There may be plenty of directors who emulate his style, but it’s safe to say that there is no director as bold, original, or controversial as Quentin Tarantino. From his remarkable debut in 1992 to his more recent exploits more than 25 years later, Tarantino has been responsible for delivering some of the most profane, twisted, and violent movies ever released. Often criticized for his expletive and gore-filled films, he’s credited with being one of the most prestigious directors working today.
Let's take a look back at the director’s career as he nears retirement, ranking his nine movies (technically 10 if you count the Kill Bill movies as two separate films) from best to worst.
1. Pulp Fiction
Commonly seen as one of the greatest and most influential movies of the past 30 years (as well as being frequently referred to as one of the best films of all time), Pulp Fiction is often considered Tarantino’s masterpiece.
Framed in a nonlinear format, Pulp Fiction is a darkly comedic anthology that focuses on two hitmen (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson), a crime boss’s wife (Uma Thurman), an aging boxer (Bruce Willis), and a pair of amateur thieves (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer).
The movie that made Tarantino a household name, Pulp Fiction was universally praised for its unconventional narrative, original script, and the performances of every cast member involved. A cultural phenomenon when it was originally released, it won the prized Palme d’Or at Cannes, and also won or was nominated for virtually every film award there is.
Winning an Academy Award, BAFTA, and Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, it also received Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Travolta), Best Supporting Actor (Jackson), and Best Supporting Actress (Thurman).
Since its release in 1994, Pulp Fiction has gone on to become a classic of modern cinema, earning places on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years … 100 Movies and 100 Years … 100 Thrills.
2. Reservoir Dogs
When Tarantino first came onto the scene in 1992 with his debut effort, Reservoir Dogs, he forever changed the world of independent film.
It was a movie that was so fully formed, so effortlessly well-made, and so amazingly well-written, it not only won the praise of indie filmgoers but quickly earned a place among mainstream movie audiences as well. Presented in a non-linear fashion, Reservoir Dogs follows a group of professional criminals who take part in a botched bank robbery.
Meeting at a secure warehouse shortly after the robbery takes place, they gradually begin to suspect someone on the crew is an undercover police officer.
Channeling his love for the French New Wave and the New Hollywood crime films of the 1970s’, Reservoir Dogs introduced many elements we’ve commonly come to associate with Quentin Tarantino’s movies.
There’s the dialogue-heavy scripts, sudden and horrific violence, pop culture references, a retro soundtrack composed of obscure songs from the 1970s and ‘80s, a non-chronological story, and numerous instances of extreme profanity. Seen today as one of the greatest independent movies of all time, Reservoir Dogs’s reputation has only grown more favorable over time, especially in the wake of Pulp Fiction.
3. Inglourious Basterds
After the somewhat shaky reception of Death Proof in 2007, Tarantino turned back to an old project he had been writing for over a decade—a screenplay he believed was the finest thing he’d ever written.
Set at a critical moment in the Second World War, Inglourious Basterds follows two separate assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler’s life. The first is orchestrated by a young French Jewish cinema owner (Mélanie Laurent) whose family was brutally killed by the monstrous SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz).
The second is planned by a team of elite Jewish-American military commandos, led by the unconventional Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his British counterpart (Michael Fassbender).
Watching the film, it’s easy to see why Tarantino himself viewed Inglourious Basterds as the finest thing he’d ever written. Complemented by line after line of amazing dialogue and a suspenseful, engaging story, it’s a wonderfully crafted film, made only better by its amazing ensemble cast and unique alternative depiction of WW2 history.
A far cry from the lack of accolades Death Proof failed to garner, Inglourious Basterds earned numerous awards and nominations upon its release, including Academy Award nominations (notably Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay).
The character of Hans Landa and Waltz’s performance was also the subject of universal praise from viewers and critics, resulting in Waltz winning the Oscar, BAFTA, Critics’ Choice, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, and Cannes Film Festival's Award for Best Actor.
4. Django Unchained
From his directorial debut with Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino had thrown in the occasional homage to famous Spaghetti Western scenes, notably referencing the genre in Kill Bill and using Ennio Morricone’s extensive Western scores in Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds.
Tarantino’s first official foray into the genre, though, came in the form of Django Unchained, a stylized Spaghetti Western set in the Old South shortly before the Civil War.
Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave rescued by a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz), who trains Django how to become a successful (and deadly) bounty hunter in his own right. Now a master gunslinger, Django and his German companion turn their attention to finding Django’s wife, who is now under the ownership of a sadistic plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The highest-grossing movie of Tarantino’s career, Django Unchained was a refreshing Revisionist Western that explored the horrific racism and atrocities of the Antebellum South without holding anything back. For this reason, it was the subject of equal parts praise and controversy, although it received virtually unanimous critical acclaim.
At the 85th Academy Awards, the film earned five nominations, including Best Picture. Both Waltz and Tarantino would also win a Golden Globe, Academy Award, and BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor and Best Screenplay, respectively.
5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
After his various genre films of the 2000s and 2010s, Tarantino returned to the more grounded, albeit stylized films he made early in his career. The resulting project, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, was universally praised as a return to form for Tarantino, offering a day-in-the-life look at several characters adapting to the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s.
Set in Hollywood during the final days of the 1960s, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood details a once-successful television actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double best friend (Brad Pitt) struggling to find work in the changing film industry. Juxtaposed with the final few years of this Golden Age of Old Hollywood is the looming threat of Charles Manson and his followers, representing a time in America where the idealism of the peace-loving ‘60s was replaced by the fear and paranoia that swept through during the 1970s.
One of Tarantino’s most successful movies ever released, the accolades Once Upon a Time in Hollywood received are practically endless—second in critical acclaim only to Tarantino’s earlier success with Pulp Fiction.
The film won Golden Globes for Best Picture (Musical or Comedy), Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Pitt). It was also nominated for a total of 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, winning for Best Supporting Actor (Pitt) and Best Production Design.
6. Jackie Brown
One of Tarantino’s most underrated movies, Jackie Brown is a surprisingly mature, relatively tame thriller compared to all of his other crime films.
Based on Elmore Leonard’s novel, Rum Punch, the eponymous Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a flight attendant who secretly smuggles weapons for an illegal arms dealer, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). When she is caught by the police, Brown makes a deal to turn informant, embarking on a cat-and-mouse game with Robbie alongside a bail bondsman (Robert Forster) with whom she forms a romantic connection.
Tonally, Jackie Brown doesn’t resemble the postmodern revisionist crime films Tarantino had crafted with Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, nor did it seem like the overly-stylized genre films he would produce in the 2000s.
The first and so far only adaptation of an existing book by Tarantino, the director decided on Jackie Brown as he felt it would be a stylistic departure from his earlier films. Uncharacteristically, the movie doesn’t contain many scenes of gory violence. Even the handful of violent acts are notably dialed back and palpable for even the most squeamish viewers.
Not only that, but the movie also offers a tender, more realistic meditation on age framed around Grier and Forster’s on-screen relationship and their desire to leave their criminal past behind and start anew.
It’s a surprisingly emotional film that critics and even fellow filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson were very receptive to. The film was credited with revitalizing Grier’s and Forster’s careers, leading them to receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress (Grier) and an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Forster).
Jackson’s role in the film was also critically praised, with his performance earning the prestigious Silver Bear Award for Best Actor at the Berlin International Film Festival, and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor.
7. Kill Bill: Volume 2
After the hyper-violent, action-heavy introduction to the Kill Bill universe in Volume 1, Tarantino crafted a surprisingly softer conclusion to his two-part kung fu genre film. The movie provides more background on The Bride’s history and sheds more light on the surviving team members she’s hunting down.
In Kill Bill: Volume 2, The Bride tracks down the last few members of her former mercenary team, before coming face-to-face with Bill himself (David Carradine), her former lover and mentor. It’s up for debate which volume of Kill Bill is superior, but there’s no question that Volume 2 does a phenomenal job exploring The Bride’s character a bit and adding a ridiculous amount of depth to her story.
Focusing more on her emotional connection and relationship with Bill, it’s a fine conclusion to The Bride’s story in a completely unexpected way. Ending it on a bittersweet note when The Bride finally achieves her revenge, it shows that sometimes, vengeance isn’t necessarily as comforting or cathartic as one might’ve initially hoped it would be.
Similar to Volume 1, the critical reception to Kill Bill: Volume 2 was very positive, earning Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress in a Drama (Thurman) and Best Supporting Actor (Carradine).
8. The Hateful Eight
A movie that came very close to never happening at all, The Hateful Eight marks Tarantino’s second official Western film, one that is—like Django Unchained before it—based heavily on Tarantino’s love for Spaghetti Westerns.
Set in post-Civil War Wyoming, The Hateful Eight follows a group of strangers holed up in a remote cabin in the middle of a massive snowstorm. Before long, one of the strangers, a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) escorting a dangerous prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh), begins to suspect that one of the group is secretly there to free the prisoner, leading to an intense, claustrophobic mystery as to who it might be.
Twists and turns abound in The Hateful Eight, though most of the action is carried by Tarantino’s tight script and incredibly interesting characters, all of whom are disgustingly unlikable and unpleasant in their own right. Tarantino nearly gave up on making The Hateful Eight after his initial script leaked online. After seeing the positive reception the screenplay had at a live table reading in Los Angeles, though, he changed his mind, delivering this thoroughly suspenseful thriller that is equal parts Sergio Leone and Agatha Christie.
Like Death Proof, The Hateful Eight may be a bit slow in some places for some audience members, relying on more stage play-like dialogue to carry the story rather than the action-packed showdowns of Django Unchained. Regardless, it received an overall positive reception from critics and film institutions, earning the movie’s composer, the legendary Ennio Morricone, the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Score, and garnering Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Leigh) and Best Cinematography.
9. Kill Bill: Volume 1
After a lengthy six-year hiatus following the release of Jackie Brown, Tarantino returned to Hollywood in 2003 with Kill Bill: Volume 1, a kung fu extravaganza that combined elements of Chinese martial arts movies, Italian giallo films, 70s exploitation revenge thrillers, and Spaghetti Westerns into one massive, incredibly unique movie.
Split into two parts, the Kill Bill series features Uma Thurman as The Bride, an initially nameless former assassin out for revenge after her former team members leave her for dead and seemingly kill her unborn child. Like all of Tarantino’s movies, Kill Bill contained numerous homages and references to some of the director’s favorites (Game of Death, The Bride Wore Black, Lady Snowblood, and several Shaw Brothers movies).
Miraculously, rather than feeling overstuffed, the balance Tarantino strikes between an original narrative and cinematic genre throwbacks is surprisingly fresh and entertaining. Like most of Tarantino’s movies, Kill Bill: Volume 1 may be extremely violent for some—it ends with a massive sword fight so bloody, the scene had to be released in black and white to appease censors—but for others, it’s an extremely enjoyable entry in Tarantino’s canon.
Upon its release, it earned Thurman a Golden Globe BAFTA Award nomination for Best Actress. It also earned a spot on Empire’s list of the “500 Greatest Films of All Time” (coming in at number 325), with The Bride ranked number 66 on the magazine’s “100 Greatest Movie Characters” list.
10. Death Proof
In 2007, Tarantino collaborated with his close friend and fellow director, Robert Rodriguez, to produce the exploitation-themed double feature, Grindhouse. The production was comprised of Rodriguez’s retro zombie film, Planet Terror, and Tarantino’s throwback thriller, Death Proof. The movie stars Kurt Russell as a former stuntman turned serial killer who preys on young women in his souped-up vintage muscle cars, where only the driver is safe from accidents. Ultimately, his exploits lead him to confront potential victims who are a lot tougher than he originally thought.
Death Proof is a good movie by normal standards but falls flat when held up to Tarantino’s other films. Perhaps the biggest problem is how rooted it is in its B-movie-type storyline and archetypes, as well as its unusually tedious pacing.
Full of Tarantino’s signature pop culture-laced dialogue, it moves along a little too slowly for the kind of film it is, characterized by lengthy conversations that don’t altogether have much to do with the plot. The movie received mostly positive marks from critics when it was released, but has slowly gained a stronger fanbase in recent years, with many viewers considering it among Tarantino’s most underrated movies.