We only considered the nine films he wrote and directed, meaning that, sadly, “True Romance” and (less sadly) “From Dusk Till Dawn” were not eligible. “Death Proof,” as part of a double feature, also didn’t make the cut. And while we rank his movies from worst to best, it’s worth noting that the “worst” is still pretty great.
Without further ado, let the arguments begin!
9. “Reservoir Dogs” (1992)
Bruce Springsteen once wrote that hearing the opening snare of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” “sounded like somebody kicked open the door to your mind.” No phrase better explains seeing “Reservoir Dogs” for the first time. Several besuited thieves, all code-named Mr. [insert color], sit around a diner. Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) starts an argument about tipping servers. Mr. Brown (Tarantino) offers an, ahem, interesting theory about what Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” actually means.
These characters didn’t talk like movie characters; they talked just like any group of pop culture-obsessed friends might, their dialogue peppered with both mainstream and obscure references — only these dudes had a penchant for cutting off ears while dancing to catchy pop tunes. (What you feel when you hear “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel depends on whether you’ve seen the movie.) High and low culture lived alongside each other in a way the silver screen had never seen. Legions of moviegoers who grew up on pop culture stared with open mouths, all with the same thought: Wait, you can do that?!
Ranking the first film Tarantino directed last on any list feels like a crime and probably is one somewhere. Tarantino’s work would only grow more complex, empathetic and engaging along with his career. But “Reservoir Dogs” forever changed the language of modern film — for good or ill, depending on your personal constitution.
8-7. “Kill Bill: Vols. 1 and 2″ (2003, 2004)
Originally conceived and filmed as a single movie, then broken into two roughly two-hour parts, the “Kill Bill” movies can best be described as Tarantino’s id. The director grew up on kung fu movies and always wanted to make his own grindhouse epic. When he got his chance, he stuffed it with everything he could — including an anime sequence — until it reached its breaking point. But it never bursts.
The first volume is pure, unadulterated adrenaline injected right into your veins. Does anyone even remember if there’s a plot? Then, along with a strong dose of heart, comes the second part. But for as much dazzling moviemaking Tarantino poured into both volumes, it would never work without Uma Thurman. Gone were the days that her character was overdosing on heroin. Now she was a heroine, hellbent on revenge. Thurman brings pathos, fury and even humor to the Bride, transforming her into a compulsively watchable, unlikely feminist icon — just about the last thing you’d expect from such a movie.
6. “The Hateful Eight” (2015)
Of the director’s nine primary films, “The Hateful Eight” had, by far, the worst critical reception. Even positive reviews tended to disparage the sadistic violence laced throughout the story. Though Tarantino movies are always divisive, this one struck a nerve.
The movie takes place about a decade after the Civil War, when eight strangers of wildly different backgrounds and beliefs find themselves stuck in a cabin. Philosophical debates turn violent, and a whodunit slowly emerges from what amounts to a bleakly beautiful stage play. The movie is unabashedly about the story of America — how some wounds never heal, some divisions never mend.
Many didn’t see it that way, however. “The film is pointless, even as entertainment, because it builds to nothing more than a comic book blood bath,” wrote Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Rainer. But a quick glance at a newspaper these days reveals that Tarantino’s movie might have contained more truth than we’re willing to believe, upsetting as that may be.
5. “Django Unchained” (2012)
Homage to a 1960s spaghetti western? Check. Violent revenge fantasy? Check. A controversial grenade lobbed into the “woke” blogosphere? Check.
In the second of Tarantino’s alternate history films, Jamie Foxx’s freed slave Django takes gleeful revenge on those who did him wrong, including the despicable, disgusting slave owner Calvin Candie, played against type by heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s the best showcase of Tarantino’s ability to shift between popcorn fun and dark, shocking commentary — confronting the audience with real-world horrors in the midst of entertainment — before offering a bloody ending that, in this case, feels nothing less than cathartic.
4. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019)
Tarantino’s latest film just boasted his biggest opening weekend to date, which isn’t surprising. Tarantino adores movies above all else, and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is nothing if not a nostalgic love letter to the very land where it’s set. As a result, audiences get what might be Tarantino’s warmest film, an adjective not often used to describe his work.
So much of the movie is astonishing, but let’s focus on the leads. In one of his most committed and vulnerable performances, DiCaprio plays semi-washed-up actor Rick Dalton, who happens to live next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) during the summer of 1969. Brad Pitt, meanwhile, gives a pained but amusing performance as second banana Cliff Booth, Dalton’s former stuntman who now mostly just drives him around and cares for his house.
Tarantino often injects his movies with meta-commentary, evidenced here in the delicious scene in which 8-year-old actress Trudi (portrayed by breakout star Julia Butters) explains to Dalton her method acting and the purpose of the craft, a direct sendup of DiCaprio himself. On one level, it’s touching to watch Dalton absorb this, knowing his best days are past it. On the other, it’s hilarious to see a child talk to one of our modern movies stars so bluntly, and with so much truth.
And that’s only about 10 minutes in a nearly three-hour film chock full of similar moments.
3. “Pulp Fiction” (1994)
Tarantino’s second film shares a lot of DNA with his first — the pop culture diatribes, the pulpy crime, the unexpected violence — but in “Pulp Fiction,” he introduced a few new elements. First, there’s the elliptical, puzzle-box nature of the plot, which is told in a series of disordered vignettes, heightening the story’s tension (and requiring a bit more concentration from the viewer). Second, there’s the reviving of a fading career, namely John Travolta’s, that casts the actor in a completely new light.
It’s been repeatedly called the most influential movie of the 1990s, despite losing the Oscar for best picture to “Forrest Gump.” But what might be its most important legacy is just how quotable and rewatchable it is. If you were a teenager into crime fiction in the ’90s, there’s a good chance you’ve seen “Pulp Fiction” several dozen times, if not more. Not many movies can claim that dubious stat.
2. “Jackie Brown” (1997)
“Jackie Brown” dropped into cinemas like a brick, and was treated as such by audiences expecting another “Pulp Fiction.” The two movies share a lot in common: crime, talkiness, Samuel L. Jackson. But this one, based on the Elmore Leonard novel “Rum Punch,” had something else: a beating heart.
The movie focuses on people who usually end up as secondary characters: flight attendants, ex-cons, bail bondsmen and the like. Here, they’re all chasing . . . $500,000. That’s it. Sure, it’s a lot of money, but for a crime flick, it seems laughably small (especially as the body count rises). While there’s still a meta aspect here — Pam Grier and Robert De Niro, in particular, play with their celebrity images, the former taking a star turn while the later grumbles and mumbles his way through the picture — there’s also a sad but touching sense that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. Tarantino wouldn’t produce a film this warm again until “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood."
1. “Inglourious Basterds” (2009)
Perfection is an illusion, sure, and the quest for the perfect film is a futile one. But Tarantino came close with his alternate-history World War II epic. It contains pieces of all his best friends. Like “Pulp Fiction,” it’s a puzzle box. Like “Jackie Brown,” it plays with character type (at one point, the German-born and -speaking Michael Fassbender plays an English movie critic turned soldier who has to pretend to speak German — yes, it’s as confusingly but wonderful meta as it sounds.) Like “Once Upon a Time,” it’s nostalgic for the good parts of a bygone era. Like “Django Unchained,” it’s deeply satisfying as a cathartic experience. Like all his movies, it introduces wonderful new actors to American audiences, such as Mélanie Laurent and Christoph Waltz.
But what truly stands out is the painstaking craftsmanship that went into it. Though there is the violence you’d expect in a war movie, like all Tarantino’s films, it’s really about the conversations — conversations in which the balance of power between countries, between races, between enemies is constantly shifting. What’s more impressive is the fact that most of the movie doesn’t take place in English — despite being an American film. And yet we easily understand everything. Just check out its best scene — one of the best scenes of the new millennium.
An earlier version of this article mistitled Quentin Tarantino's half of a double feature. It is "Death Proof," not "Death Wish." The story has been updated.