Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Waltz, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Bruhl, Til Schweiger, Jacky Ido, B.J. Novak, August Diehl
Nominations: Picture, Director – Quentin Tarantino, Supporting Actor – Christoph Waltz, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
Win: Supporting Actor – Christoph Waltz

The gloriousness of Inglourious Basterds comes down to its climactic ending in the cinema opera box during the premiere of Nation’s Pride.  Up to that point, we’re flying through the ride that is Quentin Tarantino’s take on World War II: there are Nazis, Allies, lots of extreme violence and language, and numerous references and homages to previous films.  It’s really what we’d expect from such an iconoclast, but then he pulls the rug out from under us by having “The Bear Jew” Donny Donowitz machine-gun both Hitler and Joseph Goebbels.  I don’t know if it’s accurate to say the move is a plot twist, but it’s definitely one of the most surprising turns in film history.  There are countless films depicting World War II and alternate histories had Germany won, but this is (from my cinematic frame of reference) the first time audiences got to see one of the most evil and despised men in human history get the bloody and violent comeuppance he so rightly deserved.

Before the credits roll, Aldo Raine speaks the film’s final line: “I think this just might be my masterpiece.”  The line is most likely Tarantino self-referencing himself as he spent about a decade writing the screenplay and considered it the best writing he’s ever done.  It has one of his best characters—Colonel Hans Landa—who is also one of film’s best characters and some of his most compelling dialogue and monologues, so it’s tough to say the film isn’t his masterpiece.  Going with IMDb users, though, both Pulp Fiction [1994] and Django Unchained [2012] rank higher on the Top 250 list; and for as great as Inglourious Basterds is, it’s not as groundbreaking as Pulp Fiction

That’s not to say a director can’t have more than one masterpiece (see Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, John Ford, Christopher Nolan, Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, and others), but in my opinion, Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained carry more of Tarantino’s cinematic essence.  It’s a great film, to be sure, but a masterpiece…?  Maybe—but then that’s the rub, isn’t it?  If you have to question whether a film is a masterpiece—or have a character in the film imply that the film is a masterpiece—is it really a masterpiece?  That’s more of a “it is” decision and not one that has to be debated.

It’s a fantastic film that upends many World War II film tropes and expectations.  If anything, the film falls short of the best of the best because like many of Tarantino’s films, the underlying themes get lost in the spectacle.  What, at its heart, is Inglourious Basterds about?  While it’s not an empty film, what we’re supposed to think about when the film ends is unclear.  Without that lingering message swimming in our heads, I can’t help but call the film a second-rate effort by a master filmmaker.  We remember the characters and dialogue, sure, but when it comes down to it, nothing else about the film lasts.  We’re not left as empty as Landa’s morality, but we do have to wonder, beyond the memorable characters and dialogue, what was the point of the preceding 150 minutes.