With Great Vengeance And Furious Anger: The 20 Greatest Quentin Tarantino Scenes

Over the last quarter-century, Quentin Tarantino has managed to occupy a very unique spot within the American film industry. He's one of only a handful of filmmakers who are as recognizable to people the world over as many movie stars. How many directors are known on a one-name basis, aside from Steven Spielberg? Tarantino is similarly popular, and that meteoric rise to fame started with the theatrical release of his second film, Pulp Fiction, unveiled 25 years ago this month to unsuspecting audiences in the United States.

In honor of Pulp Fiction's 25th anniversary, we're counting down the 20 best scenes in Tarantino's films, including a couple from his summer-2019 release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. As with all lists, this ranking is legally binding and official, so let's get into it.

20. Bagheads, Django Unchained

How do you make the Ku Klux Klan funny? Admittedly, Quentin Tarantino wasn't the first filmmaker to ponder this question — if you go back and rewatch O Brother, Where Art Thou?, you'll see Joel and Ethan Coen grappling with the same question and coming up with a scene that makes them inherently goofy by turning their rituals into something out of Busby Berkeley. Tarantino goes the route of Monty Python, as we watch some Klansmen, played by Don Johnson and Jonah Hill, among others, struggling with their masks in a way that renders them utterly pathetic and ridiculous. There's plenty of historical revisionism in Django Unchained, but the way Tarantino turns the Klan into something akin to the Keystone Kops is akin to how Mel Brooks made a laughingstock out of the Nazis.

19. Changing hands, Jackie Brown

The key setpiece in Jackie Brown all involves money changing hands, and the various people overseeing this handoff, from criminals to the Feds. The eponymous flight attendant Jackie Brown is at the center of all of it, even though Tarantino unfolds the events through different versions of the same timeline. The tension is raised as we watch how associates of Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) are involved, and how ATF Agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) is trying to make sure nothing too untoward goes down. It all takes place in a very non-flashy location, a mall, but Tarantino uses the camera in such a way to keep things tense and fast-paced even in such a nondescript locale. The enjoyment and entertainment value of Jackie Brown is a bit more low-key than with other Tarantino films, but this sequence is a high point.

18. Butch and Marsellus join forces, Pulp Fiction

One of the many charms of Pulp Fiction isn't just that you're watching multiple stories playing out over an unexpectedly twisty, thorny timeline. It's that characters from one story end up appearing in another in surprising ways. Most of all, there's Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), who hovers over the entire proceedings: his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) is the same woman hitman Vincent Vega (John Travolta) has to squire around town in one segment, and he's the same gangster who gets mad at boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) for not throwing a match. But though he and Butch don't see eye to eye, even after the two men stare each other down as Butch is trying to escape town, they end up working together in a most unusual situation: they're held captive by some white-trash types at a weapon store before being sodomized. Butch and Marsellus are able to escape their bonds and bring down the pain — going "medieval" on the white trash — in a visceral, intense sequence that maintains Pulp Fiction's bold tone.

17. Candieland shootout, Django Unchained

There's always violence in a Quentin Tarantino film, and just like Inglourious Basterds, his 2012 epic Django Unchained wasn't going to revel in the bleak cruelty of American slavery without giving the main character a chance to deliver just desserts to the enactors of that cruelty. The climax of the film, set in Candieland, the plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), is full of violence and gore as Django (Jamie Foxx) returns without his German benefactor to get his wife back and kill whoever gets in his way. As thrilling as the finale of Basterds, Django ends with an orgy of violence that's grimly satisfying as a way to rewrite the ugliness of American history.

16. House of Blue Leaves, Kill Bill, Vol. 1

The two Kill Bill movies (and yes, this writer does regret to inform you that he's very much on the "There are two Kill Bill movies" train) balance Tarantino's gift of gab with outrageous bloodletting, baked into the very premise. The Bride (Thurman) has to kill a lot of people before she can enact her revenge on Bill himself. In terms of bloodshed, there's no scene with more of it that the extended climactic battle of Volume One, in which the Bride enters the House of Blue Leaves to fight off O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) and the Crazy 88, her elite team of yakuza. The fight is wild, comic, violent and as Grand Guignol as Tarantino's violence ever gets. The two Kill Bill films have lots of death, but none as memorable as those here.

15. Final massacre, Inglourious Basterds

What would it have been like if Adolf Hitler and his fellow Nazis were all killed at the same time? What would have happened if Hitler didn't get the chance to off himself in a bunker in 1945? The answer to these questions comes in the form of the last major setpiece of Inglourious Basterds. The fierce heroine Shoshana (Melanie Laurent) has, after escaping Hans Landa in the opening scene, reinvented herself as a moviehouse matron in Paris who has, by sheer fate, managed to score a hell of an event: a screening of a Nazi propaganda film attended by basically every major leader in the Third Reich, up to Hitler himself. She's prepared to go out with a flash, setting fire to nitrate film prints; lucky for her, the eponymous American soldiers are prepared to take down the Nazis as well. Though the plans don't go entirely as expected, the upshot is that lots of characters bite the big one here, in a scene that's both gruesome and intentionally outlandish. Of course the scene's not realistic: it's a bloody fever-dream fantasy meant to give catharsis that the descendants of WWII victims never received.

14. Naturalistic as hell, Reservoir Dogs

You can never know for sure how much the characters in Tarantino films are telling the truth about themselves. To wit, the revelation in the second half of Reservoir Dogs that one of the unnamed criminals involved in the heist gone wrong isn't a criminal at all: he's an undercover cop. Mr. Orange, played by Tim Roth, is a young cop who, as we see in a lengthy flashback, is being taught the right way to successfully do his job undercover. Mr. Orange, as he learns, has to be a great actor because of how much he has to convince his criminal cohorts that he is who he says he is. In the end, he fools just about everybody, even after being shot; in fact, it's precisely because he fools Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) that his fate is sealed, as the somewhat less ruthless Mr. White is shocked to his core that his potential protege was a double-crosser. The flashback scene stands out both because it reflects a Tarantino hallmark — character reversals — and because it ends up raising tension for what's going on in the present.

13. Climactic car chase, Death Proof

It makes perfect sense that Death Proof culminates with a balls-to-the-wall car chase. The film's ostensible lead character — at least based on screen time — is Stuntman Mike, a rugged-looking character played by Kurt Russell who is also a vicious killer. We watch him go to work in the first half of the film by murdering unsuspecting women, only for a new handful of his potential female victims to fight back in the second half. It's all leading up to a chase wherein a female stuntperson (Zoe Bell) winds up leading the charge. This car chase is so great and so intense for one reason alone: it is always painfully clear that this is a real set of stunts, with actual cars and people being used. There's no sense of CGI trickery, but always a death-defying air. Even before Stuntman Mike meets his end, when he and the women are driving against each other, it's a breathless setpiece because of how real it all feels.

12. Playing a tavern game, Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds is set up in such a way that it's really defined by lengthy setpieces more than an overall story. One of those setpieces is the height of dread, even though only a few characters live to tell the tale of what happened. A British soldier (Michael Fassbender, in one of his earliest breakout roles) has gone undercover to play a Nazi, along with one of the German members of the Basterds, in the hopes of getting a German actress (Diane Kruger) on their side in taking down the Third Reich. They meet up in a tavern to talk things over, where a group of real Nazis are hanging out and coerce them into a guessing game with suspenseful ulterior motives. The sequence goes on for a while, an endurance test as Tarantino stretches the tension as far as possible before it breaks and descends into bloodshed. It's one of the great, indescribably sweaty and anxious scenes in his whole career.

11. A speech about a watch, Pulp Fiction

Christopher Walken is one of the great modern actors, with his off-kilter cadence and style of speaking coupled with a pair of unforgettably intense eyes. It makes sense that he'd find his way into a Tarantino film, but he's admittedly got a small role in Pulp Fiction, one where he doesn't interact with any of the other major performers. But his monologue as a military man bequeathing a gold watch to the son of his fallen comrade is hilariously unforgettable. The boy who receives the watch grows up to be a boxer played by Bruce Willis, holding the watch in high esteem because it was his old man's, not because of where his old man held that watch during the Vietnam War. (Hint: in a place where the sun don't shine.) Walken's monologue is unexpected, ridiculous, and heartfelt, as Tarantino-esque as the rest of the film.

10. “Like a Virgin”, Reservoir Dogs

The opening scene of Quentin Tarantino's debut film is a statement of purpose as much as any amount of violence in any of his films were. The scene features a handful of men sitting around a table at a diner talking about popular culture and the rights and wrongs of tipping waitstaff. All this occurs right before they go out to take part in a heist that will eventually kill most of them, despite their cocksure bravado. The back and forth between the men, including actors like Tarantino, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, and others, is both hilarious and utterly mundane; they're all well-spoken as they argue about Madonna's music and social mores, even as they're distracting themselves from the violent matter at hand. Tarantino's characters would expand and grow over time, but the way they're presented in this first film is the right way to view his baroquely loquacious bad guys.

9. Jack Rabbit Slim’s, Pulp Fiction

John Travolta's career has had a lot of ups and downs, but one of the safest bets he's ever made on screen has been to dance. Two of his biggest 70s-era successes, Saturday Night Fever and Grease, are as memorable for the vision of him strutting his stuff as they are for the stories around that image. Pulp Fiction largely has no need for flashy dance sequences, though it does have an incredible, needle-drop-laden soundtrack. During one segment at the 50s-throwback diner Jack Rabbit Slim's, Travolta's hitman Vincent Vega has brought Mia Wallace, the wife of his fearsome boss, for a night out, where she demands they dance on stage. The ensuing sequence reveals that Travolta still had the moves, as he shimmies and traces a peace sign across his face in an image that's stuck around for 25 years, parodied to death. As unforgettable as Pulp Fiction is, it's the dance that's never been topped.

8. Rick Fucking Dalton, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Tarantino's latest film brings together two of the biggest movie stars of the last 25 years, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Both men have worked with Tarantino before, but not together. And by design, they're not often on screen together. For one lengthy section, Pitt's laconic stunt double is off on his own adventures while DiCaprio's helplessly neurotic actor Rick Dalton is working as a day player on the pilot episode of a new TV Western. Rick's big moment as the heavy is played almost entirely within the world of the show — it's only when he biffs a line that Tarantino breaks the "reality" of what we've been watching. But then, Rick is able to turn things around after berating himself in his tiny trailer. He delivers a performance of such intensity that the young Method-actress girl working on the same episode whispers a heartfelt compliment, leading to him saying, to no one in particular, "Rick fucking Dalton." It's a wonderful, emotional scene compounded by DiCaprio's unsurprisingly deep performance.

7. Royale with cheese, Pulp Fiction

Though Pulp Fiction isn't Quentin Tarantino's first film, or his first script, the second scene in Pulp Fiction is so memorable that it feels like it sets the tone for everything he'd write and direct afterwards. Two well-dressed men, Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield (Jackson) are driving along one morning in Los Angeles, talking about some important knowledge Vincent gained while traveling abroad. Specifically, they call a quarter pounder with cheese a "Royale with cheese" in France. The mundanity of this byplay is made funnier by how deadpan both Travolta and Jackson are, and by the eventual reveal that they're hitmen about to bring the pain on some college-age schmucks. This is how they stay out of character. 

6. Jackie and Max say goodbye, Jackie Brown

Even now, as many denizens of Film Twitter have rallied around it, Jackie Brown is arguably the most underrated film in Quentin Tarantino's filmography. It's a rarity in his work, as it's an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch, and after the vitality of Pulp Fiction, it represented a more low-key story of criminals at an older age of their lives. That sense of a life fully lived is keenly felt in the finale of Jackie Brown, as the title character (played wonderfully by Pam Grier) and bail bondsman Max (Robert Forster) have one last reunion before parting ways. Jackie would love for Max to join her and the cash she's absconded with, but Max wistfully has to turn down the appealing offer. Their goodbye scene has a level of maturity rarely seen in Tarantino's other character relationships, brought incredibly to life by Grier and Forster. 

5. A conversation over a glass of milk, Inglourious Basterds

Tarantino's 2009 epic Inglourious Basterds began a new chapter in his career, in which he used major points of American history for speculative fiction. The majority of this film feels (roughly speaking) like it could have taken place during the Allied effort in World War II before turning into a gleeful fantasy of what could have been had a handful of Americans stopped Adolf Hitler before his actual death in 1945. The opening of the film, though, sets the tone with an extended sequence steeped in suspense, as a French milk farmer is visited by the friendly and chatty Nazi Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, in an Oscar-winning, star-making performance), who already knows there's a family of Jews hidden on the premises. The scene culminates in violence, as you might expect, but the lengthy buildup is what makes this one of Tarantino's best: you know where it's going, but not how it's getting there.

4. Back at the ranch, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has inspired a lot of debate surrounding both a number of its characters, including Brad Pitt's laconic stuntman Cliff Booth, who figures in the film's very best and most suspenseful sequence. In it, Booth and the flirtatious young hippie (Margaret Qualley) he keeps running into throughout L.A. make their way to the hippie's makeshift home, the Spahn Ranch. The ranch is where old TV Westerns including Bounty Law, a show on which Booth and his friend Rick Dalton used to work, were filmed. Booth realizes that something's amiss almost instantly, but of course, anyone with historical knowledge knows "amiss" is an understatement. The Spahn Ranch is where Charles Manson and his Helter Skelter followers laid their collective hat while inflicting murder and terror throughout Hollywood in 1969. Cliff doesn't quite know how much danger he's in, but his encounters with the hippies and the grouchy, senile Spahn (Bruce Dern) makes for an unbearably tense scene in which the fictional stuntman's life is in more danger than he realizes. 

3. Stuck in the middle, Reservoir Dogs

The beginning of Quentin Tarantino's capability to create scenes that make an indelible mark came midway through his debut, Reservoir Dogs. As in his later films, the timeline bounces around here as we watch a story of a crime gone wrong and the fallout among the code-named criminals involved. One of those criminals is Mr. Blonde, played by the ruthless Michael Madsen. Mr. Blonde (who turns out to be Vic Vega, the brother of Vincent from Pulp Fiction) is a mostly humorless tough who gets his sociopathic jollies by lacerating and torturing a cop who had the misfortune of being at the right place at the wrong time. As Mr. Blonde turns on the radio, and the Stealer's Wheel song "Stuck in the Middle with You" plays, he dances around before slashing the cop's ear off. Like the adrenaline-injection scene in Pulp Fiction, what makes this so terrifying is precisely that we don't see the act of violence — we see the cop before and after the ear-cutting, not the act itself. 

2. Being the shepherd, Pulp Fiction

The opening of Pulp Fiction initially appears to be totally removed from the ensuing events. We meet a couple of low-class criminals, a romantically entwined pair played by Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer, eating breakfast in a diner. They talk about where the ideal robbery could take place, before realizing that we're really watching them psych themselves up to rob said diner. Then, roughly two hours go by without Tarantino revisiting the diner or the characters...until the last scene, where Vincent and Jules, wearing loaner duds after Vincent accidentally kills a cohort of theirs, stop for breakfast of their own. The robbery is mostly completed — Jules calmly mediates the situation without any bloodshed, though he lets Roth and Plummer's characters take most of the patrons' wallets. Though, in the chronological timeline, this isn't the end of the story, the way Jules has already achieved some kind of emotional catharsis translates into his final monologue, captured with Jackson's genuinely moving performance. 

1. Ezekiel 25:17, Pulp Fiction

Samuel L. Jackson was an excellent, intensely focused actor long before his work as Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction. His live-wire performance in the Spike Lee melodrama Jungle Fever as an emotionally wounded drug addict was so powerful that it inspired the Cannes Film Festival jury to award him Best Supporting Actor, a category they literally created to honor his work (and one they've never brought back). But as soon as he unleashed a Biblical monologue quoting Ezekiel 25:17 in the 1994 ensemble drama, Jackson became a star. Jules and Vincent Vega are at a low-down apartment to off some dudes who have welched on the dreaded Marsellus Wallace, after they acquire a mysterious briefcase. The run-up to the murder is Jules quoting Scripture, "with great vengeance and furious anger" until it's time to lay down the bloody law. It's a hell of a scene that cemented Jackson's legendary status.