“All right ramblers, let’s get rambling”.
Imagine the jewellery heist of Reservoir Dogs hadn’t gone awry, and our multi-coloured moniker gang-members are sat around the table in Uncle Bob’s Pancake House, Tarantino’s camera performing its 360° dance while peering over their shoulders. Only this time they’re not discussing Madonna’s greatest hits, what’s playing on K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies Weekend, or the hypocrisy of the tipping system. Instead they’re exchanging views on the near three-decade career of their very own Mr Brown, Quentin Tarantino: discussing their favourite soundtrack, defending the decision to cut Kill Bill into two movies, or picking their best scenes from Pulp Fiction to Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood.
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Not everyone’s going to agree with the choices made. They’ll be those who take the Mr Orange/Tim Roth stance of “Excuse me for not being the world’s biggest Tarantino fan”, backed up by the Mr Blue/Eddie Bunker take, “I used to like his early stuff. You know, Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown – but once he got into his Django phase, I tuned out”. All of the greatest directors prompt healthy discourse, but Tarantino’s films are almost like multiple masterpiece vignettes strung together to form a whole, so narrowing it down to a handful of moments is going to be harder than dissecting ‘Like a Virgin’.
So come with us as HeyUGuys take a slow-motion walk to George Baker’s Little Green Bag through the best Tarantino scenes of all time.
Stuck in the Middle with You – Reservoir Dogs (1992)
A scene that quickly established him to be a master manipulator of the camera lens in the tradition of the great directors, this controversial one-take is possibly Quentin Tarantino’s signature moment. Spinning the pop-bubble-gum favourite of Stealers Wheel over the playful sadism inflicted by Michael Madsen’s Mr Blonde, it set a precedent for QT’s balancing act between comedy and violence that has earned him criticism and plaudits alike.
This particular scene excels because it shows the kind of subtle restraint that has largely been replaced by excess and shock tactics in his later work. That’s not a slight on the blood splattered spectacle of say, Django Unchained’s finale, but that old adage that what’s best left to the imagination is often more powerful.
There’s also that wonderful moment during which Madsen steps outside of his torture room into the bright tranquillity of suburbia. It’s deeply unsettling to know that these horrific events are taking place just over the garden fence, and interestingly runs parallel with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’s study of what lurks in the shadows of America’s backstreets.
“A Big Fat Magic Marker!” – Pulp Fiction (1994)
There are the more obvious choices to consider from the Palme D’or winning Pulp Fiction, not least the Jack Rabbit Slims sequence, which immediately precedes the selected scene, or Samuel L. Jackson’s superlative Ezekiel 25:17, “check out the big brain on Brad” speech, but we’ve taken the advice of Uma Thurman’s Miss Mia Wallace to “Don’t be square”, instead opting for another example in which Tarantino mixes comedy and horror to perfection.
With the cool draining from Vincent Vega’s persona by the minute, he takes his overdosed date to the house of his dealer Lance, played to disheveled perfection by Eric Stoltz. It’s here that we get another scene in which QT uses the viewfinder to brilliantly orchestrate the chaos of the situation, following the individual characters as their panic escalates while they attempt to find the adrenaline needle with which to revive Thurman.
It’s a portmanteau of comedic dialogue, with Travolta’s squealed requests for a marker pen providing inappropriate laughs, and genuine horror. The administering of the shot is a master-class in sound design and editing; the tapping of Mia’s breastplate, and the way in which the count-to-three focuses on their faces, the needle, and then the red-dot, are all punctuated by a sickly thud and scream. It’s moments like these that make you wish Tarantino’s final film will indeed be housed in the horror genre.
Showdown at House of Blue Leaves – Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)
With Tarantino three-films into his alleged ten-film career, he shifted from dramatic tapestries informed by his passion for cinema, to straight-up homage for the Eastern narratives that had shaped the foundation for his love for the art form.
Kill Bill is the quintessential QT film: indulgent, over-the-top, and composed with the kind of meticulous level to detail that marks him out as an all-time great.
Once again there are so many sequences that could qualify for a ‘best-of’, but the sheer showmanship on display in the House of Blue Leaves sequence marks it out as bravura filmmaking at its finest.
The shot that frames Thurman’s eyes as they dart around the screen is perfect for a scene in which so much is going on. During the fifteen minutes-or-so that make up the bathhouse set-piece, the evolution of action is incredible: from the blood red excess, to art-house monochrome, then the silhouette fight, before ending with the beauty of the garden snowdown.
The action is graceful, with the camera movement as choreographed as that of the fighters, meaning that the geography and clarity of combat is easy to process, when too often these days it’s edited beyond comprehension. The ball-and-chain one-on-one is breath-taking, as is the extent of Uma Thurman’s physical performance, which goes a long way in adding weight to the heightened fight sequences. It’s one of many QT chapters that work as their own standalone mini-masterpieces.
Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France – Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Tarantino’s World War Western opens with one of his most beautifully shot segments. The rolling countryside, the genre iconography that leans heavily on The Searchers, that Sergio Leone evoking score, but this all plays second fiddle to the kind of drama that had largely been absent during the director’s Grindhouse era.
The introduction of Christoph’s Waltz’s Hans Landa and his subsequent stand-off with Denis Ménochet’s farmer is the kind of dialogue-driven exchange with which Tarantino made his name. However, for the first time in a while it felt as though it was a script written for storytelling purposes, rather than the filmmaker attempting to write something that’d make a cool soundbite.
“That was the best acting I’ve ever seen in my whole life” – Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (2019)
The 9th film from Tarantino is arguably his best since Jackie Brown, which didn’t make this list based purely on the fact that it feels like the most fluid of his films, and thus not as easy to break down in stylistic chunks.
Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is an LA tapestry that focuses on the friendship between a fading actor – Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton – and his long-time stuntman-turned chauffer – Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth – all set against the backdrop of the 1969 Manson murders.
It’s a film drenched in style, with Tarantino having fun in this retro playground, all while the burgeoning shadow of real-life tragedy looms over the story. But despite the rather lovely coda, or a stunningly shot sequence in which Pitt visits Manson’s ranch, it’s an old fashioned piece of scripted acting that packs an unexpectedly emotional wallop.
If DiCaprio is nominated for his performance, then surely the show-reel moment will be the scene in which despite all of the personal self-loathing he has put himself through, he sets aside his doubts to deliver a film-stopping, pin-drop brilliant monologue as the bad-guy in film-within-a-film Bounty Law, which earns the “That was the best acting I’ve ever seen in my whole life” praise from his young co-star (the outstanding Julia Butters). It’s hard not to agree with her.
Once Upon A Time in… Hollywood is out on Blu-ray and DVD right now.