At the end of July, Quentin Tarantino will release his latest film, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Like every other Tarantino movie, I will see it in a movie theater, even though I rarely see movies in movie theaters these days. And I’ll probably go opening weekend, despite the fact that I never do that anymore.
For me — and, I’m sure, many other dudes who are 41 or thereabouts — Tarantino is one of those artists whose work spans much of their lives. His arc is also your arc. His movies are as much memories from your past as they are stand-alone entities. He was there for you in high school, when you first started caring about movies. In college, you put a Reservoir Dogs poster on you wall, like everybody else in the dorm. Over time, you came to care about other directors more. But you never really quit QT. The process of ranking those movies is an ongoing project that spans decades.
For this list, I simply decided to write down what remains a work in progress in my head. The highest compliment I can pay Tarantino is that I am reasonably hopeful that Once Upon A Time In Hollywood will contend for top of this list. Maybe not the very top, but definitely top three. I can’t wait to find out.
9. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Tarantino’s most perverse film in more ways than one. For instance: It’s a talky chamber drama that takes place largely inside of a snowbound cabin, and yet it’s grandly filmed in 70mm. What was the point of putting this intimate-to-the-point-of-claustrophobic film on such a large canvas? Was Tarantino somehow compelled to rub this unpleasant cast of characters in our faces? Or did he merely wish for us to gaze upon the grandeur of Michael Madsen’s forehead? Whatever it is, I often have to remind myself whenever I revisit The Hateful Eight that it came out before Trump was elected. Because it otherwise feels very much like a post-Trump film, a caustic exploration of the racism and self-interest of all-American deplorables. It’s not a bad film, really, though it lacks Tarantino’s usual exuberance. A hangout movie loaded with characters you long to escape.
8. Death Proof (2007)
Coupled with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror for the B-movie omnibus Grindhouse, Death Proof was a box office failure that temporarily rattled Tarantino’s usual brash self-confidence. Now, Death Proof is typically framed as a misstep that provoked the prestige-minded and movie star-driven QT of Inglourious Basterds and beyond. But Death Proof deserves better than its status as an also-ran in Tarantino’s filmography (no matter it’s relatively low ranking here). In contrast with the dude-centric films he’s made in the ’10s, Death Proof culminated Tarantino’s decade-long run of “powerful women sticking it to bad men” movies that started with Jackie Brown. Before revisiting it recently, I had forgotten how many scenes there are in which women have long, meandering conversations about sex, weed, and cars. (One of these scenes takes place over breakfast in a diner, and Tarantino’s slowly spinning camera evokes Reservoir Dogs.) And yet Death Proof, like Dogs and the first Kill Bill, is also the rare Tarantino move that clocks in at under two hours, so it never overstays its welcome — especially since it all builds to a car chase spotlighting Zoe Bell’s thrilling stunt work.
7. Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004)
The back half of the Kill Bill saga now exists under a cloud in light of Uma Thurman’s allegations of misconduct involving a car crash that occurred near the end of production. But even without the backstage controversy, Kill Bill Vol. 2 feels a little padded, especially after the breakneck, slam-bang pacing of the first Kill Bill. The best part of Vol. 2 occurs in the final 40 or so minutes, when The Bride (Thurman) and Bill (David Carradine) finally have their surprisingly quiet and emotional confrontation. Everything before that feels like preamble, even if it’s mostly engaging— after all, you have Uma literally punching her way out of being buried alive, and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) memorably describing Budd (Madsen) as a “bushwhackin’, scrub, alky piece of sh*t.” And then there’s my favorite character in Vol. 2, Budd’s lecherous boss Larry Gomez (Larry Bishop), whose stern lecture about Budd being “as useful as an a**hole right here” is extremely quotable.
6. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Yes, it’s the most “important” film on this list. Pulp Fiction is probably one of the half-dozen or so most influential movies of the last 25 years. And it still holds up! In fact, the parts I loved about Pulp Fiction — the Pumpkin and Honey Bunny cold open, Ezekiel 25:17, the Vic Vega/Mia Wallace date story, the “headless body in the car” story, Jules Winnfield’s closing “I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd” monologue — I still love whenever I rewatch. (It’s currently streaming on Netflix, by the way.) However, the parts I found tedious and even kind of boring in 1994 (even though I never would’ve admitted it at the time) I still find tedious and boring now. I refer to the middle story, in which the fugitive boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) and crime boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) are assaulted by some rednecks. Twenty-five years ago, this section felt transgressive in an extremely ’90s sort of way. But now it’s like an overlong dirty joke that doesn’t really pay off.
5. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
For the first half of Tarantino’s career, it seemed certain he would be defined by Pulp Fiction. But at some point, Inglorious Basterds overtook it as his signature movie. Tarantino seems to have signed off on this — he’s frequently referred to the dastardly Hans Landa (played by Christoph Waltz) as perhaps his greatest character, and (judging by the trailer) he’s even inserted an apparent Basterds homage into Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. Frankly, it’s kind of amazing that this happened — Inglourious Basterds is actually kinda, well, dumb. It teeters precariously on the precipice of pure silliness at all times, though Tarantino’s playfulness ultimately keeps it on the right side of distracting preposterousness. Though I think the main reason why this movie has been elevated is that it’s the Tarantino movie you’re most likely to enjoy with your right-wing in-laws during the holidays.
4. Django Unchained (2012)
Maybe I like Django more than Basterds because it’s the Tarantino movie you’re least likely to enjoy with your right-wing relatives. Wesley Morris, as usual, said it best: “I’ve never seen anything like this movie, not in one 165-minute sitting, not from a single director, not made with this much conscientious bravado and unrelenting tastelessness — this much exclamatory kitsch — on a subject as loaded, gruesome, and dishonorable as American slavery.”
In spite of his reputation as a provocateur, Tarantino is basically a populist showman, especially in his later years. But Django feels genuinely dangerous, even reckless. It’s the closest that Tarantino has come to making one of those gleefully offensive, social-commentary genre pictures that Sam Peckinpah and Brian De Palma turned out regularly in the ’70s and ’80s. And, with all due respect to Hans Landa, the greatest villain in the Tarantino-verse is Stephen, the dead-eyed sidekick of slaver Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) played by Samuel L. Jackson. The role should have won Jackson his third Oscar, after he should have won for Pulp Fiction (for which he was nominated) and Jackie Brown (for which he wasn’t).
3. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)
In terms of just pure filmmaking, this is the most exciting movie Tarantino has ever made. The “Showdown At The House Of Blue Leaves” chapter alone is worth the price of admission. When it came out — coming off the extended six-year, post-Jackie Brown hiatus — Kill Bill Vol. 1 seemingly eschewed most of his quirks, particularly his penchant for talky monologues. But he really just found new ways to show off, constructing long fight scenes that unfolded like Bob Fosse dance sequences. (I saw it four times in the theater.) Other than Reservoir Dogs, it’s the one Tarantino film that absolutely does not drag at any moment. A kinetic melange of martial arts, anime, revenge western, pitch-black suburban comedy, and body-horror thriller, Kill Bill Vol. 1 packs a lot in and yet never feels indulgent or overstuffed. A lot of that has to do with the resilient charisma and wounded vulnerability of Uma Thurman’s performance, which manages to be emotional even when she’s tasked with being extremely physical. She’s both a larger-than-life superhero, and the one recognizably human character who grounds the movie.
2. Jackie Brown (1997)
For most of this list, the guiding principle was, “What are the Tarantino movies, in order, that I would most want to watch right now … if you know, I didn’t have to write this list of Tarantino movies for my job?” It’s why Pulp Fiction, for instance, is ranked relatively low. I don’t know that I have to ever watch Pulp Fiction again. (Truth be told, I’d rather watch Death Proof at this point.) For the top two films, I have to change up my methodology slightly. Jackie Brown is always the Tarantino movie I most feel like watching. I want to see Max Cherry (Robert Forster) swoon over Jackie (Pam Grier) as Bloodstone’s “Natural High” sighs on the soundtrack. I like seeing Louis (Robert De Niro) rock furiously back and forth while Simone sings “Baby Love.” I get thirsty for a screwdriver when Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) gets thirsty for a screwdriver. Jackie Brown is Tarantino at his warmest, sweetest, and most welcoming. If Jackie Brown were a person, it would be the sort of friend you’re always happy to lend money or help move.
1. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The Tarantino movie I’ve seen the most times. I put this at the top of my list because my 16-year-old self would never accept another movie in this slot. Does it hold up? Does your best friend from high school hold up? What if I told you that when I was a junior I wrote a screenplay about a violent outcast named Quentin? (Actually, would you mind forgetting that I just mentioned that?) Some things transcend taste or “relevance” and simply become a part of who you are. Imagining my adolescence without Reservoir Dogs is impossible. Like an extremely violent remake of Yesterday about the music of Stealers Wheel.