(Spoiler alert: While this doesn’t spoil any plot points about “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” it does offer an interpretation that might skew how you watch the film, or not. Plot details of other Tarantino movies have been kept to a minimum.)
To try to better understand “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” and where it fits in the Quentin Tarantino film canon, I sat down and ranked his films in order from least to most Tarantino. What do I mean by “most Tarantino”? That’s exactly the question I wanted to answer. I think the answer is, “a film that no one but Tarantino could make.”
What’s funny about Tarantino films isn’t just what we’re seeing on screen, but the audacity of putting it there. Did that character we love really just get killed? Like that? Is Tarantino really spending this much time on a conversation about the Royale With Cheese? Is he really gripping onto third-rail subjects like violence against women, slavery and the Holocaust?
To me, Tarantino films are more about film itself than anything else. They’re defenses and celebrations of cinema — and by extension, the idea that cinema should be pure, uninfluenced by pearl-clutching or outrage or ideology. His use of horrible events in history, in the service of movies, is a defiant defense of his right to do so. Without spoiling anything, I think “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” fits neatly into that notion.
The film suggests that among other things, Tarantino is tired of facile, tweet-length critiques of any works of art a tweeter might find “problematic.” The changing Hollywood of 1969, with hippies breaking into homes, could be the changing Hollywood of 2019, with unqualified critics killing artists’ babies. By “critics,” I mean all of us — social media has made critics of us all.
Some critics are judging movies not by whether they’re good, but by whether the characters in them are good. (Or worse, critics are offering critiques that signal their goodness. Justifiably horrified by the real world, we’ve demanded that reassuring morality be displayed on our screens.
Well-known hallmarks of Tarantino films include a display of vast pop culture knowledge, coupled with a gift for remixing and elevating it, in a way that makes us think about our values and taboos and why they’re our values and taboos. His frequent shots of female feet invite us to think not just about fetishizing feet, but about fetishization as a concept. It’s an admission that we are all obsessive and strange creatures, and shouldn’t lie to ourselves.
Tarantino is a writer who doesn’t try to disguise writing as tossed-off found poetry — he’s transparent about the fact that he wants to give his actors great lines, and keep fans surprised. His scripts swagger.
Given all those thoughts, here’s how I would rank Tarantino’s films in terms of their inimitable Tarantino-ness. (I left out his contribution to “Four Rooms,” and counted “Kill Bill, Vol. 1” and “Kill Bill, Vol. 2” as one movie, as Tarantino prefers.) Of course, this is an imperfect process, and I invite your disagreement. Arguing about movies, I’m told, is a very Tarantino thing to do.
9. “Jackie Brown” (1997)
This may be the only Tarantino film that feels like it isn’t about movies but about aging. It’s a beautiful, controlled movie that does everything masterfully. I think Tarantino felt the need to make this movie to show that he could do things straight. And it still throws in deeply personal touches, like references to South Bay locales that were aspirational to fellow South Bay kids like me. I’ll always have deep loyalty to a movie that climaxes at the Del Amo Mall.
8. “The Hateful Eight” (2015)
Despite the absence of many early Tarantino touchstones (feet, pop culture references, rediscovered pop gems), this is one of Tarantino’s most audacious movies in terms of how far it dares to go — not just in violence, obviously, but in breaking taboos and, most interestingly, in taking its time. It almost feels like another director could have made it around 1968 or so, if not for, you know, the blood and forced oral sex and narrative sleight-of-hand.
7. “Reservoir Dogs” (1992)
The film started two ’90s trends that became obvious Tarantinoisms: dialogue that picks apart previous decades’ pop culture, and deep-cut soundtracks. Tarantino wasn’t the first director to feature characters dissecting pop culture (Richard Linklater’s 1990 “Slacker,” for one, has a very Gen-X take on Smurfs). But Tarantino set the standard for using these kinds of conversations to let his characters reveal themselves. (Aside: In my opinion, Whit Stillman perfected pop-culture-dissection-as-character-reveal in the “Lady and the Tramp” scene in 1998’s “The Last Days of Disco.”)
6. “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” (2019)
Tarantino’s latest feels like melancholic nostalgia on the surface, but the more I think about it the more it feels like a cantankerous defense of cinema and the professionals who make it against armchair critics and their self-promoting judgments. Let artists handle art, the film argues, without needing to come out and say it. Even some of his shot choices (hint: driving) and casting decisions (hint: Emile Hirsch) seem almost designed to provoke people who still remember past flare-ups of internet outrage.
Tarantino has baked the pop-culture references directly into his story, leaving room for splendid digressions, but the only characters who overtly discuss pop culture on screen do so in the most brain-dead and self-serving way possible. Looking for the secret ulterior motives of Madonna songs and Superman comics was a very ’90s Gen-X thing to do, and it was fun while it lasted. But in 2019, Tarantino suggests this kind of pop-culture dissection has spoiled. He leaves it, this time around, to some very despicable Baby Boomers.
5. “Inglorious Basterds” (2009)
This one definitely handles the “audacious” part, given that still-debated ending. The dialogue is maybe Tarantino’s best in any movie, and it feels on the surface like a furious rejection of using films as propaganda. But… is it a propaganda movie itself? A propaganda movie for the forces of good instead of evil? This is the first of three movies in which Tarantino triangulates, by making the bad guys so evil that we cheer on everything the good guys do against them, no matter how heinous it might ordinarily seem. (The others are “Django Unchained” and “Once Upon a Time.”) It’s a great screenwriting trick, and great screenwriting — and transparency about the fact that his writing is writing — is another Tarantino hallmark.
4. “Django Unchained” (2012)
The entire movie has a “he went there” tension that keeps you rapt, and a little nervous. It feels like a pair with “Inglorious Basterds,” given that it’s another period piece that pits the heroes against white supremacists. But this movie might be slightly more Tarantino than “Basterds,” because it does a better job of articulating (at least what I interpret to be) his attitude toward screen violence. As Tarantino once explained on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” “Django” documents the violence of slavery with brutal honesty and no exploitation. But it treats the wish-fulfillment of Django’s much-deserved revenge as almost fantastical. Movies are not reality, “Django” reminds us constantly. Movies are movies.
3. “Death Proof” (2007)
It’s all here. The feet, the music, the grit, the violence, the languid dialogue, the great hang. When Tarantino called Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” one of the 10 best movies of all time, he pointed out: “There are certain movies that you hang out with the characters so much that they actually become your friends. … and those movies are usually quite long, because it actually takes that long of a time to get past a movie character where you actually feel that you know the person and you like them…when it’s over, they’re your friends.” The only thing that keeps “Death Proof” from being the most Tarantino Tarantino movie is that, at under two hours, it isn’t quite long enough.
2. “Pulp Fiction” (1994)
The film has drawn so many cynical imitators that it’s vaguely possible to imagine someone who isn’t Tarantino making a similar movie, albeit one that isn’t as good. But the imitators latched onto the violence and music and cool and missed out on the heart, and the hope. (Yeah, the hopeful people may be lying to themselves, but still.) It’s a dazzling look at nostalgia, fetishization and the pain of subverted expectations.
1. “Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and 2” (2003-04)
This is my favorite Tarantino movie; of course I think it’s the most Tarantino. All the love and and ingenuity and obsessions come together more beautifully here than they do in any other Tarantino film. The homages come wall-to-wall, down to the Bruce Lee jumpsuit, but the story stands on its own. There are grace notes galore: Tarantino couldn’t resist another pop-culture speech, this time about “Superman.” And it’s easy to imagine Tarantino watching the Zamfir, master of the pan flute ads that were ubiquitous in 1980s syndicated TV breaks, and banking away “The Last Shepherd” as the perfect soundtrack to the perfect final moments of “Kill Bill, Vol. 1.”
“Kill Bill” is bodacious and rowdy and incredibly fun, but it’s also… elegant. It dignifies all of the sometimes-maligned martial arts flicks Tarantino grew up loving, reframing them for audiences who might once have only mocked their American-TV dubbing. No one else could have made anything like it.