As the director's novelisation of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood hits bookshelves, Hannah Strong reflects on his oeuvre so far...
Drawing inspiration from the films he grew up devouring, Quentin Tarantino has made an artform out of cinematic collage. Counting Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone and Stanley Kubrick among his influences, in an 1994 interview he confessed an impulse to “steal from every movie I see,” collecting movie references with the ferocious dedication of a hardened cinephile, his love of cinema coming through in every film.
Although his predilection toward ultraviolence and handling of subjects including slavery and violence against women has made Tarantino a controversial filmmaker, his name has been cemented in the Hollywood Hall of Fame thanks to a 30-year career and his relentless enthusiasm for the craft. It’s important to approach his work with a certain nuance; while Tarantino inspires a lot of ardent defenders every time he appears in the headlines, he’s definitely not above reproach.
Tarantino burst onto the scene in 1992 with his debut Reservoir Dogs, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival and received widespread praise. Since then, he’s gone on to make a further feature nine films (though he counts Kill Bill as one), and has written the screenplay for two more. Given that Quentin is sticking to his long-touted claim that’ll retire from filmmaking at 60 in order to write novels and focus on other interests, it’s likely we might only get one more film out of the director before he rides off into the sunset. To celebrate the release of his first foray into novel writing – an expanded take on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – maybe it’s time to take stock of his oeuvre so far…
12. The Hateful Eight (2015)
The script for Tarantino’s eighth film leaked online in January 2014, prompting the director to cancel the film out of anger. He later reconsidered, and shot the film in December of the same year, with a cast including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell. The titular “hateful eight” are a group who take refuge from a snowstorm in a rural cabin in the aftermath of the American Civil War, but with a three-hour runtime and a particularly sadistic streak towards Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue (the only female character of substance), it’s far from his finest work, and suggests those that accuse Tarantino of misogyny might have a point.
11. Four Rooms: The Man From Hollywood (1995)
A mid-90s curio, this anthology film set in a hotel features segments directed by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell and Robert Rodriguez, as well as Tarantino. QT’s part is the final section of the film, based on Roald Dahl’s short story “The Man From the South.” Tarantino plays a Hollywood director who is holed up in a penthouse with some friends, preparing to enact a risky wager. While Tim Roth camps it up as the hotel’s obliging bellhop, it’s a little thin considering Tarantino’s usual flair for the dramatic, and his insistence on playing the central role takes up all the oxygen in the room.
10. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
In the years since the release of From Dusk Till Dawn, it’s definitely acquired cult status, spawning sequels, a video game, and a television show which ran for three seasons. But the original film – which Tarantino wrote and co-starred in – leaves a little to be desired. The film starts off as a standard crime flick, with the Gecko brothers taking a family hostage to try and cross the border into Mexico, but soon becomes a fight for survival when they end up trapped inside a vampire strip club called the “Titty Twister.” Naturally, chaos and carnage ensues. Yes, it gave us the gift of George Clooney sporting a neck tattoo as dirtbag Seth Gecko, and Harvey Keitel playing against type as a devoted father and doubting pastor, but once again Tarantino is the weak link in the acting chain as lecherous rapist Richie Gecko. Still, Selma Hayek dancing with a snake around her shoulders? The blueprint for Britney Spears.
9. Django Unchained (2012)
A revisionist western starring Jamie Foxx as a freed slave on a quest to rescue his wife and enact revenge on her savage captors, Django Unchained is an undeniably stylish affair, but that often gets in the way of substance. The film was criticised by figures including Spike Lee and Jesse Williams for its repeated use of the N word, which star Samuel L. Jackson defended, stating “Django Unchained was a harder and more detailed exploration of what the slavery experience was than 12 Years a Slave, but director Steve McQueen is an artist and since he's respected for making supposedly art films, it's held in higher esteem than Django, because that was basically a blaxploitation movie.” Even so, Django isn’t Tarantino at his best, despite the powerhouse performances from Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio as the unnerving villain Calvin J. Candie; a little more research – and perhaps involvement behind the scenes from Black creatives – would have helped Tarantino carve a more authentic film.
8. Death Proof (2007)
Part of the Grindhouse double bill that Tarantino created with his old pal Robert Rodriguez, Death Proof is his salute to the weird world of 70s exploitation cinema. Starring Kurt Russell as a psychotic Hollywood stuntman and Zoë Bell, Rosario Dawson, and Tracie Thoms as a group of friends who catch his eye in Austin, Texas, the film isn’t without its high octane thrills, but they come at the price of enduring a lot of expository dialogue. It’s satisfying to see a group of women get the upper hand in a Tarantino film, but Death Proof is one for the purists rather than casual fans.
7. Kill Bill (2003-2004)
Perhaps it’s controversial to rank Kill Bill mid-tier for Tarantino; there are certainly a lot of fans out there who would tell you it’s his masterwork. Blending elements of samurai films with grindhouse and spaghetti westerns, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and no woman has ever been scorned like The Bride (played by Uma Thurman). Taking on a team of assassins working on the orders of her former lover, Bill (David Carradine), The Bride battles her way from Texas to Tokyo to Mexico, seeking revenge on those that have wronged her. The two-part film is pretty good, sure – but slightly soured in memory by Uma Thurman’s experience on set, where she received serious injuries while performing her own stunts at Tarantino’s behest. While there’s no bad blood between them now (her daughter Maya even had a role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) it serves as a reminder that no director is above reprimand; everyone deserves to feel comfortable and safe on a film set.
6. True Romance (1993)
An early Tarantino script that made it to the big screen after the success of Reservoir Dogs, the late, great Tony Scott directed this romantic crime drama, starring Patricia Arquette and Christian Slater as a newlywed couple who go on the run after accidentally stealing a shipment of drugs. This mad-cap road movie features Dennis Hopper, James Gandolfini, Val Kilmer and Brad Pitt, plus some of composer Hans Zimmer’s best work; it’s the perfect marriage between Scott and Tarantino’s styles, and even pays homage to Terrance Malick’s Badlands. According to QT, it’s also his most autobiographical film; a story about oddballs in love with the movies, doing what they can to get by.
5. Pulp Fiction (1994)
If Reservoir Dogs was Tarantino’s breakthrough, Pulp Fiction secured him as Hollywood royalty – and incidentally, was the first QT film I saw, at the tender age of 14. Winner of the Palme d’Or, its narrative and characters have been satirised to death in the subsequent years (a sure sign of affection in movie land), while it's become a cliche for teenage boys (or indeed, me) to have a poster of Uma Thurman’s black bob-sporting Mia Wallace on their wall. There’s good reason for all the hype, though – Pulp Fiction is a masterclass in misdirection, presenting its plot out of chronological order and keeping audiences on their toes with a string of strange subplots. The all-star cast (John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Ving Rhames, Christopher Walken and Amanda Plummer to name just a few) were at the height of their 90s powers, and to this day it remains an essential text for anyone looking to understand the Hollywood machine; not merely because of Tarantino’s embedded cinematic references (Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part inspired the Jack Rabbit Slim’s dance off, while the mysterious glowing briefcase is lifted straight from Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly), but for what its success inspired. There was the subsequent revival of film noir and John Travolta’s career, yes, but it also changed perceptions of what independent filmmaking could achieve. Take it from cultural critic Peter Biskind: “Pulp became the Star Wars of independents, exploding expectations for what an indie film could do at the box office.”
4. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The film that started it all. Once you’ve seen Reservoir Dogs, it's impossible to listen to Stealers Wheel crooning “Stuck in the Middle With You” without picturing Michael Madsen dancing with a razorblade. This nonlinear heist movie about a group of inept diamond thieves who botch their own job features – among other things – a lengthy diner conversation about Madonna, an iconic suit and shades combination, and a Mexican standoff. Add into the mix a stacked cast (Tim Roth! Harvey Keitel! Steve Buscemi!), a slow motion credits scene that’s been parodied into oblivion ever since, and that’s a hell of a lot of excitement to pack into a 99 minute runtime, especially considering Tarantino’s films have steadily been getting longer across his career. Reservoir Dogs kicked off a new wave of indie cinema when it stormed into the Sundance line-up in 1992, but the ear scene is what everyone remembers, reportedly so brutal it caused Wes Craven to walk out of a screening. Not bad going for your debut – and yes, as a teenager, I had this poster, too.
3. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
Tarantino’s last project, released in 2019, clocks in at 161 minutes, but if you’re a fan (or indeed a fan of Hollywood at all), there’s a lot to love. His third alternative history following Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a love letter to the “Golden Age” as Tarantino sees it, and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as two best friends in the middle of it all – actor Rick Dalton and his stuntman Cliff Booth. I was in the audience at the Cannes premiere, and despite having possibly the worst seat in the house (so far to the left of the screen I couldn’t see what was happening at certain points), I was enthralled. The film wasn’t without its controversy (critics point to the depiction of Bruce Lee and violence directed towards the Manson family as particularly erroneous) but it manages to do a lot right, too, imagining a world where Sharon Tate was never murdered, and Charles Manson never got the infamy he craved. Most notably, it’s Tarantino’s most heartfelt film to date in terms of the relationship between its male leads: his movies usually possess such a supercharged sense of machismo, it feels genuinely refreshing to see Cliff and Rick’s friendship painted as genuine.
2. Jackie Brown (1997)
Adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch, Jackie Brown is the only of Tarantino’s feature films not to be based on an original idea. Starring Pam Grier as the titular flight attendant who makes ends meet by smuggling money for gun runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), this is the director’s homage to 1970s blaxploitation films, namely Foxy Brown and Coffy (in which Grier also played the lead roles). Following the success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown was seen as a slightly left field pick for Tarantino, not least because its two stars – Grier and Robert Forster – hadn’t acted in lead roles for many years. Watching Jackie gain the upper hand in a shopping mall changing room feels like a perfect synthesis of Tarantino’s key interests, mixing high drama with the most mundane examples of modern America. It’s a thrilling crime drama, and one of the more undervalued works in QT’s canon, perhaps because it lacks the relentless violence of, say, Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. And although not as critically or commercially successful as his first two films, Jackie Brown is an excellent showcase for Grier’s talent, and proves Tarantino can be just as sharp and entertaining when he’s not in full-blown shock value mode.
1. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Perhaps the placement of his sixth film at the top of this list is less about Tarantino and more about my own history with him as a filmmaker, given that Inglourious Basterds was the first of his films I was able to see in the cinema (I snuck into a screening was I was 16). Even so, Inglourious Basterds stands on its own as a towering filmmaking achievement: witty, stylish and emotionally devastating in a single breath, it brought us Brad Pitt doing the strangest southern accent known to man and Christoph Waltz’s Academy Award-winning performance as smiling sociopath Nazi Hans Landa, plus Mélanie Laurent’s unforgettable turn as “the face of Jewish vengeance” Shoshanna Dreyfuss. This revisionist take on World War II naturally generated a certain amount of controversy, but as an audacious examination of the human propensity for violence and the will to survive, it might just be his masterpiece.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: The Novelisation is released on 29 June.