A Royale W/ Cheese: the Best Films of Quentin Tarantino

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Love him or hate him, Quentin Tarantino definitely knows what he’s doing. It’s hard not to admire the enthusiasm and skill with which he mashes up and repurposes his favorite cult/lowbrow pop cultural material (pulp, exploitation, kung-fu, forgotten oldies tracks, foreign b-movies) and brings it to a whole new generation, even if you can’t quite stand to sit through a taped interview of the man. Further helping his case, is the sheer fact that apparent beneath the trappings of his style are an innate grasp of character and ear for memorable dialogue, which have made for some of the most striking and rewarding film experiences of the past twenty years. These are the five best:

5 Inglorious Basterds (2009)

An ultraviolent (what else) WWII fantasy /alternate history that takes sheer joy in the torture, bludgeoning and mutilation of members of Germany’s National Socialist Party, otherwise known as The Nazis. Christoph Walz makes one hell of an impression in his Oscar winning turn as crack SS detective Colonel Hans Landa, and Brad Pitt dusts off his country boy accent to portray Lieutenant Raine , leader of a battalion of Jewish-Americans known as The Basterds, whose task it is to strike fear into the heart of the Reich through savage massacres. Long stretches of dialogue foster tension (and even a healthy dose of screwball comedy) before eruptions of dizzying violence. Walz’ character toying with Brad Pitt and two of his men as they hopelessly attempt to impersonate Italian dignitaries is nothing short of priceless. Basterds landed on countless “Best of 2009” lists, despite some controversy.

4 Jackie Brown (1997)

Blaxploitation queen Pam Grier revived her career as the title character, a tough middle-aged stewardess caught up in the business of a charismatic arms dealer played by Samuel L. Jackson (when he was still regularly doing interesting work) in this adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel “Rum Punch”. Also receiving the patented Tarantino Late Career Boost is Robert Forster (earning an Oscar nom for Best Supporting) as good guy bail bondsman Max Cherry, who falls for Jackie at first sight. Robert DeNiro gives an effective and understated performance as Jackson’s used up ex-con partner, and Bridget Fonda plays a stoner beach bunny to an absolute T. Songs by 70s soul group The Delfonics play an important role as do several locations in L.A. County’s South Bay area (where Tarantino hails from). Look for a brief but hilarious cameo by Chris Tucker near the film’s beginning, his banter with Jackson is classic Tarantino.

3 Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)

Tarantino embraces his Hong Kong influences (so hard he practically breaks their ribs) with this slick and flashy action flick carried in no small part by Uma Thurman’s visceral performance as a revenge driven assassin known only in this installment as The Bride. After being shot in the head point blank by the unseen Bill in the films intro, The Bride awakens from a coma, reasonably upset, and dispatches a very creepy orderly (He’d been taking advantage of her comatose state… yeah) before making her escape. Samurai swords swing, blood spurts, and heads roll as Thurman goes on a globetrotting spree against her former comrades, including crime boss Lucy Liu (whose story is told via an evocative and brutal animated sequence) in the film’s spectacular climax. A welcome detour from Tarantino’s more reality-grounded, So-Cal set earlier work, and a smashing piece of entertainment.

2 Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Tarantino came blasting out of the gate Reservoir Dogs, a character driven heist flick. The director’s signature blend of golden oldies, buckets of blood, copious F and N-bombs, and characters prattling over pop-culture trivia permeates the tightly constructed tale of a jewelry store heist that goes terribly wrong and the undercover cop (Tim Roth) in the crew, who is quite painfully bleeding out from a gut-shot wound in the aftermath. Standouts include Steve Buscemi as the caustic motormouth Mr. Pink, Harvey Keitel as the fiercely loyal Mr. White, Michael Madsen as sadistic recent parolee Mr. Blonde, and film noir veteran Lawrence Tierney (Dillinger, Born To Kill) as their boss. Buscemi’s diatribe in the opening scene will have you questioning the practice of tipping for the rest of your days.

1 Pulp Fiction (1994)

The violent and hilarious non-linear trip through a seedy Southern California underworld that only Tarantino could have imagined is the quintessential 90s crime flick. Aside from being one of the most referenced and revered films of all time it’s got an electrifying cast that includes John Travolta (in the comeback of a lifetime), Samuel L. Jackson (delivering a few immortal monologues), Uma Thurman (“I said goddamn!”), Ving Rhames (looking not much like a bitch at all in fact) and some other Tarantino friends (Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, and a blink and you’ll miss him Steve Buscemi) to round things out. Bruce Willis also scores as a down and out boxer on the run from Rhames’ crime boss. Pulp Fiction earned seven Oscar nods (including Travolta and Jackson for their unforgettable work as the bantering hit-men), winning for Tarantino and Roger Avary’s dynamite script.

Honorable Mention

Kill Bill Vol. 2 – The more emotionally resonant of the two, with great work by Thurman again, as well as David Carradine as Bill, and Michael Madsen as a regretful collaborator.

Death Proof – Its got amazingly thrilling car action, and a cast of lovely women who beat Kurt Russell to death at the end. It’s pretty good watching.

That’s that for our Tarantino list. If you think you can do better, you are fully invited to.

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