Quentin Tarantino Meta-Analysis

Because the mill of content constantly requires grist, I’ve made a number of meta-analyses on a number of topics: the MCU, Pixar movies, the oeuvres of several directors. No Google search has been as forthcoming or complete as “tarantino movies ranked.” For one thing, there are fewer Tarantino movies than MCU or Spielberg movies, so completion is a simpler task.  Quentin Tarantino is popular with the hoi polloi and literati alike. His name is a box office draw, a click magnet, and an awards show plug. There are other directors with some kind of claim to the empty throne of Kubrick (Fincher, Nolan, etc.) who can only ever really pretend to that kind of facility no matter how much of that crossover praise they get. While Tarantino’s films are not like Kubrick’s, the way that a certain species of film bro—and I’m not just talking about the kino guys they make fun of on r/moviescirclejerk—approaches them and him with a kind of reverence. In other words, many Bothans died to bring us this information from all forty-one lists ranking Tarantino’s work, a number of rankings I don’t think I’m likely to see again. 

The process for Tarantino is the same as it was for other lists, but in case this is your first time out, here’s how it went:

  1. Comb the Internet as much as I could to find lists which ranked Tarantino’s movies from Reservoir Dogs to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
  2. The number one issue is that a surprising number of nimrods count Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and Kill Bill, Vol. 2 as one movie. (I understand that Tarantino has said as much himself?) One might ask questions like “If it’s one movie then why did they release them separately?” or “Why are they structured as two separate movies?” or “Are you sure you appreciated Sally Menke enough?” To get around this awkwardness, if a source counted the Kill Bill movies as one, I assigned both KB1 and KB2 the conflated score. This makes the math a little awkward, but if we were all less precious about calling multiple movies a single movie, we could have avoided this from the get-go. You can see more about this special little quagmire in my discussion of Tier 3. 
  3. The number two issue, albeit a much smaller one, is that you’ll find an outlet that won’t include Death Proof because it was part of a theatrically released double feature. (I am more sympathetic to this point of view than the Kill Bill Fiasco.) If a source doesn’t include Death Proof, I rate the other movies from 1-9 and leave the space for Death Proof blank on my sheet.
  4. I found a combination of lists from sources which, I’ll grant, are not all the gold standard in criticism, but generally speaking I wanted something a little better than “just someone’s blog.” The list of sources, in all: CBR, Cinelinx, Cinemablend, Cinemaholic, Collider, Complex, Consequence of Sound, Death by Films, Digital Spy, Empire, Esquire, EW, Far Out Magazine, Film Daily, the Film Magazine, Film School Rejects, Gamesradar, Gold Derby, GQ, High on Films, Hollywood Insider, Insider, The Manual, Metacritic, Movieweb Next Best Picture, Parade, Polygon, Rotten Tomatoes, Screencrush, Screenrant, Slant, Studiobinder, TSPDT, Thrillist, USA Today, Unilad, Variety, Vulture, the Washington Post, The Wrap, and Yahoo. In other words, some of these are aggregators, some of these are individual outlets, some of these are respectable…it’s a hodgepodge, but there are definitely a lot of them!
  5. The ranking system is very simple: write down the place the movie holds on each list, get an average over the 41, low number wins.

Tier 5: Literally No One’s Idea of a Top-Three Tarantino

10) Death Proof / Average score – 8.55

9) The Hateful Eight / Average score – 8.073

Death Proof is a bottom-two film on seventy percent of the lists on which it appears; Hateful Eight is a bottom-two film on forty-four percent of the lists on which it appears. This is more fair to one of them than the other. Without getting all snippy about how terrible I think The Hateful Eight is, I think that’s pretty clearly Tarantino’s worst movie; Death Proof doesn’t require that kind of snippiness, not least because I think there’s something genuinely interesting happening in that movie. There are Pixar movies about monsters leaping out of closets which are less concerned with monsters leaping out of closets than Quentin Tarantino is in Hateful Eight. At least Death Proof gets into the thrill of stuntwork, celebrating Zoe Bell by name and giving her some opportunities to show off what she can do. And yet, would I rate this movie all that much higher if I were going to do a Tarantino ranking of my own? Probably not. The idea of Grindhouse was essentially an amuse-bouche made to fit a gallon bucket of popcorn, and if that kind of idea falls short it tends not to leave much of itself behind.  

I think it’s probably more interesting to see what the people who had the most glowing things to say about each of these movies went for when they ranked them. USA Today is the highest spot for Hateful Eight at four, and that blurb praises the unreliability and untrustworthiness of the characters. As for Death Proof, two separate outlets both have it fourth. The Manual likes the horror/slasher aspects of the film, and Screencrush is on that paean to bygone stunts business that I mentioned earlier. On the whole, though, those three outlets are real outliers for those movies. Fourteen outlets have Hateful Eight ninth and seven have it tenth; in other words, more people put it at tenth than put it at sixth, seventh, or eighth. As for Death Proof, fourteen outlets put it tenth; that’s exactly as many as rated it fourth, sixth, seventh, or eighth. (No one rated it fifth; the other twelve ratings are ninth.) There is a bottom tier in any little project like this, and for Tarantino it’s no different; these two are not beloved of the rankers. 

Tier 4: Minor Tarantino

8) Django Unchained / Average score – 6.585

7) Kill Bill, Vol. 2 / Average score – 6.268

My plan is to get back to the “is it one movie or not” thing a little further with Vol. 1, so until then I guess we have to talk about these two movies on the merits as the rankers see them. The one caveat is that ballots which do look at the Kill Bill movies as one are probably pulling Vol. 2 up a little bit; when we get to the next tier we’ll look at how that happened.  

The merits are, as far as they go, hardly worth getting into! Between the two, they have one first-place vote (The Manual puts both Bills together and ranked them first) and one second-place vote (The Film Magazine rates Django second). If there’s something to talk about here, and, again, I’m not sure there’s really all that much to say, it’s that these two movies represent the poles of Tarantino’s success in the moment, and that it’s worthwhile to wonder how these rankings might look very different if we were doing this close to a decade back. Maybe Vol. 2 would still be hanging around back here; generally speaking people prefer Tarantino’s most hyperkinetic slashy effort to this movie, a more subdued film without a polestar as fixed as Lady Snowblood to draw from. But I doubt very much that Django would have been down here for most folks in 2012. By the Rotten Tomatoes percentage, which since the inauguration of that site has been a pretty good marker for immediate reaction, Django is fourth. They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? keeps track of where the movies have been, and among 21st Century movies, Django shot itself out of the cannon at 237, peaked a few years later at 221, and is now at 375 five years on after declining every single year. That’s currently last among 21st Century Tarantino movies. Even Death Proof is a little higher now. 

It’s tempting to make this a dissertation of sorts on how life comes at you pretty fast. I don’t know that it’s all fair to Django that it’s dropped in the public eye. Some of that has to do with Tarantino’s Aussie cameo, which I think everyone kind of looked at sideways in the moment, and a decade later absolutely no one likes it. Our national obsession with Christoph Waltz has faded as well; winning a second Supporting Actor prize in two attempts wears better on Mahershala Ali than Waltz, apparently. There’s been a rash of revisionist slavery content in the intervening years since, very little of it done as well as Django, and that sort of casts a pall on this particular movie. (To be clear, I’m not someone who thinks it was done all that well in Django either, and maybe there’s actually a pretty hard ceiling on “revisionist slavery” stories.) 

But then there’s the stuff that’s just actively not working in the movie, or which a wider audience has a better sense of . In 2012, proto-Klansmen who were too stupid to cut bigger eyeholes in their hoods were the funniest part of Django Unchained, and it’s a genuinely funny scene which also casts them as people too ludicrously stupid to cause any real harm. In the intervening years, it’s impossible to just see these people as jokes, even if seeing them as jokes is essential to the movie. Take BlacKkKlansman, which directly connects the true story of a lynch mob (as told by Harry Belafonte) back to the release of Birth of a Nation. For every scene where the Klansmen are too dumb to tie their own shoelaces, there is a reminder that you don’t have to be smart to be actively harmful, or worse. I think there’s some credence to the critique that for a movie where you’d assume Django is the heroic figure, it sure seems like the real heroic arc belongs to King Schultz. 

If you look back at Tarantino Oscar history, these movies couldn’t be more different. Four of his films have gotten zero Oscar attention: Reservoir Dogs (which is too bad, but it makes sense), both Kill Bill movies, and Death Proof (which makes sense for a different reason). Maybe the twins were the wrong genre for the Oscars, or maybe they weren’t triumphant enough to cast as a comeback for Tarantino after the slammin’ success of Pulp Fiction. (Rotten Tomatoes has Jackie Brown fifth and Metacritic has it tenth, just to give a sense of where the perception of the man was at the time.) With hindsight I don’t think it’s wild to think that Uma Thurman could have picked up a Best Actress nod for Vol. 2, or maybe there’s an Editing nod for Vol. 1, but clearly that’s not where Oscar brains were at in the early 2000s. 

Back to the recital. Jackie Brown got a Supporting Actor nod for Robert Forster, but no wins. The rest of his movies have picked up at least one but no more than two wins. Inglourious Basterds took Waltz’s Supporting Actor win from eight nominations; Ennio Morricone got his Oscar for The Hateful Eight; Tarantino won his Oscar for Original Screenplay for Pulp Fiction, but it failed to win in any of its six other slots. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is overwhelmingly the most nominated Tarantino movie, with ten, but it took home just two Brad Pitt, in a starry group of Supporting Actor nominees where he was the only one without a statue, got his. The other was for Production Design. Django, in a really wide open year, was nominated in half as many categories but got just as many victories; Tarantino picked up a second Oscar for Original Screenplay, and Waltz, of course, won Supporting Actor. I imagine this may sound sort of ridiculous at first, but there’s a possibility that Tarantino’s best chance to proffer a Best Picture winner was for Django. It was an absolutely hogwild year. Argo cruised on an enormous wave of hype, becoming the only movie I can think of which turned “our director didn’t get a nomination” into a strength come the heart of Oscar season. Lincoln went 2-12 at a ceremony which I kind of expect will be Spielberg’s last serious Oscars hurrah. Life of Pi was the most awarded movie. The Oscars’ obsession at the time with Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper, and David O. Russell was in full tilt. But it’s just that kind of chaos which makes it clear there was never a true frontrunner there, and you wonder if, knowing as we do now that 12 Years a Slave would win the following year, maybe a better push from Tarantino and Weinstein makes a difference. 

Tier 3: Mirrors of Tarantino Zealotry

6) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood / Average score – 5.488

5) Kill Bill, Vol. 1 / Average score – 5.049

There’s actually a fair bit of space between Vol. 1 and Hollywood…it’s just that there’s even more space between them, Jackie Brown, and Vol. 2. Before touching on the poles of zealotry present here in Tier 3, I think I’m a little overdue to talk about the “is it one movie or two?” thing as it has affected the data. 

Twenty-eight ballots split the Kill Bill movies, and thirteen treat them as one movie. On split ballots, Vol. 1 comes out with an average of 5.14 and Vol. 2 comes out with 7.04. Both of these are lower than the given averages, and that’s because when those thirteen voters treated the Kill Bill movies as a single movie, the average rating was 4.69. In other words…if everyone took Tarantino as seriously as he took himself, Kill Bill – Swords and Sandals would be fifth instead of Vol. 1, but maybe a little closer to Jackie Brown than Vol. 1 is. I’m not entirely sure what it is about acting like two movies are one which makes them treat them with greater fealty than they deserve, or maybe Vol. 2 just feels like it means more on the heels of Vol. 1. (On a personal note, I do think Vol. 2 is the better movie, and maybe I’m the wrong person to ask about this; I watched the first one on a Wednesday night and then watched the second the following evening, so it’s possible I’ve got a little “they’re basically one movie” shine on me after all that kvetching about it.) 

There are, generally speaking, two kinds of Tarantino die-hards, although they can be slightly difficult to differentiate between in the wild because what’s appealing to both groups is so similar. The Vol. 1 fans tend to like Inglourious Basterds as well; they are the sort who still smoke cigarettes; you can find them in magazines like GQ and Empire. The Hollywood fans really, really want you to know that the only Tarantino movie they’d put above this one is Jackie Brown, they write for Vulture, and they started vaping before everyone else did. While it’s sort of rare to see the Kill Bill movies or Hollywood bumping up against each other in the top three or four, they do share something which I think keeps both of them from rising all that much higher: cartoon violence. Hollywood I’ve written about before, but just like those silly villain reveals in Disney/Pixar movies remind us that those movies aren’t for adults, the seemingly endless violence in the last twenty minutes or so of the movie reminds us of exactly the same thing about Tarantino. Vol. 1 is more violent for a longer period of time. It requires more craft in that the action needs to be commanded and be legible and balletic. The violence is sort of the point in Tarantino fandom (at least among the zealots), and whether or not you like your violence fairly direct and almost participatory, as in Vol. 1, or if you like your violence swift and with the option to wave a hand at it ironically is the key distinguisher. 

A final thought: maybe it’s just that I listen to a lot of vaping Tarantino fans, but I was a little surprised that Hollywood is not in the top half of Tarantino’s oeuvre by this fairly thorough measure. It’s the kind of movie I can imagine rising over the years, but I know my hypothesis was that it would wind up at least fifth, maybe even fourth. Given that the revisionism is in vogue with Tarantino and probably will continue to be as he carries on in this vein (and that he doesn’t touch that third-rail of literal slavery in Hollywood), I’d guess that over the next couple years we might see Hollywood creep a little further up. 

Tier 2: Second-Place Tarantino, Depends on Who Asks

4) Jackie Brown / Average score – 4.171

3) Reservoir Dogs / Average score – 4.073

2) Inglourious Basterds / Average score – 3.341

The title of this tier is a little bit misleading, because Pulp Fiction has at least as many second-place votes as any one of these so-called second-place movies. (Thirty-six lists put it in the top two, with ten of them placing it second, but I’m getting ahead of myself.) Jackie Brown has ten second-place votes, and Reservoir Dogs and Inglourious Basterds have eight apiece. But given that Pulp Fiction is, by the metric I’ve got here, far and away the first-place film, it’s much more revealing to think about what it means to say that one of these three is Tarantino’s second-best movie. 

Here’s a chart:

What stands out to me is the difference between Jackie Brown and the two movies immediately above it on this list. When Inglourious Basterds or Reservoir Dogs comes second, Jackie Brown has a lower average than either one of the remainders. When Pulp Fiction is second, the most likely film to come first is Inglourious Basterds—on other meta-analyses, a 2.2 average is typically good enough to be the top-ranked movie—and then it’s basically a dead heat between Jackie Brown and Reservoir Dogs for the next spot. But when Jackie Brown is in the 2-spot, not only does Pulp Fiction have its lowest score (though it’s still an overwhelming choice for #1), but the scores for the two other second-placers are lower than in any other scenario. 

I made fun of the pro-Jackie Brown crowd up there a little—speaking as someone who would probably put Jackie Brown third on his own Tarantino list, they tend to be sort of smug in print or on podcasts about what an underrated film it is, how mature, how different—but they stand out. The person who puts Jackie Brown second is a bit of a freethinker, at least as far as this data goes. Obviously the person who puts Jackie Brown in the top spot instead of second is thinking even more individually, but such minds make up a shade under 10% of the total voting body. Ten second-place votes means about a quarter of all ballots have Jackie Brown there, and that a third of the outlets put Jackie Brown in their top two. There’s a personality implied there, someone who really likes Tarantino movies but misses the indie version, someone who wants that writer of screenplays to write screenplays that won’t end up on dorm room posters.    

The Reservoir Dogs second-place voter is, definitionally, someone who put Pulp Fiction at number one. The Jackie Brown results are probably my favorite thing about the graph, but the thing that made my eyes get a little bigger is seeing that even “1” in the green Pulp Fiction bar. The Reservoir Dogs voter is also almost certainly voting for Inglourious Basterds third; six out of eight did just that. These are somewhat predictable people, somewhat careful about quality, but it’s also worth noting that two of the second-place votes for Reservoir Dogs come from aggregators in Rotten Tomatoes and TSPDT. In other words…of course they care about critical quality, given that they’re reflecting it. 

Inglourious Basterds is unusual because it’s second on as many lists as it is first (eight for both). It’s got a happy medium that neither of its compeers in the second-place derby have, which is evident from the fact that it’s, well, in second place. The most common landing spot for Jackie Brown is second, and the most common spot for Reservoir Dogs is sixth. Inglourious Basterds is most commonly found at three; it’s in the top three on 63% of all the lists, which is not a success rate that either one of its competitors here can emulate. If Jackie Brown is evidence that you can think for yourself and Reservoir Dogs is a combination of responding to critical consensus and appreciating Tarantino in his rowdy independent days, then Inglourious Basterds at 2 is celebrating the most interesting shift in his career. Out of Los Angeles, doing a homage to a genre that I don’t think anyone saw coming from him, directing the most beloved movie with subtitles until Parasite, turning Adolf Hitler’s face to Swiss cheese by way of Bavaria, you can see him trying something new. It is the most original choice in his career, signified by language we can’t hear his cadence in as clearly and spoken by actors he had not turned to previously. For all of the twisty movies of that decade following Fight Club, I struggle to think of one that had me turned around like the twist in Inglourious Basterds. Anyone can make up Ed Norton hallucinating Brad Pitt; it takes an actual splurge of creativity to let us believe that the Basterds’ mission will fail because we know what didn’t happen to Hitler, and then in the end to surprise us: not only does their mission succeed, but the mission of a vengeful Jewish woman who loves movies just as much as Quentin succeeds as well. 

 

Tier 1: Pulp Fiction

1) Pulp Fiction / Average score – 1.537 

What I’ve found in doing these meta-analyses is that if a director’s top-ranked movie in the analysis is averaging a score of 2.0 or below, that’s a sign of a really strong consensus. A director whose top movie is in that 1.75 area has made a movie that just about everyone thinks is his or her best. And a director whose top movie is in that 1.5 zone has made something which combines two factors: critical unanimity and the implication that the rest of the oeuvre just isn’t as strong. Not to give the whole game away—and I am always hunting for another list like a pig snuffles for truffles, so I don’t expect these exact numbers to hold—but out of the fourteen directors I’ve done this for, Tarantino has the lowest average for number 1. Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, John Carpenter, and Martin Scorsese are closest to him, although by the time you get out to Scorsese, the distance between Pulp Fiction and Scorsese’s #1 by consensus is similar to the distance between Vol. 1 and Hollywood

Part of the reason the top Tarantino film is Pulp Fiction has to do, I think, with the sheer number of sources I’ve got. No one else is likely to get as many total looks as Tarantino for the reasons I listed at the top, and because of that I think that, the idiosyncrasies of this particular meta-analysis were always going to be sanded down. I haven’t done the math on this, but if I’d stopped at like, fifteen entries, maybe by some chance Pulp Fiction would average out at like, 1.95 and it’d be less of an outlier. All things being equal, I think that Pulp Fiction ending up as this overwhelming number one for Tarantino proves something more than just “avoid small sample sizes.” It’s proof that everything cool becomes establishment eventually, just like the fact that the lessons of Breathless were repackaged for Pulp Fiction. In 1994, I’m sure it must have felt rebellious to stump for Pulp Fiction rather than Forrest Gump or Quiz Show. In 2021, while those movies are still very much of varying quality, I don’t think anyone can somehow pretend that it’s edgier or cooler to choose Pulp Fiction. These rankings give us a clue to the path a former independent filmmaker’s most vital movie takes to become part of that stodgiest, most established bundle: a canon. 

2 thoughts on “Quentin Tarantino Meta-Analysis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s