I was 10 years old when Pulp Fiction came out. I remember going to a Tennessee Football game on a Saturday around that time, maybe the next year, for it had come out on home video by then. I overheard my Dad and his friend, Charlie, talking about this movie. It was "wild" and "funny." It had just gotten some major Oscar love. John Travolta was in it. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel went nuts about it on their weekly TV show, which I had already started watching.
What was this fucking movie? I had to find out. My best friend Travis' parents weren't quite as restrictive as mine about movie-watching, so, I'm in 6th grade and we talk his Dad into letting us rent it on Pay-Per-View. I was glued to it, and, for the most part, had no idea wha the hell was going on. That has to be the sign of a good movie, right? A movie that literally sucks you in without you even having to understand anything. It sounds perfect. It looks perfect. It makes you laugh. It freaks you out, confuses you. In that two-and-a-half hours, I became a lifelong fan of Quentin Tarantino. The world had recently embraced him just the same.
So, Tarantino. The video story encyclopedia. The Grindhouse-Kung-Fu-Samurai-Horror-Western-Noir-Any Genre master of celluloid, who still clings to the real stuff stronger than about any other filmmaker. The man, who, at his worst, makes irreverent revisionist horror-comedy Westerns, and, at his best, brilliantly (and darkly) comedic crime dramas. He has also made a perfect Martial Arts film that works as a Western as well. And a World War II movie that is as much about movies themselves as it is about war.
He was born in my home city of Knoxville, TN. He doesn't care to share that in his work. He loves guns and blood and the pop music of the 1970s. He loves women and their feet. He has a stylistic vision that can't be matched (since nobody knows as much). His movies are all one thing: FUN.
And, like it or not, he changed the course of cinema forever, creating some of the most iconic cinematic moments of the 1990s and 2000s, moments that will last forever, indubitably. He has faltered in his later years, in this man's opinion, allowing his obsession with shock value to override his abilities as a storyteller. He can be great again, but, according to Quentin himself, he only has two films left.
I've chosen to highlight a significant moment in each film and will pay tribute to my home state of Tennessee (when applicable), as Quentin "tries" to do himself in most of his films.
Here is the ranked* list:
The first and only Tarantino film I downright don't like...at all. There are some great bits of humor here and there. It looks great, especially with the choice he made (with DP Robert Richardson) to shoot in Panavision Ultra 70mm, but I find a conflict in that choice, as this is a movie of interiors, and, while they get a width and depth from this camera and its old school lenses, I still don't find it a necessary move. It's in last place for just not working at all. It's loud, obnoxious, way too long and totally uneven. It's his weakest story.
The Door (more like a motif) - QT makes sure we know these characters are locked in, several times, and with "two boards." This is seriously the funniest thing about this movie. The cleverest of clever touches.
Samuel L. Jackson's Major Marquis and Kurt Russell's John Ruth talk at length about their first meeting 8 months before in Chattanooga, a city in the southeastern corner of Tennessee on the Georgia border.
I had a bad theater experience with this one and never recovered. I was in a dark place in my life when this film came out in the spring of 2004, and I went in under the influence of certain substances that will remain unnamed. It hurt my experience. It looms over this movie today. Even still, I've since watched the film a half dozen times and have loved it. Most recently though, I found it to be quite boring, and I'm glad it stands alone as its own movie. I find Kill Bill Vol. 1 to be far superior in every way, though The Bride's story is concluded perfectly here with plenty of wit and humor. The dialogue just doesn't work as well in this one after you've heard it a couple times.
The Nail in the Coffin - QT employs wonderful stylistic touches in this one scene, the one in which Michael Madsen's Bud seals Uma Thurman's Bride up in her coffin. The terror of being buried alive highlighted by a shot of a nail being driven through wood in close-up as Ennio Morricone's "L'Arena" arrives, in all its glory, on the soundtrack.
The bottom line is that Django Unchained misses greatness with one big mistake: it's way too long for its own good. Particularly, there is one sequence I happen to wish was cut way down...The Ride into Candy Land. If you trim that one sequence down by about maybe 10 minutes (seriously...it's like 15 minutes of the movie), you have a better film. We get everything we need of these characters and how they'll play against each other in the Mandingo Fight sequence. I happen to really love the dynamic between Jamie Foxx's titular Django and Christoph Waltz's Dr. King Shultz.
I Got a Name - The anachronistic use of Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" is brilliant and sets up the sequence that finds Django and Schultz spending the winter collecting bodies and bounties. I wish the whole movie was this.
When Django and Schultz head out in search of The Brittle Bros., their first bounty together, they end up in Tennessee, as a title card tells us so. Now, in actuality, this is possible. Middle and West Tennessee would have been Confederate through and through and there would've been cotton plantations. However, these scenes were not shot in Tennessee but in Louisiana. There are no live oaks or Spanish moss in Tennessee, as there are on Big Daddy's (Don Johnson) plantation.
Tarantino's half of Grindhouse, which came to theaters as a double feature event in 2007, is the superior film of the two. Rodriquez's Planet Terror is good fun though. Death Proof is a terribly uneven movie. Set up in two acts surrounding the stalker Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) and his prey (two sets of young women, one set per act), it works better as a "Grindhouse"-style film and an entertainment, in general, in the first segment. The key to this is the look. The film has skips and pops and random jump cuts. The soundtrack is genius, and it is declares a love for women in short khaki shorts. This movie transcends exploitation of women, though. It makes them the intelligent, smooth talkers we know them to be.
The Lap Dance - I highlight this scene because of how it captures everything I love about Tarantino's movies. It is pulpy, exploitative, fun, musical. It's a total throwaway scene that he, in fact, threw away for the shorter Grindhouse version, only to reinsert it for the Cannes screening and DVD release. The extended sequence in the Texas Chili Parlor in Austin may be my favorite in any of QT's movies actually. Just ladies having a good time with shots of Chartreuse and Shiner Bocks and Long Island Iced Teas and Bombay Sapphire Tonics with No Ice and T. Rex's "Jeepster" and The Coasters' "Down in Mexico" on the jam box.
The inferior, but still fun, second act is set entirely in Lebanon, Tennessee. This is most certainly not Lebanon, Tennessee, a small city about 30 miles east of Nashville. First, it is illegal to sell liquor in a convenience store or gas station in Tennessee. Also, the final chase sequence was quite obviously shot in Southern California.
The dialogue in this film never gets old, and it's shocking to watch this one so soon after The Hateful Eight and notice how little QT has changed over the years. Lock a bunch of criminals in a room for a while and splash blood all over the place. It's been his MO since the beginning. The thing is, though, that it works here. Mostly due to the performance of Harvey Keitel as Mr. White, who was instrumental in getting this film made. He's a criminal, a cop killer, a bad man, but he is also caring, and the way that gets into us emotionally alongside Tim Roth's undercover cop, Mr. Orange, is nothing short of amazing every single time.
Little Green Bag - And it begins...with the most perfect conversation in movie history, mostly about Madonna's "Like a Virgin" and the tired idea of tipping waitresses. It is a scene in a diner in which a group of dudes just talk. You could close your eyes and it would work as a radio comedy. Then, the credit sequence, the most iconic image (in my mind) when I think of Tarantino. The dudes in the black suits just before the shit storm hits. And the song...George Baker Selection's "Little Green Bag"...nothing like it in my movie memory.
The first part of Kill Bill, so wisely split in two by Miramax for theatrical release, is a masterpiece. It is the best filmmaking QT has ever done. As I've watched it more and more, I've found it to be so effortless to watch. It has a nice short runtime of just under two hours, and it is nonstop the whole ride. As Roger Ebert stated, "It is all storytelling and no story." How perfect an assessment. THIS film is why we love Tarantino. It is a story about storytelling, homage and tribute, martial arts epic and Western all at once.
And, it is really the only one of his films so full of perfect cinematic moments, it becomes impossible to choose.
Black-and-White-and-Red - At a certain point during the famed "Crazy 88" sequence (probably the most incredibly choreographed fight scene in all of American cinema), Tarantino makes a choice to switch from color to black-and-white. Stylistically, it is a perfect decision. He is in the midst of delivering one of the bloodiest mainstream action films ever and gives the audience a break, removing us in the cleverest of ways from our misgivings and filling us with pure movie taken to yet another level with The Human Beinz version of "Nobody But Me".
It gets better and better every time I watch it. From the opening scene in the dairy farmer's house, introducing American audience to the genius that is Christoph Waltz, to the introduction of Hugo Stiglitz to the shootout in the German bar to the final shot, the most brilliant of all of QT's finales, it is a "masterpiece." And maybe more than it is a piece of revisionist World War II history, it is also a love letter to the dying art form of shooting film on film.
"I think this just might be my masterpiece." - It really just doesn't get any better. It is self-referential, daring, shocking. I wanted to stand on my feet and cheer. I want that still every time.
When making the final deal with Christoph Waltz's Col. Hans Landa, Brad Pitt's Lt. Aldo Raine tells us where he's from...Maynardville, TN, a small, hilly town just 30 miles from my house. It is a rough place, the exact place from which a hillbilly badass like Raine would hail.
If you read my intro, you know all you need to know. It was the first one that possessed me. The first one I watched and fell in love with. I've seen it a hundred times...at least. It never gets old. I know it by heart. And it is filled with some of the most iconic cinematic images of all-time. It is so funny and bizarre and violent and cool, it's ridiculous.
Choosing a Weapon - In perhaps the most gripping scene of any movie I've ever seen (even still, every time), Bruce Willis' Butch Coolidge, luckily out of the grasp of the two pawn shop hillbilly rapists, decides to stay and fight. He spends a great deal of time choosing his weapon, and it is in this moment that he puts down the iconic chainsaw (not Tarantino's style at all) when he sees the right one.
There are several nods to Tarantino's birthplace of Knoxville, Tennessee. The first comes here as Christopher Walken's Cpt. Coons tells young Butch Coolidge of his birthright, a gold watch purchased "in a general store in Knoxville, Tennessee." It goes further to have the Butch character on his way to collect from a bookie in Knoxville. And let us not forget the shot of the Tennessee license plate over top of a Rebel Flag in the pawn shop scene.
So, we end with Jackie Brown, the one that has become my favorite to revisit. It is, at once, the very thing we expect from Tarantino in that it evokes his love of movies, a tribute to Pam Grier, once queen of the 1970s Blaxploitation era (of which I know very little), and also unexpected in its fairly toned-down violence and kind heart. It is the only one of his films that contains a cast of supremely likable characters. Even the film's key villain, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), is a likable, essentially nice guy. But none are more relatable and perfect than the lovestruck bail bondsman, Max Cherry (the great Robert Forster). With its genius plot, extrapolated from Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch, and incredible humor, it is just simply the most fun of Tarantino's films to watch.
Samuel L. Jackson's Ordell puts Chris Tucker's Beaumont in the trunk of his car. He then gets in the driver seat, puts in a tape (The Brothers Johnson's "Strawberry Letter 23"), puts his driving gloves on, grabs the revolver from his glove box, turns up the song (which then shifts from source to 5.1 surround), turns his head back and smiles before driving around the block as the camera follows in one of the coolest oners ever ending up in the vacant lot of Beaumont's demise. There is no blood, no gore, just slick classic filmmaking.
And that is Quentin Tarantino at his best. Pure style.
*Note: I chose to include Kill Bill as two separate films, as that is how I saw them. QT considers Kill Bill one film. I don't find that to be the case, as they become further and further apart the more I watch them. That's why there are nine films on this list instead of eight.
**Note: The top five in this post could easily be interchanged depending on the day of the week. They are all masterpieces.
Now, come at me! How do you rank him?