In the history of cinema, has any director done more to elevate the idea of movies as cool than Quentin Tarantino? Certainly, the idea that films could be made by fans dates back at least to the French New Wave, when a group of die-hard critics stepped behind the camera. A few years later, Spielberg, Lucas and a generation of film-school brats riffed on what had come before. But it took a former video store clerk and B-movie savant to sift through genres that weren’t taken seriously in their time and reconfigure their DNA in such a way that made them hipper than ever. The way his characters talked — and more importantly, the subjects that preoccupied them — gave audiences permission to geek out about movies (and the meaning of Madonna songs), and each new project brought a fresh appreciation of some arcane corner of film culture. But how do they stack up against one another? With nine features to his name (Tarantino counts “Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2” as one film, but we’ve assessed them separately) and possibly just one more to come, Tarantino has crafted an oeuvre ripe for debate. Variety’s resident cinephiles, Peter Debruge and Owen Gleiberman, have done just that, ranking his filmography and weighing in on one another’s assessments.
10. The Hateful Eight (2015)
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Owen Gleiberman: The one Tarantino movie that never conjures Tarantino’s joy. The extended slow-poke stagecoach ride that gets things rolling seems to be planting the seeds for a tricky drama of one-upmanship, but once the film arrives at a giant log cabin in the middle of the wintry nowhere, it turns into a variation on “Ten Little Indians” that’s more malevolent than clever, with characters so ill-tempered that you’re only too happy to see them knocked off. Tarantino grew fixated on the film’s 70mm cinematography, but that has to go down as an irony of film history, since the visual “largeness” is lavished on a single claustrophobically gloomy set, resulting in what feels like the world’s most lavish episode of “Gunsmoke.”
Peter Debruge: I like this movie more than most, and am fascinated by the fact that it exists in so many versions (including a new four-episode “extended version” available from Netflix), but admit it’s the one Tarantino movie I can live without.
9. Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004)
PD: Tarantino front-loaded “Kill Bill: Volume 1” with nearly all the best scenes, although the second installment begins promisingly enough, as “The Bride” (Uma Thurman) continues down her “Death List Five,” resulting in surprising confrontations with Budd (Michael Madsen) and Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah), before leading to a disappointing — and needlessly talky — final showdown with Bill (David Carradine, by far the diptych’s least interesting character). Tarantino clearly intends the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” as a wink to Shaw Brothers classics, but saving that lethal move till the end leaves “the whole bloody affair” (as the director called his combined four-hour cut) feeling anticlimactic. To its credit, “Volume 2” transforms the Bride from a one-dimensional Bill-killing machine. By resisting gratuitous degradation — and at last revealing its heroine’s motives and backstory — the project improves upon the kind of elle-driven exploitation movies that inspired it, celebrating Thurman’s strong star persona without objectifying her (overly).
OG: Where “Volume 1” was a trash-movie epiphany, this one feels more like an overstuffed trash compactor, with individual great moments — especially when the wizened martial-arts master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) tutors Uma Thurman’s Bride — but with too much filler gluing them together.
8. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019)
OG: Tarantino plugs deep into the movie and TV industry of Los Angeles in 1969, when the fading embers of the studio system mingled with the hipster vibe of the New Hollywood, when the rise of spangly fashion and Top 40 made the world glow and the hidden presence of Charles Manson made it tremble, and when a has-been TV star like Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) could chuck it all to make a spaghetti Western, with trusty stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) at his side. This is the closest thing Quentin has made to a hang-out movie, and it’s a funny and captivating one, never more so than when Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate goes to a matinee to see herself on screen. But this is also a tale in which the light of Hollywood meets the darkness on the horizon, and when that finally happens, the movie collapses into a misjudged splatter cartoon.
PD: It’s a pleasure to see him tackling vintage Hollywood, although the suspense doesn’t quite work for me. This is the only Tarantino movie that drags.
7. Django Unchained (2012)
PD: Tarantino’s most financially successful film extends the spirit of radical historical revisionism sparked when his “Inglourious Basterds” killed Hitler, putting a slave named Django in the thrilling position to exert bloody, explosive revenge on those who whipped, sold and oppressed him. Tarantino wrote the character (whose name hails from a Spaghetti Western hero) for Will Smith, but got a grittier and more grounded performance from Oscar-winning “Ray” star Jamie Foxx, who goes tête à tête with Leonardo DiCaprio in the most scenery-chewing performance of the director’s oeuvre to date — a bar that had been raised awfully high already by the likes of Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson. Tarantino has always been a bit too liberal with his use of the N-word, although the racial politics of this movie are endlessly fascinating, forcing America to confront its sordid history, while paving the way for “12 Years a Slave” the following year.
OG: As a historical jamboree about the hideousness of white supremacy, Tarantinos’s slave drama is a subversive triumph, but as storytelling I think it’s a mixed bag.
6. Death Proof (2007)
OG: Tarantino’s half of the schlock-double-bill feature “Grindhouse” is a crash-and-burn homage to the road-demon genre of “Vanishing Point” and “White Line Fever,” and it’s the most knowing plunge into the depravity of drive-in kicks he’s ever taken. The movie has a gaudy nastiness that won’t quit, from the intricate jam session of trash-talking girls that kicks off the action to Kurt Russell’s death-rattle performance as Stuntman Mike to the insane mutilating brutality of the car crash (set to the jaunty strains of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich’s “Hold Tight!”) that climaxes the film’s first half. Yet if “Death Proof” were nothing more than a revel in cheap thrills, it might not add up to much. It’s really a prophetic fable of the rise of women, and once Rosario Dawson and Zoë Bell take the wheel, the showdown that happens is sheer speed, sheer violence, and sheer bliss. —OG
PD: I love the last 30 minutes, with its bravura stuntwork, but can’t abide the bloody, slobbering buildup and over-the-top misogyny we must sit through en route.
5. Jackie Brown (1997)
PD: “Inglourious Basterds” may have taken its title from a WWII impossible-mission film, but the only genuine adaptation in the director’s oeuvre is “Jackie Brown,” in which Tarantino took Elmore Leonard’s “Rum Punch” and refashioned the caper novel into a feature-length homage to Pam Grier. With “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino breathed fresh life into Bruce Willis’ and John Travolta’s careers, but there was something far more daring (by the industry’s sexist, racist standards) about showing the same reverence toward an actress known primarily for blaxploitation movies — buxom, low-brow diversions with titles like “The Big Bird Cage” and “Sheba, Baby.” Fittingly enough, “Jackie Brown” is the one Tarantino movie with soul, hinging on a romantic connection between a desperate flight attendant (Grier) and the bail bondsman (Robert Forster) who helps her rip off her gun-running boss (Samuel L. Jackson). Tarantino stretches time to new extremes, while inviting audiences to bask in the pleasure of his characters’ company.
OG: It’s almost too meticulously crafted, revealing the seams of an Elmore Leonard plot that Tarantino had already bettered, and the soulful humanity of Pam Grier and Robert Forster’s love dance doesn’t stop that aspect of the movie from becoming a bit draggy.
4. Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)
PD: These days, audiences are accustomed to the long wait between Tarantino movies, but back in 2003, a delay of six years was enough to make us worried: Had Quentin lost his mojo? How could he match — much less top — what had come before? And then the first installment of his two-part revenge saga dropped, and such doubts disappeared. Somehow, the homage-driven auteur had managed to deliver a film that seemed simultaneously fresh and familiar, surprising in its tone and style, even as it expanded Tarantino’s peerless ability to recast pulp and B-movie tropes as postmodern art. Here, his references include Eastern kung fu and crime films, an extended Brian De Palma riff (the Darryl Hannah hospital sequence) and a key flashback presented as anime. “Kill Bill” looked and sounded different from his previous films, and pop culture took notice, instantly absorbing its ideas — and waiting another six months to see how it ended.
OG: I don’t buy that Tarantino’s movies are just pop pastiches, but this one so is that it feels — thrillingly — like a mash-up of every genre he can jam into the blender. —OG
3. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
OG: Tarantino’s hypnotically enthralling World War II epic takes its title from a 1978 Italian action-combat potboiler, but this is still the one QT movie with an aesthetic rooted in the ’60s — in the last fully functioning moment of the studio system, when directors like Robert Aldrich (“The Dirty Dozen”) and Brian G. Hutton (“Kelly’s Heroes”) found a trip-wired version of old-guard Hollywood in the spectacle of fighting the Nazis. Tarantino, however, ups the narrative intricacy, and the stakes, too. From Christoph Waltz’ heady opening monologue as Col. Hans Landa, the German officer who does more than believe in anti-Semitism, he explains it, the movie is a heady clash of war and ego, constructed around slow-burn set pieces that build and detonate. The performances are uniform perfection, from Brad Pitt as the so-badass-he’s-funny redneck Nazi fighter Lt. Aldo Raine to Michael Fassbender as the film-critic-turned-undercover-soldier Archie Hicox to Diane Kruger as the righteous actress-turned-spy Bridget von Hammersmark. And if Tarantino, at the climax, feels free to rewrite the ending of WWII, he does it with a pugnacious audacity that takes the Hollywood concoctions “Inglourious Basterds” draws upon and trumps them at their own game.
PD: The movie features some of Tarantino’s best set pieces (especially the blood-chilling Nazi house raid that opens the film), but I’m slightly less enthusiastic about the whole.
2. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
OG: A group of tough-nut crooks sit around a coffee shop debating the inner meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”; we’d never seen that one before. But then those same lowlifes, in their skinny black ties, walk toward us in jerky slow motion in the L.A. sun, accompanied by the George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag” — a sequence that hits your eyes and ears with the force of “Be My Baby” kicking off “Mean Streets.” In a single blistering stroke, Tarantino makes a revolutionary declaration: He would be the next-generation Scorsese. And every scene of his gripping first feature makes good on that promise. A heist thriller as real as a Cassavetes caper, with a pretzel-logic time structure that envelops you by getting inside your head, not to mention the most weirdly jubilant torture scene in movie history (set to yet another Super Sound of the ’70s, “Stuck in the Middle with You”), “Reservoir Dogs” is a red-blooded tale of trickery and loyalty that finds a desperate, indelible humanity in every con and confession.
PD: The one that started it all, “Reservoir Dogs” established Tarantino’s voice, and completely revolutionized genre cinema. He even cast himself to deliver some of that game-changing dialogue.
1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
PD: Exuberantly self-aware. Shamelessly indulgent. Endlessly quotable. From the opening scene, in which Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer spend four minutes making plans before sticking up an L.A. diner, “Pulp Fiction” invites audiences to recognize that they are watching a Movie. Every line, every angle, every music cue feels as if it was designed to amplify the guiltless pleasure of that experience. The Tarantino touch — introduced in “Reservoir Dogs,” taken up a notch with “True Romance” — went mainstream in a major way with this outrageous, ultra-stylized remix of QT’s many eccentric obsessions, from ’70s movies to foot massages. “Pulp Fiction” may be crowded with pop-culture references, but feels insanely unpredictable on first viewing: the hypodermic to Mia’s heart, the gimp in Zed’s basement, the misfire that costs Marvin his face. The film brazenly wears its director’s personality on its sleeve, inspiring countless others to dress, talk and make movies in direct imitation.
OG: From the wordplay to the gunplay to the diner dancing to the time-bending death and “resurrection” of Travolta’s Vincent Vega, every moment of Tarantino’s masterpiece plugs you into the moment, to the point that there’s no other movie I would rather be in.