Quentin Tarantino makes one hell of a first impression. His debut film Reservoir Dogs begins with his own voice on the soundtrack, delivering a well-thought-out, colorfully profane analysis of the Madonna song “Like a Virgin.” For the next seven minutes, Tarantino — along with his cinematographer Andrzej Sekula and the editor Sally Menke — explore the dynamics of a diner table, populated by well-dressed mob goons, all bullshitting about ’70s pop songs and the pros and cons of tipping waitresses. The Reservoir Dogs intro is funny and cinematically vibrant, and it has the ring of truth. The conversation sounds like what folks really talk about … whether or not they’re about to go rob a bank. Back in 1992, by the time that scene ended, a lot of viewers were eager to follow these characters — and this moviemaker — wherever they might go.
Tarantino is an action-film savant, who after a lifetime of watching kung fu matinees and spaghetti Westerns has absorbed the best ways to orchestrate shootouts, chases, and fight scenes so that they play like the grindhouse’s greatest hits. Tarantino also has the ear of a playwright and can pen pages upon pages of entertaining dialogue and monologues, developing stories and characters through what initially seems like idle chitchat. In all the films he’s written and/or directed (including his latest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which just opened this past weekend), he parcels out plot via set pieces. It’s not uncommon for Tarantino to stick with one conversation or conflict for 10, 15, 20 minutes, or more.
The best of these scenes — namely, the 18 listed below — are like short films or playlets, compressing Tarantino’s themes and obsessions into finely crafted miniatures. They’re more effective in the context of their entire movies. (Be warned: This list will contain spoilers for every one of these films.) But each is catchy and exciting just on its own … like a hit single from a classic album.
18. Pulp Fiction: Pop-Tart time!
The twisty, multipart Pulp Fiction is almost like an anthology of short films, constructed from the scenes other directors leave out of crime movies: the anxious minutes and hours before and after a big job. Pulp Fiction’s second segment is about a boxer named Butch (Bruce Willis), who refuses to go along with the mob’s orders to throw a fight. His story begins with a flashback to his childhood and a wonderful monologue (delivered by Christopher Walken) about the family heirloom Butch’s dad smuggled out of Vietnam in his rectum. That scene in and of itself is worthy of this list. But even better is what happens next, when Butch risks his life to retrieve that heirloom — a gold watch — from an apartment almost certainly staked out by gangsters.
After several tense moments of tracking Butch through overgrown vacant lots, Tarantino shows the boxer arriving at a seemingly empty apartment, grabbing his watch, and … deciding to throw an imitation Pop-Tart into the toaster. While the audience is still squirming in their seats — like the crowd at a horror movie, yelling at the screen, “Get out of the house!” — Butch notices a big gun on the kitchen counter. Within seconds, hit man Vincent Vega (the main character of Pulp Fiction’s first segment) steps out of Butch’s bathroom, the pastry pops up, and Butch guns Vincent down. Everything about this moment is so small and human: the generic Pop-Tart; Vincent’s trip to the can … everything. That’s what makes what happens so startling. It’s such a mundane and silly act of violence for two such archetypal characters.
17. The Hateful Eight: Once upon a time in a haberdashery …
Most of The Hateful Eight is like a filmed play, shot in the interior of an 1877 frontier general store — Minnie’s Haberdashery — in the snowy Wyoming mountains. But about two hours into the movie, after we’ve been seen almost nothing but grumpy killers and bigots snarling at each other, Tarantino introduces a new character, Jody Domergue (Channing Tatum), who’s been in hiding the whole time. Suddenly, Tarantino jumps back to earlier that day, when Joey and his band of outlaws arrived at Minnie’s and slaughtered the staff.
The flashback answers some questions about why the haberdashery is in such disarray at the start of the film, with a busted door and no one around to greet a stagecoach properly. The scene also establishes that not so long ago — like, literally just hours before — Minnie’s was a warm, welcoming oasis, run by strong women of different racial and cultural backgrounds. Then the gun-toting assholes arrived and spoiled everything.
16. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Rick and Cliff’s F.B.I. commentary track
At the end of a long, eventful day, fading TV-Western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) grab some beers, order a pizza, and watch Rick’s guest shot as a stone-cold killer on the long-running procedural The F.B.I. As is the case throughout Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino, his effects team, and cinematographer Robert Richardson seamlessly integrate 21st-century actors into old film and television footage, making it look like Leonardo DiCaprio — or Rick Dalton, anyway — really is gunning some good men down in 1969. (A few scenes earlier, even more startlingly, Tarantino imagined the movie The Great Escape with DiCaprio/Dalton in the role that made Steve McQueen a superstar, continuing to establish this picture’s “alternate Hollywood history” premise.)
What’s so delightful about the F.B.I. scene in Hollywood, though, is how DiCaprio and Pitt seem to improvise an entire half-drunken commentary about Rick’s episode, sounding every bit like two longtime best buds as they mutter over the action about which actor was “an asshole” and how cool Dalton looks as a wild-eyed maniac. MeTV should get Leo and Brad to audibly annotate any old show that Rick Dalton could’ve been in. It’d be a ratings bonanza.
15. Kill Bill: Vol. Two: What Superman means
After over four hours of shoot-outs and slash-ups — with a lot of punching, kicking, and poisoning in between — the Kill Bill saga ends in a more typical Tarantino way with an extended round of chin-wagging. Beatrix “Black Mamba” Kiddo (Uma Thurman) tracks her former lover and current nemesis Bill (David Carradine) to his Mexican hideaway, expecting an ultimate “big boss” showdown. Instead, she finds him playing with their daughter. After they send the tyke to bed, Bill shoots Beatrix with a combination paralyzing dart and truth serum and proceeds to deliver a monologue.
He talks about superheroes and their alter egos and argues that Superman’s Clark Kent persona is really a put-on: a weak fool who’s “Superman’s critique of the whole human race.” Bill’s implying that Black Mamba, like Superman, is too extraordinary to try to live the kind of normal life she was planning to escape into before he and his team of assassins intervened at her wedding. In a way, this is where the fundamental tension in Tarantino’s universe lies: between the over-the-top fictional characters he creates and the ordinary stuff he so often has them do. He’s fascinated by how the Clark Kents of genre fiction spend their days — because he knows their big secret.
14. Inglourious Basterds: “My masterpiece”
Inglourious Basterds has an outrageous climax, indulging in an enticing bit of alternate history “what if,” as a Nazi-slaying Jewish-American guerrilla squadron machine-guns Hitler to death during a movie premiere. But the film really comes full circle with the final scene, where the squad’s leader, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), carves a swastika in SS Colonel Hans Landa’s forehead, after Landa has made a deal with the OSS to live freely in America. Raine declares, “This might be my masterpiece,” right before the closing credits pop up, in a ballsy meta moment for Tarantino.
Aldo believes bad people should bear the mark of who they really are, which is a common opinion of Tarantino characters. (See Bill, in re Superman.) Meanwhile Hans, a stooge in an authoritarian regime, is certain Raine will be executed for his impertinence. Aldo just shrugs: “Nah, more like chewed out. I’ve been chewed out before.” The lieutenant’s world-weary cocksureness — not to mention Tarantino’s — is enough to make a person proud to be an American.
13. Pulp Fiction: Wolfe at the door
After Vincent Vega gets brutally gunned down in Pulp Fiction’s heavier second segment, Tarantino uses the power of nonchronological storytelling to bring him back for the much funnier (in a dark, dark way) third segment, where Vincent and his partner, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), accidentally shoot a man — in the face — in the back of their car and have to hide out in the suburban garage of a reluctant associate named Jimmy (Tarantino) until Winston “the Wolf” Wolfe (Harvey Keitel) can show up and help them straighten everything out. The Wolf’s method? Mainly giving common-sense commands, but in a supercool and calm way.
The whole concept of an underground criminal specialist — and especially one introduced late in a film — later became something like the whole raison d’être for the John Wick franchise. Tarantino’s take on it though is, naturally, more prosaic. After introducing the idea that Jimmy likes gourmet coffee, when the Wolf arrives and asks for a cup, Tarantino holds on his face as he takes a sip, is amazed by how delicious the coffee is, then nods gratefully at Jimmy. It’s a funny gag, well set up. And it expresses Pulp Fiction’s general philosophy: Even when dealing with inconvenient corpses, there’s time to appreciate good coffee.
12. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Could Cliff Booth lick Bruce Lee?
A pop fantasia in three acts, Tarantino’s latest film hits its peak in its feature-length middle section, set on one fictional February day in 1969, when Sharon Tate (played with disarming pep by Margot Robbie) sits with an appreciative audience and watches herself in the Dean Martin spy spoof The Wrecking Crew while Rick Dalton struggles through a supporting role on a pilot episode and Cliff Booth pays a visit to Charles Manson’s “family” at the old Spahn Movie Ranch. As an overture to this second act, while fixing the TV antenna on Rick’s roof, Cliff retreats into memory — or perhaps daydream — thinking about Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) challenging him to a “two falls out of three” smackdown on the set of The Green Hornet.
First, Lee boasts about how he could beat Muhammad Ali, which makes Booth laugh, which in turn provokes Lee into the challenge. The martial artist takes round one easily, then the stuntman flings Bruce into a car in round two. Round three goes unfinished, because the husband-and-wife stunt coordinators (Kurt Russell and Zoë Bell) kick Cliff off the set. Did this really happen? Or is this just how Cliff remembers it? In a movie that’s about pretense, perception, and a nostalgia for a half-remembered past, the Bruce Lee scene — in addition to being very funny — may be the key to unlocking the entire picture.
11. Django Unchained: A shadowplay
Most American moviegoers’ first exposure to the German-Austrian actor Christoph Waltz came in the opening 15 minutes of Inglourious Basterds, where his Nazi character Hans Landa rolls onto a French dairy farm with some SS soldiers and, in his suspiciously affable and strangely overarticulate way, slowly and cruelly interrogates a kindly farmer about whether he’s harboring Jews. But Waltz’s finest moment in a Tarantino film is much shorter and gentler.
In Django Unchained, when freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) tells his bounty-hunting ex-dentist partner, Dr. King Schultz (Waltz), about his missing wife, Broomhilda, Schultz responds by telling Django about the German legend of Brunhilda, imprisoned on a mountain and awaiting her hero, Siegfried. At the time, Django and Schultz are sitting around a fire, near a flat rock formation, and as the dentist tells his story, it’s as if the rock is a movie screen and the storyteller’s a filmmaker, using shadows, gestures, and words to paint a picture — and to connect an old myth to the present moment.
10. The Hateful Eight: Baiting the general
Next to the Sicilian monologue in True Romance, probably the most queasy-making speech in any Tarantino film comes in The Hateful Eight, when the bounty-hunting Civil War vet Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) tries to goad former Confederate general Sanford Smithers into reaching for his gun by spinning a yarn about how he once forced the general’s son to fellate him. The major has just been exposed as a liar, admitting that he forged the letter from Abraham Lincoln he’s been using as a conversation piece for years. So as Warren spins a tale that exploits every existing racial and sexual taboo of the 1870s, it’s hard to know if he’s telling the truth.
Jackson has been in more Tarantino films than any other leading actor, and he’s been outstanding in all of them. But he brings a rare gusto to this scene, with a gleam in his eye as Marquis tries to troll an old racist. The major paints the picture so vividly — as someone nearby plunks out an out-of-tune rendition of “Silent Night” on the piano and snow occasionally shakes through cracks in the roof of Minnie’s Haberdashery — that the anecdote begins to come to life. And unlike Dr. Schultz’s storytelling in Django Unchained, the images of the Smithers boy’s humiliation really do appear on the screen, in glorious widescreen, with an elemental beauty that belies the ugliness of what we’re seeing.
9. Reservoir Dogs: The commode story
Most of Reservoir Dogs takes place in a single warehouse, where a band of bank robbers rendezvous after a job gone wrong. But Tarantino occasionally flashes back to the lead-up to the heist, showing how the gang got together. After Tim Roth’s character Freddy Newandyke reveals that he’s actually an undercover cop, the story jumps back to how Freddie’s mentor Holdaway schooled him on how to sell an alias: by having him memorize a monologue about carrying a satchel full of marijuana into a public restroom and meeting a group of policemen and their drug-sniffing dog.
So for about five minutes, the movie digresses into a long scene of Freddie reciting his anecdote: First haltingly in his apartment, then with more energy in front of Holdaway, and then casually in front of the criminals who need to be convinced he’s a shady dude. The sequence culminates with Freddy so convincingly deep into the story (despite the British Roth’s shaky American accent) that Tarantino actually dramatizes the moment in the bathroom, where one of the K-9 unit officers is telling a story of his own, about dealing with some “stupid fuckin’ citizen.” So much of what Tarantino’s movies are about is hard-boiled types playacting as badasses. In this moment, in his first film, he pretty much gives his game away, explaining how telling good stories about crooks and killers is just about getting the details right.
8. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: An actor prepared
Over the course of several scenes in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Rick Dalton spends a day working on the pilot for a post–Wild Bunch revisionist Western series called Lancer, and he seems anxious and insecure throughout. He’s unhappy with the hippie wardrobe his director wants him to wear. He’s rattled by his conversation with an uncommonly wise, serene child actor. He keeps forgetting his lines during his first scene. And by this point in the movie, the audience doesn’t know if Rick even can act, or if he’s just a rapidly aging, perpetually pickled pretty boy who’s stuck around past his prime.
But after a break in his trailer — and more solo rehearsal, with the help of his tape recorder — Dalton comes back onset and absolutely nails his character’s big villainous moment. With that same child actor on his lap, Rick doesn’t just hit all his marks — he delivers the bad guy’s threats with a menace that’s genuinely edgy and frightening. Afterward, the little girl tells him that it was the best acting she’s ever seen, and he starts sobbing … because the approval of the young girl is something that matters deeply to nearly everybody in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The beauty of this scene is that while Tarantino understands what a minor achievement this is for Rick — to be good in a show that may never make it to air, and to be adored, if only for a moment, by a TV director and a kid — there’s still something magical, powerful, and maybe even important about a struggling actor getting a scene just right.
7. Django Unchained: The KKK unmasked
Arguably Tarantino’s bleakest and most brutal film (with his other Western, The Hateful Eight, coming in a close second), Django Unchained nevertheless contains one scene that could’ve been dropped in directly from a Coen brothers’ picture. A horde of masked vigilante horsemen come galloping across the hills by night, torches blazing, and then pause for a moment to go over their plan to kill Django and punish his partner. But they all get sidetracked by how poor the visibility is through their hoods.
“I can’t see shit out of this thing,” Don Johnson’s Big Daddy Bennett complains. “Hold on, I’m fuckin’ with my eyeholes.” There follows a brief but contentious — and hilarious — back and forth about whether the wife who made these masks should be criticized for doing such a crummy job and whether an inability to see is a fair price to pay for looking intimidating. Tarantino doesn’t downplay how dangerous a racist mob can be. But he doesn’t miss the opportunity to make them look like clowns, either.
6. Kill Bill: Vol. One: House of Blue Leaves
Though the early Tarantino films had plenty of action, they were recognized primarily for the ways they piggybacked on drive-in movie fare, finding the rich veins of material between the bloody violence — those moments where colorful characters just hang out, like a more potentially lethal version of any ol’ schmo. With the two-part Kill Bill, the director set out to prove that he could handle the exploitation elements, too, and he did so in a generous epic, which paid homage to kung fu movies, spaghetti Westerns, and grimy grindhouse revenge thrillers.
He ends part one with a spectacular standoff, wherein Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo gets even with her traitorous former colleague, O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), after slashing her way through several dozen of O-Ren’s masked henchfolk with a samurai sword, while the soundtrack bops between multiple high-energy rock songs. Colorful, gory, and kinetic, the 15-minute fight scene in the House of Blue Leaves restaurant (followed immediately by a more poetic Kiddo-vs.-Ishii standoff in the snowy courtyard outside) is like a trash-cinema mixtape.
5. Death Proof: Ship’s mast
After the Kill Bill movies, Tarantino collaborated again with Robert Rodriguez on what was supposed to be a return to their roots: a couple of tawdry genre pastiches, assembled into a double feature, with scratches and splices to make the film look like an old grindhouse program. (Hence the name: Grindhouse.) For about 90 minutes of Tarantino’s segment Death Proof — a combination serial-killer and car-crash thriller — he sticks to the assignment, shooting a lot of filler dialogue in cheap locations like one would find in a cheap B-movie.
Then he tops the picture off with about 20 minutes of one the most exciting car chases ever filmed. As stuntwoman Zoë Bell — playing a stuntwoman named Zoë — climbs onto the hood of a speeding Vanishing Point–era Dodge Challenger to play a game of “ship’s mast,” the car is suddenly attacked by misogynistic murderer Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) in his damage-resistant roadster. One of the unsung (or at least undersung) heroes of the Tarantino team is the late editor Sally Menke, and the climactic Death Proof chase may be her crowning achievement, with the perfectly paced assemblage of long shots and close-ups detailing both the breakneck action of the chase and the excitement of the chasers. It’s the ultimate scene of car-on-car violence that exploitation fans have always wanted to see.
4. Inglourious Basterds: Drinking games
The longest, most involved set piece in what’s arguably the most set-piece-driven Tarantino movie has Michael Fassbender playing British Royal Marine Lieutenant Archie Hicox, who goes undercover as a German captain, rendezvousing in a French tavern with a famous actress (played by Diane Kruger) who’s a secret agent for the Allies. Unexpectedly, the basement bar is filled with Nazi enlisted men, along with one SS officer, Major Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl), who plops down at the impostors’ table and starts casually grilling them about why they’re there.
The heroes try to be aloof but polite — even playing a round of a celebrity-guessing game — but the real Germans can sense something’s off with the new arrivals, especially when the Brit raises the wrong fingers to order whiskey. Inevitably, the scene ends with guns blazing and a bar full of dead soldiers. But it goes through several tense and funny moments before then … including the point where Fassbender’s character gives up his charade and says, “Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don’t mind if I go out speaking the King’s.” Plot-wise, the scene does what it needs to do in about two minutes. But at this length, Tarantino has time to work variations on one of the movie’s major themes: What defines a person’s identity?
3. Reservoir Dogs: “Stuck in the Middle With You”
The buzz started on Tarantino and Reservoir Dogs when the movie debuted at Sundance in 1992, and the one scene that the critics and early audiences talked above any other is the one where Vic Vega, a.k.a “Mr. Blonde” (played by Michael Madsen), tortures a cop by cutting his ear off with a straight-razor, while Stealers Wheel’s Dylanesque pop hit “Stuck in the Middle With You” plays on the radio. It’s shocking, it’s kitschy, and in the brief interlude when the camera tracks Mr. Blonde outside while he retrieves a gas can from his trunk, it’s impressively cinematic.
The scene has a socko punchline too, when Tim Roth’s mortally gut-shot character Freddy “Mr. Orange” Newandyke rises from his catatonia to shoot Vic dead before admitting he’s an undercover cop. It’s not just a great twist — coming two-thirds into the film — but it’s a moment of necessary relief at the end of a violent sequence that sent some viewers scrambling to the exits.
2. Jackie Brown: Losing focus
Jackie Brown — still Tarantino’s best film — is mostly a movie of grace notes and low-key conversations, flanking one long, time-jumping, multi-perspective caper sequence that’s too long and complicated to count as a “scene” per se. Instead, the stretch of Jackie Brown that best defines this movie comes right at the end, after the scheme is successfully complete, the bad guys are dead, and Jackie (Pam Grier) and her bail-bondsman accomplice Max (Robert Forster) are meeting for one last time after splitting the loot.
They’re both past their prime, and they know their lives are leading them in different directions: Jackie to an early retirement in Spain, Max to another day of posting bond for shady characters. But she leans in to kiss him good-bye anyway, looming over his smaller frame as she approaches. Then the phone rings, he takes the call, and Jackie hops into her car to drive away to the sound of “Across 110th Street,” while Max watches her go and retreats to his office, fading into a blur. That’s a lifetime of regret encapsulated in one hazy image.
1. Pulp Fiction: Jackrabbit Slim’s
The high point (no pun intended) of Pulp Fiction’s opening segment — where hit man Vincent Vega takes his boss’s wife, Mia, on a chaste “date” — is probably the end, when she overdoses on snorted heroin and has to get an adrenaline shot straight to the heart. But that moment only has the impact that it does because of a lengthy scene that precedes it, where Vincent and Mia have dinner at the retro-theme restaurant Jackrabbit Slim’s.
He’s slowed down by smack; she’s coked-up and jittery. But they still have a lively conversation about her failed TV pilot, Fox Force Five (which sounds eerily like the backstory to Kill Bill), and about how terrible the restaurant’s fake Buddy Holly (played hilariously by a muttering Steve Buscemi) is as their waiter. From the pileup of pop-culture ephemera around the eatery to the button on the scene — where Tarantino gets John Travolta to dance again — it’s almost like the director made Pulp Fiction just so he could live inside this space for a while.
But then isn’t that true of most of his movies?