(CNN) -- Quentin Tarantino has made a spaghetti western and cross-pollinated it with a blaxploitation picture, but it's fully formed, unapologetic and easily one of the best popcorn flicks of the year. I'll go further: It's my favorite American movie of the past 12 months.
Before we get to the why, a quick outline of what's in store: "Inglourious Basterds" standout Christoph Waltz plays a bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist (the wagon he drives has a giant molar wobbling on the roof). Although he's German by birth, he speaks such florid English most of the Americans he encounters have trouble keeping up. His name is Schultz, but he goes by the more distinguished (and resonant) Dr. King.
Dr. King is tracking a gang of outlaw brothers, and he enlists the aid of a slave who knows them by sight. This would be Django (Jamie Foxx), who starts the movie as a piece of property but becomes Dr. King's business partner and ally. Django eventually takes the upper hand, as the pair trespasses onto the notorious Candyland, the plantation where Django's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), serves Southern aristocrat and sadist Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
It's a typical, even quintessential Tarantino gambit: to take two defunct, disreputable genres, dust them off and mash them together. It's what he does: sniff out the nitro and introduce the glycerin. Lately, in "Inglourious Basterds" and again here, he's added historical flashpoints to the mix for a little extra flare -- and upset those commentators who believe that appropriating history (Nazism, slavery) for the purposes of entertainment automatically trivializes it.
Not true. While Tarantino's morally challenging, emotionally wrenching films carve a different path from the sanctimonious costume dramas made to flatter middlebrow tastes -- and perhaps -- seduce awards voters, they are no less intellectually provocative for it.
The comparison with "Lincoln" is irresistible -- the two films take place within five years of each other. One is grounded in assiduous historical research and offers a shrewd analysis of idealism and political pragmatism, while the other is pure fantasy. But it's the fantasy that truly rattles the chains of slavery, confronting not just the racist assumptions but also the economic power structure that underpinned it -- the paradoxes, hypocrisies and insidious evils that permitted the system to flourish for so long.
Unlike "Lincoln," "Django Unchained" affords room at the heart of its narrative for compelling and assertive African-American characters, both heroic (Foxx in the title role) and otherwise (Samuel L Jackson, memorably repellent as a house servant who has become his master's right hand and confidant).
At a time when so many of our movies aspire to be colorblind (but "urban" film remains largely ghettoized), "Django Unchained" dares to confront racism as a potent force and a moving target, discovering horror and also grotesque comedy in the niceties of Southern etiquette: the way a white landowner can maintain a black mistress, for instance, or tolerate the grumbling of a loyal servant, just so long as everyone knows he will have his dogs tear a runaway limb from limb. That may be the film's true subject, when you get right down to brass tacks: the vacuity of good manners, and the limits of tolerance.
Rambling but in a jaunty, generous, let's-shoot-the-works fashion, "Django Unchained" draws on dozens of westerns -- some of them American, others from Italy and Germany -- and includes a very funny travesty of the Ku Klux Klan that might have been an outtake from "Blazing Saddles." It doffs its hat in the direction of German mythology, and the soundtrack samples James Brown, 2Pac, Rick Ross, Ennio Morricone and John Legend in the process. It's a big, brazen movie, brilliantly acted across the board, one of the best things Tarantino has done.