There’s no denying that Quentin Tarantino has made some great movies, though a consensus on which ones are great may be difficult to reach. The director’s work is nothing if not polarizing, featuring the kind of over-the-top violence and dialogue that might make other directors blanch — and those complicated feelings certainly extend to the man himself.
To celebrate the opening of the director’s latest film, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, the Polygon staff banded together to rank his work. The variety in the nine submitted lists is proof that Tarantino is impossible to nail down — every film made it into at least somebody’s top three, and the resulting ranking, from worst to best, reflects that breadth of opinion, and of love.
[Ed. note: The following list contains spoilers for each film therein.]
10. Death Proof
Death Proof follows two groups of women trying to have a good time, and the awful man who gets off on killing them. It was released as a double feature with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, and I remember being personally offended when both films flopped in theaters (I was 15).
The film has a lolling beginning, twists the screw until the tension is unbearable, and ends in bloody, inevitable disaster. And then it does it all over again. But the second half of the movie is a cathartic reversal. The worst thing I’ve ever done is hold a double feature party showing Planet Terror and Death Proof. My best friend had to leave before Death Proof made its second-act turn, and as a result he grit his teeth through an hour of idle chatter punctuated with women being brutalized, and had nothing to show for it. Whoops!
Still, I have a fondness for the first half. I like the girls’ night out in Austin, Texas: the lived-in feeling of their local bar, the safety of a familiar place and familiar faces, and way Stuntman Mike creeps into this space like mold. I love the sick horror of realizing that Pam is locked in a murderer’s car, and is going to die as quickly or as slowly as Mike wants. A car crash is a mundane but awfully violent way to die. That’s what makes Death Proof so special to me: It peels back a layer of normalcy to reveal the violent, evil potential of a machine we see every day.
The first half is agonizing, and so when the film shifts into sick stunts mode it’s like inhaling nitrous oxide. The reliance on practical effects and long shots of the cars jostling keeps the chase scenes tense — Zoe Bell scrambling to stay on the hood of a speeding Dodge Challenger is good content. Despite its pitfalls (I like to forget that these women I’m rooting for used their hot friend as collateral to get a cool car), Death Proof rules. —Simone de Rochefort
9. Django Unchained
Django Unchained presents a strange juxtaposition between its larger-than-life, cartoonish style and the atrocities in American history it portrays — but that’s also exactly what makes the film so striking. It’s staged almost like a musical, with songs from the Italian Western Lo Chiamavano King’s “His Name Was King” to Rick Ross’ “100 Black Coffins” helping shape the journey of Django (Jamie Foxx), a newly freed slave and burgeoning bounty hunter, as he fights to free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
Equal parts spaghetti Western (Franco Nero reprises his role of Django in the 1966 Italian Western Django) and epic folk tale (that Broomhilda is named after a Germanic heroic figure is no accident), Django Unchained uses those trappings to tell a story set in late 1850s America, right in the thick of slavery and the forming of the Ku Klux Klan. Tarantino isn’t glib about any of it; even the white man who eventually befriends Django — bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) — is forced to reckon with his initial reluctance to grant him his freedom, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen, head of Calvin Candie’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) house, turns out to be just as much of a villain as his ward.
The film is a little comic book-y (though that’s what I love about it), but there’s no denying that it’s overflowing with Tarantino style. The image of Django materializing from a cloud of dust and smoke as John Legend’s “Who Did That to You?” kicks in is absolutely thrilling, as is the reflection of the Candie plantation erupting into a conflagration reflected in the lenses of Django’s shades. —Karen Han
8. Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to old Hollywood is one of his stranger films, packed full of history and simple hangout scenes that culminate in Tarantino’s trademark violence — before then giving way to an unusually gentle final scene.
Hate it or love it overall, everybody can find something in this film to latch onto: the rapport between Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as fading star Rick Dalton and his longtime stuntman Cliff Booth, or the faithful recreation of so much film and TV of the era, or the earnestness of Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate.
Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood mostly manifests as a hangout movie, fleshing out the relationship between Rick and Cliff in a business that constantly reinvents itself, inexorably cycling through stars and styles. Everybody goes out of style eventually, and this film seems to be Tarantino’s own acceptance of that, acknowledging the good and the bad about the industry he’s in, as well as attempting to rewrite the awful event that led to the end of an era.
It’s a difficult film to parse, but it wouldn’t be a Tarantino film if it was easy. His love of the era he’s depicting is palpable, and it’s just as messy as any such overpowering love always is. —KH
7. Jackie Brown
Pam Grier brings the same energy that made her famous in blaxploitation classics like Foxy Brown to the played-straight crime drama Jackie Brown. Working as a flight attendant — and smuggling goods over the Mexican border on the side — Jackie is picked up by law enforcement while loaded down with cash and cocaine. She cuts a deal to flip on her gun-running boss, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), who soon gets wind of her bargain and decides to stop her before she can bring him down. What unfolds is a surprisingly complicated plot of double- and triple-crosses, as each character does their best to get a sack of cash that doesn’t really belong to any of them.
This is the only Tarantino movie that’s an adaptation rather than an original script, but since the source material is his main writing inspiration, Elmore Leonard, you’ll hardly notice the difference in the dialogue. It’s less Tarantino-ish than most of the other films on this list, a regular crime story without the intertextual references he’s best known for. Which is why it’s a great film — it proves that Tarantino knows how to make a damn good movie without the crutch of genre tropes and references (although there are still allusions here and there, if you’re familiar with Grier’s superb career). —Jenna Stoeber
6. The Hateful Eight
There’s no denying that The Hateful Eight is a nasty film. It’s bloody and cynical in a grueling way, even for a Tarantino movie, reflecting the worst parts of America’s past and present. But at the end of that ordeal is a divine sort of catharsis and revelation: The film is a roller coaster, climbing up, up, up for three brutal hours before swan-diving in its final act.
The film opens as bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) hitches a ride with John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his bounty, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They manage to find refuge from an oncoming snowstorm in Minnie’s Haberdashery, but they’re not the little cabin’s only occupants. As the hours pass, tensions ramp up, especially as the domineering Ruth insists that everyone give up their weapons lest anyone try to rob him of his prisoner.
The close quarters in which everyone finds themselves bring out both their worst and their best, informed by the setting’s checkered history. The film’s finale, which revolves around a letter supposedly written by Abraham Lincoln, emphasizes the wish and the lie inherent in the American Dream. It’s equal parts hopeful and cynical, as two men who have been vehemently opposed since the beginning of the film finally find themselves — after a prolonged and ultimately useless battle — united in admiring and acknowledging a falsehood.
The Roy Orbison song that ends the film — “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home,” a song literally about the uselessness and false glory of war — is a perfect cap, and a fittingly lyrical coda to a film filled with difficult but beautifully executed performances. From Walton Goggins (who deserved to be top billed) to Channing Tatum, the ensemble is one of the best Tarantino has ever assembled, for his thorniest film yet. —KH
5. Kill Bill: Volume 2
Rather than picking up where the first movie ended, Kill Bill: Volume 2 opens with a flashback on The Bride’s (Uma Thurman) doomed wedding. All of the familiar faces return, with The Bride focusing her attention on Bill’s brother Budd (Michael Madsen) and evil mirror-image Elle (Daryl Hannah), and finally confronting the eponymous Bill (David Carradine).
It’s been said that while Kill Bill: Volume 1 is based on blood-splatter kung fu flicks, Volume 2 is an homage to the quieter, more contemplative side of the action genre, the Seven Samurai side. The battles are rarer and farther apart because action isn’t really the point. Volume 2 lets The Bride finally become a real character, not just a revenge machine bent on slicing a path to Bill. We see her struggle against her cruel master Pai Mei, fall by Budd’s hands (or shotgun), and still rally to prove that her will’s as strong as her swordplay. We see who she was before the coma, and get hints at who she’ll be once she picks up and moves on from this wild life. We even get her name: Beatrix Kiddo. Volume 1 needs this context to elevate it above the mere splashes of blood on the wall. —JS
4. Reservoir Dogs
Tarantino’s first film is delightfully simple. A group of cons have committed a robbery, and it’s gone horribly wrong. In ones and twos they bust into the warehouse where they’re supposed to meet, confused and scared and looking to blame someone for this disaster. Their paranoid conversations are intercut with flashbacks detailing how each criminal ended up on this cursed job — and how it broke so bad.
The DNA of every Tarantino movie is distilled into Reservoir Dogs. The rambling, clever, pop culture-laden conversations. The crucial music choices. The rotating shot in the diner scene (immediately iconic, later recreated in Death Proof), the infamous ear cutting set to “Stuck in the Middle With You,” Freddie’s “Commode Story,” and Tarantino’s first trunk shot. (Worse trademarks, like Tarantino’s fixation on the n-word, also notably make it into Reservoir Dogs). The setup (and the setting) is so basic. When Tarantino flexes, his creativity bursts against this simplistic background. Literally the only thing missing from this movie is feet.
Reservoir Dogs allows the blustery performances to take center stage. Everyone is killing it, even the actors that really didn’t want to be there. A beautiful young Tim Roth is glued to the floor in his own blood for most of the film, and he looks like a scared animal, his hard-edged facade increasingly difficult to maintain. The dialogue is so fast and so well-delivered that rewatching Reservoir Dogs is always fun. It’s full of shitty men saying shitty things (such shitty things!) on the worst day of their lives, and it’s an absolute delight. —SdR
3. Kill Bill: Volume 1
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is 100 different movies spliced together into one brilliant, messy, supremely entertaining whole, held together by a bottomless well of borrowed panache and an unstoppable sense of forward momentum. Every cutaway, flashback, and tangent is in service of getting us to the final conflict: O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) vs. Uma Thurman’s unnamed Bride. While this leaves Volume 2 saddled with all the burdens of plot and character development, it frees up the first half for Tarantino to work at the height of his stylistic powers.
Every neat trick Tarantino’s ever noticed in a movie, or fight scene he’s loved, or weird choice he’s wondered if he could get away with, is on display in Kill Bill: Volume 1. It’s like flipping through movie channels at midnight: a Jackie Chan-style fight — where glass explodes on contact and cast iron skillets beat guns and knives every time — is followed by a hospital scene coated with grindhouse grime, and capped off by the antagonist’s anime origin story (produced by the outstanding IG Productions anime studio). Then, in a climax that attempts to outdo everything that came before it, the movie’s final brawl switches from color, to black and white, to silhouetted shadows on a blue background, and back to color for a snowy showdown. It’s dizzying, and disorienting, and perfect. —Austen Goslin
2. Pulp Fiction
With gleefully, un-self-consciously weird gusto, Pulp Fiction scoffs at the very concept of a sophomore slump. Quentin Tarantino followed up the pure heroin rush of Reservoir Dogs with — forgive me — a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart. Both films are masterfully constructed, but where Reservoir Dogs streamlines, Pulp Fiction sprawls.
Tarantino’s second film is composed of a series of long, banter-y vignettes; most of them culminate in a flash of sudden, senseless violence. Thanks to a twisty, time-bending narrative, the climax is undermined even as the tension ratchets higher and higher. There is no catharsis, only a slight diffusion.
Pulp Fiction wrings every ounce of charisma out of its stars. John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s chemistry is unrivaled, except by that of Travolta and Uma Thurman, of course. Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames are compelling as rivals-turned-partners-in-survival. Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth provide emotional bookends as twitchy, smitten petty criminals. Standout cameos from Christopher Walken and Harvey Keitel bring texture and scope to the world.
As with all Tarantino films, Pulp Fiction wears its influences on its sleeve. It switches, suddenly and effortlessly, from crime caper to gangland drama to abduction horror to (pitch-black) buddy comedy — and in doing so creates an entirely new genre. Pulp Fiction has many imitators, but none became such a cultural touchstone. References still pop up everywhere, from Twitter memes to NBC sitcoms to Marvel movies.
More likely than not, Pulp Fiction is the movie you think of when you think of Tarantino movies. It’s Tarantino at his Tarantino-est, complete with cleverly banal dialogue, homages to a bygone era of cinema, and yes, gratuitous shots of feet. The man is nothing if not consistent. —Emily Heller
1. Inglourious Basterds
There’s no scene in any Tarantino movie as singularly effective as Inglourious Basterds’ fourth chapter, “Operation Kino.” The scene’s stakes are set right from the top: A small team of our heroic Nazi hunters are dressed as German officers, and they’re supposed to meet a German actress (and double agent for the British government) at a bar. But if something goes wrong, there’ll be no help. And something does go wrong. There are other Germans in the bar, and one is an officer. The real German officer tries to suss out the truth from these new suspicious men, and the Basterds try not to blow their flimsy cover. The group even plays a game where they try to guess the famous character or person written on a card on their forehead — a brilliant conceit for a movie all about hidden identities. The scene is hilarious and then a moment later horrifying, jumping back and forth between the two at will. When the bullets inevitably start flying, it’s almost a relief.
Most movies would kill for a scene half as funny or half as tense as “Operation Kino,” and Inglourious Basterds delivers both every 30 minutes. Whether it’s espionage, or Jewish people hiding out in Nazi-occupied France, every character has something to hide. In each conversation, everyone is in competition with everyone else; every word and every sentence is about finding an angle to gain something, or even just survive a little longer. Every scene is a complicated latticework of intentions and deceptions, but it never drops the speed or wit that made Jules and Vincent’s back-and-forth in Pulp Fiction sing. It’s Tarantino flexing his writing muscles in ways he never has before.
With all these complications, it could have been easy for Inglourious Basterds to lose itself in the details, but it never drops its own identity as a historical revenge fantasy. And in the end, Tarantino still gets his slyness in. After all, what’s more quintessentially Quentin than Hitler being killed by a combination of the power of film itself and a hail of American bullets? —AG