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“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” Is The Film Quentin Tarantino Was Born To Make

In a very real way, Quentin Tarantino’s whole career has been building up to this moment. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may be his masterwork. Chock full of his obsessions, the movie combines everything that we’ve come to know and love (or in some cases, despise) about Tarantino’s filmmaking. One of his best, this film stands tall with the great works of his career. To simply call it one of 2019’s best is to do it a disservice. In taking audiences back to 1969, albeit a version of it imagined by him, he’s telling a story as no one else can. Bravo sir.

The ninth outing from the iconic filmmaker, the film is set in Tarantino’s vision of 1969 Hollywood, right as the Golden Age was set to come crashing down in a wave of violence. For actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best friend/stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), their glory days have come and gone. The former has been reduced to guest spots on television shows playing one off villains, while the latter can’t get work, forced to drive around his buddy. As they navigate Los Angeles, changes are afoot. The industry, as well as the town, are changing, with the looming specter of some strange hippies on the fringes of society. While Rick and Cliff struggle to stay afloat, Rick’s neighbor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) goes about her life. Soon, the three will become forever linked on one fateful night. If this sounds like a very broad overview, that’s on purpose. Tarantino has taken a novelistic approach to this sprawling material and it’s best to go in cold and let it all just wash over you. Tarantino writes and directs, as always, with cinematography provided by longtime QT collaborator and multiple Oscar winner Robert Richardson. In addition to those big three, the absolutely jam packed cast finds time for the likes of Zoe Bell, Austin Butler, Julia Butters, Clifton Collins Jr., Bruce Dern, Lena Dunham, Dakota Fanning, Nicholas Hammond, Damon Herriman, Emile Hirsch, Damien Lewis, Michael Madsen, Scoot McNairy, Mike Moh, Timothy Olyphant, Al Pacino, Luke Perry, Kurt Russell, Margaret Qualley, Harley Quinn Smith, Sydney Sweeney, and Rafal Zawierucha, among many others. It’s about as full a cinematic meal as it gets.

I loved this movie and gladly would have watched a five hour version of this story. Tarantino has way more going on here than initially meets the eye. Sure, he’s writing a love letter to an era of Hollywood he loves. However, he’s also angry at how that era also stole Sharon Tate. To that end, and I’ll avoid spoilers, the presence of Tate is utilized as a way to make her not simply a murder victim, but another dreamer in Tinseltown. A sequence when Margot Robbie’s Tate sits in a theater to watch an audience watch her in a film is one of QT’s most touching scenes to date. What on the surface appeared to be a lark about the 60’s and a fading actor instead becomes so much more. For nearly two and a half hours, he’s working in a slightly different key than usual. Then, when the moment many anticipate/dread arrives, he handles it in exactly the way we all should have expected. That will divide audiences, but I was able to go down that road with him. There’s a discussion to be had another time about this particular scene, but it’s the only one that potentially held me back from the four star rating I eventually acquiesced to.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have never been better than they are here. DiCpario matches his tour de force in The Wolf of Wall Street, while Pitt crafts his most brilliant turn yet. The two stars go all in on playing loser schlubs, and clearly are having a ball. For DiCaprio, an extended sequence spent with young Julia Butters offers a profound look at the character, highlighting just how brilliant this portrayal is. For Pitt, it’s actually the interactions with his dog, as well as the way others in the movie speak of his past, that fill in the blanks. Then, there’s a riot of a scene with Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee that’s among Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s funniest.

Tarantino clearly has a lot on his mind here, and takes his time in telling us his story. At times, it’s almost like one big inside joke, where he’s able to indulge all of his most personal fantasies about a time period he wasn’t able to witness firsthand in the industry. To some degree, he’s also showing us what his take on the Great American Novel would be. For a little over two hours, the film is content to simply follow his character over the course of a few days, giving you a full view of their lives. Then, a time jump gets them to a place he needs them to be for his denouement. It’s a master trick that he accomplishes to make the time go as quickly as it does. Armed with perfect costumes, impeccable set design, and reliably beautiful cinematography from Academy Award winner Robert Richardson, he crafts his most mature work yet.

Oscar wise, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood could very well turn out to be a juggernaut. More on that in a full on analysis to come, but look for the flick to potential score double digit nominations from the Academy. Depending on category placement, it’s easy to see Best Picture, Best Director (for Tarantino), Best Actor (for Dicaprio), Best Supporting Actor (for Pitt), Best Original Screenplay (also for Tarantino), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design being nominations that come to pass without much fuss. Then, if voters really fall for it, Best Supporting Actress (for Robbie), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing might not be far off. Depending on how the year shakes out, this could be his moment to finally compete for wins in Director and Picture.

This weekend, audiences don’t know what they’re in for. Once Upon a Time is a glorious good time, full of fun and all of the hallmarks of Quentin Tarantino, but it’s also a mature, melancholy, and even sad work. There’s an anger at injustice that the director is working out. All of his films have been fantasy, but this is as close to reality as it gets for him. There will undoubtedly be some who aren’t on board with this vision. For me, it’s one of Tarantino’s great movies and a must see. Right now, it’s the best work of the year so far.

Be sure to check out Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in theaters everywhere on Friday!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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