft of the types of brilliant scenes that characterize Tarantino’s best, and the ending is standard revenge movie bloodletting, not nearly as clever or inspired as Tarantino’s better movies, like Basterds.

Best scene: Calvin Candie’s disturbing phrenology demonstration on the skull of a dead slave that inevitably leads to a horrifying confrontation between Candie, the bounty hunters, and Django’s wife.

4. Inglorious Basterds

Tarantino’s World War II saga, centering around a platoon of Jewish-American soldiers whose mission is to go behind enemy lines to kill German soldiers and collect their scalps. The film gleefully rewrites history, with Hitler getting machine gunned to death at the end and the rest of the Nazi higher-ups getting blown sky high in a movie theater. The movie is basically a collection of different story lines concerning plots by various players to assassinate Hitler, all of which come together at the film’s climax. Several scenes are absolutely brilliant, particularly one incredibly intense sequence (featuring Michael Fassbender) in which a spy rendezvous in an underground tavern goes horribly, horribly wrong. Parts of Basterds are definitely better than the whole, but all in all it’s a deliciously original war movie.

Of course, the actor who steals the whole show is Christoph Waltz, playing SS Colonel Hans Landa (aka “The Jew Hunter”), who immediately became one of the best movie villains of the past thirty years. Despite his repugnant task of tracking down and eradicating fugitive Jews, Waltz’s character is so cheerful, professional, and unfailingly polite, that you start to genuinely like the guy…at least until he orders the cold-blooded execution of a Jewish family or brutally strangles a female spy to death.

Best scene: The basement standoff is a gem, but it’s tough to beat the almost unbearable tension in the film’s opening scene (which pays homage to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), when Colonel Landa diabolically breaks down a French farmer into admitting that he is hiding a Jewish family underneath his floorboards.

3. Pulp Fiction

Told in similar non-linear style as Reservoir Dogs, this is considered by many to be Tarantino’s best. Pulp Fiction, which gives us several memorable accounts of various low life denizens of L.A., doesn’t move quite as fast as Dogs, but it is much more polished. Many of Pulp Fiction‘s scenes have, understandably, become iconic, and the film is generally hailed as a modern classic.

The more famous moments include an awkward “date” between hitman John Travolta (whose career was resurrected by this movie) and mob boss sweetheart Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson quoting the Book of Ezekiel before blowing away a group of clearly in-over-their-heads mob bagmen, and Bruce Willis’s and Ving Rhames’s ill-fated foray into a dank gun shop. In addition, who could forget Christopher Walken’s rather creative method of smuggling a watch out of a POW camp in Vietnam, or Tarantino himself playing Jimmie of Toluca Lake, who just wants a dead body out of his house before his pissed-off wife comes home?

Best scene: There are so many classic moments, but the film’s final scene, where two would-be robbers run afoul of Samuel L. Jackson while trying to stick up a restaurant, is one of the great things you’ll see in film.

2. Reservoir Dogs

The most quotable of all of Tarantino’s films, and probably one of the most quotable movies of all time. Tarantino’s first film is also his most raw, filmed on a low budget and taking place mostly in an abandoned garage, at times playing like a three-act stage play. This story of a group of bank robbers trying to figure out who ratted them out after a heist gone wrong is a violent but incredibly stylish tribute to French New Wave filmmakers from the ’50’s and ’60’s. With this film, Tarantino’s gift for dialogue was evident from the start, and the memorable lines are countless.

It wouldn’t work without skillful performances, and a knockout cast (including real-life tough guy Lawrence Tierney as the group’s ringleader) breathes life to the snappy dialogue to give viewers what amounts to an ensemble acting tour de force. We’re given a treasure trove of classic characters, each identified only by a different color, i.e. Mr. White, Mr. Pink, etc. It’s a true bloody gem.

And remember, in the words of the inaptly-named Nice Guy Eddie: “You beat that prick long enough, he’ll tell you who started the goddamned Chicago fire. That doesn’t necessarily make it fuckin’ so!”

Best scene: Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) explaining to his comrades why he is morally opposed to tipping waitresses in restaurants. This part is legendary, and vintage Buscemi.

1. Kill Bill Vol. 1

Pulp Fiction gets most of the plaudits for being Tarantino’s magnum opus, but I consider Kill Bill Vol. 1 to be his masterpiece. A high-energy tribute to chop-socky films of the ’70’s, the film centers around spurned (to say the least) bride Beatrix Kiddo’s one-woman mission to, well…kill Bill, along with the rest of his assassin squad, who left her for dead after slaughtering her fiance and unborn baby.

Vol. 1 features just the right blend of Tarantino’s typically-smart dialogue, stunning action sequences, and eye-popping cinematography to make it the director’s best film both on an artistic level and for sheer entertainment. Packed to the brim with references to old western and kung fu films (Uma Thurman’s now-iconic motorcycle suit in the final act is itself a tribute to the Bruce Lee film Game of Death), and featuring a career-defining performance from Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. 1 is, quite simply, exactly the kind of experience we desire when we go to the theater to enjoy movies.

Best scene: Uma Thurman’s epic battle with the Crazy 88’s, in all its bloody, ankle-slicing glory, is one of the best action set pieces in recent memory. Not to mention, it’s all done practically, without aid of computer-generated effects, a welcome change in an era oversaturated with (often bad) CGI-aided action sequences.

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