There’s a reason Quentin Tarantino is among the most beloved American directors: Tarantino’s personal story is a deeply American one. A self-made man who got to where he is based on his own talent and passion, he’s gone from a film-obsessed video store clerk to a one of Hollywood’s most recognizable and legendary directors. But he’s also redefined American cinema as we know it, with Pulp Fiction working as a blueprint for the future of independent film. (It’s also worth noting that he captures America’s love of violence and pop culture unlike anyone else.) His style and movie language has reshuffled and synthesized decades of film history into something that goes far beyond homage into an entirely new world of storytelling. But not every Tarantino film is on the same level, and as Jules said it best in Pulp Fiction, a few of these movies “ain’t the same fuckin’ ballpark, it ain’t the same league, it ain’t even the same fuckin’ sport.”
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10) The Hateful Eight
Tarantino’s take on a Western whodunnit, The Hateful Eight follows eight strangers who get stranded in a stagecoach stop during a blizzard. At nearly three hours long, Hateful is the movie equivalent of trying to trudge uphill in four feet of snow—which we actually see quite a bit of in this movie. It’s a slog, but some truly tense set pieces and an incredible soundtrack from iconic Italian Spaghetti Western composer Ennio Morricone make this a solid movie in general terms, but nowhere near the quality we’ve come to expect of Tarantino.
9) Django Unchained
One of the few times it felt difficult to meander through the carnage of a Tarantino film and really feel like any of it mattered. Tarantino’s violent revenge fantasy seems wholly misplaced looking back on it seven years later, and the film seems more like nearly three hours of self-indulgence. While a few performances were brilliantly layered and this was Tarantino’s most commercially successful film, Django feels like a massive missed opportunity for the director to do something spectacular.
8) Inglourious Basterds
Aside from the Kill Bill series, Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino at his most fun. And casual Tarantino fans might rank this as his best film, given all of its mass appeal. Though it doesn’t work as a cohesive film like some of his other brilliantly-woven scripts, Basterds once again contains a few of Tarantino’s greatest set pieces, including the beautifully tense opening scene with a delightfully evil Christoph Waltz and the hilarious Italian red carpet opening with Brad Pitt and Eli Roth.
7) Kill Bill: Volume One
Kill Bill marked the dawning of a new era for Tarantino. With the biggest budget of his career (only $30 million), he had the money and freedom after his early successes to make the action film he’d always wanted to see. Every frame is overloaded with references and the heart of a man who just fucking loves movies. That joy of filmmaking and our obsessiveness with pop culture is the heart of Kill Bill as much as it is the sheer energy and spirit of our hero the Bride, played with the seering intensity of Uma Thurman. While it only introduced the story that would be finished in brilliant fashion in the sequel, it remains one of the greatest action movies of all time.
6) Death Proof
Between Kill Bill: Volume 2 and the modern era of Tarantino that began with Inglourious Basterds in 2009, there was a weirdo little project that the director did alongside his friend Robert Rodriguez. The Grindhouse double-feature includes the bizarre Tarantino-directed Death Proof, an exploitation action horror short starring Kurt Russell as a murderous stuntman. It’s probably the most often forgotten Tarantino film, but within its less than two hour running time, the director crafts a precise and wild story. Excuse the pun, but Death Proof puts Tarantino right inside his own wheelhouse—a smart little homage to the exploitation horror films he grew up on. The supporting cast that includes Rosario Dawson, Rose McGowan, and the brilliantly meta Zoe Bell (Thurman’s Kill Bill stuntwoman) is an absolute delight.
5) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Like all of Tarantino’s films, Once Upon a Time has its glaring, polarizing problems. But it’s impossible to ignore that Once Upon a Time is certainly his most emotionally honest, his most beautiful, and his most fun movie in a decade. Pitt and Leo are an absolute delight, and we’ll likely look back at this film as the one that launched Julia Butters’s magnificent career. It’s mid-life crisis Tarantino. It’s Tarantino as the most mature we’ve ever seen him, and Once Upon a Time—though it is very long—doesn’t suffer from the same holes or trappings that brought down his other more recent efforts.
4) Reservoir Dogs
Tarantino’s full-length debut remains a masterclass example of a filmmaker who arrived in this world fully formed as both a writer and director. He immediately defined himself as a masterful writer, able to craft mind-bending scripts that play with time and traditional narrative structure. It also introduced his ability to write tense, smart scenes filled to the brim with fast-paced dialogue dripping with wit. I probably think about Steve Buscemi’s monologue about tipping and Madonna at least once a month—a great example of how Tarantino can make even the most mundane of conversations completely unforgettable.
3) Kill Bill: Volume Two
What began as an Extremely Tarantino homage-fueled bloodbath concludes in a more restrained and beautiful Kill Bill: Volume 2. From the breathtaking Pai Mei kung-fu origin story to the surprisingly tender ending with Bill, Beatrix Kiddo, and her daughter—Kill Bill 2 adds emotional depth to its characters while gracefully expanding the story and universe that Tarantino built in Kill Bill: Volume 1. Only Tarantino could have pulled off such grand over-indulgence and honed it down to what is, at its heart, a deeply human story. By the end of it, Tarantino makes clear that these two films work best together, like a ying and yang of harmony with the high-octane first half and the emotional second half. But Kill Bill 2 also has some of the best action choreography of Tarantino’s career—specifically the trailer showdown between Beatrix and Elle.
2) Jackie Brown
Tragically under appreciated, Jackie Brown landed awkwardly between the generation-defining Pulp Fiction and the box office-smashing Kill Bill: Volume 1. It’s the most understated film of Tarantino’s career and surprisingly his least violent. It’s a love story you won’t find anywhere else in Tarantino’s storied filmography. And Jackie Brown’s performances are among the greatest in any of his films, with Pam Grier’s titular character, Samuel L. Jackson as Ordell Robbie, a hilarious Robert De Niro as Louis Gara, and a heartfelt Robert Forster as Max Cherry. A tribute to Tarantino’s idol Elmore Leonard, Jackie Brown is a stoner movie that beautifully marks the end of early era Tarantino grime and rebooted the careers of Grier and Forster. Why is this film so oft forgotten among Tarantino’s best? It might be because it’s most often overshadowed by his flashier or more groundbreaking work? Or it might be that this is one of his slowest movies. But it works despite these Tarantino hallmarks and deserves to be reassessed in 2019 as one of his best films. If you haven’t seen it, or if you haven’t watched it in a while, go back and watch it because Jackie Brown holds up today in a way that some other Tarantino movies don’t.
1) Pulp Fiction
I know, another list that puts Pulp Fiction as Tarantino’s best movie. But as much as I love Jackie Brown and being contrarian, there’s no way to make the case for anything other than Pulp Fiction as Tarantino’s greatest film. It rewrote the formula for moviemaking and redefined the structure, language, and rhythm of filmmaking. Tarantino single-handedly redirected the future of independent cinema while creating a new standard of “cool” in movies. It has been called the Star Wars of independent film—and rightly so, as Pulp Fiction ushered in a new era of artsy small-budget films with the potential to become massive pop culture phenomena. There’s a reason you still find posters of Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield in every dorm room. These characters stand the test of time—single-handedly reviving the career of John Travolta, and establishing Samuel L. Jackson as a timeless badass. But, perhaps the greatest achievement of Pulp Fiction is that it has inspired multiple generations of filmmakers to take their own risks and find their own voices on small-budget films. I don’t want to see what movies would have become today in a world without Pulp Fiction.
Culture Editor Matt is the Culture Editor at Esquire where he covers music, movies, books, and TV—with an emphasis on all things Star Wars, Marvel, and Game of Thrones.
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