Quentin Tarantino is back with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his most unabashedly emotional movie ever— but how does it compare to the rest of his filmography? We decided it might be fun to look back at Quentin Tarantino’s trajectory over the course of 20-plus years helming films and try to agree on what his best film is. It quickly became obvious, this was no easy task.
Before we get to the list we should mention that although Tarantino has contributed to other projects such as Four Rooms, Sin City, True Romance, ER, and CSI to name a few— we’re ranking just the theatrically released feature films he has directed. And yes, while Tarantino does consider Kill Bill one movie, it was unfortunately released both theatrically and on home video as two separate films, and so for the purpose of this list, we are splitting them up (not to mention, it’s still nearly impossible for most people to see them as a single entity).
With that out of the way, please accept our definitive ranking.
Tarantino’s homage to the road demon genre may be one-half of a double bill, but the film also works as two movies in one. You see, Death Proof offers two incarnations of the same story: two separate sets of beautiful women are stalked at different times by a psychotic stuntman who uses his muscle cars to execute his murderous plans. In other words, Death Proof is essentially two slasher films, since the second half (which takes place a year later) works as a sequel, with four new voluptuous victims for our murderous villain, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), to terrorize. The claustrophobic first half of Death Proof takes place on a dark, raining night amidst a dingy Texan bar, intact with neon lights and a soulful soundtrack of rare ’70s pop tunes. The second half takes place mostly on the open road, in bright daylight, and features sun-baked cinematography and a twangy score in place of the soundtrack. Much like the two sets of women, the two halves work as contrasting doubles. In tone, Death Proof begins as a dark thriller, but it quickly shifts gears and becomes a non-stop action film. In fact, everything about the two halves is completely different, from the pop culture references, photography, automobiles, visual effects, music, and clothing, to the hairstyles, props, etc.
Death Proof is also deliberately atmospheric and very patient taking its time getting to know each character and Death Proof gets the bragging rights of landing Kurt Russell, the iconic star of many beloved genre films. Tarantino’s gift for resurrecting the careers of iconic actors said to be past their prime is once again on display, as Russell turns in a tour-de-force performance as the smooth-talking tough guy who gets his kicks from vehicular homicide. With Russell and Tarantino working together, we see a movie star and a director in perfect harmony.
Some call it a masturbatory fantasy project, but Tarantino’s kinetic action sequences and his avid love for cinema in all its incarnations make Death Proof a work of art. More importantly, Death Proof doesn’t simply comment on its genre inspirations – it adds to their very legacy. The car crash that ends the first half is worth the price of admission alone. It’s a breathtaking slice of gory mayhem shown four times from various points of view, and ten times more frightening than anything you’ll see most horror movies. And while Tarantino may lack the budget of bigger action films, he does not lack the talent to skillfully direct a car chase and capture the horrifying aftermath of a car wreck. The extended car chase is a bona fide old-school tour de force, a sheer brutal and primal statement on the new power balance of the sexes. Jammed with astonishing stunt work (absent of CGI), the climax will have you gripping to your armrest. Obviously, Death Proof is shaped by such films as Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and Steven Spielberg’s Duel, but Death Proof is influenced by more than just vehicular horror; it’s a grim stalker picture, a slasher film, and a blaring anthem to female empowerment. It’s also a small masterpiece and the Frankenstein creation of a movie fanatic of exploitation cinema. Tarantino’s sadistic ode to muscle cars and real-life stunt work is sheer genius. (Ricky D)
9) The Hateful Eight
Less the epic spaghetti western it initially comes off as and more of a chatter-filled murder mystery, The Hateful Eight nevertheless feels grandiose, presenting a sprawling cast of unforgettable characters teeming with infamous reputations and potential lies. And that’s really the draw for Tarantino’s eighth film — just what exactly is the truth, and is anyone telling it?
Though it’s a satisfying enough whodunit revolving around an octet of grizzled manhunters, brutish outlaws, conniving desperados, and mysterious cowpokes snowed in at a remote mountain general store, The Hateful Eight is really a story about telling stories. Everyone’s got one, and they’re used for all manner of things; a sordid tale of a tortuous journey across icy peaks is clearly meant to provoke hurt and outrage, while a former Johnny Reb spins an unlikely tale of accepting a new position as Sheriff of the nearby town in order to gain trust enough to be invited for a stagecoach ride. Bloody Civil War battles are recalled for the sake of establishing camaraderie, and a detailed explanation is offered for the absence of the store’s proprietors in order to allay suspicions. But are any of these intricate narratives true, or just manipulative yarns?
Some may be turned off by the preponderance of lengthy monologues, but those with a love of language and violence will be riveted by this deadly, high-stakes poker game of bluffs and tells. These killers are the stuff of legend, poking and prodding at their opponents with words, before unleashing more gruesome attacks. And never mind that The Hateful Eight isn’t Tarantino’s most ‘cinematic’ film by a longshot (despite being handsomely photographed on 70mm film); he makes the most of the rustic interior setting with expertly staged action and brilliant performances, unraveling his story through careful speech and chronological shifts that keep things fresh — all the way to the rotten end. (Patrick Murphy)
8) Django Unchained
It’s hard to describe why Tarantino’s Django Unchained is such an odd and interesting entry into the director’s filmography. On one hand, it has all the hallmarks of a classic Weinstein production: excessive blood and violence, dark and irreverent humor, and a strange sadistic fascination with race and gender relations that overshadows the whole film. On the other hand, the film truly ups the ante and turns all of these narrative dials up to eleven, telling a disturbing story of slavery, interracial violence, and greed to illuminate the depravity of the human condition in the antebellum south in new and inventive ways. Somewhere wavering between these two elements lies the true spirit of Django Unchained: a movie that both screams characteristic Tarantino and yet still constantly surprises audiences with its unorthodox approach to the cowboy film category.
Part Spaghetti Western and part Blaxploitation narrative, Tarantino’s Django Unchained births a new genre with its unique portrayal of American life, dubbed by Tarantino as “the Southern.” While the film’s plot isn’t as complex as a majority of Tarantino’s work, Django Unchained relies heavily on the incredibly strong performances from its all-star cast of characters. Following up his Academy Award-winning performance in Inglourious Basterds, Christopher Waltz nails his role as the whimsical and enigmatic Dr. King Shultz, earning himself another piece of hardware for Best Supporting Actor for his talent. Jamie Foxx also does a spectacular job of selling the almost cartoonish superhuman character of Django, being both sternly humorous and deadly serious when the situation requires to bring life to one of the darkest of Tarantino’s creations. Even the interplay between the unlikely duo of Samuel L Jackson and Leonardo Di Caprio serves to elevate the film, and the pair make memorable villains that serve the narrative well.
Although it was relatively controversial with the media because of its subject matter, Django Unchained achieves its goal of making audiences incredibly uncomfortable by viscerally articulating the violence and depravity of Southern slavery in film. Through his portrayal of Django, Tarantino effectively counters this racial trauma with full force, creating a brutal and nuanced character that comes to epitomize the revenge that the audience craves for the wrongs of the past. Within this struggle lies the heart of the narrative, reminding viewers that the wrongs of the past are always present in the social fabric of today and that even fantasy retribution can’t fully cleanse the sins of the South’s forefathers. Watching from cozy California, the film feels like an odd history book fever dream, but from a theater in Mississippi, Django must feel like something else altogether. (Ty Davidson)
7) Kill Bill: Vol. 2
Although Quentin Tarantino intended Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and 2 to release as a single film, there are distinct differences between the two volumes. Where Vol. 1 was a very visceral, action-packed film, the second half of the Bride’s quest for revenge opts for a slower, more meditative approach. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is a film that likes to linger on the tragedy of the story; instead of flashing back into an action-heavy backstory, the film dedicates nearly half an hour to Bud’s miserable life after the Vipers’ failed assassination attempt on the Bride.
Through Budd, Kill: Bill Vol. 2 eases into some much-needed emotional reality after the bombastic back-half of Vol. 1. Budd becomes endearing in a way that O-Ren wasn’t, something both Elle and Bill ultimately share. Vol. 1 may have had one great villain through O-Ren Ishii, but Vol. 2 features Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, and Bill Caradine acting against Uma Thurman in one of her best roles.
The more introspective approach on storytelling doesn’t mean Vol. 2 isn’t devoid of action either. While nothing’s quite as exciting as the Bride’s final duel with O-Ren at the end of Vol. 1 — let alone her massacre of the Crazy 88 — the Bride squaring off against Elle is a magnificently claustrophobic battle, and flashback scenes detailing the Bride’s training help to keep the action a constant presence without needing to elevate the stakes as often as the first film.
When it comes down to it, however, it’s the finale that makes Kill Bill: Vol. 2 such an incredible conclusion to the Bride’s story. Where the first film ends in an epic sword fight, the second ends with a quiet conversation — the dissection of a relationship, of history, and the duality of man. It’s a philosophical note to end such an intense film on, but it’s to Kill Bill‘s credit, remembering that it’s characters who drive the action. (Renan Fontes)
6) Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
In 1994, Quentin Tarantino performed an act of cinematic resurrection by casting a thoroughly washed-up John Travolta in Pulp Fiction and revitalizing his career (if only for a time). It was confirmation that Travolta still had all his talent intact — he just needed the right filmmaker to unlock it. Prior to his latest film, Quentin Tarantino was, if not as down in the dumps as Travolta, at least in a serious and deepening slump. Inglourious Basterds was formally stunning and graced with wondrous lead performances, but the film was flippant in its portrayal of one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th Century. Its revenge narrative was as tasteless as it was thrilling. Django Unchained suffered from a similar lack of introspection, but this time the compelling characters he’d become known for never quite materialized. By the time he made his horror Western/chamber revenge film The Hateful Eight, Tarantino seemed to be relying on pure sadism to fuel his vision.
With the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it becomes clear that latter-day Tarantino needed a better director all along — in this case, a better version of himself. It doesn’t hurt that he’s jettisoned the now-tired revenge plots, despite telling a story that could easily have been converted into a tale of vengeance. But Once Upon a Time also marks the first time since at least Kill Bill — and maybe Jackie Brown — that Tarantino makes his audience feel deeply connected to his characters, and moved by their hopes and failures.
The film reunites him with both Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, sharing leading roles as, respectively, a formerly successful TV actor whose career has floundered just as he tries to ascend to making films, and his trusty stunt double whose sense of devotion prevents him from becoming bitter at his subordinate status. Margot Robbie fills out the edges of the film as Sharon Tate, fresh off her star-making turn in Valley of the Dolls. Even further on the margins are the festering followers of Charles Manson, who is glimpsed only once.
Once Upon a Time impeccably blends the pleasures of a Tarantino hangout film with a mounting sense of dread, minus the tiring speechifying (which even Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown suffer from in hindsight). There’s also a measurable dose of loss pervading the movie — for a bygone glamorous Hollywood felt by the industry in 1969, for the seemingly limitless possibilities of that area by present-day Tarantino, and for Tate, who would be brutally murdered by Manson’s followers on August 9, 1969. All are gone now. It’ll be a terrible folly if Tarantino sticks to his plan to stop making movies after his tenth feature, but if he had decided to call it quits early and stop after Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it wouldn’t have been a half-bad way to go. (Brian Marks)
5) Jackie Brown
There are few experiences greater for a cinephile than seeing a director they previously knew to be a master produce a follow-up that expands their already considerable talents in stunning new ways. Jackie Brown is just such a film, one that capitalizes on the promise of Pulp Fiction while proving that Quentin Tarantino wasn’t a one-trick pony.
Adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1992 crime novel Rum Punch, Jackie Brown is a film at war with its own contemporary setting. The movie takes place in 1995, yet it’s filled with vintage cars, outfits, and mannerisms harkening back to the 1970s — Tarantino’s favorite decade for cinema. To a certain extent, it’s intentional and reflects the time-warp status of Los Angeles’ South Bay at the time, but someone watching an isolated scene who wasn’t already familiar with the movie might have trouble pinpointing exactly what decade it was trying to approximate.
As he had rescued John Travolta’s career, Tarantino gave two other ‘70s icons their biggest roles in decades. Pam Grier, of Blaxploitation classics Coffy and Foxy Brown, stars as the eponymous character. She’s a middle-aged single woman who barely makes ends meet as a flight attendant for a third-rate budget airline that flies from LA to Mexico. In order to pad her earnings, she smuggles cash for Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a drug runner branching out in gun sales. But when an errant bag of cocaine puts Jackie on the radar of the LAPD and the ATF, she enlists bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) to double-cross all involved parties.
After the formal inventiveness of Pulp Fiction, Tarantino wisely chose to adopt a more conservative approach to this crime story. Had he continued in the vein of that previous film, with its short story–like chapters, shifting protagonists, and fantastical touches (the glowing briefcase, Uma Thurman’s air drawn–square), it might have signaled that he was incapable of telling a compelling story without the techniques — that they were crutches rather than garnishes. Aside from some deceptive editing in the bravura mall sequence, he mostly plays it safe. Of course, “safe” for Tarantino still includes complicated shots, expressionistic framing, compelling performances, and virtuosic (if overly verbose) dialog.
What makes Jackie Brown not just an excellent film but one of Tarantino’s best is the obvious compassion he displays toward Jackie. Her fears about having to start over might seem mundane compared to the problems of his other leading characters, but the everyday nature of those struggles makes her more real than any of Tarantino’s other leads.
His newest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, seems closest in structure and tone to Jackie Brown, which, not coincidentally, is why it’s such an improvement over his other recent films. Whether or not Jackie Brown influenced him anew, here’s hoping he never forgets its lessons. (Brian Marks)
4) Reservoir Dogs
Featuring a tightly woven script, clever directorial style, cracking dialogue and a superb cast who populate his picture as morally ambiguous criminals, Reservoir Dogs is a testosterone meltdown that gleefully immerses itself in love of outlaws, profanity, violence and pop culture. It’s aggressive, intelligent, visceral and unforgettable. Decades years later, perhaps what stands out most is Tarantino’s camera work. There is not a single dull shot in the movie, from the opening scene continuously circulating the breakfast club, to the slow-motion Wild Bunch credit sequence, to the brilliant pan-away during the cutting of the ear, and thereafter when the camera follows Blonde outside the warehouse to his car, and back inside again. There’s a method to Tarantino’s style; every frame is calculated, and every line of dialogue serves to set the action in motion. The film never slows down, and Tarantino makes great use of dozens of long tracking shots. Even more impressive is that the film boasts a timeless quality since it is unclear as to what decade they’re in. From the pop tunes from the ’70s to the 60’s black and white suits and skinny ties, to the 80’s automobiles, Reservoir Dogs may as well take place in some strange parallel universe. A small, offbeat, extremely well-crafted crime caper with terrific surprises sprinkled over top.
At once a tribute to traditional notions of trust, loyalty, honour, and professionalism, and a stylish, ironic pastiche inspired by the likes of Woo, Peckinpah, Melville, Ringo Lam, Kurosawa and many more, Reservoir Dogs may have not been original but it is raw and a one-of-a-kind, and has since been often imitated. (Ricky D)
3) Kill Bill: Vol. 1
Exploding onto the scene as the first part of Quentin Tarantino‘s 4th film, the hyper-stylized Kill Bill was his most ambitious and audacious film yet. The film follows Uma Thurman as The Bride, a betrayed ex-assassin on the hunt for the four comrades, and their leader, who tried to kill her on her wedding day. As The Bride herself later says, she roars, rampages, and gets bloody satisfaction (emphasis on the bloody).
Packed with the snappy dialog, memorable characters, and brutal violence that have come to trademark Tarantino’s films, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is also home to some of the best fight scenes in the history of action filmmaking. Particularly impressive is the frenetic climax, which sees The Bride face off against 88 sword-wielding criminals in a Japanese bar.
Basically, QT’s love letter to some of his favorite samurai action films, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 nonetheless succeeds as its own beast, and is still fondly remembered as one of his best films. (Mike Worby)
2) Inglourious Basterds
Kicking off with a “Once upon a time…in Nazi-occupied France,” Inglorious Basterds lets viewers know right away that this isn’t really a World War II movie — it’s a Tarantino playland fantasy, where the good guys are cool, steely knights, and the bad guys are rotten, devious ogres to be beaten, shot, torched, and dynamited in spectacular fashion. Yes, it’s in many ways a movie about movies, but it’s also a work of gleeful imagination. Aldo Raine, Shosanna, Archie, the Bear Jew, Bridget von Hammersmark, Hans, and Frederick Zoller are wielded like toys by a director and script that on the surface wants little more than to show good utterly destroying evil in the most awesome and satisfying ways. Which it totally does.
Of course, part of getting to that sweet release is the masterful way in which Tarantino builds up and draws out suspense, often using lengthy conversation duels to withhold longer than seems possible, until finally unleashing his absurd violence in gushing massacres that more than satiate the audience’s need for closure. As usual, the stream of dialogue isn’t just there for pacing or self-indulgence, but creates rich, distinct characters that can then (probably) die in unforgettable ways — like in a tavern standoff involving incorrect hand signals, “speaking the King’s,” and a pistol to the groin.
No, Inglourious Basterds isn’t revisionist history. It’s not even historical fiction. It’s pure fairy tale, with darkness and light, feats of depravity and derring-do, and a cast of heroes and villains who all know their place in the story, and are only too happy to fulfill such with a wink and a smirk. It’s wonderfully fantastical entertainment, filled with the kind of vicarious thrills that kids used to get with G.I. Joes, and might just be the most fun you can have watching Hitler explode. (Patrick Murphy)
1) Pulp Fiction
A sensation that helped draw attention to and shape independent cinema in the 90s, Pulp Fiction might not always work as a sum of its parts, but boy have those parts been engrained into the moviegoing consciousness. Taratino’s L.A. crime opus is full of meandering conversations, gruesome encounters, and moments of supercool quirkiness that seem completely besides the point — until you realize that they are the point.
Mixing various intersecting stories via a jumbled-up chronology that serves the film’s dime-novel tone, Pulp Fiction takes a leisurely stroll across the seedier parts of town, never getting too anxious to stop and chat for a game of eeny, meeny, miney, moe in the prison-like basement of a perverted pawn shop, a discussion on bedroom furniture when needing to clean up brains and skull from the back seat of a car before Bonnie gets home, or praise for a tasty burger when mopping up a deal gone sour. There are very few awkward silences here; Pulp Fiction is often a symphony of gab. That constant flow sometimes overpowers a budding visual style that eschews the darkness of its subject matter for bright colors and sunny days, but those who pay attention to such things will notice some inventive staging and techniques.
Still, the stories of Vincent, Mia, Marsellus, Butch, and Jules are all about the spoken song. Full of memorable rhythms and shockingly violent punctuation, that symphony never gets old. Since then, Tarantino has certainly gone on to create bolder visions with a more confidant hand at the director’s helm, but despite that increased ambition and polish, few have managed to achieve the iconic status granted to this groundbreaking film. Pulp Fiction injected a shot of adrenaline into the heart of indie filmmaking, courted controversy and acclaim, and inspired a bevy of wannabes, all aiming to be as cool. Few have achieved such. (Patrick Murphy)