Quentin Tarantino’s films are famous for their non-linear narratives, for how they jump around in time like a skipping DVD, sometimes even willing their ways into alternate histories. And yet, despite all of their twisty plotting, his movies are increasingly defined by — and remembered for — self-contained scenes that stretch to the breaking point and seem to become iconic even as you’re first watching them. From the ingeniously knotted “Pulp Fiction” to the bifurcated “Death Proof”; from the sprawling “Kill Bill” (which is divided into 10 discrete chapters), to the snowbound “The Hateful Eight” (which limits itself to two locations and finds Tarantino challenging himself to hold a single note of suspense for hours at a time), these epic stories are shaped around chatty, taut, and indelible sequences that simmer with the potential for sudden acts of violence.
In honor of the filmmaker’s 54th birthday (and with a humble tip of our hats to his late, great editor, Sally Menke), we’re offering our list of the seven best scenes that Quentin Tarantino ever directed. Not every one of his films managed to earn a spot — “Reservoir Dogs” may have been a watershed moment for American indie cinema, but it endures as more of a (particularly blood-soaked) dry run for bigger things to come, while the climactic ass-beating at the end of “Death Proof” just narrowly missed the cut — but these glorious excerpts provide a telling cross-section of what makes Tarantino’s movies cohere into so much more than the sum of their influences.
7. The Candyland Massacre (“Django Unchained”)
The Candyland Massacre is probably not the reason why “Django Unchained” earned Tarantino his second Academy Award for Best Screenplay, but… well, maybe it is. The immensely cathartic shootout, an orgasmic release that comes after almost two full hours of build-up, is hardly the most nuanced sequence that Tarantino has ever devised, but he’s never made anything that feels this good. It arrives after a deliciously twisted dinner scene, in which Django gets a polite phrenology lesson from the sadistic slaveowner who’s keeping his wife. Watching our soft-spoken hero endure yet another denigration, it starts to seem as though the title of Tarantino’s film is a bit of an empty promise, and that the chains may never come off. Of course, that’s just what Tarantino wants you to think — he’s waiting for the moment when your nerves are stretched to the breaking point, and then he’s waiting for a little while longer after that. He’s got all day, and he’s got the confidence (or the ego) to know that audiences enjoy his cooking too much to leave before dessert.
And then it happens, slowly at first and then in cartoonish eruptions of blood. Turning the foyer of a house into a self-contained civil war (complete with gunshots that land with cannon splashes), Tarantino funnels centuries of racist violence through a kaleidoscope of the resilient black culture that’s survived it, giving Django his revenge as Tupac and James Brown cheer him on from heaven. It’s so satisfying, so cathartic, that even the white nationalists who are turning this damn whole country into Candyland might catch themselves cheering.
6. The House of Blue Leaves (“Kill Bill”)
The most unabashedly fetishistic film he’s ever made — maybe one of the most unabashedly fetishistic films that anyone has ever made — “Kill Bill” is a lovingly pornographic orgy in which all of Tarantino’s favorite things get together and fuck each other to death with the fatal specificity of a serial killer. In other words, it’s heaven. The “Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves” sequence, in which Uma Thurman’s avenging angel slips into a Tokyo nightclub and makes a meaty stew from the entrails of different national cinemas, is the work of a filmmaker who’s woken up into a lucid dream. Combining Japanese rockabilly, Shaw Brothers fisticuffs, a Kurosawa-inspired sword duel, an overt nod to “Battle Royale,” some of fight master Yuen Woo-ping’s finest choreography, and an unexpected spanking, this is Tarantino’s Fellini moment, and he enjoys every second of it.
5. Operation Kino (“Inglourious Basterds”)
They kill Hitler. You didn’t think they were going to, but they did.
Art doesn’t get more viscerally thrilling than this.
4. Butch’s Watch (“Pulp Fiction”)
It’s true that a list of Tarantino’s best scenes could be entirely culled from “Pulp Fiction” and still feel at least semi-legitimate, but the movie that cemented its maker as a foul-mouthed force of cinema is more dependent upon crystallized moments of cool than anything else. At least, that’s how it feels to watch the film today, when nearly every line of dialogue, every gunshot (accidental or otherwise), and every music cue has been bronzed into the collective unconscious and isolated from its context. It may not be fair to think of the film this way, to lose the slow build of the “Say ‘what’ again” scene in the shadow of the “Ezekiel 25:17” monologue that follows, but life’s not fair — just ask Vincent Vega.
But there’s one scene in “Pulp Fiction” that can’t be broken down into smaller parts, one scene that endures on the strength of its sheer totality and shines a light on Tarantino’s unique gift for combining the mythical and the profane. It involves Christopher Walken, a well-hid watch, and a little boy who’s about to get his first lesson in a truth that will haunt him for decades to come: Fate is a funny thing, but time is on your side.
3. Across 110th Street (“Jackie Brown”)
It’s hard to believe (and harder still with every new film that he makes), but one of the best scenes Tarantino ever conceived doesn’t have a single line of dialogue. There are a number of reasons why “Jackie Brown” never seems to get the respect that it deserves (not that QT’s devoted acolytes don’t enjoy the feeling of getting to keep one of his movies for themselves), but one of them is that it’s the subtlest, most comfortably human thing he’s ever made. Maybe it’s the soulful Elmore Leonard source material that keeps this story of bail bondsmen, surfer girls, and low-rent drug dealers from getting high on its own supply, or maybe it’s Pam Grier and Robert Forster, both delivering the best performances of their respective careers in the half-realized love story that exposed Tarantino’s softer side.
In the film’s wistful and genuinely touching final shots, these characters are given the rare chance to reflect on the ordeal they’ve endured — Jackie might be heading out of town with $500,000 in her lap, but that money has come at a cost. As Forster fades into the past and Grier sits in her car and mouths along to Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street,” the faintest trace of a smile on her face is enough to shift the hard-knock ballad from a swan song to an anthem. A lifetime of bullshit has led to this one close-up, and — in true Tarantino fashion — Jackie uses someone else’s art to take stock of her struggles and start over.
2. Au Revoir, Shoshanna! (“Inglourious Basterds”)
Never one to shy away from enshrining his own myth, Tarantino has publicly confessed that the opening scene of “Inglourious Basterds,” his career-topping 2009 masterpiece about a renegade group of Nazi hunters who kill Hitler and burn his corpse alive in a celluloid inferno (it’s more fun if you don’t fact-check it), is his favorite thing he’s ever written. And while artists aren’t always the best arbiters of their own work, Tarantino is the rare filmmaker who’s as famous for his taste in movies as he is for making them. Sure enough, the hyper-chatty first chapter of “Inglourious Basterds” epitomizes the theatrical, breathlessly casual battles of wit that started to sprout from QT’s scripts after “Jackie Brown” found him scratching his Elmore Leonard itch to satisfaction.
Mining incredible suspense from a mega-dose of exposition, Hans Landa’s conversation with a suspiciously tense French dairy farmer not only makes for one of the great villain introductions of all time, it also takes a familiar trope of Holocaust cinema — cutting between a calm Nazi and the petrified Jews hiding from him just a few feet away — and explodes it into a colorful world that’s less informed by World War II than it is the movies that have been made about it. The sequence’s terrifying climax, mashing “The Searchers” into “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in order to arrive at something completely new, sets the stage for Tarantino’s greatest film, the one that most best makes the case that “pastiche” is only a dirty word if you don’t know how to pronounce it properly.
1. Bill’s Killed (“Kill Bill”)
The Bride: “You and I have unfinished business.”
Bill: “Baby, you ain’t kidding.”
“Kill Bill” feels like the closest that Quentin Tarantino has come to projecting his soul on screen, and so it’s hardly a surprise that the whole bloody affair ends with the most Tarantino scene he’s ever devised. It’s a tribute to his talents and to the singular tone of his voice that the most Tarantino scene is also the best Tarantino scene. After hours of watching Beatrix Kiddo brutally cross off every last person who stands between her and the man who shot her down — after hours of full-throttle cool that quietly stirs real pathos beneath an erupting volcano of euphoric references — cinema’s most dysfunctional couple finally comes face-to-face in the airy kitchen of a tranquil Mexican villa. It’s Tarantino’s purest and most passionate story of revenge, and it builds to a monologue about Superman and a fight scene in which no one even bothers to stand up from their chairs.
But as late David Carradine poisons his one-time wife and mansplains her own nature to her, all of Tarantino’s gifts are fully present. Bill knows exactly who Beatrix is, he knows her better than any other man ever could, and he knows that the truth could never survive them both; no writer tells us more about his characters than Tarantino, and no other director would let him get away with it. It’s the story of the scorpion and the frog writ larger than life, but it ends by suggesting that love — romantic, maternal, or otherwise — is what happens when you let the world change your nature, when what you are dissolves into who you’ve become. In the span of one perfect scene, Tarantino’s most exuberant pastiche becomes his purest self-expression.