On 27 March, 49 years ago, a filmmaker was born who, initially, showed little promise in his soon to be celebrated career. He originally wanted to be an actor and, when industry offers were less than forthcoming, he started creating his own projects. Famously, he worked in a video store, absorbing every ounce of knowledge he could from the myriad of movies on the retail racks. Along with friends like Roger Avary, he would obsess over form and formula, reworking old school Hollywood (and foreign film) tropes into terrific new experiences. After getting recognized for his work, he managed to make his own movie – a little something called Reservoir Dogs – and the rest is new cinema history. Indeed, along with such celebrated auteurs as David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, and Terrence Malick, Quentin Tarantino is an often misunderstood genius. Critics like to complain about the very things that make his efforts so long lasting and memorable.
With his birthday in mind and ten titles to choose from, it’s time to rank Tarantino’s best. Granted, we are cheating a bit. He’s only directed six actual releases (the lost My Best Friend’s Birthday doesn’t count) and produced countless others. So we’ve decided to focus on the films where he either wrote or wrote and directed the final product. This allows us to include the scripts he sold hot on the heels of Dogs success without only sticking solely to the ones where he was behind the lens. As usual, final position reflects more opinion than consensus, but in the world of Quentin Tarantino that’s not unusual. Few can argue his influence and importance. Many can nitpick his sometimes self-absorbed approach, but in the end, his work will live on a lot longer than the mediocre muck clogging up your local Cineplex. Let’s begin with what is arguably his worst work in the creative chair:
Okay…okay. We know this really isn’t fair. After all, QT was only one forth of this awful anthology and his part was a pseudo-slick reinterpretation of an old Alfred Hitchcock Presents piece. Still, everything here smacks of ego and arrogance. Bringing together players from this classic Pulp Fiction, Tarantino obviously believed he could get away with something smarmy and self-absorbed. All he really managed was the least memorable work of his entire career. Not everything about “The Man from Hollywood” is terrible…just most of it.
With his mythology firmly established, Tarantino dug deep into his former video store clerk roots to come up with a weird combination of exploitation crime thriller and gory grindhouse horror. Offering cinematic buddy Robert Rodriguez the directing duties and hiring an up and coming George Clooney as a co-star, the maverick managed an awkward is still enjoyable genre exercise. Today, it’s memorable for its mind-boggling F/X jokes, as well as its strippers as vampires designs. A slight if still interesting scare fest.
Leave it to Oliver Stone to take an already self-contained project and purposely retrofit it toward his own demented desires. He did it with Eric Bogosian’s one man media mantra Talk Radio, and when Tarantino’s script about star-crossed serial killers came onto the market, he found yet another outlet for his critical social conspiracy theory rants. Taking on the news and its felons as fame whores mentality, he fashioned a crackerjack critique. Unfortunately, whatever message QT was aiming for got lost in the cinematic shuffle.
In another case of something he should have directed being helmed by a proposed Hollywood heavyweight, Tarantino’s terrific crime love story got sunny and soft focused by Tony Scott, draining some of its substance and none of its chutzpah. This remains the greatest Tarantino movie the filmmaker never made, a whirlwind collection of pop culture beats and celluloid references that survive the perfume commercial gloss of the man behind the lens. In addition, the terrific performances and insularity of its ideas turn it into a legitimate Tarantino turn – sort of.
As his contribution to the crazy callback to the drive-in delights of the ’70s, QT decided to channel Vanishing Point and other car chase classics from the era to turn Kurt Russell into a psycho stuntman with a killer vehicle – literally. For the moment when our villain vivisects four young girls in a horrific highway crash, all set to the tune of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich’s terrific “Hold Tight,” he deserves some sort of cinematic special dispensation. Everything else is just road rage gravy.
5 – 1
How insane is it that, when putting together a list like this, one of the greatest films of the last five years ends up so far down the list? Perhaps it could place a bit higher, overwhelming the black suit posturing of the otherwise brilliant Reservoir Dogs, and some could argue that its imaginary history hinders an otherwise amazing manipulation of film and our forgotten past. Whatever the case, this remains the kind of creative novelty that Tarantino currently excels in, reinventing genres to fit formats heretofore unconsidered. A real masterpiece.
The one that started it all, that got Tarantino noticed and began his ascent into the upper echelons of post post-modern moviemakers. From its quick witted dialogue and cleverly compact plotting, this tale of a heist turned very, very bad remains an excellent example of style over stereotype. We’ve seen dozens of examples of robberies gone wrong and the hardboiled foils for such criminal chaos, but QT managed something truly special. He reinterpreted the archetypes while celebrating the standards of the genre. An amazing introduction.
Ever since his days behind a video store counter, Tarantino wanted to make the ultimate Hong Kong action film. In love with The Shaw Brothers and their dedication to over the top martial artistry, the filmmaker found an intriguing base narrative (the near death and homicidal rebirth of a deadly female assassin) and fused it to a meticulous recreation of every sword and fist fight he remembered. Then he tweaked things with a melodramatic middle and some insane casting. The results remain his craziest, and most commercially accessible work.
This was a tough call. Even two decades removed from its heralded heyday, Pulp remains pristine. It is everything that got film fans excited about Tarantino wrapped up in a skillful combination of narrative twists and character turns. In light of its continuing presence and influence, it’s important to remember how groundbreaking it all was. QT was testing the boundaries of the medium, wondering if cinema could stand the masterful mixtape treatment and remain intact. Like a dedicated DJ, he made his mash-up…and the rest is certified celluloid history.
Since it’s not based on his own material (it’s a bastard child of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch) and features a relatively straightforward storyline, it seems odd to make this Tarantino’s best. After all, by requiring the director to reel in his own imagination, one would envision a shadow of his former wunderkind self. Instead, we get one of the most amazing movies of the last 20 years, a true triumph of narrative and approach. In fact, instead of holing up in his own homage-laden domain and crafting originals, Tarantino should do more adaptations. When they’re as good as this, there’s no reason not to.