Ranked: Quentin Tarantino Films
by Daniel Rester
Is Quentin Tarantino one of the most original cinematic voices of his generation or is he just a remix artist who uses other filmmakers’ ideas and passes them off as his own? Well, it’s easiest to argue a bit of both. The video-store-clerk-turned-director himself even admitted one time that he steals from every movie ever made. This can be seen with his movies being flooded with pop culture references. Yet he also has a style all his own, often imitated but rarely matched. Whether he is original is up for debate, but it’s hard to deny the man’s attention to detail and craft. I think he’s a brilliant filmmaker and has yet to make a bad film. But which of his films are better than the others? Here’s how I rank Tarantino’s films, from the good to the great.
9. ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ (2019)
“It’s official old buddy, I’m a has been.”
Plot: A once-famous TV actor and his stunt double navigate the changing industry in Hollywood in 1969.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Kurt Russell
‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,’ Tarantino’s latest, is a love letter to an era of Los Angeles he is fond of. He and his team truly transport the audience back to 1969 Hollywood, with the production design, costumes, and music all immaculate. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are a fabulous pairing to lead us into this world, with both men turning in terrific performances as actor Rick Dalton and his stuntman Cliff Booth, respectively. Tarantino also isn’t afraid to let some sentimentality drip in with the sadness in Dalton’s life, which is a fresh touch by the director. The issue here is that outside of Rick and Cliff’s relationship, there isn’t much else interesting to latch onto in terms of character or story. Julia Butters — as a smart young actress named Trudi — and Margaret Qualley — as a “Manson Family” member named Pussycat — have shining moments, but most of the supporting characters feel underwritten and the cast doesn’t have much to work with to bring them alive. The entire mid-section of the film also feels uneven — and occasionally pointless — as Tarantino tries to incorporate Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and the “Manson Family” and various television show stuff into the story, with the results more meandering and disjointed than engaging in spots. And the reality-meets-fiction climax, while exciting, doesn’t land as well as Tarantino’s similar history-altering work in ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009). Despite its faults, though, ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ has some very entertaining scenes, craftsmanship details to get lost in, and DiCaprio and Pitt on their A-game. I just wish all of the various elements gelled together a little more smoothly. ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is a good film, but a great film inside of it is a few rewrites and fine-tuned moments away. Grade: B+
8. ‘Death Proof’ (2007)
“It’s better than safe. It’s death proof.”
Plot: A murderous stuntman stalks and kills women with his car.
Cast: Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Zoë Bell, Vanessa Ferlito, Rose McGowan, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Eli Roth
Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez decided to make a film each and release them as a double bill with fake trailers included. This double bill was labeled ‘Grindhouse,’ with Rodriguez’s film being ‘Planet Terror’ and Tarantino’s being ‘Death Proof.’ Both movies are fun throwbacks to the B-movie insanity of the ’60s and ’70s. ‘Death Proof’ has a great turn from Kurt Russell as the mysterious and dangerous Stuntman Mike. It also ends with a slam-bang car chase for the ages that involves Zoë Bell being strapped to the hood of a muscle car. ‘Death Proof’ is too drawn-out and chatter-heavy for what it’s going for (the extended version is 27 minutes longer too and doesn’t add much except for a sexy lap dance scene). But its hangout-movie-meets-horror-movie vibe is wild, Russell is a blast to watch, and the bevy of bad-ass female characters is refreshing. Grade: B+
7. ‘The Hateful Eight’ (2015)
“Got room for one more?”
Plot: Two bounty hunters, a fugitive, and others are stuck in a cabin together during a snowstorm in Wyoming.
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen
‘The Hateful Eight’ is Tarantino’s most mean-spirited film and features untrustworthy characters. It’s also around three hours in length and mostly takes place in one claustrophobic cabin setting during a cold winter snow. Both of these elements turned some viewers off, but to me ‘The Hateful Eight’ still has a lot to offer. The Agatha Christie-like story of bounty hunters and criminals stuck in a space together trying to figure out who is who provides tension and guessing games. The production design of the cabin and the costumes of the characters are also sublime, and are perfectly captured in rich 70mm cinematography. The cast is always interesting too, with Walton Goggins (wonderful as the comic relief character Chris Mannix) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (as the creepiest female Tarantino character, Daisy Domergue) standing out. Bonus: Ennio Morricone’s music score is both dark and playful, and it finally won him a Best Original Score Oscar after decades of being the bridesmaid but never the bride. Grade: A-
6. ‘Jackie Brown’ (1997)
“Half a million dollars will always be missed.”
Plot: A flight attendant gets caught in the middle of a money situation involving a gun runner, cops, a bail bondsman, and others.
Cast: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Robert De Niro, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Chris Tucker
Tarantino’s third film, ‘Jackie Brown,’ may be the most overlooked film in his filmography. That’s a shame because it’s terrific. It’s his only film based on a book (‘Rum Punch’ by Elmore Leonard) and is more mature and less violence-focused than his other movies. The plot is also more streamlined than normal for a Tarantino film (which also means it has more exposition, which is unfortunate in some spots), staying in order until a gripping climax that jumps around in time to show multiple perspectives. Pam Grier and Samuel L. Jackson are vibrant in the leads, but Robert Forster and Robert De Niro perhaps steal the show with a pair of understated, memorable performances. The big surprise though is the tender relationship between Jackie (Grier) and Max (Forster), allowing for bittersweet moments, which is a bit unusual in a Tarantino movie. It’s a nice touch. Grade: A-
5. ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009)
“Oooh, that’s a bingo!”
Plot: A group of Nazi hunters’ plans and a vengeful woman’s plans cross paths as they seek to kill high-profile Nazis.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, Daniel Brühl, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Eli Roth
Tarantino’s fantasy/history WWII epic ‘Inglourious Basterds’ is a doozy. It has one of cinema’s most interesting villains in Hans Landa, played so brilliantly by Christoph Waltz that he went from being relatively unknown to winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance. It also contains arguably the two most tense scenes in all of Tarantino’s work, that being the opening scene and the bar scene. The rest of the film is really good, but those two scenes are masterful. Things do get a bit cartoonish and episodic feeling at times, and I’m still not quite sure I buy Landa’s last-second character change, but ‘Inglourious Basterds’ is still a fresh, bizarre, and exciting war saga with a wide-range cast of colorful characters. Grade: A
4. ‘Django Unchained’ (2012)
“You silver-tongued devil, you.”
Plot: A freed slave and a bounty hunter set off to rescue the wife of the former from a brutal plantation owner.
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Walton Goggins, James Remar
It’s surprising that it took so long for Tarantino to make his first Western, but the wait was worth it as ‘Django Unchained’ is one badass and epic-scaled film. The buddy relationship of Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is warm and believable, and both actors do an excellent job playing them. Equally great are Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson in villainous roles. I also think this might be the best-shot Tarantino film, with cinematographer Robert Richardson beautifully capturing the various landscapes and intimate moments. Tarantino managed the difficult task of balancing making ‘Django Unchained’ funny and entertaining while also not shying away from the brutal horrors of slavery. He deservedly picked up an Original Screenplay Oscar for this movie, while Waltz also won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance. Grade: A
3. ‘Kill Bill’ (Vol. 1: 2003/Vol. 2: 2004)
“That woman deserves her revenge. And we deserve to die.”
Plot: A former assassin awakes from a coma and seeks revenge on those who betrayed her.
Cast: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Daryl Hannah, Miachael Madsen, Lucy Liu, Gordon Liu, Sonny Chiba
Scripted and filmed as one movie but released in two pieces due to its length (QT still considers it to be one long film), ‘Kill Bill’ is a sprawling revenge saga with Tarantino’s love of samurai pictures, kung fu flicks, Westerns, anime, and more on display. The Bride, perfectly played by Uma Thurman, might just be the best character Tarantino has ever written; she’s a wounded warrior who’s full of skill and motivation. The supporting characters are also memorable and well played by all involved, with David Carradine particularly ace as Bill. The over-the-top action is exciting and expertly choreographed and shot, with the House of Blue Leaves sequence in particular being one of the greatest action scenes of all time. ‘Kill Bill’ is certainly long and has a few lulls in its second half, but on a whole it is a very engaging and entertaining film full of vivid style, interesting characters, and unexpected turns. Grade: A
2. ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992)
“Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie? Or are you gonna bite?”
Plot: After a jewel heist goes wrong, the criminals involved begin to suspect that they were set up.
Cast: Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Lawrence Tierney, Quentin Tarantino
A remarkable, riveting debut film, ‘Reservoir Dogs’ still shines as a tense and masterful crime thriller. The film is atypically short and breezy by Tarantino standards (running only 99 minutes) while also being full of suspense and mystery. Tarantino also came out swinging with his colorful character and dialogue choices with this debut, immediately leaving a unique stamp of style. Michael Madsen is especially memorable here as the psychotic Mr. Blonde, partaking in an unforgettable torture scene; Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, and Steve Buscemi are cool as ice too as Mr. Orange, Mr. White, and Mr. Pink, respectively. A few of the side scenes detour away from the intense core story, but overall ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is an accomplished piece of work that feels like it’s from a veteran filmmaker and not the newcomer Tarantino was at the time. Grade: A
1. ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994)
“I’ma get medieval on your ass!”
Plot: A mob boss and his wife, two hit men, a boxer, and others face unexpected situations in Los Angeles.
Cast: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, Ving Rhames, Tim Roth
What else could have been number one? ‘Pulp Fiction’ is not only Tarantino’s crowning achievement, it’s one of the best films of all time period. The Oscar-winning screenplay has been studied by aspiring screenwriters while the visuals and flow have been studied by aspiring directors for years. And for good reason. ‘Pulp Fiction’ changed cinema with its unusual and brilliant structure, smart dialogue and characters, use of brutal violence in casual circumstances, and love for pop culture all around. Every performance is memorable too, from the career-best work by Samuel L. Jackson all the way down to the actors who only have a couple of minutes on the screen. ‘Pulp Fiction’ is simply one of those films where everything clicks, leaving viewers quoting it and pondering it long after it ends. Grade: A+