Editor's note: spoilers to follow
Quentin Tarantino has managed the kind of career many directors would sell their souls for, boasting a filmography with virtually no duds. On the contrary, it has aroused high acclaim from audiences and critics alike, leaving much to be said about QT’s skill and talent. His controversies run almost as high as his achievements, but ultimately that’s what makes him one of the best directors of our generation.
In anticipation of his upcoming movie and ninth feature (which could be his last), Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, we break down each of his films from worst to best. For those that might not be aware, Tarantino is also a prolific screenwriter, having written many well known movies such as True Romance, Natural Born Killers, and From Dusk Til Dawn, while contributions to other films must also be credited, most obviously Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City. But to level the playing field, we’ll only be ranking feature films that Tarantino has directed himself.
Not every film stacks up to one another, and everyone has their own personal favorite, but when you break down his back catalog a fairly clear path begins to form. Don’t agree with our list? Then let us know your picks in the comments below.
Disqualified: My Best Friend’s Birthday
Year: 1987 Rotten Tomatoes: NA Editor's note: Unless you’re a real Tarantino head, the existence of the director’s first actual film might come as a surprise. Produced while he was still working at a video rental store in Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles, My Best Friend’s Birthday starred Tarantino in the lead role and was also directed, edited, co-written, and co-produced by the burgeoning filmmaker.
Shot on 16mm film over four years, on a budget of $5,000, the movie doesn’t exist today in its entirety, as some reels of film were lost in a laboratory fire years ago. The remaining 36-minutes have been shown at a couple of film festivals but an official release was never made.
Due to the lost footage, the film plays out incoherently, with some intersecting storylines that make sense but overall it’s raw and clunky. However, what it does exhibit are distinct Tarantino flourishes such as rambling, irrelevant dialogue, unintended comical moments, a soundtrack of popular music, and even one fight. It might not stand as his actual first film, but it’s definitely the test run.
9. Death Proof
Year: 2007 Rotten Tomatoes: 65 percent Editor's note: It’s no surprise to see Death Proof here. Not that it’s a bad movie – in the grand scheme of things — but it’s not a great film. It’s more of a one-trick pony (the stellar car chase) that carries two hours worth of atmosphere-building non-sequiturs. And to Tarantino’s credit, it was basically created as a genre movie exercise, as part of his and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse project – nobody expected it to win an Oscar.
Tarantino was aware of all of this himself, stating, “Death Proof has got to be the worst movie I ever make. And for a left-handed movie, that wasn’t so bad, all right? — so if that’s the worst I ever get, I’m good.”
For a director to acknowledge that and still put 110% effort into the movie — the car chase is one of the best this century, if not in modern film history — that takes assurance. Additionally, there’s been an interesting feminist revival reading of the film in the last few years, elevating the pseudo-slasher even more.
8. The Hateful Eight
Year: 2015 Rotten Tomatoes: 74 percent Editor's note: QT’s last film before the soon-to-be-released Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, The Hateful Eight had problems from the beginning. Off the back of Django’s high, Tarantino announced his next film would also be a Western, but not a direct sequel (although that was originally the idea). Soon after the script was leaked — infuriating Tarantino who called the production off — he eventually committed once again to make the bloody revenge pic.
A stacked cast featuring regular collaborators such as Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Kurt Russell — as well as revered actors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bruce Dern — carry the movie about a bunch of ragtag strangers in the Wild West who are seeking refuge from a blizzard.
Composer Ennio Morricone — whose previous scores from other films were co-opted by Tarantino for four of his other movies — created an original score (his first for a Western in 34 years and Tarantino’s first original score). Shot on 65mm IMAX film, which is then projected at 70mm in theaters, The Hateful Eight had a roadshow release, building anticipation.
Despite all of this, it doesn’t quite live up to the sum of its parts. A painstakingly slow introduction doesn’t set things up well, while the sarcasm and gratuitous violence had finally become a bit stale. Ultimately though, the characters’ stories don’t invite empathy, with little for the audience to remain invested in. When the main draw of a film becomes its technical elements, it doesn’t quite carry through, no matter the star power behind it.
7. Reservoir Dogs
Year: 1992 Rotten Tomatoes: 91 percent Editor's note: Reservoir Dogs is a great movie. In fact, for a debut feature film it’s up there with some of the best – Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and Jordan Peele’s Get Out are other freshman efforts that have made such an impact. But compared with the rest of Tarantino's oeuvre, it’s a little bit thin overall.
Taking a generic heist plot, it tells the story in a fresh and exciting way, while an A-grade cast ultimately carries the piece. Each one is now a huge star in their own right, but not all were so well known back then. We have Harvey Keitel’s contribution as producer to thank for the film in the first place, as originally QT was planning to shoot the movie with friends on a budget, using black-and-white 16mm film. Keitel’s attachment secured enough funding to produce the indie for $1.5 million.
What makes Reservoir Dogs so great is that it gave us our first glimpse of Tarantino as a director, complete with many of his hallmarks to come, including non-linear storytelling, extensive use of seemingly random dialogue, extreme violence, and pop cultural references. But with that in mind, it’s hard not to see Reservoir Dogs as Tarantino version 1.0 – an amazing release from a then-new director, but whose subsequent iterations have for the most part upgraded from the original source.
6. Jackie Brown
Year: 1997 Rotten Tomatoes: 87 percent Editor's note: Probably his most understated work and also the least violent (comparatively), it’s little surprise then to find out that Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s only film that isn’t based on an original story by him.
Based off Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, the movie’s plot follows its source material quite closely, save for changing the location from Florida to Los Angeles, and the titular character’s name from Burke to Brown as well as making her a black woman. This aspect is key since Tarantino heavily references ‘70s blaxploitation movies, going so far as to cast Pam Grier—the actress who starred in many of the films he referenced—as Jackie. Similar to how Pulp Fiction revamped John Travolta’s career, Jackie Brown did the same for Grier and fellow veteran Robert Forster.
It’s easy to see how a Tarantino fan might find Jackie Brown lacking the action of many of his other films, but it’s the movie’s deliberate pacing that makes it so special. Taking the audience across rarely seen LA locations such as Hermosa Beach, Carson, Inglewood, and Torrance, the film has been touted as Quentin Tarantino’s most personal, offering us a glimpse into the Los Angeles he grew up in.
It’s also the first of his films that went beyond gratuitous violence and gave us a little depth, with Jackie’s plight about starting over an identifiable one. However, controversy came from reputed overuse of the n-word. It was the beginning of director Spike Lee and Tarantino’s feud, with Lee claiming, “I'm not against the word, and I use it, but not excessively. And some people speak that way. But, Quentin is infatuated with that word. What does he want to be made – an honorary black man?”
Tarantino defended his stance, claiming that by using the word in his films it was nullifying its power, while frequent collaborator Samuel L. Jackson backed him up.
5. Once Upon a Time In Hollywood (2019)
Year: 2019 Rotten Tomatoes: 85 percent Editor's note: Highly anticipated for multiple reasons, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood marks Tarantino’s first film without producer Harvey Weinstein and a triumphant return to his LA roots after spending much of his career making movies set elsewhere. Described as a love letter to 1960s Hollywood, its focus on fictional faded TV star Rick Dalton and his friend and stuntman Cliff Booth offered plenty of opportunity for both '60s nostalgia and commentary about the perils of Hollywood. A subplot featuring Sharon Tate and Charles Manson adds tension and a hint of reality to the film.
For a movie that kind of rolls along without much major action for most of its duration, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is quietly suspenseful. The roles are perfectly cast and incredibly acted, while the nostalgic element is heady and fun, and utterly impressive from a filmmaking perspective. Tarantino’s master stroke in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is his self-referential musings via Dalton’s career, but ultimately the film doesn’t quite live up to its name in the tradition of Sergio Leone’s similarly titled masterpieces.
Watch in cinemas now.
4. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) & Kill Bill Vol. 2
Year: 2003 & 2004 Rotten Tomatoes: 84 percent & 84 percent Editor's note: Kill Bill marks the beginning of Tarantino version 2.0. After breakout success in the ‘90s, Kill Bill Vol. 1 escalated QT from independent filmmaker to superstar Hollywood director when it was released and became the highest grossing opening weekend of a Tarantino film to date. Kill Bill Vol. 2 went on to have an even higher opening gross than Vol. 1.
In reviewing the films it’s impossible to consider one without the other – after all, Vol. 2 is not a sequel, it’s the second part of Vol. 1. It was Harvey Weinstein’s decision to split Kill Bill, which was originally meant to be one feature, but the extra long running time would have meant that minor scenes would’ve been cut, such as the anime sequence.
A departure from the low-key SoCal setting we’d become accustomed to in Tarantino’s previous films, Kill Bill was a sprawling genre mash-up of martial arts movies, samurai films, blaxploitation, spaghetti Westerns, and grindhouse cinema.
New technical collaborators upped the ante, with Hong Kong martial arts choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen on board (who previously worked on The Matrix), Robert Richardson as cinematographer, and Production I.G., who produced Ghost In the Shell, handling the anime sequence.
But for how impressive it is, Kill Bill is ultimately a pastiche of many of the films that had inspired the director in his life, a technique that’s become synonymous with his style. That’s not to downplay Kill Bill’s legacy — which in the Tarantino canon is an important segue in the director’s career — it just serves to remind us that when he moves beyond pure genre flicks, he’s capable of much more.
3. Inglourious Basterds
Year: 2009 Rotten Tomatoes: 88 percent Editor's note: Tarantino worked on the script for Inglourious Basterds for just over a decade — having initially written it in 1998 — before abandoning it to work on Kill Bill and returning to it later. He saw it as his masterpiece, with the story continuously growing. When it was eventually released, it was his magnum opus of sorts – the biggest story he’d ever undertaken as well as a gargantuan co-production between Germany and the United States. It garnered eight Academy Award nominations—the most for any Tarantino film—with Christoph Waltz winning for Best Supporting Actor.
It built on the new direction he’d begun with Kill Bill, while revisiting the extreme sarcasm and wit of his earlier works. However, despite its epic scale and gravity of its central theme—which was inadvertently made lighter through its humor—Inglourious Basterds wouldn’t remain his masterwork.
2. Pulp Fiction
Year: 1994 Rotten Tomatoes: 92 percent Editor's note: Pulp Fiction is an incredible film, quite literally one for the history books. Tarantino’s sophomore effort made such an impact on the film industry at large that it’s since been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Expanding on the lurid style he’d established in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction proved to be a cultural touchstone in postmodern filmmaking. It garnered audience and critical acclaim, as well as numerous awards including the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. It revived John Travolta’s career, a move which became a hallmark of Tarantino’s casting.
Proving to be the pinnacle of Tarantino’s early filmmaking — which when considering it’s only his second feature is a mighty feat — Pulp Fiction showed a strong command of his craft. Tarantino nailed style and form here, and despite it being a personal favorite for many, he has gone on to better himself when he’s integrated a little more depth to his characters.
1. Django Unchained
Year: 2012 Rotten Tomatoes: 86 percent Editor's note: Up until now, Django Unchained represents the zenith of Quentin Tarantino’s career. The second in his revisionist history/revenge trilogy, the film benefits from the methods used in the similarly vengeful Inglourious Basterds (and much of his oeuvre for that matter) while tackling an important topic for America, that until more recently hadn’t received much screen time at such scale in Hollywood.
Tarantino’s trademark sarcasm and humor cuts the dramatic tension, while the movie somewhat surprisingly lingers on moments of earnest gravitas, something that hasn’t shown up a lot in Tarantino’s filmography, with perhaps the exception of Jackie Brown and Kill Bill Vol. 2. This duality confirms Tarantino’s maturation as a filmmaker, while the movie’s technical mastery proves he’s at the top of his game.
Django Unchained is not without controversy though – there were concerns of the film’s portrayal of African Americans, its alleged overuse of the n-word, that it made a joke of slavery, while others believed the humor diffused the film’s strong critique of racism in America, and that it was too violent. And perhaps all of this contributes to why it’s Tarantino’s best film. With Django Unchained, the director was unfiltered, allowing his mad genius to run free, all the while forcing audiences to address a topic that many aren’t comfortable discussing.