Quentin Tarantino is one of the most important filmmakers of the last 25 years and one of my personal favourite directors. I’ve wanted to do a list ranking his filmography for some time and now seems as good a time as any. This list will only rank his directed works (no From Dusk till Dawn, True Romance, or Natural Born Killers) and will not count films he only directed a segment of (no Four Rooms or Sin City). It is also important to note Tarantino’s two-part Kill Bill will be counted as one film.
7. Death Proof (2007) This is easily Tarantino’s worst film, but I don’t think it’s bad. Stuntman Mike is a great character and Kurt Russell’s performance is especially good. I also like the second group of females Mike stalks (played by Rosario Dawson, Zoe Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Tracie Thoms). The film also has two great set pieces; an extremely brutal car crash and a spectacular car chase. I also like the way the film switches gears with who the hunter and the hunted are in the third act.
But the film has a lot of problems too. There are a lot of dull stretches and the first half is especially slow. Even in the second half Tarantino drags things out too much. I usually don’t mind when Tarantino does that but neither his characters nor his stories are interesting enough in this film. Finally, even if these problems were corrected, Death Proof is still a very minor work in Quentin Tarantino’s filmography. Nothing much actually happens and Tarantino doesn’t reveal anything interesting thematically. Still, has far as two hours of escapism go, you can do worse.
6. Django Unchained (2012)
When I first saw Django Unchained, I knew it was one of Tarantino’s weaker films but it was hard to explain why. There are some obvious flaws; the film needs tighter editing, some of the musical choices don’t work, and Tarantino’s cameo is awful, but there was something else I couldn’t place my finger on. Finally after some time, I’ve figured it out. My biggest issue with Django is that it deals with the theme of revenge but does not say anything interesting about it. This is especially problematic because so many of Tarantino’s other films handle the topic with greater insight. Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds had similar core themes but explored them in unique ways. One could even argue Death Proof handled the topic in a more clever manner. Django on the other hand is a pretty simple revenge tale. It is interesting and strangely cathartic to see a slave so directly enacting his vengeance, but there’s nothing profound about it.
Still, there is a lot to love about Django Unchained. The film is very entertaining throughout and while it does lose steam with an elongated ending, the payoff is satisfying. There’s also some great dialogue and the performances from Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson are especially good. This might also be Tarantino’s funniest film and the action scenes are a lot of fun too. At the end of the day, Django Unchained is an entertaining film with the ambitions of being something more, but probably falls closer to just being highly enjoyable escapism.
5. Reservoir Dogs (1992) Reservoir Dogs was the second Tarantino film I saw and for a long time I thought it was easily one of his best. It’s easy to see why fourteen year old me would respond to the film. It’s got fast-talking gangsters, hilarious dialogue, runs at a brisk pace, and has a bit of violence sprinkled in. What’s not to love? Watching it at an older age, the flaws jump out more. For starters, despite being an unconventional heist film (the heist is never shown) with a nonlinear storyline, this is a very simple film and it’s pretty easy to figure out the entire film in the first ten minutes. The only thing left open is who the rat is, but even that is really easy to predict in my opinion. This robs the film of a lot of energy.
Still, the highs in this film are too high for it to be placed lower than the top five. The characters here are all awesome with Michael Madsen, Harvey Keitel, and Steve Buscemi really shining. The film also has the classic Tarantino dialogue at its most stylish. Mr. Pink’s rant about tipping is still amazing and I think he actually brings up some good points. The musical choices are excellent and moments like the torture scene are unforgettable. It may not be the masterpiece I once thought it was, but Reservoir Dogs is still pretty damn great.
4. Jackie Brown (1997)
Jackie Brown might be Tarantino’s least celebrated work. Admittedly, when I first saw it, I was a bit disappointed. Sure there were gangsters, but they weren’t the same as the badass crooks in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and while the dialogue was good, it just didn’t have the same ring as it did in Tarantino’s aforementioned films. But the more I see it, the more I realize just how great Jackie Brown is.
The film is a much more restrained than Tarantino’s usual films which helps it stand on. The cast is also really great with damn near every cast member really shining. The crime elements of the story work well, but what I really love is that Jackie Brown is a film about getting old and having unrealized expectations. It’s an interesting theme and I love that Tarantino managed to explore it in a crime film. This is easily Tarantino’s most underrated work. It’s a fun crime film, but more importantly it functions as an engaging drama with interesting themes. It isn’t Tarantino’s “coolest film”, but it’s a great low-key story that succeeds in everything it’s trying to do.
3. Kill Bill (2003/04)
Kill Bill is in many ways the polar opposite of Jackie Brown. Where that film is Tarantino restrained, Kill Bill is Tarantino unleashed. Simultaneously a tribute to Eastern and Western cinema, Kill Bill is a glorious tale of vengeance and Tarantino throws everything he can at the film. This is a movie which will go from a poignant moment of a mother mourning her daughter to an anime sequence depicting insanely graphic violence without missing a beat. It’s really a miracle Kill Bill doesn’t collapse in on itself, but it never does. Tarantino creates a lot of great characters and gives them a lot of depth. Uma Thurman is great as the bride and carries the film well and I also love the work from David Carradine and Michael Madsen. The action scenes are also incredible and among the best action of the last ten years.
What really makes Kill Bill special though is the way it takes a simple tale of vengeance and makes a much more interesting and complicated story than one would expect. The film is really about how revenge is messy and by seeking it one only perpetuates the cycle of violence. There’s also an interesting running theme of warriors and their enemies and death. Finally, I love that Tarantino’s blood soaked climax ends on a conversation and not an action scene. That takes balls.
2. Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Inglorious Basterds is a cross between the zaniness of Kill Bill and the restraint of Jackie Brown. I don’t know how Tarantino was able to cross the two contradictory tones, but he did, and the result is one of his greatest masterpieces. Inglorious Basterds is a wild film which refuses to conform to any standards. It’s an American big-budget summer film which runs almost two and half hours, consists of long scenes dominated by dialogue, has an unconventional plot structure, and is mostly subtitled. Hell even the title is spelt wrong. It’s hard not to admire that kind of “fuck the rules” attitude. What’s more is that Tarantino still manages to make a great film with great characters. There are super colourful characters like Hans Landa, but also more introspective characters like Shoshanna. The cast is superb with great performances from Christoph Waltz, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, and the too often ignored Melanie Laurent, just to name a few.
Inglorious Basterds is that rare film where every single scene is excellent. From the opening in Perrier LaPadite’s kitchen to the film’s pitch-perfect climax, there isn’t a dull second to be found. This thanks to a great cast, excellent dialogue, interesting music, and a high level of tension. The film is so entertaining in fact that it’s easy to miss all of the subtext. For example, while on the surface the film is about Jewish revenge, it’s really about cinema’s vengeance for the Nazis poor treatment of German cinema. The film is in fact a testament to how no force on Earth is powerful enough to destroy art. I’m not gonna lie; I’m a sucker for films about the power of movies and Inglorious Basterds fully celebrates this. There are also running themes of legacies and the power of language, and who better to take about the power of language than one of the best writers of dialogue in the business? The film even finds time to have what could be considered a tragic romance at the center of all the chaos. Bottom line, Inglorious Basterds works if one just wants an entertaining film and while also being one of the most thematically rich films in Tarantino’s filmography.
1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Not the most shocking of list toppers, nor should it be; Pulp Fiction is clearly Tarantino’s greatest work. That isn’t to say I don’t love a lot of the films listed below, I do, but Pulp Fiction is in a league of its own. The film takes three old-school gangster stories and completely reinvents them with great characters and mind-blowing turns. If you can guess where The Gold Watch story goes before it gets there, there’s something wrong with you. The cast here is one of the best in any film. Sam Jackson, John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, Ving Rhames, Christopher Walken, Eric Stoltz, and several other actors give great perofmrnaces and are given great characters to work with. Sam Jackson’s Jules Winfield in particular is one of my favourite characters in any film.
Tarantino’s dialogue is riveting and Pulp Fiction has the best of his career. The conversations are unforgettable and in many cases iconic. From the differences between Europe and America, to foot massages, I can listen to these guys talk all day. Themes run through the film of the price of sins, causality, and redemption. These are all handled in a subtle matter and the truth is one has so much fun watching Pulp Fiction it’s easy to miss these things. Tarantino’s style is here, but is more subdued than his later work. Pulp Fiction is a perfect film from beginning to end. It’s rare that a movie ends and I find myself wishing it could have just gone on and on, but Pulp Fiction is such a film. It’s an endlessly rewatchable movie that I’m already looking forward to eventually watching it again. It may be a cliché to name it Quentin Tarantino’s greatest film, but it’s the truth.