3. Jackie Brown
Jackie Brown is probably the only Tarantino movie we’ll ever see that’s adapted from someone else’s story. Based on Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, the film marked a foray into more mature territory for the director following Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, even though it’s another slice of pulpy crime fare that comfortably hangs out with those movies. But, compared to most of his efforts, Jackie Brown is much more emotionally nuanced. Here, we see the director in a melancholic, reflective mood as he ponders aging and regret, although he still peppers in some pop culture references and violence for good measure.
That said, the work of Leonard — with its cool criminal characters, snappy dialogue, and laidback hangout vibe — boasts similarities with Tarantino’s own stylistic tendencies. Long before he ever adapted Leonardthe author’s story, his own voice was already informed by his literary counterpart. And while the genesis of Jackie Brown wasn’t conjured up by his own imagination, Jackie Brown still feels quintessentially Tarantino. Of course, he still takes some creative liberties with the source material, including the decision to turn the protagonist into a middle-aged black woman, who Pam Grier brings to life in what is arguably the most compelling performance by an actor in any Tarantino flick. There’s an audience out there that adores this movie, but it’s underappreciated in the grand scheme of things and that’s a damn shame. (Kieran Fisher)
2. Pulp Fiction
It’s hard to remember now — or, if you’re on the younger side, imagine it — but there was really nothing like Pulp Fiction before the movie hit the Cannes Film Festival and then theaters in 1994. Nonlinear storytelling that doesn’t play as flashbacks (a la Reservoir Dogs) wasn’t familiar to mainstream audiences, who ate the thing up, even as it left many confused (“how did John Travolta come back to life?” asked many a moviegoer). But as fresh as it was then, that structure, that scipt, co-written by Roger Avary, isn’t some relic now. It’s just taken for granted.
What’s interesting about Pulp Fiction today as “early Tarantino” is that the film remains a masterpiece but admittedly feels a bit on the lighter side. All the components that wowed us initially are still there. It’s cool and has quotable dialogue, an intricate plot, a fantastic mixtape soundtrack, and tons of unforgettable moments, whether they’re original or totally inspired by other pop culture. It’s a perfectly blended pastiche, timeless as a result. It’s not as deep in its themes or characters as some later Tarantino. It’s really just damn good pulp entertainment. (Christopher Campbell)
1. Inglourious Basterds
Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France, Inglourious Basterds confirmed the long-running hypothesis that Quentin Tarantino lives in a world of his own—or at the very least, his films do. His first foray into alternate history remains his best, a masterwork of that addictive mix of irreverence and meticulous craftsmanship that makes his films so exceedingly watchable. It’s got a wonderfully eclectic cast of heroes between the indomitable Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) and Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his merry band of Nazi-killing Basterds, featuring the likes of Sgt. Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz (Eli Roth) and the dapper Archie Hicox (who left my foolish 14-year-old self believing there were film critics out there who looked like Michael Fassbender, but I digress). Perhaps more importantly, though, the film has one of cinema’s most deliciously evil villains in Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), anal-retentive grammar Nazi, actual Nazi, and bona fide psychopath. He’s the absolute worst and every moment he’s on-screen is pure cinematic gold.
If there is one key to unlocking Tarantino, it is arguably the understanding that in his world, everything revolves around movies. Perhaps one of the things that make his films so enjoyable—even when things go full bloodbath or subtext takes decidedly problematic turns—is that his love and admiration for film and filmmaking radiates from every frame. In this manner, Inglourious Basterds snowballs towards an explosive finale that turns the outrageously absurd into something with a compelling inevitability. Hitler and basically the entire Nazi regime wiped out at a movie premiere through the explosive power of a nitrate film collection? And yet, in a Tarantino universe, it’s hard to imagine things playing out any other way.
“I think this just might be my masterpiece,” Lt. Raine announces just before the credits roll. He’s referring to the swastika carved into the double-crossing Landa’s forehead, but the closing line of Inglourious Basterds also feels like Tarantino commenting on the film itself—and on that account, I, for one, certainly agree. (Ciara Wardlow)