Quentin Tarantino's sphere of cultural influence has expanded so much over the past 27 years that when the trailer for his upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood claims that it's "the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino," you find yourself asking: Tarantino only has eight other films to his name?
That seems low for someone whose breakout first feature came out in 1992. Technically, Tarantino has directed nine theatrically released feature films, but, like him, we're counting the two parts of Kill Bill as a single movie. Let all future mythologizing accept our definitive ranking.
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Tarantino's claustrophobic, Reconstruction-era chamber drama is a study in slow-burn narrative tension. It's also a slog, with a two hour and 47 minute running time and every Tarantino trope rolled up into its overly long narrative. The film traps a group of depraved lowlifes with hidden motives in an isolated Wyoming haberdasher, then sets them loose on one another, as post-Civil War tensions, greed, and personal grievances bubble to the surface. While the ominous, sinister mood never yields, the film's plot and themes feel flimsily constructed at times. And what does it all add up to in the end? Not enough.
7. Django Unchained (2012)
Despite cleaning up at the box office and winning its bomb-throwing writer yet another Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, this meandering pastiche of spaghetti Western tropes, broad satirical gags, and old-fashioned Homer-aping epic storytelling comes perilously close to being Tarantino's first total misfire. Intermittently brilliant and anchored by complex, multi-layered performances from Jamie Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson, the movie struggles to make sense of its own jarring tonal inconsistencies and far-reaching thematic provocations. Unlike Django’s own journey, the movie itself is a long road that leads nowhere.
6. Kill Bill: Vols. 1 & 2 (2003 & 2004)
Kill Bill, originally intended for release as a single movie, possesses some of the filmmaker's most iconic set pieces and visual tableaus, from the Bride rocking Bruce Lee's Round 5 jumpsuit to the animated O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) backstory sequence. The first installment of the feminist revenge epic, released in 2003, provided the most brazen example of the hyper-stylized acts of violence that have become Tarantino’s signature, with Uma Thurman's vengeful Bride twirling like a rhythmic gymnast, spinning ribbons of blood as she slices and dices her enemies. Its quieter, more reflective sequel, released six months later, was viewed by many as a leisurely paced come-down from the frenzied blood-letting high of the action-packed first half, but showcases some of Tarantino's sharpest writing and most lived-in characters. However, the movie was cast in a new, problematic light in early 2018 when Uma Thurman disclosed how Tarantino essentially coerced her into performing an unsafe stunt and shared footage of the ensuing crash with The New York Times.
5. Death Proof (2007)
Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror preceded Tarantino's vehicular homicide slasher in their double-feature experiment, Grindhouse. Though flame-broiled by the millennium's gnarliest car stunts, Death Proof is erratic and oversaturated, even by Tarantino standards. Much like Grindhouse, it's a collision of two movies; an extended opening introduces us to Kurt Russell’s kooky Stuntman Mike and a handful of coeds who spit one-liners as they inch towards inevitable death. By the time crew two shows up, Tarantino’s strength and glamour fetishization reaches a breaking point. Death Proof dreams of playing on scratchy 16mm in a dilapidated 42nd St. theater where people routinely masturbate in the back row. In the modern age, the shtick never sticks.
While Inglourious Basterds isn’t quite as cohesive as other Tarantino works, it might be his most entertaining, with scenes of high-tension verbal sparring and scalp-smashing mayhem, all erupting when Tarantino’s band of vigilantes (led by Brad Pitt’s drawling lieutenant Aldo Raine) gun down their German rivals in a blaze of glory. Basterds is also notable for introducing America to Christoph Waltz, who won the Oscar for his performance as silver-tongued sociopath Colonel Landa, one of the most compelling film villains in forever. The movie's opening scene -- a 15-minute-long, dread-soaked verbal chess match where Landa linguistically and physically encircles his prey -- is a high-water mark in Tarantino's filmography.
3. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Tarantino’s debut has a bellowing voice. Reservoir Dogs is all talk, and mostly bullshit, spewing from the mouths of knuckleheads who just screwed up the diamond heist of a lifetime. Unencumbered by Hollywood’s rules, Tarantino deconstructs masculinity through monologue, standoffs, and the literal removal of body parts (the now-legendary ear scene deserves that status). Speaking of ears, Tarantino has one; the "tipping" scene alone is an apogee of crude, poetic vernacular. Reservoir Dogs will always feel primordial, an introduction to the writer-director's -isms and a kickoff for endless imitators. But the movie is the last man standing, all these years later.
2. Jackie Brown (1997)
For all their blood, guts, and mayhem, the best Tarantino movies are love stories. Functioning as both a savvy blaxploitation riff and a tender tribute to QT's literary hero Elmore Leonard, Jackie Brown follows Pam Grier's flight attendant title character and a weary bondsman, played with a knowing twinkle in his eye by Robert Forster, as they slowly fall for each other while outsmarting an endless barrage of con men, wise guys, and dumbasses. While it may lack the flash and formal audacity of some of his bigger hits, it’s undoubtedly Tarantino's most human movie, an empathetic character portrait from an artist who often gets unfairly pegged as a sadist. And, damn, is there a movie with a better final shot?
1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Pulp Fiction is a film where objects evoke whole oceans of meaning: the briefcase, the watch, the sword, the "bad motherfucker" wallet, the $5 milkshake. No other modern movie so effortlessly created its own language and mythology of cool. Only Tarantino could cut and paste his passions -- European art-house movies, paperback crime novels, Saturday afternoon sitcom reruns -- into a collage. Both wickedly funny and surprisingly thoughtful, Pulp Fiction is even better than you remember. Travolta still sizzles. The dialogue still pops. The soundtrack still sings. Forget the loftier films he'd make later in his career; this is his masterpiece.