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That’s a Bingo! The Best Quentin Tarantino Scenes Ever.

In the name of charity and good will, we will strike these scenes down upon you with great vengeance and furious commentary

Adam Villacin

This week marks the release of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, director Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature film. To celebrate, we’re looking back at the best of QT—the best scenes, the best stunts, the best dialogue. We’ll drill down on his extraordinary rise from video store clerk to filmmaking legend and talk to the man himself about his long career. Today, we break down the best scenes of the prodigious screenwriter’s career.

No one plays with the expectations of time like Quentin Tarantino. From adventures in nonlinear storytelling to experiments with alternate histories, Tarantino’s movies have a purposefully fragmented quality. Many of them are sectioned off by chapter titles, others race forward and backward in time with little care for the viewers’ sense of narrative. The result of this derring-do is cordoned-off movies, snatches of unforgettable sequences that show up in unlikely places. QT can spin a yarn, but where he really thrives is in those three-to-15-minute sandboxes, those grand setups that showcase his ear for dialogue, his penchant for the unexpected, his obsession with character detail. In the spirit of memorable moments, we’ve compiled our absolute favorites in no discernible order, or so it might seem at first. —Sean Fennessey

Reservoir Dogs

The Commode Story

They say write what you know, and Quentin Tarantino didn’t know anything about being an undercover cop. Not really. So what to do with the character of Detective Freddy Newandyke, a police officer masquerading as a thief in an effort to bring down crime boss Joe Cabot? Tarantino, a frustrated thespian who happened to be one of the most gifted screenwriters of his generation, wrote what he knew. He made his cop an actor. Behold the commode story, Newandyke’s underworld audition tape. It’s a story passed on to him by his boss Holdaway as a multipage monologue. Upon receiving his assignment, Newandyke is overwhelmed (“I gotta memorize all this? There’s over four fucking pages!”), but slowly, through repetition, through rehearsal—by himself in front of a Silver Surfer poster, in front of an audience of Holdaway in an abandoned, tagged-up lot that doubles as a stage—he slips into character.

Over time, this “amusing anecdote about a drug deal” becomes a backstory, a biography. It’s the most subtly audacious scene in a movie full of auteurist calling cards. We go channel surfing from the past to the present, from the real to the imagined, from baby steps to opening night. And through his toil, we get snapshots of Freddy’s life (the Sandy Rogers song playing on his stereo, his crucifix on the apartment wall, the box of doughnuts sitting on his TV, the wedding ring in a bowl of coins) and we get to know the character. Or the role. The commode story is the most true-to-life tour-de-force scene in Tarantino’s catalog. It’s naturalistic. It’s naturalistic as hell. —Chris Ryan

The Ear

It was gruesome. It was shocking. It was wrong. But it was so beautiful too. Every Sundance sensation needs a moment—a run-home-tell-someone bit of instant mythology. For the former Manhattan Beach video store clerk’s chatty-thieves directorial debut, that moment featured a bored sociopath carving off a cop’s ear for fun. For the likes of Tipper Gore, the scene was a signal of a degraded society. For the less appalled, it was a beacon. Tarantino’s sense of the revolting has always been more measured than we’re often led to believe. In fact, we never see the officer played by Kirk Baltz officially lose that ear—just as Mr. Blonde wields that straight razor, Tarantino’s camera moves left and into the blankness of the warehouse, as if it too cannot look at the horrible scene. What we do see, in full, is Michael Madsen’s easy grace as he moseys along to Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You”—like Glenn Ford or Steve McQueen, he is comfortable in his skin, and as slick as he is deranged. This scene is a calling-card moment, drawing viewers in with gore. But Tarantino flexes control and sense of space as soon as Mr. Blonde drops the ear and heads out to his car; the camera sits nearly on top of his shoulder, and, as he exits the warehouse, the music drops out. He reaches into his trunk, where his car is parked in a quiet alley in Eagle Rock, and calmly returns to his prisoner with a gasoline can in tow, gently dancing to the song again. He’s nearing completion, his act of cruelty ready to be set ablaze. He’s interrupted by a rat. But Tarantino is just getting warmed up. —SF

Pulp Fiction

The Watch

Flashbacks are for phonies. There are few easier tricks to tug on heartstrings and cut emotional corners than to jump willy-nilly into the past. I don’t like them very much. I make an exception here. Is “The Watch” a true flashback or a dream? Moments before the fight that will change his life forever, boxer Butch Coolidge recalls a conversation with Captain Koons, a POW who survived Vietnam and returned to Butch’s home to deliver a precious heirloom. (“I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass two years.”) It’s a remarkable piece of writing—showy and restrained at once, a showcase for an actor born to deliver dialogue this rhythmic, this arch. Koons is played by Christopher Walken, a man who never met a cadence he couldn’t conquer, and in Walken’s warm-eyed monologue to young Butch, we can see a young Quentin, skeptical but hopeful. Koons references Knoxville, Tennessee, the city where Tarantino was born. He tells a tale that spans generations, tracing the paths of the doomed men of the Coolidge clan and, like the little watch that Butch receives, creating a personal history that could fit in your pocket. There’s some extraordinary and quite showy writing at play here, the kind that burrows its way into your memory. The Formica bar in the background of the Coolidge family den. The old coffee can where Ernie Coolidge stores his watch after World War I. Walken, in full New York–ese, casually grumbling, “He gimme da watch,” in that awkward intonation. As the boy reaches for the watch, the bell rings, and Butch awakens. Flashes inside a flashback. —SF

Mr. Wolfe

You know the feeling you get when you’re walking around a great, big, pedestrian-friendly city, and you look down a little side street and get a glimpse of a whole other world, full of history and possibility? You keep on walking, heading to your destination, but for a couple of blocks, you wonder: What would have happened if I had gone down that block? Where would my life go from there? That’s how I feel about Winston Wolfe’s appearance in Pulp Fiction. Wolfe, played by Harvey Keitel, is a “cleaner.” He tidies up messes, and Jules and Vincent have a great, big, bloody mess on their hands, and a Bonnie Situation unfolding. They have a dead body and a lot of blood in their car. They are storing this car at the house of a man named Jimmie (played by Tarantino), and he is not happy about it. Time is running out before Jimmie’s wife, Bonnie, comes home from her nursing shift.

The side-street moment comes when we first see Wolfe, on the phone, in a bedroom, at what appears to be a black-tie party. In someone’s modest Valley home. Early in the morning. Did this party go late? Start early? Who are the guests and what are they celebrating? What’s his history with Marsellus Wallace? What other kind of work does he do and does it mostly revolve around underwriting bedroom sets? We never find out. Some filmmakers reckon with the moral and ethical consequences of violence, but Tarantino excels at dealing with the logistics and practicalities. What do you do with one body, with no head? Let’s wander over and find out. —CR

Jackie Brown

“You Shot Melanie?”

Jackie Brown may be the warmest and most mature film Tarantino has yet made, but it’s also the funniest and possibly the most vicious. Those last two adjectives apply to my favorite sequence from the film, when Louis (a grumbly, glorious Robert De Niro) struggles to find the right exit after a cash handoff in a shopping mall, and then struggles even more deeply to locate his car in a vast parking lot. (Who can relate?) Louis is trailed by surfer chick Melanie, played by a delightfully bratty Bridget Fonda, who taunts him to the very ends of his patience. He eventually shoots her in cold blood in the lot, a surge of rage from an otherwise galumphing two-bit crook. When Louis has to explain what he’s done to his boss and lowlife mastermind Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson, peak of his powers), he casually, with a low register of shame, says, “How can you talk to her?” Ordell is incensed at first, and then, ice. He knows that if it had to be done—this awful, utterly unnecessary act of violence—then so be it. A criminal’s code is honored, and Ordell waves goodbye to his little surfer girl. —SF

“I Forgive You”

So many of Tarantino’s best scenes are studies in how the pendulum of power can swing back and forth over the course of a single conversation. This small moment from Jackie Brown between Samuel L. Jackson’s crook Ordell and Pam Grier’s beleaguered flight attendant/smuggler Jackie is one of the best examples of Tarantino’s mastery of those interpersonal struggles. Both sides perceive a betrayal, both sides see an opportunity for tenuous reconciliation, and they duel with words and gestures to arrive at a détente. It’s not just what the two characters say, but how they say it—raising their voices, changing accents, shifting from warmth to hostility. So many little details, like the cheap halogen lamp that shows Jackie’s dire economic straits, tell us what we need to know about the characters, giving plenty of room to the actors to play around. It is like watching a great figure skating team work together. Jackson tosses Grier into the air, and Grier knows he’ll be there to catch her. —CR

Kill Bill Vol. 1

The Bride vs. The Crazy 88s

With one thrust, she pulls a man’s eyeball from his socket. With another, she separates an arm from a body. With a third, and an akimbo backflip, she slashes the torsos of three men at once, felling them in unison. These are the dervish, hyperreal choreographic notes that dot this fight sequence, maybe the most audacious and hysterical of modern times. Famed martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, fresh off the twin triumphs of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, collaborated with Tarantino to create the most ridiculous, relentless, style-forward fight that featured an American actor at its center. And in Uma Thurman, Tarantino encouraged an actor with a stunning, heretofore unknown set of physical gifts. This is a purposefully endless-seeming gallery of wicked kills, slo-mo spinouts, black-and-white color flips, absurd sonic cues, light odes to Shaw brothers kung fu classics, and streaming, spraying, projectile blood spurting everywhere. A man is beheaded. A man loses both hands. A man is split in two, right down the center. When all is said and done, the floor is stained red, the moans of dozens of Yakuza henchmen drown the air, and the Bride can seek her final victory. If audacity is a gift, this is Christmas morning. —SF

Kill Bill Vol. 2

“Bitch, You Don’t Have a Future”

In a two-movie series of fight sequences, including the one Sean dissected above, the bloody affair between Beatrix and Elle Driver is my favorite. Maybe it’s because of the close quarters, with the brawl blowing through the late Budd’s trailer. Maybe it’s because of the gory, darkly funny finishing move The Bride deploys on Elle (Chekhov’s eyeball!). But ultimately it’s how this master of tone is able to mix and match different styles of action set piece within one donnybrook. At times it feels like a scene from the ’60s Batman television show. You can practically feel the onomatopoeia (POW! BANG!) scrawled across the screen. Then it will shift to gruesome, realistic, bone-crunching violence. Sometimes there’s mood-heightening, dramatic music, and in other moments all you hear is bodies hitting the floor. Like any great fight scene, it ends with a one-liner, and leave it to Tarantino to write one that goes straight to Cooperstown. —CR

Inglourious Basterds

A Visit to the LaPadite Farm

The finest opening scene of the century, and one of the great revelations in modern movie acting, in Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa. While visiting the LaPadite farm, in search of the sheltered Dreyfus family, Landa delivers a series of stories and analogies he has rehearsed, delivered time and again across the French countryside. But when we meet him, it is fresh. The Hawk and the Rat. The delicious LaPadite milk. The relaxed disposition, leaning back in that chair until the very moment he turns serious, from Sherlock Holmes to Moriarty in a split second. This micromovie that opens Inglourious Basterds introduces us to one of QT’s greatest creations, but it also communicates that while this movie is set in Nazi-occupied France during World War II, it has the shape and ethic of a Western—grand vistas, cocksure villains, moral heroes, and a big ol’ shoot-’em-up to cap the whole thing off. This is where the lines are drawn, where our big bad grows bigger and badder before our eyes, and the stakes of war—of awful, hateful terror—collide with a filmmaker with chutzpah to paint over history. —SF

The Tavern

Inglourious Basterds is a war movie, and the scene at La Louisiane tavern is its “Flight of the Valkyries.” I’m referring of course to the Wagner-scored second-act climax of Apocalypse Now!, a sequence so breathtaking, you almost forget what comes after. The mini-Hitchcock film that unfolds in the French basement bar about midway through Inglourious … has the same effect: It’s so dazzling you almost forget what comes after, even though they kill fucking Hitler later in this movie. The Tavern Scene, like many great Tarantino sequences, is about performance. We have a famous German actress, who is actually an Allied forces agent, pretending to be a patriot. There’s a British officer, who is actually a film critic, pretending to be a German officer. Even the Nazi officer Hellstrom is doing a bit. Suspicious of Michael Fassbender and his taciturn friends, he lays a trap for the dashing, Trevor Howard lookalike to make a mistake, and Fassbender walks right into it. This is a tragedy of manners. Fassbender and his Basterds get lost in translation, in the smallest of gestures. When Fassbender’s Lt. Hicox signals for three glasses of Scotch, the game is up. Hellstrom knows he’s not a Reich officer. Hicox knows he knows. The only thing left to do is finish their drinks and go out speaking the King’s. —CR

Django Unchained

The Reunion

There are flashier, more memorable scenes in Tarantino’s complicated, controversial, and wildly successful slave revenge epic. Herein lies some of the best acting Leonardo DiCaprio has ever done, in a role that stands alone among Tarantino’s gallery of villains. The movie ends with a gunfight that makes The Wild Bunch look like The Princess Bride. There are moments of brutality, gore, and hilarity, sometimes all at once. But this moment between Jamie Foxx’s freed slave, Django, and his wife, Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington, stands out for that rarity in the Tarantino Universe: tenderness. Django has come to Candieland to rescue Hildi, with the assistance of the German bounty hunter King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz. The reunion requires a ruse, with Schultz and Django pretending to be on the market for slave wrestlers. A sense of dread hangs over the escapade—you know there will be blood. But before the storm of bullets that serves as the film’s finale, we get this bit of warmth, with Schultz acting as a sort of Germanic Cyrano de Bergerac, explaining to Broomhilda that, even in a world like this, a miracle like the return of a long lost love can still occur. —CR

The Hateful Eight

The Coffee

And lo, Kurt Russell vomited blood all over Jennifer Jason Leigh’s face and we all laughed and laughed. What a world this guy’s made. Somewhere about two-thirds of the way through most Tarantino films, the feeling that a sick joke may be on the way starts to fester. In this case, poisoned coffee turns an elegant, almost restrained Agatha Christie whodunnit into an intestinal splatter-fest. And it’s Daisy Domergue, prized bounty of John Ruth the Hangman, who has orchestrated this blood-drenched freakout. This is one of the nastiest scenes in QT’s filmography—after Russell’s Ruth realizes he’s drinking coffee with a splash of venom, he throttles Domergue and punches her in the face, knocking out the teeth he’d promise to remove earlier in the film. After he finally hurls into her face, she cackles with a chilling glee. This is a truly fucked human being, we can safely assume. This is the baroque and the absurd colliding into a little shack, a long and overdrawn movie thrashing to escape the confines of its own design. It’s a little like watching one of the man’s films, glued to your seat for hours, eager to burst out and vomit out all your excitement when the credits strike. —SF

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