Toward the end of Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 motion picture Inglorious Basterds, a gunfight breaks out in a movie theater. Simultaneously, the theater bursts into flames and begins to crumble. In some way, this fire-and-brimstone shootout is the ultimate exemplification of Tarantino’s movies. His films all share their similarities, mainly in their bloodiness and love of cinema itself. In some ways, he’s been directing shootouts in a movie theater for years. Yet, despite these obvious resemblances, each film he’s made is its own singular piece of work.
Whether he’s traversing the muddy moral ground of WWII Nazi Germany or adapting the pulpy glory of an Elmore Leonard novel, Tarantino seems to be giving his audience something totally different with each subsequent work, while simultaneously working between genre tropes and his own self-made trademarks. He uses violence and obscure references to westerns like some artists use clay or cement. In doing so, and regardless of anyone’s opinion of him, he has created a style as distinct as that of the old masters, like John Ford or Akira Kurosawa. His films are not always great, but when they are, they’re truly and undeniably so. Even when they falter, the audience is guaranteed to at least get a good shootout in a movie theater. And sometimes, that’s more than enough. In that spirit, here are all of Tarantino’s movies in order of their respective merits:
7. Death Proof (2007)
Death Proof is far from an unwatchable disaster and has its own moments of brilliance and fun. However, it’s simply not substantial enough overall to match up to any of his other movies. It was released alongside Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror as one whole Grindhouse package, thus looking at it alone as its own feature seems almost unfair. Tarantino is the kind of director who seems to take on every project he gets like it will be his magnum opus. Death Proof is the one exception to this rule. Tarantino clearly saw this as more of an exercise and something fun to do with his buddy Robert Rodriguez. Unfortunately, it sometimes reads that way as a film, which makes it far less compelling than the rest of Tarantino body of work.
6. Django Unchained (2012)
Tarantino is no stranger to the western. His films have been mired in the Mexican-standoff mythology since the start. While none have been straight westerns, all of them have flirted with the genre. It was only a matter of time before he decided to do the real thing. But what should have been a magisterial passion project ended up feeling more like something phoned in. The dialogue, something that had long been Tarantino’s strongest talent, seemed dull and uninspired here. The film’s most quoted line, “I like the way you die, boy,” comes off as hollow, something better suited to a mediocre action movie. Most egregious was the shifting of Christoph Waltz’s upstanding dentist mid-movie from forward-thinking lawman to erratic hothead. The whole film felt self-indulgent in the worst way, with Tarantino appearing to be doing whatever he wanted, while never making a really good film in the process. The charisma of its leading men is really the only element saving it from being the last on this list. But regardless of the movie as a whole, Leonardo DiCaprio makes a deliciously evil slave owner. Give him more villainous roles.
5. Jackie Brown (1997)
From the moment Pam Grier comes rolling down the airport conveyor belt, stoic and unblinking, in the opening credits of Jackie Brown, the audience knows immediately that this is going to be something different from Tarantino. Its influences are more precise and refined, drawing from blaxploitation films more than anything else. The film was seemingly made as a comeback movie for Pam Grier. That, and it being an adaptation, do fetter Tarantino to certain materials and expectations. Jackie Brown is, more or less, a relatively airtight movie. However, it lacks a certain spark and ambition that Tarantino’s other compositions have glowed with, simply because it’s tied to the novel it is based on and owes a certain reverence to its references. In that particular aspect, it is different from Tarantino’s other work. Subtle, understated, and less wild. Beyond that, it’s a very competent, subtly excellent film. A very good movie by all means, but just not quite as vivid or inspired by comparison to some of his other films.
4. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Filmmakers’ first projects are often their weakest. One only has to look to directors like Stanley Kubrick or even Martin Scorsese to see that the first is often the least assured and worst. Finding one’s true artistic voice takes time, even for the best. Clearly, this was not the case for Quentin Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs rings with a boisterous confidence, humor, and style that many artists take years to achieve, or sometimes never do. The film begins with talk of Madonna’s sex life, and ends with a bloody shootout the likes of which have only been seen in underground, foreign snuff films. Tarantino’s quick-witted, razor sharp voice has shined through in both his camera and his pen since the very beginning. Reservoir Dogs’ age-old tale of crime gone wrong could easily come across as forgettable, but it doesn’t. Everything comes off as fresh and new, which is revolutionary.
3. Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 (2003-2004)
Although Kill Bill was released in two feature length volumes, it is truly one film. One overstuffed, insane, epic film, of course, but there is no other way to watch it. Kill Bill shows Tarantino at his most unfiltered. Gaining financial and artistic security from his ‘90s successes, Tarantino could finally wholly indulge himself. Some could call it gratuitous, but it seems much more fitting to call Kill Bill pure Tarantino. It’s a samurai film, a western, a modern revenge flick, and a Japanese anime. More than anything, it’s a Quentin Tarantino movie. Every idiosyncrasy he has as a director and writer radiates in this movie with a wonderful, bloody vibrancy. It is easy to tell how much thought Tarantino is putting into each shot, giving everything the utmost amount of style, and Uma Thurman’s killer performance as The Bride adds multitudes to the film, whereas few other actresses could have delivered the performance that she did. It’s a relentless movie, and certainly not for everyone, which is what makes it so good.
2. Inglorious Basterds (2009)
If Kill Bill was Tarantino at his most unrestrained, Inglorious Basterds is Tarantino at his most visionary. While the film certainly radiates with the same energy and power as his other work, it is also the film with the clearest articulation of his vision, and a wholeheartedly full movie, wherein Adolf Hitler himself is killed at the end of the movie. In any other film, a bold move like that would come off as a last-minute decision put in purely for shock value. But Inglorious Basterds is not any other film. It feels justified and earned. Everything has builds up to that aforementioned climactic moment. Not only is Tarantino making something cool here, but he’s creating a statement about the moral ambiguity of war and all of the intricacies that come along with it. Sure, Hitler’s dead, but are the Americans really blameless heroes here? While he does not shy away from these incendiary statements, he does so in his own characteristically absurd, awesome, manic style. The movie theater blows up, the war ends, and the bad guys turn good. But no one’s hands are really clean, and Tarantino doesn’t care, as the movie theater is getting blown up either way.
1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
No other film could hold the top spot. Tarantino’s 1994 sophomore feature is perhaps the most stylistically interesting movie ever put on celluloid. Tarantino takes several worn crime vignettes and weaves them into one, cohesively awesome tapestry of a movie. From the opening dialogue between Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth’s lovebird criminals in a coffee shop, to Samuel L. Jackson’s final monologue in the same scene, this film hits every cinematic note it possibly could. He takes offbeat and seemingly mundane conversations about McDonald’s and heroin, and then subsequently turns it all into an untouchable, mind-blowing filmic feat of genius. Tarantino understands if one puts a lens on banality in just the right way the truth will shine through. At one point in the film, Eric Stoltz’s drug dealer character says to John Travolta that, “Heroin’s coming back in a big fuckin’ way,” and one could almost see that line as speaking for the whole film. Tarantino is making film like heroin: fast, addictive, dirty, and downright irresistible. The old way of doing things is dead, and Tarantino is the one who pulled the trigger. Pulp Fiction is more than a film. It is the first spark of a revolution and the shot heard around the world.