In a recent interview, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino stated that he would not be remiss to end his career with the release of his latest project: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in 2019. He remarked that directors often end their careers at the nadir instead of the zenith, and that he doesn’t want to end up in their boat.
The question is, though: did he really peak with his latest project?
Replete with a bevy of beautiful films from a profusion of prolific filmmakers—like Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List from Steven Spielberg, or Titanic and Terminator 2: Judgment Day from James Cameron—the 90s is perhaps the consensus best decade in all of cinema.
Those two directors scored big at the box office and won numerous awards throughout those ten years, but even still, the time seemed to be defined by dark, often comedic crime films, and Tarantino reigned supreme when his contemporaries were at their bests.
Spielberg and Cameron delved deep into multiple genres to produce films that consistently resonated with critics while also garnering massive numbers at the box office, yet somehow, Tarantino—even as an unknown filmmaker prior to the 90s—walked into the 21st Century as Hollywood’s leading man.
He homed in on one genre in particular—crime, that is—and built his career not through flashy set pieces or dramatic death scenes, instead making his case for the history books by dint of aestheticizing violence, punctuating scenes of thought-out dialogue longer than audiences were accustomed to, and toying with narrative structure like very few before.
And although those facets of storytelling set Tarantino apart from the rest, you don’t attract the attention that he did just by making good movies.
A lot of filmmakers like Steven Spielberg only directed their films. They don’t write them, act in them, or anything else like that. They’re just directors—and that’s okay—but on the other end of the spectrum you have guys like James Cameron, who released three movies as a director in the 1990s: Terminator 2, True Lies, and Titanic. The thing is, though, that he wrote the screenplays for each of them.
Tarantino falls into that same boat, but with a bit more revered of a resume.
Like Cameron, he also directed three films in the decade—Reservoir Dogs in ‘92, Pulp Fiction in ‘94, and Jackie Brown in ‘97—while also penning the scripts. All three of these movies are highly acclaimed today as staples of modern cinema (perhaps with the cruel and misguided exception of the last).
I need not divulge the success of his first two films, as Reservoir Dogs is a cult classic and Pulp Fiction is widely regarded as one of the greatest films to ever grace the silver screen. Jackie Brown is lesser known, and criminally underrated for it.
The thing that resonates most with me about Jackie Brown is how Tarantino balanced his own tactics of film-making inside a world full of established characters with inveterate motivations.
Adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, the movie exhibited Quentin’s ability to integrate a unique style of storytelling while staying true to the source material, and it’s still his only adaptation to date—everything else is completely original.
But I digress. Everyone is familiar with these three movies—they’re all great, and we all know it. And that’s the thing: We’re familiar with them because they’re purely Tarantino. His style jumps off the screen like an action film without the stunts and choreography, like a romance without the love songs.
Nobody else was able to achieve that sort of recognizability, albeit the Coen Brothers sure came close.
They wrote and directed a whopping five feature films in the 90s. Granted, there are two of them—double the brain power, double the speed to write and film, and while the Coens surely produced some classics—namely Fargo and The Big Lebowski—they were still no match for the auteur, who churned out more screenplays than the duo in the same length of time. He didn’t direct them all like the Coens, but come on, there are two of them. It’s basically cheating.
David Fincher—with movies like Seven and Fight Club—along with Martin Scorsese—do I need to say more than Goodfellas?—both undoubtedly peaked in the 90s. Then there’s Paul Thomas Anderson, the dark horse, who released his first film—Hard Eight—in 1996, and followed up with both Boogie Nights and Magnolia before the decade’s end. Had he started earlier with a couple more films under his belt, he could have given Tarantino a serious run for his money in terms of both quality and quantity.
But Quentin’s filmography stands out as more illustrious than his contemporaries because, well, he was just getting started and didn’t have much money, so, he had to work.
In order to fund filming for Reservoir Dogs, he sold his first screenplay: True Romance, later directed by Tony Scott. His marks as a filmmaker are scattered all throughout, from gripping conversations about everyday life to instances of intense, dramatized violence, and although it was directed by someone else, it truly feels like a Tarantino film.
The same cannot be said for Natural Born Killers, another Tarantino-written flick that this time saw direction under Oliver Stone. Completely disowned by Quentin, the final product allegedly paled in comparison to the original story, as Stone and his crew rewrote most of the script to fit their own, far less creative vision.
Most people actually enjoyed the flick—sure, it holds a pitiful critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes at 48%, but it also has an 81% approval rating from audiences. Plus, it made a decent amount at the box office, which is never a downside when you’re trying to make a name for yourself in the industry.
The final screenplay written but not directed by Tarantino was From Dusk Till Dawn, released in 1996 by his good friend and longtime collaborator Robert Rodriguez. Perhaps the most famous of the three screenplays not directed by Tarantino, this was also his first starring role. He shared the screen with George Clooney in this action-horror joint, showcasing his prowess as a leading man, but that was far from his first acting role.
One year prior to the release of From Dusk Till Dawn, Tarantino also provided his acting chops for Rodriguez’s neo-Western action flick Desperado. He was one of the film’s few sources of comedic value, and although he played a minor role, his standout scene nearly stole the show from Antonio Banderas.
Of course, we all know he made appearances in his first two feature films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The former was hardly even a supporting role as his character Mr. Brown died soon after the movie started, while the latter stands out as his most memorable performance to date: Jimmy, with his signature bathrobe and gourmet coffee.
The only true blemish on Tarantino’s 90s record came by way of Four Rooms, an anthology film directed by—you guessed it—four different people. Tarantino’s segment features one of the sole standout scenes, and his dialogue was transmitted wonderfully by Bruce Willis and Tim Roth, but the product as a whole featured a messy narrative with little stock put into the overall tone. It wasn’t the best look.
But he did act in his segment as well, and did a great job. Another director that both wrote his films and acted in them was Woody Allen. Of course, at this point in his career, Allen had been a Hollywood superstar for nearly two full decades. Sure, he wrote and directed ten feature films in the 90s—and starred in six of them, no less—but I would be shocked if the general audience could name more than a single Woody Allen film from this decade. Seriously. I’ll wait.
Tarantino had a vision with each screenplay he penned, and even though he didn’t direct all of the scripts himself, each film was pivotal in propelling him toward the trajectory we’ve seen him traverse over the past twenty years. If he’s truly done making movies, it’s safe to say he’s achieved a status that aspiring filmmakers can only dream of reaching, and the 90s were the most important years of his life.
He didn’t just direct films throughout the decade—he sat behind a desk and wrote them. He got in front of the camera and acted in them. He breathed life around every corner of Hollywood that sported the classic Mia Wallace release poster for Pulp Fiction, and inspired future generations of filmmakers for decades, perhaps even centuries to come. Through an unrequited passion for cinema, Tarantino transcended the bounds of normalcy in the 1990s, and the industry is better off for it.