Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
With “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” now a certified hit, the debate over Quentin Tarantino’s best film has inevitably been re-inflamed all over again. In an effort to suss out the general consensus — or settle this debate once and for all — we asked our panel of critics to pick their favorite.
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The winner, if only by a single vote, is up first.
David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
From the heart-stopping prologue that kicks things off, to the gleeful (and enormously cathartic) bit of revisionist history that highlights its third act, “Inglourious Basterds” isn’t only the most entertaining Tarantino film, it’s also the one that best illustrates the primacy of moving pictures, and their unique power to change the world in their image. Tarantino deploys similar tricks to different ends with “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” but it still feels more radical and resonant here.
I think I agree with Tarantino himself who used Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine as a mouthpiece to, I assume, size up his own feelings about “Inglourious Basterds,” at least at the time. As Raine looks with satisfaction upon the swastika he’s just carved into a Nazi’s forehead, branding him for life, he tells his sidekick: “I think this just might be my masterpiece.” Cut to black, and “written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.” There’s no mistaking the self-regard it takes to end a movie that way (or, for that matter, to begin the movie with the title appearing in a font of the filmmaker’s own actual handwriting). There’s also no mistaking the grand-statement aspect of “Basterds,” a movie that’s less about the pleasurable repurposing of old movie tropes and more about how movies can change the goddamned world. It sounds insufferable enough for an Oscar telecast (maybe that’s why this is his most-nominated film) but the way it plays out in Tarantino’s alternate-history World War II contains multitudes.
Look at the climactic sequence where the face of Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) appears as a projected ghost as Nazis burn and flee–just moments after the propaganda film she’s about to interrupt makes her feel a twinge of sympathy to the man who winds up shooting her. Tarantino has been accused of understanding (or liking) movies more than actual people; based on both the sadness and the exhilaration of “Basterds,” I’d say it’s more that he understands and likes people through movies, and that maybe deep down, he understands that as a limitation. As time goes on, it feels more and more to like “Inglourious Basterds” is Tarantino both celebrating and pushing at that limitation, and the result is a movie where so many of his hallmarks come together: the slow-burning suspense, the cultural references, the huge laughs in the middle of intense scenes, the asides and sidebars, the love for his actors and characters. So, yeah: what Aldo said.
“Inglourious Basterds” is the best Tarantino film. Hell, it’s one of the best films of the century. The cast is superb: Laurent, Kruger, Fassbender, Waltz, (Eli) Roth, and Pitt as the infinitely memorable Lt. Aldo Raine in all of his forehead carving and schlocky Italian. From the long, patient, heart-stoppingly cruel opening scene to the psychotic eruption of violence in what is debatably the most satisfying on-screen vengeance cinema has to offer, Basterds has it all: comedy, drama, terror, gore, pastiche, wit, critique, revisionist history, et al. It’s like a 150+ minute collection of unforgettable scenes that never let up. Not to mention, Shosanna is to “Basterds” what Jackie Brown and Beatrix Kiddo are to their respective films — iconic, inexorable, indestructible badasses.
No Tarantino movie will ever be as important to the film landscape as “Pulp Fiction” was in 1994, because whatever the “film zeitgeist” is, it certainly applies to a far smaller swath of the population now, and it may no longer even exist at all. Likewise, no Tarantino film will ever personally matter to me as much as “Pulp Fiction” did in 1994, because I was 13 when it came out, and it probably launched my obsession with film history and criticism more than any other single movie.
However, because this question is framed in terms of “best” rather than “greatest,” I feel the temptation to try and remove any thoughts of importance or historical significance, and reply with pure subjective taste. Which Tarantino movie do I most enjoy the experience of watching? Which gives me the greatest thrill for the act of watching cinema? For that, the answer is unquestionably “Inglourious Basterds.”
Because I’m writing this, you probably know I’m a film nerd. As you may be able to guess from my name, I also come from a very French family (my dad’s side). And though you would have no obvious way to know this, I am an American Jew, with a long line of Detroit and Chicago rabbis on my mom’s side. “Inglourious Basterds,” at its most basic level, is about an alternate timeline in which World War II is won by French film nerds and American Jews (and Brad Pitt, whom I sadly have no genetic link to). It would simply not be possible to make a movie that more perfectly appeals to me on an autobiographical level than this one does. “Inglourious Basterds” allows me to slip into its characters and vicariously become the world-saving action hero that genetics and circumstance have cruelly denied me from ever being. I have seen it at least a dozen times so far, and I can’t imagine ever watching it without being overwhelmed by pure elation.
Confession: I generally loathe Tarantino’s films. I’ve tried and tried, revisiting various QT movies numerous times to try to see what everyone else seems to see, but I still come away feeling drained and annoyed. So, while my overall opinion on his filmography is decidedly mixed to negative, “Inglourious Basterds” is the only Tarantino film I can sincerely call good. “Basterds” is the only one of his films where I feel the on-screen violence is somewhat justified by the narrative themes, where the dialogue isn’t wholly galling and self-indulgent, and where we are truly implicated as the audience in the celebratory revenge bloodlust. I love the performances from Waltz and Laurent, though I still have real problems with how women are portrayed (esp. Shoshanna’s fate and how that scene is shot) but it’s the strongest of Tarantino’s love letters to cinema and (tragically) more relevant ten years later in our contemporary political climate.
Lindsey Romain (@lindseyromain), Staff Writer for Nerdist
“Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” are seminal movies, but best? I’ll go with “Inglourious Basterds,” which is just about perfect, a fun and explosive piece of revisionist history that marries all of Tarantino’s best instincts and skills. It’s both delightfully entertaining and, at times, truly scary–Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa shifts from cartoonish buffoon to terrifying killer with a snap of a finger, one of the best characters and performances in any Tarantino movie. He also grounds all of extreme violence and Hitler-killing antics with Melanie Laurent’s Shosanna Dreyfus, a Jewish woman living incognito in France, whose blackened heart seeks the best — and most satisfying — type of vengeance. Tarantino ends the film with the words “I think this just might be my masterpiece,” which feels like his own acknowledgment that this is a director firing on all cylinders.
The best Tarantino film is “Inglourious Basterds.” For all intents and purposes, “Basterds” was my introduction to Tarantino upon its release in 2009. Maybe its because I’m Jewish and had family die in the Holocaust, but “Basterds” was the film I left wishing the ending were real.
Andrea Thompson (@areelofonesown), The Spool, The Young Folks, A Reel Of One’s Own, Film Girl Film
I’ve grown steadily more disillusioned with Quentin Tarantino as a filmmaker, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the violent, bloody epic that is Inglourious Basterds. Its liberal use of subtitles is reminiscent of an arthouse film, but it didn’t seem to bother moviegoers who supposedly eschew such things, given the sheer spectacle and revisionist delights Tarantino gleefully provides. “Inglourious Basterds” starts right off with a series of greats: one of the best all-time opening scenes, featuring a villain who could vie for the title of greatest cinematic bad guy ever in Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who also gets one of the most incredible introductions ever. In Landa’s opening conversation, or rather, interrogation, of a French farmer, every word might as well be a bullet, so precisely do Tarantino and Waltz use language to its fullest effect, building suspense until the end arrives in blood and tragedy. In the fiery finale, film itself becomes a weapon, memorializing Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) as she takes her revenge for the death of her family in the most cinematic way possible while literally burning down the house and the Nazis in it, even reserving a particularly violent death for Hitler himself.
“Inglorious Basterds” is Tarantino’s best. It juggles several stories perfectly, in a more polished manner than his previous movies, it infuses humor in a WW2 context, and it has a great cast with familiar and new faces (that would become household names later on). Plus, it is a brilliantly orchested movie about controlled people that decide to create chaos for a greater good: killin’ nazis.
For my money, the answer is so clearly “Inglourious Basterds” that it’s hard to even begin explaining why. It’s just a fact of life, like the existence of sand. It’s a tautology: it’s his best because it’s his best. Trying to explain why leaves me as stymied as when my daughter asks me why the sun is in the sky. It just is! Just like “Inglourious Basterds” just is Tarantino’s best, most viciously whimsical, tightest, strangest, funniest, scariest, most audacious, most belief-beggaringly effective movie. Fortunately, I know I’ll be in very good company with this pick, and my colleagues can pick up my slack with actual, like, reasons.
Kristen Lopez (@Journeys_Film), Forbes.com, Culturess, Citizen Dame
For me the most ambitious and tightly wound has to be Jackie Brown. Pam Grier plays an phenomenal heroine whose calculating, romantic, dominant, strong, and just a slew of adjectives that I love. And while Tarantino claims to be working within the narrative of blaxpolitation I see a lot of 1940s film noir within it, particularly as Jackie tries to pull one over on Samuel L. Jackson’s Odell. Her dreams of running off with Max Cherry (Robert Forster) could be a lie, which makes the ending all the better. It’s like Grier is hearkening back to those old-school femme fatales. It’s his most adult and cogent film.
Count me on the “Jackie Brown” train for Tarantino’s best. What stands out for me is that this is Tarantino’s only adaptation. He has riffed on other works with varying degrees of intensity throughout his career, but “Jackie Brown” is an Elmore Leonard adaptation that manages to be true to both the spirit of Leonard and Tarantino without feeling like it cheapens either one. Elmore Leonard is particularly suited for cinematic adaptation—that dialogue!—but his adapted works always feel most like Elmore Leonard. Not “Jackie Brown”. Here Tarantino puts his stamp on something that is explicitly Not His, yet he does not lose Leonard’s voice in his own.
Perhaps that’s because Leonard is one of his biggest influences, but I think it is also because of Tarantino’s sensitivity to story. We don’t think of him as a sensitive filmmaker, and in most ways, he isn’t, but when it comes to story, Tarantino is tuned into the narrative with a sensitive radar. The twisty-turny plot of “Jackie Brown” is perfectly suited to Tarantino’s instinct for building story step-by-step, fulfilling only the promise of the narrative beat and not what formula or the marketing department dictates. Tarantino, like Leonard, knows how to spin a really good yarn, and “Jackie Brown” is a really good yarn. It’s a perfect marriage of director and source, something we don’t get to see often in novel adaptations. It also gives Pam Grier her due as a total cinematic badass.
Over time, Tarantino has delivered an expanded sense of scope, subversion of history, and the new thematic significance for revenge; emphasized best in “Inglourious Basterds.” However, my favorite, and perhaps the best Tarantino film remains “Jackie Brown.”
Part of that has to do with all the hallmarks of a Tarantino film being present. The rapid-fire dialogue that generates many memorable lines, as well as a hang-out vibe allowing the viewer to be plenty comfortable relaxing with these characters is in full force. A command of music choices featuring numerous soul and R&B tracks makes for one of Tarantino’s best soundtracks. And Samuel L. Jackson sinks into another role to great effect, working well with the terrific ensemble cast of supporting characters.
The other aspect that finds this Elmore Leonard adaptation sitting so high is the supposed low-gear shift Tarantino went for, following “Pulp Fiction.” Compared to that film’s propulsion, “Jackie Brown” operates at a smoother, more focused level. In turn, it allows for more character ruminations, which is ideally suited for the spectacular performances delivered by star Pam Grier and the Oscar-nominated Robert Forster.
For a director known for his provocative handling of tense, dialogue-based scenes, “Jackie Brown” is a film with long stretches of quiet. The camera knows how to linger, letting the actors do plenty with their faces, rather than words. Since the plot doesn’t truly kick in until well after the film has started, the payoffs are far more effective, because of how well Tarantino develops this LA world that is both modern, and an homage to the blaxploitation period of films.
The confidence here, a film that moves in ways very different from the movies that put his name on the map, speaks clearly to Tarantino’s strengths as a filmmaker who knows how to evolve, regardless of how unconventional his choices may be. In that growth, he made “Jackie Brown” a mature film about adults who have gotten older that is both unafraid to show a level of melancholy and utterly cool throughout.
“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”
There is a case to be made, world and enough time, for the extended “Death Proof” as archetypal or even quintessential Quentin. But the choice of a best final moment can be kept brief, and the best for this lingering instant would be “Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood,” which I conclude my review by describing: “The final shot is exquisite; a crane shot that begins with a geometric composition of calm and simplicity, an infinitesimal yet blooming suggestion of all the patterns, figurative and literal, which preceded it. The shot fills with laughter and then ghosts move into the night, and the camera rises into the innocent rustle of the leaves in the trees on Cielo Drive and the canyons beyond. The shot is nearly nothing, but it is everything in Tarantino’s tumultuous fairytale. Grids are finite yet mutable. Chance occurs. Fate is the word for what happens once opportunity is spent.”
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough), Vague Visages, Screen Rant, RogerEbert.com
“Reservoir Dogs” established Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic voice, but “Pulp Fiction” made him a legend. For “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino used the template for his directorial debut, but made all the necessary improvements.
Whereas “Jackie Brown” shows a different side of Tarantino, and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” underlines Tarantino’s evolution as a filmmaker, neither have the same cultural impact as “Pulp Fiction.” And that’s partially because characters like Jackie Brown and Max Cherry were designed to be sympathetic figures, much like Rick Dalton from “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” They don’t knock down the door and get in your face. In contrast, the “Pulp Fiction” characters are ruthless and run with the wrong crowds. Sure, Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace is Crazy/Sexy/Cool, but she’s also dating the gangster Marcellus Wallace. The evidence suggests that one probably doesn’t want to take a spin through Hollywood with Mia.
With “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Tarantino teasingly trolls the audience by merely implying that Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth did something horrible in the past – but, crucially, he doesn’t show the evidence. Naturally, there’s much to debate about the character and the film as a whole. But “Pulp Fiction” is full of nasty and stylized evidence that viewers have to grapple with while piecing together the narrative. “Jackie Brown” is sweet, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is nostalgic and “Pulp Fiction” is raw, made by someone that’s more interested in his creative vision than what the audience wants.
In 2019 film culture, “Jackie Brown” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” align with the times. But in terms of original and challenging filmmaking, there’s really nothing quite like “Pulp Fiction.”
“Pulp Fiction” seems like such an obvious answer but, when it comes to Tarantino, I don’t think he’s bettered it, or even if he ever will (particularly with his retirement supposedly looming). As someone who is either unmoved or completely enraged by his work, depending on the movie, “Pulp Fiction” is the rare Tarantino offering I unabashedly love — even considering the fact it sags considerably whenever Bruce Willis shows up (Vince is the protagonist, not Butch, and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong).
“Pulp Fiction” is the purest distillation of Tarantino’s essence, from his choice of music cues (playing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” in its entirety is a genius move only he could have conceived), to the still insanely cool styling (I will want that Mia Wallace haircut until the day I die) and the whip-smart, often laugh-out-loud funny dialogue (the foot massage exchange between Vince and Jules is so brilliantly played). The opening is easily one of the greatest in cinema history, primarily because of how brazen it is in presenting QT as this big voice in cinema. 25 years and a million re-watches later, it still gives me goosebumps.
There’s also the small matter of the Tarantino cameo which, here, isn’t nearly as cringe-worthy as elsewhere. In the two decades since its release, QT has become something of a parody of himself, but “Pulp Fiction” retains its purity, representing everything that’s great about the filmmaker.
Eric Kohn (@erickohn), IndieWire
Tarantino has never been better than “Pulp Fiction.” The movie consolidates his wild stylistic swings with genuine observations about human behavior, and a sprawling narrative structure that never overwhelms its momentum. It’s the perfect distillation of his filmmaking talents, and while much of what he has done since then has encapsulated snippets of these attributes, this crowning achievement remains unparalleled 25 years down the line. But it’s also such a high-water mark that it makes each new QT entry worthy of anticipation, because he sure tries like hell to outdo himself.
Joanna Langfield (@Joannalangfield),The Movie Minute
When I first saw this query, asking what is the best Tarentino movie, I immediately knew, even still on my “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” high, my answer would be “Pulp Fiction”. I love “Pulp Fiction”. I love its verve, its audacity, its performances and occasional sweetness. But, after popping onto Twitter periodically over the weekend, and seeing the haughty vitriol directed at “Hollywood”, I have to wonder if it, a film that is brilliantly made, luxurious and more emotional than any of the other Tarantino pieces, doesn’t match or at least come damn close to his best work. Maybe I’ll be able to know years and repeat viewings (something I’m looking forward to) later, but, for better or worse, how long has it been since a new release stirred such heated debate, some of which betrays a whole lot not just about the debater, but, I think, society in general? Perhaps these are not the reactions intended, but any piece of art that provokes such passionate emotion is, to me, pretty darn great. Even if it isn’t “Pulp Fiction”.
“Pulp Fiction” reigns supreme, in my mind, as Tarantino’s best and brightest film. From the soundtrack to the script to the casting decisions, it’s the film which – justifiably – marked Tarantino’s arrival into the mainstream and awakened the masses to his unique talent and vision.
Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat, Screen Rant
“Pulp Fiction” is generally considered to be the defining film of the 1990s, and it literally changed the way movies are made (or, at least, the way crime movies are made). Other filmmakers have been shamelessly ripping it off ever since it was first released. For its sheer, immeasurable influence alone, I think this is the obvious choice.
Even after this big weekend and Quentin’s most mature film to date, I still go back to “Pulp Fiction” as his best. I make that decision with ease. It was Tarantino at his purest and most creative, before the parade of imitations showed up trying to make their own brazen coolness to match (a race that really hasn’t stopped 25 years later). More specifically, “Pulp Fiction” was also before Tarantino’s own self-stroked vanity would turn his masterstroke chops into tropes of overplayed hubris and excess. “Pulp Fiction” became the measuring stick, one Tarantino has exhaustingly tried, more often than not since, to blow up rather than complement.
His 1994 Möbius strip of drugs, crime, and scores to settle was Quentin Tarantino tuning every shrewd quality and showmanship tone just right, starting with that Oscar-winning screenplay the director shared with Roger Avery. The two created characters fitting their performers’ dexterous and challenged talents. Through ballsy flashes of violence and led by a grandstanding Samuel L. Jackson show for the ages, “Pulp Fiction” was loud enough to make noise that changed the independent film landscape into an artistic well worthy of contending with the studio system of R-rated mid-budget cookie cutter star vehicles that populated that time period. It was the biggest game-changer since the New Hollywood movement two decades before it.
At the same time, stylish appointments in every set, scene, and song made “Pulp Fiction” sublime enough to impress even the casual movie fan. With fetching coyness from Uma Thurman and the resurrected charisma of John Travolta and Bruce Willis, audiences snorted this movie’s freshness right up. The movie’s endless array of soundtrack cuts and cherished quotations are still echoed today, laurels of love unmatched by Tarantino’s other films. His work since has shown that louder and bloodier isn’t always better.
Rob Thomas (@robt77), Madison Capital Times
I still remember the theater – the now defunct White Oaks Theater in Springfield, Illinois. I still remember my seat — it was sold out so we had to sit in the front row at the far left. And I still remember the feeling of seeing “Pulp Fiction” for the first time, how it was like touching an electric fence. The scrappiness of “Reservoir Dogs,” the maturity of “Jackie Brown,” and now the elegiac comedy of “Hollywood” will lure me to reconsider from time to time. But “Pulp” is the distillation of everything Tarantino was trying to do in a movie. A quarter century later, it still gives off sparks.