ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD is finally available to watch at home. And though it had one of the great theater runs of the year, it feels right that the chillest cinematic hang of the summer is now marinating in people’s heads from their home screens. Quentin Tarantino’s 9th and possibly penultimate film — a dark fairy tale about the mythical human beings and competing energies that occupied Hollywood in 1969 — really demands repeat viewings to fully grasp the scope and magnitude of its insatiable gravitational pull. 

A far cry from Tarantino’s last two films, 2012’s Spaghetti “Southern” Django Unchained and 2015’s Western/horror whodunnit The Hateful Eight, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD marks a deeply personal and surprisingly whimsical turn for the director, weaving the story of aging TV actor-and-stuntman duo Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) through the lives of pivotal ‘60s-LA icons Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and the Manson family to right historical wrongs in a cathartic, breathtaking, epic hangout comedy. I saw ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD three times in theaters, and watched it at home on 4K for the first time this week. And it was the home-viewing that convinced me I’d be watching it for the rest of my life. 

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) | © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Nearly 6 months after its theatrical release, plenty has been said and written about ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD — it’s joys, flaws, the labyrinth of old-Hollywood references, problematic moments, and everything in between. It’s currently popping up on more best-of-the-year lists than it isn’t, and broadly considered a top-tier entry in Tarantino’s filmography. The A.V. Club’s Katie Rife called it “Tarantino’s Eden, the unspoiled garden when the things he loves don’t have to be sought out or championed because they permeate every aspect of life.” The film is indeed a seamless Tarantino joint, offering everything we’ve come to expect from the bombastic auteur’s oeuvre, only with the technical restraint (if Tarantino is capable of such a thing) and contemplative eye of a maturing veteran filmmaker.

And the end result is instant iconography. Wistful editing, meticulous costume, and production design, a killer kaleidoscopic soundtrack, and garishly vivid cinematography do a lot of heavy lifting for this movie. But ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD is ultimately grounded in the colossal magnetism of its three leads. Tarantino is a proven master of writing and casting roles that redefine an actor’s career and force us to see them in a new light. With ONCE UPON A TIME, he magically offers up two career-redefining roles for two of our greatest living movie stars. Cliff Booth is an unexpected, albeit precise concentration of Pitt’s effortlessly cool and character-actor core. And DiCaprio’s sad-clown performance as “Cowboy actor” Rick Dalton might be his best ever.

Then there’s Margot Robbie, whose arrestingly empathetic turn as Sharon Tate holds the whole thing together. Tate’s positioning in the narrative, which takes place in the month’s, days, and hours leading up to what would have been her tragic death at the hands of the Manson family (all who have seen the film knows where it deviates from history), has been one of the film’s many points of controversy. I’m not particularly interested in telling people they were wrong to point out Robbie’s lack of dialogue in the film, nor am I here to say that it isn’t something worth evaluating at a time when representation is an essential cultural priority. But I do think Robbie deserves heaps of credit for imbuing the role with all the love, charm, and intimate warmth she needed to function as both a loving tribute to Sharon Tate the person (not the murder victim) and an avatar for the innocence and youth lost with the death of the ‘60s.  

ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD is certainly a story told from an older man’s perspective, but I wouldn’t say there’s much in it that feels hostile toward youth, at least not directly. The film’s conversation with time, history, fantasy, and generational conflict is deeper, funnier, and more personal than that. It’s a movie of eye-popping vignettes (strung together with careful pacing and incredible momentum by editor Fred Raskin), and every one of them feels like its own meaningful confrontation with mortality. It’s a vivid, elaborate, melancholy dream from an aging master of his craft. And it’s one hell of an entertaining ride. ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD is the best movie of the year and, if time allows, a modern classic we’ll be talking and dreaming about for decades.  

Andy Andersen
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