My gold watch reads 8 AM on a Saturday morning in Lexington, Kentucky, where my five roommates and I are sitting at the kitchen table eating cheeseburgers and arguing about what Madonna’s 1984 song “Like a Virgin” really means. Bounty Law reruns blare over the television, muffling parts of our conversation. One kid gets up and asks if anyone wants water. Three of us do, so I hold up my middle three fingers to indicate the order. My eyes float back to the table and my buddy Goss sighs to my left. He had a date last night and I heard (thin walls) it went well. “What” I snapped. He sighs again and groans “that chick was a call girl apparently, but damn it, I think we’re in love.” Welcome to the Quentin Tarantino movie universe.
5. True Romance
My fifth favorite flick is the only one not both written and directed by Tarantino himself. The 1993 bizarro coked-up romance film combines a ludicrous storyline with a comedically vibrant cast.
The Plot: Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette) is a call girl hired to take comic book store employee Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) out for a date and extra circular activity. After a night in bed and half a dozen love sessions, the two decide to marry the next morning. After Clarence defeats Alabama’s ex-pimp and re-takes her belongings, the two discover that Clarence actually picked up a suitcase full of cocaine. Score! They head for the west coast with plans to sell to the highest bidder with the mob tracking them down.
The Appreciation: Young Slater, young Arquette, young Gary Oldman, young Michael Rapoport, young Brad Pitt, and a host of older greats such as Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, James Gandolfini, Samuel L. Jackson (for 40 seconds, which includes a line claiming he’ll eat everything on a woman). A year after the 1992 original, this was perhaps an even better dream team. And they all go harder than Michael Jordan did in 1992. It’s magnificent. Brad Pitt as is smoking weed for all five minutes he’s on screen and turns in a pantheon Cool Guy performance as Floyd. Dennis Hopper drinks 7-Up (probably true regardless) and laughs at Christopher Walken while claiming that Sicilians were spawned by That N-word I Will Never Type Out. Walken shoots him in the head! And then there’s Rapoport ironically playing a failing actor who’s broke and lives with pothead Floyd. Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore are a police task force. Oldman’s dragging tangy voice and drug rug wardrobe perfectly paint his typical pimp/drug dealer character. James Gandolfini engages in a fight with Patricia Arquette that ended with more blood than the Rocky II fight. And who could forget Saul Rubinek’s completely over the top “YOU STABBED ME IN THE HEART” tirade towards Bronson Pinchot? Nobody!
The plot is equally ridiculous and awesome. A call girl secretly hired by a comic book store owner to service one of his employees and they fall in love and get married the next day? WHAT? And then they stumble upon a suitcase full of coke that they sell to a famous Hollywood director with the brokering help of Michael Rapoport? From banging in a telephone booth to Brad Pitt’s long-haired bong-ripping to a 20-person Mexican Standoff, this is truly one of Tarantino’s most reckless films but certainly one of his most enjoyable from start to finish–unless you’re Sicilian.
4. Reservoir Dogs
Tarantino’s directorial debut. A movie about a diamond heist that lacks footage of the heist but more than makes up for it with witty dialogue and gripping tension.
The Plot: A technicolored cast of crooks (each given names such as Mr. Pink, Mr. Brown, etc.) is hired by Old Joe Cabot to execute an elaborate diamond heist. The cops bust the raid but half of the crew makes it out with the diamonds and the age-old question of “who is the rat?”
The Appreciation: It’s a movie about a committee of awful human beings, criminals, the kind of people who wind up in prison for 30 years. An usually, the crooks are just crooks: hated, beguiled, disgusting, inhumane to an extent. As a 29-year-old writer and director, Tarantino’s film about lifelong criminals remains rewatchable because of the witty and thoughtful banter between his characters and their human predicament. Before Reservoir Dogs, had there been a movie where the bad guys talked about non-bad guy things? Like when Tarantino’s own character argues about Madonna music and how “Like a Virgin” is “all about a guy with a big dick.,” or when Steve Buscemi leans back with a wry expression and says with tight lips, “I don’t tip.” My friend Sam holds the same philosophy and we have this argument every time we go to Waffle House.
My favorite quality about Tarantino is the conversation he creates between characters. The people in hit movies are having condensed versions of the insightful conversations about nonsense that keep your eyes glued to the screen. And these are insignificant talks I’ve had with my friends or parents or cousins, but are delivered with pace and highlight the most thoughtful portions while developing each character all at the same time. It’s not a trait restricted to Reservoir Dogs but it’s the starting point. And here, they cross intriguing conversation with the fallout of a busted diamond theft unfolding before them.
Michael Madsen cuts an ear off, Tim Roth writhes in blood-soaked pain, Buscemi doesn’t tip, and who is the rat? It’s 99 minutes of pure entertainment.
3. Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood
Tarantino relives Hollywood 1969 authentically in setting and creatively in plot.
The Plot: Actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) cope with the end of their prime in late-sixties Hollywood as notorious Charles Manson murder victim and up and coming actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) moves in next door. Rick continues filming western television shows, Cliff spends a day with the hippies and Sharon Tate showcases innocent energy and magnetic positivity as a Hollywood newbie.
The Appreciation: I saw this movie last month on opening night with an army of friends. The next day I went and saw it again. I loved it. (I know, there’s A TON of backlash about the movie–regarding Margot Robbie’s lack of lines, the Bruce Lee interpretation, Brad Pitt killing his wife, the violence and inaccuracy of the ending, everyone seemed to take an issue. I’m not going to be subdued by outrage culture. It’s a MOVIE that takes place 50 years ago. Tarantino isn’t trying to satisfy overly sensitive 2019 twitter users.)
Quentin Tarantino remade Hollywood 1969 and it looked fabulous. The flamboyant color, the denim fashion, the obsession with yellow, the crazy suits, the 60s Western Television show sets, the strange dynamic between actors and actresses in completely different stages of their careers, the hippie culture, and the soundtrack. Oh my God, The soundtrack was incredible! It fully immersed me in the movie. I felt like I was sitting in the passenger seat next to Brad Pitt as he zipped through L.A. wearing sunglasses, flowing hair and nodding his head to Neil Diamond. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was the most enjoyable movie theater experience of my life, and because of four people:
- Brad Pitt: This is the best Brad Pitt performance yet in my opinion. Sometimes, it’s great when movie stars can just be movie stars for two and a half hours. It’s like in the 90s when Michael Jordan could just summon a 40-point performance on a January Tuesday night out of thin air just because he could. With effortless ease, Jordan could dominate a basketball court on a given night. Brad Pitt dusted off his movie star chops and just dominated the screen whenever his character entered the story. It wasn’t a difficult performance. It was a Brad Pitt is cooler than you performance. His wry smiles, subtle I’m-smarter-than-everyone-else persona, aesthetically pleasing wardrobe and brute physicality etched an unforgettable Tarantino character into my brain (I’ll buy this movie as soon as it comes out). He may even top his own Aldo Rain in that department. How many actors can play a loser stunt man and kill their wife in the middle of the movie yet still come away as a fan-favorite?
- Leonardo DiCaprio: Leo does more in this movie than he’s done in the last six years. He plays a struggling actor whose hit TV show Bounty Law has been canceled. Told by his agent, Al Pacino, to fly to Italy and film spaghetti westerns, DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton is at a crossroads in his career and he wears the emotional strain expertly, with his best work done on set when he’s rented as “the heavy” (bad guy) for one random western show. The almost hour we spend with Leo there is the most impressive of the whole film. He throws an incredibly funny tantrum in his trailer after messing up his lines in the previous scene and screaming at himself “IT WAS THE WHISKY SOURS!” That had me smilin’ wide during both viewings. And then he broke down in tears next to the innocent and loving young girl Trudi as he fully realized how his career had declined, only to deliver the best acting performance she claimed to had ever seen in the next scene. Leo ran the spectrum of emotions with the slightest hint of unseriousness the reminded us yeah, he’s still Leonardo DiCaprio.
- Margot Robbie: She was perfect as Sharon Tate, despite looking absolutely nothing like her and playing a limited speaking role. Her character wouldn’t work if she had a ton of lines, though. Sharon Tate’s innocence had to be protected. She is at the beginning of her career, the viscous movie-making culture hasn’t seeped into her personality yet. Robbie plays Tate as the simple, jovial, promising young actress she actually was. She picks up the hitchhiking hippie (which no prime movie star would ever do!), she sits in secrecy at the movie theater watching her own movie and confirming her own insecurities by monitoring whether people laugh at her character or not. That’s such an amazing and touching scene. And it doesn’t need dialogue. Robbie is a hot, talented young actress who perfectly played the part of a dead and likewise young, attractive, talented actress by flashing outdated female style, dancing to a 1960 soundtrack and smiling the whole time.
- Quentin Tarantino: Look at the title: Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood. It’s a fairytale name for a fairytale story. We’re all dumb asses. We thought we’d see Tarantino’s version of the Manson murders. But it’s a fairy tale, it isn’t real. Quentin has done this before! We should have known the ending would take a severe turn from reality. It did and was glorious, I thought. Brad Pitt, high off his gourd on acid, slew three Manson murders in the most violent possible way (the 55-year-old was a buttered badass) and left a straggler who was crisped by Rick Dalton’s blow-torch. Tarantino’s bombastic remake of the Manson murders capped off an authentic reinvention of 1969 Hollywood that hit on various emotional phases of the movie-star life and posed a question of positivity: what if Sharon Tate got the opportunity to fulfill her career?
2. Inglorious Basterds
A wild re-imagining of World War II featuring conversational elegance in multiple languages organizing a tension-filled end to the deadliest war in World history.
The Plot: Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) is a Jew-hunting high-ranking German officer. Aldo Rain is a Nazi-killing Lieutenant for the Americans who leads a specialized unit called “The Basterds.” Their paths cross on a night where Rain is carrying out a plot to kill Adolf Hitler and the two negotiate a deal to end the war.
The Appreciation: In terms of movies, there are two things I find really, really, really boring.
- Superheros. Here’s a take: Marvel is the worst. They’ve taken incredibly talented individuals and turned them into severe character actors. Think: Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., the Chris’s (Hemsworth, Pratt and Evans). I would rather see real movies made starring them than re-made and newly-contrived superhero flicks. Just a preference.
- Movies in other languages. If I wanted to read with sound on, I’d crack open my personal bible, Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball and turn on 1970s NBA Playoff re-runs. (There’s a 95% chance that’s how I spent last night).
- Long films about World War II. After Schindler’s List, I really thought we were past the 150 Minute War Movie Phase. I really did. I can only look at so much camouflage.
Inglorious fulfills two of three. Not great. But that’s why this movie is transcendent. I was hooked during long, 20+ minute scenes spoken only in German or French. From start to finish, Tarantino’s typical vibrant dialogue, memorable characterization, and episodic storytelling created a completely different product than any other World War film. Brad Pitt’s Aldo Rain and Waltz’s Hans Landa are two iconic characters of Quentin’s. They command the screen as unique war character riffs. Pitt is a southern-mouthed Nazi-scalp-hunting leader who wears a perpetual smile in the midst of widespread death. And Landa is a German-born intellectual who can speak a dozen languages and poses thoughtful conversation that almost makes you like him. That’s not how we are supposed to remember Nazi Germany. They were all hell-bound thoughtless murderers, right?
With Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino challenged everything about the second World War, butchered archetypes, carved swastikas into foreheads, kept me engaged through subtitles and lashed Adolf Hitler with hundreds of bullets. Forget mere cinematic execution, how many movie makers have the audacity to even attempt such a move on the big screen? Nobody else would direct the above list of actions and get away with it. In anyone else’s hands, this movie fails and catches rampant outrage for spoofing the most traumatic event in human history. Tarantino does it with a laugh and wide smile from his audience by the end, when Pitt (and maybe even Tarantino himself) claims “Utavich, I think this just might be my masterpiece.”
(One more note: the Bar scene with Michael Fassbender is the best movie scene of the century. Packed with quick, German-spoken tension and an American plot dripping in the balance of every line, Tarantino capitalizes on dramatic irony, his usual unimportant yet totally intriguing dialogue and world diplomacy all at once and culminating in the subtlest possible tell–the three middle fingers used to signal 3 instead of the thumb, index finger and middle finger like a German would. Just brilliant.)
1. Pulp Fiction
Tarantino’s most iconic film. A pop culture mainstay and 1,000-times watchable tail of a philosophic smart-ass, a religiously touched legbreaker, a boxer, the Wolfe, a mobster and his wife.
The Plot: It’s an unchronological tale following Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) and their quest to return their boss Marsellus Wallace’s (Ving Rhames) briefcase.
The Appreciation: I’ll pose this question and dare you to disagree. Is Pulp Fiction the most entertaining movie of all time? It has one of the five most iconic performances ever in Sam Jackson’s Jules Winnfield. It has…a peak Tarantino screenplay and Tarantino is a member of the screenwriter Mount Rushmore. It has…Winston Wolfe, who solves problems. It has…Christopher Walken submitting a legendary five-minute monologue about sodomizing multiple war veterans with a gold watch. It has…Bruce Willis slicing a homosexual rapist’s front side with a katana (“Zed’s dead baby, Zed’s dead”). It has…John Travolta gracing the dance floor for the first time since the 1970s. It has…the most quotable dialogue in the history of film. It has…this exchange, the greatest screaming ever, even better than “I WANT THE TRUTH!”
My friend Seth and I talk to each other only through Pulp Fiction quotes. It never gets old. Every. Single. Line. Is eternally quotable, eternally funny, and eternally powerful. Like a fine wine, this movie gets better every time I see it. You can watch five minutes of it, or one gif, or a whole scene, or the entire two hours and 34 minutes. Aside from its cardinal sin (the Bruce Willis girlfriend scene), it’s an absolute entertainment masterpiece. Tarantino expresses his full portfolio of moviemaking skills in Pulp Fiction, leaving us with an unreplicable conglomeration of philosophy, cultural reference, enchanting dialogue, mystery (what’s in the briefcase?) tied into an out of order plot with unidentified stakes and ample intrigue that every person on the planet enjoys. It had to be number one. My buddy Seth shares my affection:
“Pulp Fiction is a part of my 1994 Holy Trinity, also including The Shawshank Redemption and Forrest Gump. Tarantino gets a lot of the credit for the realistic and incredible dialogue he wrote, but it was John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, and Bruce Willis that brought the script to life–you can ask pretty much anybody about a Big Kahuna Burger or a Royale With Cheese. Pulp Fiction set the stage for the rest of Tarantino’s career and it is one of the most important movies of the twentieth because it redefined the industry and gave us twenty-five years and counting of pop culture references. Ask any movie fan what their top-ten favorite movies are and I guarantee you Pulp Fiction is in there.”
Seth’s comments conclude my 2800 word Tarantino top-five extravaganza. I tried to lead you all through my reasoning for picking these five and I hope you listened. Man, “I’m trying Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.”
What is your favorite Tarantino movie?