Once Upon a Time in Hollywood marks Quentin Tarantino's penultimate directorial feature - but where does it rank among his other movies? With a career as acclaimed as it is bloody, Tarantino's filmography is stacked with brutality, profanity, and a perspective on humanity's sometimes disreputable M.O. that walks the line between sincere and savage.
Tarantino's movies are something of a benchmark for film connoisseurs, and he's as embedded in the world of filmmaking as he is its culture in general. A child of the '60s and '70s whose career kicked off in the VHS generation, Tarantino is known to be a walking encyclopedia of film history, and that knowledge shows up in every movie he's ever made - from the influences and references to some of the titles of his films themselves.
With supposedly one more film to go before he closes the book on directing, Tarantino is at the tail end of an impressive and influential career. Let's take a look at every movie Tarantino has directed over the past three decades.
10. The Hateful Eight
Tarantino's tale of the Old West is a tall order; on the surface, it's promising. Its cast is made up of Hollywood royalty, its 10 Little Indians-inspired plot plays out like a tricky game of Guess Who, and its limited setting feels like a snowed-in, 19th century nod to Reservoir Dogs. However, where The Hateful Eight shines in concept, it struggles in the follow-through.
In The Hateful Eight, a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) makes a pit stop at Minnie's Haberdashery with his prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh), only to discover that its seedy patrons aren't entirely who they seem. Heavy on the dialogue, unforgiving with its carnage, and a proud antithesis of The Magnificent Seven, The Hateful Eight doesn't quite stick its landing as firmly as Tarantino's other films. There's a lack of delicacy in the weaving of characters and story that Tarantino's already proven to be more than proficient with in previous films, which makes The Hateful Eight a sometimes frustrating watch. And, with a nearly three-hour runtime (unless you're watching Netflix's extended cut), The Hateful Eight has simply too nihilistic a perspective for any solid return value.
9. Death Proof
The second half of Grindhouse - Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's double feature throwback to exploitation films of the '60s and '70s - Death Proof is and isn't your typical Quentin Tarantino film. When it comes to pithy, articulate banter, bloodied-up antagonists seeking revenge, and a soundtrack that'd make any dive bar jukebox proud, Death Proof fits the bill. However, Death Proof is too busy adhering to the Grindhouse blueprint that the final product feels like a black sheep in the Tarantino mold.
The plot is simple: a serial killer named Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) tracks down women and kills them with his car (first, a 1971 Chevy Nova, then a 1969 Dodge Charger). And, while Tarantino relishes in the suspense-building portions of the story, he does so at the expense of character development. The first half of the film takes a Psycho-inspired turn with its would-be heroes in order to pull the rug out from underneath his victims; and, while the payoff is dementedly satisfying, it forces the second half of the script to work overtime.
By the time new characters are introduced, harassed, attacked, and ultimately triumphant, audiences have had little time to connect with them. Though it was likely deliberate, given the mindless grindhouse influence, it prevents Death Proof from delivering anything in the way of memorable characters (aside from Stuntman Mike himself).
8. Kill Bill Vol. 1
Kill Bill Vol. 1 has a simple enough story: character is betrayed and left for dead, character exacts revenge. Only, told in fragmented, reverse-chronological order, Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a little more complicated than it appears.
Uma Thurman stars as former assassin Beatrix Kiddo whose checklist of people to kill sends her on a world tour of bloody revenge. It's chaotic in its delivery and cartoonish in its depiction of gore (even literally with O-Ren Ishii's anime-style origin story), but Kill Bill Vol. 1 still has an earnest and delicate center. After all, even though the film's landscape is a meticulously choreographed battleground, aimless killing is not Beatrix's M.O. Five people are responsible for the presumed death of her unborn daughter, and she's going to hold them accountable (including anyone else who stands in her way).
A masterfully told story of revenge, made all the more satisfying by its cliffhanger ending, Kill Bill Vol. 1 is primo Tarantino. It combines his multicultural influences, his affinity for on-screen violence, and it expands on his shared film-within-a-film universe, all the while balancing out the chaos with genuinely bitter pathos.
7. Django Unchained
Tarantino has no problem rewriting the past. In fact, he's happy to create a character whose sole purpose is to directly influence some of the darkest moments in history, thus envisioning a past that didn't just resolve problems more efficiently, but with unremitting violence. In Django Unchained, his target is African-American slavery in the United States.
The film revolves around the titular Django (Jamie Foxx) who embarks on a life of bounty hunting with the lively Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in order to find and rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Django's journey is one of merciless violence, in which he shoots his way through slave owner after slave owner before meeting his match with the sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The biggest issues with Django Unchained are its tone and execution. While the revenge tale is as satisfying as it is deserved, the tonal shifts go so far as to bend reality; Tarantino's penchant for excess undermines the real-life horrors of slavery, while Django's transformation into a hero by the end of the film feels too removed from reality to feel nearly as warranted as Django is deserving of his transformation. That said, these are slight quibbles compared to an otherwise excellent film.
6. Kill Bill Vol. 2
Where Kill Bill Vol. 1 is the manic, unfiltered Type-A side of revenge, Kill Bill Vol. 2 is the calculated, introspective Type-B. Yes, there is still plenty of carnage; it's just a different brand of carnage.
Even though it's technically one half of a larger story (or even one-third of an even bigger story), Kill Bill Vol. 2 slows things down as Beatrix makes her way to former mentor and lover-turned-target, Bill (David Carradine). She's buried alive, beaten, and all around more vulnerable in the second volume, though a peek into her training with Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) foreshadows some useful skills that end up benefiting her when her back's against the wall (or when she's trapped in a trailer with Daryl Hannah). It's quieter, more patient, and far more interested in gaining perspective on the situation than Kill Bill Vol. 1's shoot first, ask questions later approach.
Though the stage feels smaller in the Kill Bill's second half, each intimate set piece is more impressive than the last. And, on a less physical level, its exploration into accountability and moral codes is what elevates it above its predecessor.
5. Jackie Brown
Not even counting his other screenwriting credits, Tarantino already had his career in the bag by the time he got to Jackie Brown. That said, with anticipation comes pressure, and Jackie Brown stood every chance of repeating formulas and giving audiences exactly what they were probably expecting, for better or worse. Thankfully, though, that didn't happen.
Based on Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch, Jackie Brown follows a flight attendant (Pam Grier) whose secondary source of income is strictly under the table: smuggling money between Mexico and the US. However, once she becomes entangled with the law - and by extension, gun runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) - she's forced to weave her way in and out of danger, not only to keep herself alive, but to keep the $500,000 she's been holding.
Jackie Brown doesn't only take its time with its story and characters, doubling as a kind of respite after Tarantino's previous film, Pulp Fiction, it's a palette cleaner. It replaces all the colorful bells and whistles that tend to show up in a Tarantino film and trims all excess. This film is tight, clever, and brutal - and it's from its grounded lack of showiness that Jackie Brown ends up leaving such a resounding impression.
4. Pulp Fiction
Pulp Fiction is the quintessential Tarantino film. Not only was it the first of his screenplays to earn him an Oscar, but it also perfected his fragmented story structure, proved he wasn't a one-hit wonder, and included some of his most iconic characters, quotes, and shoeless dancing. What's more, like so many of his films, it's still dissected to this day.
In Pulp Fiction, four unique stories are connected: a couple robbing a diner, two hit men navigating around a notoriously dangerous boss, said boss and his wife, and a boxer on the verge of selling his soul. As their stories are connected, their lives of crime are exposed and put up for judgment - through either death or redemption. And, though it does its best to break records for the most f-words in a movie, it's a very human story about desperation that is far more preoccupied with soul-searching than shock value than it might seem.
Nowadays, Pulp Fiction is so embedded in pop culture that it's easy to forget how innovative, complex, and influential it really is. But these descriptors are earned. Pulp Fiction is one-of-a-kind.
3. Reservoir Dogs
In 1992, Tarantino entered the scene. With a video store education in film and three short films under his belt, he wrote and directed Reservoir Dogs, a bloody, profane, and claustrophobic spin on old heist films like City on Fire and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, and it would set a very distinctive standard for his entire career going forward.
A film about a group of criminals hiding from the cops after a robbery doesn't seem particularly original on paper, but Reservoir Dogs benefits from its distinct tone of voice. It scrambles the linear format, feeding the audience bit by bit in a deliberately disordered sequence of events; and the most fascinating element is that it's not to pull the rug out from underneath the audience, but the characters. This isn't a mystery, but a ticking time bomb, and the fun (though some discomfort) of watching Reservoir Dogs is waiting for revelations to surface as the runtime winds down.
2. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is fan fiction in the best way possible. Like some other Tarantino films, it imagines a real-life moment in history, injects some fictional characters, and sees what happens. That said, it's also one of Tarantino's most sympathetic films - whether in regard to the tragic tale of Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie) or the diminishing career of fictional actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Whereas most Tarantino films are wrapped up in complicated plot lines seemingly designed to push the limits of story structure, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is too busy reflecting to race. It's been described as a love letter to Hollywood, and that's true. It is. But it's specifically centered around capturing a time, place, career, and familiar need to belong. It just so happens to be set during a time in which one of the most horrific crimes in US history took place.
Tarantino has always had a knack for subverting expectations, finding the humor in horror, and honoring the past. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he's perfected each one of these elements with deft confidence. Unfortunately, seeing as Tarantino stated that he'll only direct one more film after this one, his film about transitioning into new eras comes close to marking the end of an era itself.
1. Inglourious Basterds
To paraphrase the film's final line, Inglourious Basterds may be Tarantino's masterpiece. It's his first foray into historically-inspired revenge stories, proving to audiences that reality is fair game in his films, and it represents all of his most engaging strengths in their most refined state.
Inglourious Basterds follows a band of Jewish US soldiers during World War II as they infiltrate Nazi-occupied France in order to kill as many Nazi leaders as they can. However, they're not alone. Once a young woman named Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) discovers that Adolf Hitler's inner circle will be attending her cinema for a special Nazi propaganda screening, she too prepares for a secret death mission. Naturally, though, every imaginable odd is against them.
Everything works in Inglourious Basterds; Lieutenant Aldo Raine's (Brad Pitt) merry band of Nazi killers, Christoph Walt'z Oscar-winning performance as the demented Colonel Hans Landa, the incorporation of film as a vehicle to defeat the Nazis, and the 1940s seen through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino. There's a gleeful mayhem in this film that celebrates retribution, but it's not resigned to simply declaring victory and moving on. It wholly recognizes - and even indulges in the fact - that "putting out the fire with gasoline" is messy, polarizing, and ethically-compromised business, no matter how satisfying.
- Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) release date: Jul 26, 2019