The Difficulty in Ranking the Films of Quentin Tarantino

pulpAs I casually checked my Twitter feed one day last week, I noticed a number of people were talking about Quentin Tarantino and his movies. As it tends to nowadays, my mind immediately jumped to worrying if he’d died, but no it was just his birthday. Not even a notable one at that (54). Anyway, it got me thinking about my favourite movies of his, and a thought I’ve been having for a number of years; I guess the title of this piece is a bit clickbaity, as it’s not so much the difficulty in saying which ones I prefer that’s got me wondering, but what actually counts as ‘a Quentin Tarantino film’?

kill billThis really dates back to 2003 for me, when I was just a budding teenage film nerd, the soon to be released Kill Bill Vol 1 was being widely promoted as “The 4th Film from Quentin Tarantino”. I remember this distinctly for a couple of reasons, firstly because it was the first time I’d ever heard a film billed in this numerical manner, but also the fact that they were apparently making a big deal out of the idea that he only had made three films previously, despite being heavily involved with several more throughout the nineties, the decade with which he remains most associated despite his continued relevance and acclaim. This notion appeared once again in 2014 when the first poster for the yet-to-be-filmed The Hateful Eight appeared, citing it as “The Eighth Film from Quentin Tarantino”. This made me wonder even more, what exactly are they counting as being one of his movies?

Now clearly, they are discounting anything which he did not direct, which you’d think would narrow it down easily to see what’s counted, but it doesn’t. He currently has 45 film credits to his name (some of these are actually uncredited script doctor work but you know…); a large number of these are as an executive producer or supporting/cameo actor so those are obviously dismissed, but the confusion doesn’t stop there. Firstly, when looking at his body of work, it’s tough to separate out the three prominent nineties movies which he wrote but did not direct; True Romance, Natural Born Killers and From Dusk Till Dawn, the last of which he also produced and acted in. It’s well known now that Natural Born Killers was rewritten and its focus changed from his original intent, much to his dissatisfaction, but the other two he seems pretty happy with, at least if his DVD commentaries are anything to go by. In any case, I consider them to be an essential part of his filmography, and it’s very difficult to excise them if I were attempting to rank all of his work.

Even if we do however, that still doesn’t completely simplify matters, his first directorial effort, amateur black-and-white film My Best Friend’s Birthday was originally feature length but part if it was lost in a fire and it only survives now as a short. Then there’s the question of 1995’s Four Rooms; a feature length anthology movie in which he directed one of the four segments. Does that count? And If it doesn’t, what about Grindhouse? Grindhouse is actually the biggest sticking point for me, the project was conceived to be a throwback, double-bill style experience which featured 2 segments, one from Tarantino (Death Proof), the other from his good friend and frequent collaborator Robert Rodriguez (Planet Terror), surrounded by fake trailers and title cards. The film famously flopped in the US leading to the films being released separately elsewhere, though Death Proof also played in Cannes by itself in an extended version.

deathproofSo, do we view Death Proof as a single movie in itself, or as part of Grindhouse? The answer to this does, for me anyway, greatly alter where I would place it when ranking his films. The whole experience of Grindhouse was a hoot for me upon release, when I was thankfully able to attend the first UK screening as part of a horror festival, and then again when a complete print did a brief tour of the UK a couple of months later. However, the retro, exploitation double-bill aspect of it was one of its major positives for me. I did see Death Proof by itself on TV some time later and, while it’s still good, I didn’t think it was as strong as a movie when entirely separated from its original context. And then, what of Sin City? Tarantino directed one scene in that as a ‘special guest director’

Then that brings us to Kill Bill; is it one movie, or two? It was conceived as a single feature, and premiered as such, even with a few later screenings under the subtitle The Whole Bloody Affair.  It was split into two films after the fact, and that’s how many people originally experienced it. Personally, I was too young to see it in the cinema upon its original release and intentionally waited until both volumes were available on DVD before watching them in one go. Though I’d have loved to see the complete cut on the big screen, I think I probably made the correct choice. The film is stronger overall when viewed as a single work, with Volume 2 coming across as a little disappointing, and Volume 1 too inconclusive if viewed as solo movies. So how do we count it? Similarly with Grindhouse, separating them would alter where I’d place them.

So, it seems that the marketers for The Hateful Eight were considering only; Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill (as one film) Death Proof (as its own film), Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight itself. I wonder, were these the same people who previously had promoted Kill Bill Vol 1 as “the 4th Film”? (Vol 2 was pointlessly dubbed “The New Film” a few months later). I can’t help but be somewhat baffled; there are plenty of directors whose filmographies are easy to apply numbers to, why has this only ever really been done to possibly the one prominent director for whom this is most difficult to do?

Anyway, I suppose that was all a big waffly preamble to me going ahead and ranking his films, but I’m going to have to do it two times, firstly, for what his marketers count, and secondly for what I’d personally like to count.

08: Death Proof
07: Jackie Brown
06: Django Unchained
05: Inglorious Basterds
04: The Hateful Eight
03: Kill Bill
02: Pulp Fiction
01: Reservoir Dogs

dogs

So yes, over the obvious choice of Pulp Fiction I’ve vote Reservoir Dogs for number one. There aren’t really any duds on here at all, the lowest rating I’d give any of them is 3.5/5

Now, here’s how it looks when I throw a few more films into the mix;

14: Four Rooms (1995)

The only entry on Tarantino’s filmography that’s flat-out bad is this misguided, mid-nineties anthology comedy that fails in almost every respect. Tarantino’s concluding segment isn’t even generally considered the best of the quartet either. Nowadays I imagine this is sought out primarily by Tarantino completionists only, and is the only major work of his that’s probably best forgotten.

13: My Best Friend’s Birthday (1987)

It’s pretty much impossible to judge this on the same level as the rest of his work as not only is it very obviously completely amateur and made with next to no money, but it only exists now in an incomplete form. It’s worth watching more as a curio for where his career started out (there are some clear connections between it and True Romance) but you certainly wouldn’t put down what’s available of this as the debut of one of American Independent cinema’s most notable directors.

12: CSI: Grave Danger (2005)

It’s a little odd to think that, on the couple of occasions when Tarantino has dabbled in TV work, it’s been with the most mainstream of dramas (he directed an episode of ER once too). What would be the modern equivalent, Paul Thomas Anderson guest directing Sherlock or something? I remember his two part CSI story being something of an event at the time – the show was the most watched on TV then – but while it was a solid CSI story, it wasn’t among the series’ best. And sure this is the most obvious ‘not a movie!’ on my list but as it functions as a standalone two-parter, I have no issue counting it here.

11: Jackie Brown (1997)

jackie brown

The reputation of this Elmore Leonard adaptation feels to have grown considerably since I first saw it, with some critics now regarding it as his best work, or at least the only one to have a real human centre to it (I disagree – see number 1) but personally I’ve always felt that this was the lesser and most forgettable of his directorial efforts. Who knows, I haven’t seen it in years and might completely change my mind on a re-watch though, will have to try and see it again soon.

10: From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

This fun genre hybrid directed by Robert Rodriguez and written by Tarantino looks a bit like a proto-Grindhouse switched around now, beginning with a talky, crime-themed story before morphing into a silly vampire action film. Bar Four Rooms, It’s probably the least ‘serious’ and essential film from his mid-nineties boom but is highly enjoyable slice of lurid, over-the-top entertainment nonetheless.

09: Django Unchained (2012)

DJANGO UNCHAINED

Tarantino’s first full-on Western boasts many memorable exchanges, but the film peaks a little too early and then continues for another hour leaving it feeling a little indulgent.

08: Inglorious Basterds (2009)

I feel like this WWII film is destined to grow in reputation as time passes, while I enjoyed it a great deal, I did find its combination of ultra-tense, realistic depictions of the horrors of war with its wish-fulfilment fantasy third act somewhat jarring.

07: Grindhouse (2007)

As a whole, Grindhouse worked for me in exactly the way it was intended to. It gave me the experience of an old, exploitation double bill, something I’d never had a chance to see before. Neither of its primary segments, Tarantino’s Death Proof or Rodriguez’ Planet Terror would rank as highly when considered individual films, but as I said before, that wasn’t their intention nor how I first viewed them, and I’m ever grateful for that.

06: The Hateful Eight (2015)

The-Hateful-Eight

His latest film saw him unapologetically embracing everything about his previous work and giving zero considerations for the criticisms he’s been given, leading to what I described at the time as ‘not the best Tarantino film, but probably the most Tarantino film’. This stagey Western suffers from the same mixed tonal setbacks as Basterds but I can similarly see this becoming recognised as a classic in decades to come.

05: Kill Bill (2003/4)

As I said, when considered as one movie, which I prefer to do, this multi-part revenge epic ranks highly here. If I had to split it in two, I’d probably place Volume 1 in front of and Volume 2 behind Django Unchained here.

04: Natural Born Killers (1994)

natural

I know Tarantino has publicly expressed his dissatisfaction with what Oliver Stone did with his ‘lovers-on-the-run’ screenplay, and that’s an understandable position which tempts me to leave it off this list entirely. However, I have to admit that I was totally blown away by this movie when I first saw it. Stone’s audacious blending of multiple visual and audio formats leads to a completely unique cinematic experience that I might have even ranked higher were it not for its second act being a step down from its astonishing first.

03: Pulp Fiction (1994)

The obvious choice for number one I suppose. This iconic nineties crime saga that cemented his reputation is hard to beat, but…

02: Reservoir Dogs (1992)

…I’d actually still rank Reservoir Dogs more highly. Maybe a re-watch of both would switch them but this is the first and last time he made anything as succinct. Given his recent forays into self-indulgence, it’s hard to imagine him ever making such a tight, brisk affair as his attention-grabbing 1992 debut again.

01: True Romance (1993)

True-Romance

Yep, I’m going with my heart on this one. It does seem a little perverse to place a film he didn’t direct in the top spot but what can I say, this film spoke to my teenage self in a way few others ever did. It’s clear that this geek fantasy was the kind of screenplay he could likely have only written prior to achieving great success, and while it would have been a different film had he directed it, action specialist Tony Scott saw the potential for fast-paced optimism within and turned it into what will probably always remain a feel-good favourite for me.

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