1994: Pulp Fiction
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
For many, 1994 was a battle for the soul of cinema, a clash between the old-fashioned ideas and traditional methods of the Hollywood system and the brash, upstart independents full of piss and vinegar and ready to rattle the cages. And in the end, Old Hollywood won and Forrest Gump took home Best Picture and the followers of Pulp Fiction were left to seethe and fume and bemoan the defeat of their new prophet.
Here we are nearly twenty years later and that night is still the last time “Robert Zemeckis” and “Oscar” have been mentioned in the same breath. Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino, a winner for his Pulp Fiction screenplay, has had his last two films nominated for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, got nominated for Best Director for Inglourious Basterds, won another Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Django Unchained, and has the distinct advantage of never having directed creepy-looking almost-human motion-captured characters in anything. Pulp Fiction may have lost the battle that night, but Tarantino won the war.
At the time, having grown up in the blockbuster era’s birthing ground of the 1970s and 1980s, I was all about the mainstream. Spielberg had just made his comeback with the Jurassic Park/Schindler’s List double-header the previous year. I made damn sure I saw Gump and The Lion King and True Lies and Speed as soon as they came out (I actually saw Gump and Lion King on the same day). I knew about independent cinema, but those were the movies you waited to rent from Blockbuster, because they sure weren’t playing for long in Orlando, if they played at all. There were some quirky films in my repertoire — I clung to Brazil like an artsy blanket to vouch for my cinematic cred — but for the most part, I was Hollywood’s target demographic.
I won’t go as far as to say Pulp Fiction changed all that — I’m still at a multiplex on a Friday or Saturday my fair share of weeks — but it did open my eyes to what I’d been overlooking. Because Tarantino helped make the non-mainstream cool. Appreciating obscure movies was no longer some dry academic pursuit, filled with stodgy nods and lofty, knowing references to Bergman and Fellini. Here was this poetically obscene motor-mouth who’d worked in a video store espousing the virtues of spaghetti Westerns and chop-socky movies and giving them all the artistic weight of foreign art films. But he also knew those too. And was just as enthusiastic about them. Then he threw all that knowledge and passion up on the screen in a dazzling, messy, elegant, profane flash of pop culture. His excitement was infectious. And I wanted to feel the same way.
That said, were it not for my insane admiration for The Last of the Mohicans, it would have likely been Reservoir Dogs representing Tarantino on this list rather than Pulp Fiction. I didn’t see it until after I saw Fiction, but knowing it had come first made Fiction seem like somewhat less of a revelation, since that Tarantino voice seemed already fully formed in Dogs. And the non-linear storytelling felt much more natural the first time around. But Pulp Fiction is no less deserving even if it is sort of a second choice. It’s no less thrilling to watch now than it was twenty years ago. And if every Tarantino film since then hasn’t had the same effect on me — the Kill Bills are one great film stretched out into two merely good ones, and Django Unchained feels more like a love letter to his favorite genres than its own thing — it’s still exciting to watch what he’ll come up with next. And you know his heart and soul will be in it.