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Once Upon a Time in Tarantinoville

Since his auda cious entrance with Reservoir Dogs in 1992, Quentin Tarantino has carved out a niche so uniquely his own that each new film feels like another love letter to storytelling.

His canvas of dialogue, violence, and unapologetic nods to cinema’s yesteryears has fascinated me since I saw Pulp Fiction in the theater with my best friend, Jimmy, long before I was a professional storyteller. There’s an alchemy at play in his work, blending the profound with the profoundly-entertaining.

There’s also an audacity in the director’s longstanding declaration that he’ll cap his career at ten films — a promise now teetering on the brink of reality with just one more to go, and that idea (a movie called The Critic) in the can. This self-imposed limit amplifies my anticipation for Tarantino’s final cinematic outing while casting a reflective light on his filmography thus far. 

We’ll get to my rankings in a moment. First let’s assemble the elements that make his films so derivatively unique in the first place.

Nonlinear Narrative Structures: “I’m gonna get medieval on your ass.” 

Tarantino treats time like a Rubik’s Cube, twisting and turning timelines to craft narratives that are as intricately captivating. From Pulp Fiction’s entangled vignettes to Kill Bill’s episodic odyssey, his defiance of linear storytelling invites us into a dance where every step backward or forward adds depth and dynamism to the narrative. 

In the jigsaw narrative of Pulp Fiction that catapulted Quentin to fame, the tale of a boxer’s deliberate loss is intricately interwoven with the existential deliberations of two hitmen, amid the backdrop of a crime boss’s wife narrowly escaping her death. These divergent storylines intersect across a non-linear timeline, with the film intriguingly commencing at the midpoint of the story and culminating in events that unfold in the narrative’s chronological center.  

Kill Bill unfolds through a series of chapters zigzagging through the protagonist’s quest for revenge, revealing her backstory and motivations non-linearly along the way. This deliberate temporal disarray forces the audience to assemble the narrative as they go, adding layers of engagement and revelation.

His command of chronology stitches together a series of instances. In the tangled web of past, present, and future, Tarantino tales become a narrative experience.

Richly Drawn, Memorable Characters: “This is My Masterpiece.”

In Tarantino’s cinematic universe, characters leap off the screen with mythic grandeur and palpable humanity. From Inglourious Basterds cunning Hans Landa to Django Unchained’s resilient title character, Tarantino crafts figures that are both complex and unforgettable. 

His character-driven narratives have a core of moral ambiguity. Shosanna Dreyfus from Inglourious Basterds cuts a path between survival and vengeance within the shadows of World War II. Jackie Brown plays a dangerous game of cat and mouse that blurs the lines between right and wrong. These characters resonate, not because they fit neatly into archetypes of heroes or villains, but because they reflect the nuanced reality of human nature, making morally gray choices that are therefore compelling.

Beyond the iconic figures is the way he assembles all those interconnected lives, with each character contributing to the overarching story, no matter how minor they might be.

Stylized Dialogue and Pop Culture References: “You had my curiosity, but now you have my attention.”

Tarantino’s dialogue is perhaps his most famous storytelling trait, elevating conversational exchanges into a stylized, hyper-articulation that is both unmistakably his and endlessly quotable. From the Royale with Cheese scene in Pulp Fiction to the Sicilian’s Monologue in True Romance (not on the list below, but Tarantino wrote the script for Tony Scott’s film), his dialogue is always sharp, witty, and packed with pop culture references.

But that verbal craftsmanship does more than dazzle the ear; it reveals character with every line. Dialogue in Tarantino films is a dance of intellect and identity, where characters are as likely to duel with words as they are with weapons. The musical cadence of conversation injects a vitality into the narrative. 

Beyond all those clever lines and catchy phrases, Tarantino weaves a dense web of cultural references that enriches the narrative. His scripts are treasure troves of cinematic homage, drawing from blaxploitation films, classic noir, and the obscure corners of grindhouse cinema. This intertextual layering serves as homage to the art forms that shaped him while inviting the audience into a deeper dialogue with his work. 

Blending Genres and Subverting Expectations: “Let’s get into character.”

Tarantino is a master at melding disparate genres into a concoction that is entirely his own. Elements of thriller, western, martial arts, and noir coalesce to craft narratives that defy categorization. This genre fusion transcends mere aesthetic innovation, serving as a narrative sleight of hand, challenging audiences to abandon their preconceived notions about what a film can be. 

Django Unchained reframes the historical epic through the lens of a revenge thriller, punctuating its grave subject matter with moments of surreal comedy and stylized violence. The Hateful Eight marries the isolation of a classic western with the suspense of a whodunit, for an atmospheric pressure cooker covered in snow. Basterds seamlessly blends the war film genre with elements of spaghetti western and dark comedy for a revisionist history tale that is both a tribute and a critique of cinema’s power. 

His deliberate disruption of genre norms engenders a sense of unpredictability while enriching the viewing experience, inviting audiences to engage with the film on multiple levels. 

Impactful Violence and Its Narrative Purpose: “I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.”

Tarantino’s narratives are steeped in violence, a thematic thread woven with as much deliberation as dialogue or character development. His approach to violence is undeniably bold, framing it in ways that both shock and provoke thought. Beyond the bloodshed and the bullet ballets, there is a nuanced exploration of violence’s role in the human condition.

In his world, violence is more than mere spectacle; it is a narrative engine. In Django, the visceral brutality of slavery is not just historical context but a crucible for the main character’s transformation from captive to avenger. Violence against the oppressors in the climax of Inglourious Basterds becomes a cathartic reimagining of history.

Tarantino’s cinematic violence serves to desensitize and thereby invite deeper engagement with the underlying themes. The hyper-stylized depiction acts as a buffer, a way to explore the impact of violence without becoming mired in its horror. 

Though a key component of his storytelling, this is also perhaps the most controversial aspect of Tarantino’s work. His films are known for their graphic, stylized depictions of violence, from the ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs to every one of the brutal fight sequences in Kill Bill.

But for Tarantino, violence isn’t just gratuitous or exploitative. It serves a crucial narrative purpose, often acting as a catalyst for character development and thematic exploration. The accidental shooting of Marvin in Pulp Fiction is a turning point for Jules, forcing him to confront the consequences of his violent lifestyle and seek redemption.

The violence is at times so highly stylized, it borders on the cartoonish or absurd. This heightened, almost surreal approach distances the audience from the on-screen brutality, allowing them to engage with the story on a more intellectual and emotional level.

Ranking any list of favorite anythings is often difficult for me, because the order is always a snapshot of where admiration and critique intersect at that moment in time, but when ranking Tarantino’s nine existing films, I placed storytelling ahead of my preferences. Kill Bill is my favorite among his oeuvre, but the order below is based on how effective the storytelling is, and the influence that particular film had on our storytelling culture. 

For fun, and because I love his dialogue so much, I’ve included the first quote I could think of for each movie. 

1. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Pulp Fiction is an exhilarating, wild ride through the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, populated by unforgettable characters and fueled by Tarantino’s signature blend of sharp dialogue, dark humor, and shocking violence. Its nonlinear structure keeps viewers on their toes, while interconnected storylines and an eclectic soundtrack make for a rich, immersive world that invites multiple viewings. I’ve probably seen it ten times. 

The groundbreaking movie draws inspiration from a wide range of familiar sources, including hardboiled crime novels, French New Wave cinema, and classic noir. Tarantino’s love for these genres is smeared all over the movie, with his stylized dialogue and bold visual style. But more than a pastiche of influences, Pulp Fiction synthesizes these elements into something entirely new.

Storytellers can learn from the way this movie plays with expectations and narrative form. Tarantino’s ability to seamlessly weave disparate storylines into a cohesive, emotionally-resonant story has been often copied but never duplicated.  

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.”

Jules Winnfield

2. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Inglourious Basterds is an audacious historical fantasy filled with magnetic performances and nail-biting suspense. Tarantino’s what if? scenario imagines a band of Jewish-American soldiers waging a war of revenge on the Nazis. The movie is cathartic and provocative, and Christoph Waltz’s chilling turn as SS Colonel Hans Landa is a villain for the ages.

The film draws inspiration from World War II movies, spaghetti westerns, and propaganda films. Tarantino uses these influences to create a heightened, stylized vision of the war that feels familiar yet subversive. The climax, set in a movie theater, is a potent metaphor, illustrating how art molds history and our collective memory.

For storytellers, Inglourious is a cinema-savvy example of crafting, tightening, and sustaining tension through dialogue and character dynamics. The script is a virtuoso display of pacing and strategic revelation, with each exchange rich in subtext and veiled motives. Its episodic structure, coupled with a daring multilingual narrative, brilliantly showcases how to weave an epic tapestry while zooming in on nuanced, character-driven moments that give the story heart and depth.

I remember sitting in the theater when seeing this for the first time, gleefully pleased that Tarantino had used so many languages instead of having all the characters speaking in English with their own national accent, like the vast majority of mainstream movies did at the time. 

It’s also interesting to note that Inglourious has the best role Adam Sandler ever refused, after backing out of playing a character specifically written for him. Too bad, I bet Tarantino knew exactly what to do with that guy. 

“We’re in the Nazi killin’ business and cousin, business is a-boomin’.”

Lt. Aldo Raine

3. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Tarantino’s indie debut burst onto the scene with its raw energy, stylized dialogue, and unflinching violence, announcing the writer-director as a major new voice in American cinema. The film is a gripping, adrenaline-fueled heist thriller that keeps you guessing until the end, thanks to yet another nonlinear structure and a series of unreliable narrators.

Reservoir Dogs draws from the kinetic energy of Ringo Lam and John Woo’s Hong Kong crime sagas to the raw, earthy undertones of 1970s American crime dramas. Yet, Tarantino’s distinctive voice pierces through, with dialogue drenched in pop culture references and the bold use of music that trademarks his cinematic flair.

It’s a brilliant example of low-budget, high-impact filmmaking, demonstrating how to create a fully-realized world and complex characters with limited resources. Tarantino’s ability to build tension through dialogue and suggestion, rather than expensive set pieces, provides an excellent lesson in storytelling economy and the power of imagination. 

This movie also has the Commode Story, which is an example of meta-storytelling at its finest, showcasing Tarantino’s skill in nesting a tale within a tale without losing a molecule of character development or narrative tension.

“Are you gonna bark all day, little doggy, or are you gonna bite?”

Mr. Blonde

4. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 & 2 (2003-2004)

There is a debate on whether this is considered one or two movies, and though Tarantino has yet to release the rumored Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair (both movies together with a few deleted scenes), I prefer to see this as one epic film, and it’s my favorite in his catalog. Kill Bill was conceived and shot as a single movie. The split forced by Miramax made sense, given the running time and difference in tones, but still, this feels like one long adventure. 

Either way, both Kill Bills are thrilling, emotionally-charged rides, anchored by Uma Thurman’s fierce performance as the Bride, a woman waging her rampage of revenge against those who wronged her (to put it lightly). Hyper-stylized action, vivid characters, and lush visuals make for a heightened reality that is satisfyingly exhilarating. 

Tarantino’s influences in Kill Bill are as eclectic as they are obvious: the Shaw Brothers kung fu films of the 1970s, spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, Japanese samurai cinema, and Bruce Lee’s iconic fight scenes. The film is a love letter to the genres and filmmakers that shaped his sensibilities, filtered through Tarantino’s unique vision and voice.

Volume 1 sets the stage with its relentless pace, blending swordplay and a revenge narrative introducing us to the Bride and her quest with stylistic flair, and its soundtrack punches as hard as its protagonist. This visceral experience is marked by Tarantino’s signature blend of violence and dark humor. Holy crap squared when the anime starts. That shit still gets me. 

Volume 2 slows the tempo to delve deeper into the Bride’s backstory and her complex relationship with Bill, offering a more emotional and nuanced exploration of revenge and redemption. That moment when Bibi says, “Bang, Mommy, you’re dead!” Damn dude. 

The transition from high-octane thrill to reflective depth across the volumes showcases his versatility, blending raw action with deep character exploration. Individually or as a collective, these two movies craft a narrative that stands as monumental yet seamlessly divisible.

“You and I have unfinished business.”

The Bride (Vol. 2)

5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

This is my second favorite Tarantino film, because I grew up in Long Beach and love his nostalgic, affectionate recreation of 1960s Los Angeles. With charismatic performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, the movie is a bittersweet meditation on the changing tides of Hollywood. Meticulous attention to period detail and obvious love for the era create a fully immersive world that is at once comforting and tinged with melancholy.

The film is a tribute to the movies and TV shows that shaped Tarantino’s childhood, from the westerns and action dramas of the 1960s to the foreign art films that were making their way to American shores. But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is also another subversive take on the historical fiction genre, this time imagining an alternate reality where the Manson murders never happened and the optimism of the 1960s could linger just a little bit longer.

The character development and tone management in this movie are five-stars. His script is less plot-driven than earlier work, instead focusing on the daily lives and relationships of his characters. The slow-burn pacing and attention to telling details create a rich sense of place and character that pays off big time in the explosive climax.

“When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell.”

Narrator

6. Django Unchained (2012)

Django Unchained is a bold, provocative take on the Western genre that confronts the brutality of slavery with unflinching honesty and biting satire. The film is a thrilling journey, as Django goes from brutalized slave to confident hero on a mission of love and vengeance.

Influenced by Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone’s iconic spaghetti Westerns — including the 1966 classic Django — and infused with blaxploitation elements to drive historical vengeance themes, this fusion creates an engaging yet reflective experience, using familiar cinematic conventions to tackle the grim realities of America’s past.

Navigating through the gravity of slavery with deft touches of humor and moments of catharsis, the screenplay boldly confronts our past atrocities while enriching the narrative with threads of vindication and love to ensure the viewer’s engagement. Django’s evolution from subjugation to sovereignty embodies the hero’s journey, and the enduring power of archetypes and myths.

“You had my curiosity, but now you have my attention.”

Calvin Candie

7. Jackie Brown (1997)

Jackie Brown showcases Tarantino’s gift for writing complex, fully-realized women, with Pam Grier’s nuanced performance as the titular character anchoring the simmering crime thriller with a strong emotional core, with Jackie navigating the dangerous world of arms dealers and double-crosses while trying to secure her future.

The film is an homage to blaxploitation films from the 1970s, particularly the works of Pam Grier herself, and is a departure from the flashier, more violent style of Tarantino’s two first films. Adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, Rum Punch, Jackie Brown is Tarantino working within a more restrained, novelistic framework while still maintaining his signature voice.

This film offers a great lesson in adaptation and genre subversion. His ability to translate Leonard’s prose to the screen while making the material his own is something every storyteller can aspire to. Measured pacing, strong characterization, and attention to the details of criminal life create a sense of realism that makes the dramatic moments all the more impactful.

“AK-47. When you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherfucker in the room, accept no substitutes.

Ordell Robbie

8. The Hateful Eight (2015)

A tense, claustrophobic thriller that keeps audiences guessing until its bloody conclusion. A single-location setting and theatrical dialogue create an intimate intensity, while the stellar ensemble cast brings Tarantino’s larger-than-life characters to vivid life.

The film draws inspiration from classic Westerns, particularly those dealing with themes of justice, revenge, and moral ambiguity in the wake of our Civil War. But it’s also a nod to the mystery thriller genre, with its confined setting and air of paranoia recalling films like The Thing or his own Reservoir Dogs.

Tarantino’s use of dialogue to reveal character and crank the suspense is a lesson in the power of words to create unease and dread. The chapter structure and flashback sequences play with narrative form to create a more unpredictable (and engaging) viewing experience.

“When you get to hell, John, tell them Daisy sent you.”

Daisy Domergue

9. Death Proof (2007)

While Death Proof may be Tarantino’s most divisive movie, and the bottom of my list under most criteria, the film is still a thrilling ride for audiences who appreciate its homage to exploitation cinema and strong female characters. The two-part structure and emphasis on dialogue over action may be a departure from his usual style, but it allows for a deeper exploration of character and a more pronounced emphasis on the dynamics between women.

Death Proof draws inspiration from the grindhouse cinema of the 1970s, particularly the car chase films of directors like Vanishing Point’s Richard C. Sarafian. But it’s also a commentary on the male gaze in movies, with Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike serving as a stand-in for the voyeuristic, often violent way women are portrayed in exploitation films.

Many of Bonnie’s first time Tarantino’s experiences have been with me. Death Proof was the last movie one on her list. She said, “I thought I was going to hate this movie, but I love it.” She especially admired how the first half of the movie showed how women look to men like Stuntman Mike — easily-to-manipulate victims — then flipped to show the women as they really were — confident in their own agency and more capable of fighting back than Stuntman Mike could have imagined. 

The movie is great at subverting expectations and toying with genre conventions. Focusing on character over plot is a bold choice that pays off in the cathartic final act. Practical effects and real stunt work are a great reminder that tangible, physical filmmaking in an era of CGI and digital trickery can still be incredibly powerful.

“I’m afraid you’re gonna have to start getting scared immediately.”

Stuntman Mike

And here’s one from Tarantino himself:

“When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them, ‘no, I went to films.’”

His influence on the landscape of contemporary cinema cannot be overstated. Tarantino’s distinctive approach to storytelling and unwavering artistic integrity have sparked creativity among peers, including luminaries like Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson. His legacy is evident in the cinematic trend toward non-linear storytelling and the fusion of genres, a path blazed by films such as Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, echoing his innovative narrative structures and thematic complexity.

Beyond his technical and narrative ingenuity, the director has left an indelible mark on popular culture, infusing our collective psyche with his work. Through a unique fusion of striking imagery, nods to vintage styles, and unforgettable characters, he has not only carved out a niche but also become emblematic of a specific style of filmmaking that marries grit with wit.

The curtain will soon fall on Tarantino’s filmography, but his legacy promises to be as timeless as cinema itself.