The 25 Best Samuel L. Jackson Performances, Ranked

Samuel L. Jackson is practically peerless and one of our most prolific living actors. He's brought his signature brand of charisma to films spanning a number of genres. While he may have peaked somewhat later in his life, Jackson has remained a reliable screen presence for the last 30-plus years. He's a master of every aspect of a given actor's toolkit — he can be fierce, steely, comforting, conflicted, intimidating, righteous, and more. His cinematic presence is indelible, and some of his most beloved roles almost outshine the man himself. He is one of the most quotable and recognizable actors alive, and has worked with some of the best filmmakers to have ever walked this earth (he also happens to be one of the highest-grossing actors of all time). Though it wasn't broadcast, Jackson was finally recognized by the Academy of Motion Pictures with an honorary award in 2021.

Jackson's filmography is a doozy. To try and summarize it succinctly would be a fool's errand, but here are 25 of his finest turns, ranked from least (amazing) to greatest.

25. Formula 51

Samuel L. Jackson is having the time of his life in this daft caper film that plays like bargain brand Guy Ritchie. Hong Kong veteran Ronny Yu directs Jackson and a cast of colorful supporting characters in "Formula 51," including a deranged Rhys Ifans, Emily Mortimer, Meat Loaf (as a drug kingpin named "The Lizard"), and a slumming Robert Carlyle.

Jackson's master chemist Elmo McElroy has developed a new superdrug he calls Power of Suggestion 51, or POS-51 for short. He finds himself embroiled in the London underground as various criminal factions vie for control of the powerful substance. If you want to watch Jackson (in cornrows and a kilt) clobber skinheads with a golf club, or gleefully toss rolls of toilet paper to them as they soil themselves, then you may find yourself charmed by this trifle. The movie's final grace note is the revelation that no one knows for sure why McElroy (an African American man) romps around in Scottish regalia.

24. National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon I

One of Samuel L. Jackson's few out-and-out farces, "National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1" is a laugh-a-minute riot along the lines of the "Naked Gun" series or National Lampoon's other genre spoofs like "Hot Shots." This type of lunacy can be an acquired taste (Roger Ebert deemed it pointless, calling it "quotation, not satire"). He's referring, of course, to the "Lethal Weapon" buddy cop franchise, itself already self-aware with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Jackson co-stars with Emilio Estevez as a pair of Los Angeles detectives investigating a conspiracy around a recipe that converts cookies into cocaine. Sight gags, celebrity cameos, and pop culture references are densely packed into the comedy's speedy 83-minute runtime. It's all incredibly silly — but that's exactly the point. Jackson plays it straight, which makes all of the flick's ridiculousness even funnier. Keep an eye out for appearances from the likes of William Shatner, Jon Lovitz, Tim Curry, Whoopi Goldberg, Charlie Sheen, Bruce Willis, and more.

23. Deep Blue Sea

Anyone who's seen "Deep Blue Sea" already knows why it's on this list. Jackson's performance as Russell Franklin is nothing all that remarkable, but what is unforgettable is his character's gruesome and unexpected demise in the film's second act. After giving a long and impassioned speech about teamwork and survival in the face of mortal danger, Jackson is cut off mid-sentence by a bloodthirsty, hyper-intelligent shark that bites down on his midsection and drags him, flailing, into the waters below. It's hilarious, it's unsettling, and it's brutal.

Director Renny Harlin (who also helmed "The Long Kiss Goodnight") convinced the actor to participate in this late-'90s schlockfest by explaining that having an actor of his stature be the first casualty would heighten the stakes of the film considerably (technically, he's not the first to die, but whatever). Jackson agreed and audiences were treated to one of best and boldest death scenes in recent memory.

22. Black Snake Moan

A controversial offering from Paramount's short-lived "indie" imprint Paramount Vantage, "Black Snake Moan" stars Samuel L. Jackson as retired blues guitarist Lazarus Redd and Christina Ricci as Rae Doole, an ailing and debauched young woman living in the deep South. Craig Brewer's follow up to the acclaimed "Hustle & Flow" collides Jackson and Ricci's characters due to tragic circumstances. Redd chooses to try and rid Doole of her compulsions by chaining her to a rusty radiator. What unfolds is somewhat queasy, as Ricci spends most of the film's runtime unclothed or scantily-clad, and Redd's underlying compassion is partly puritanism and condescension. In the end, they both find redemption and solace.

The sexual politics of the movie are complicated, to say the least (and the film's promotional efforts did it no favor in making it appear any less unseemly), but its worth checking out if only for the remarkable work done by Jackson and Ricci, who shoulder most of the film's runtime more than capably.

21. The Negotiator

In a career as prolific as Samuel L. Jackson's, he's bound to reunite with more than a few former castmates. 1998's "The Negotiator" includes two: Kevin Spacey ("A Time to Kill") and David Morse ("The Long Kiss Goodnight"). F. Gary Gray's twisty thriller plays out like a high-stakes bottle episode. The script from James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox provides ample real estate for moviedom's most fiery performer and god-level pottymouth to cut loose.

For all his ferocity and magnetism, Jackson excels at playing underdogs and wronged men, and he's once again in that mode here as hostage negotiator Danny Roman. In hopes of uncovering the truth about a web of corruption after being framed for the death of his colleague, Roman takes hostages of his own in a Chicago high-rise. Spacey plays Chris Sabian, a fellow negotiator and Roman's intellectual equal. Their battle of wits is gripping to watch unfold, and fans of police conspiracy films will be pleased by the twist ending of "The Negotiator."

20. The Caveman's Valentine

"The Caveman's Valentine" heralds the second partnership between Samuel L. Jackson and director Kasi Lemmons, after "Eve's Bayou." Jackson stars as Romulus "Rom" Ledbetter, a homeless paranoid schizophrenic and former musical prodigy living inside of a cave who rants on sidewalks during the daytime. Lemmons' directorial decisions in depicting Rom's mental illness are both haunting and humane, and Jackson delivers some strong work as the unlikely protagonist of this underrated murder mystery. As in the novel by George Dawes Green (who also wrote the screenplay), Rom happens upon the frozen corpse of a gay vagrant in a tree in the park where he lives. As Rom pursues the truth about the young man's death, he finds himself drawn into a twilight world of extreme wealth and depravity.

The narrative allows for explorations on artistry, inspiration, class disparity, and stigmatism around mental illness. In his Master Class, Jackson elaborated on the film and his understanding of Rom. "He can't handle [his] success ... and the reason that he comes up with is a made-up guy who lives in this tower in New York that shoots rays into his head to the point that he can't touch a piano because it's painful ... you are a source of shame for people who pass by you every day and don't do anything to help you, whether they admit it or not."

19. Kingsman: The Secret Service

How much fun is Samuel L. Jackson having in "Kingsman: The Secret Service?" The answer is all of the fun. His dastardly Richmond Valentine is so over the top that an actor less in control of their instrument would have elicited groans. Jackson takes the mustache-twirling baddie archetype and makes it his own, giving Valentine an impeccable taste in streetwear and a lisp inspired by the stutter that Jackson struggled to overcome as a child. It's a hoot watching Jackson chow down on Big Macs while facing off against Colin Firth's erudite gentleman spy.

Jackson told The Guardian what drew him to the role was that "[he didn't think he would] ever get to be in a Bond film, so I felt like this was an opportunity to play a really great Bond villain." Valentine is yet another supervillain tech mogul, the go-to template for action movie villainy in recent years, but he's so outsized and flamboyant it's easy to forgive the film's reliance on that contemporary trope.

18. The Avengers

This list would be risible without an acknowledgement of Samuel L. Jackson's contributions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as S.H.I.E.L.D. head honcho Nick Fury. For the purposes of this list, we've selected one of the franchises' high points, 2012's "The Avengers" (not for nothing, it's also one of the few MCU pictures that gives him a decent chunk of screen time). Jackson opens the film in an exposition-dense and somewhat underwhelming action sequence, but he shines in his moments aboard the helicarrier as he manipulates the rag tag group of heroes into abating their bickering and unite as a team.

Jackson's Fury has appeared in varying capacities in eleven Marvel Studios films to date, and while he's great in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Captain Marvel," "The Avengers" remains that magic moment where Kevin Feige and the brain trust at Marvel crystalized their blockbuster formula. For those who may be unaware, Jackson taking the role was practically predestined. In the 2002 Marvel comic "The Ultimates" from writer Mark Millar (who also created "Kingsman") and artist Bryan Hitch, Fury was reimagined in the spitting image of Jackson. Rather than take legal action for using his likeness, Jackson was flattered and more than game to step into the character's leather duster and eyepatch for the game-changing post-credits scene of "Iron Man."

17. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Is "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" the best Star Wars prequel that Samuel L. Jackson features in? Absolutely not. But it remains a landmark in cinematic history, and marks the debut of his instantly-iconic Jedi Councilmember Mace Windu. We hardly ever see Windu get out of his chair in this movie, but he electrifies nonetheless as the stern, dogmatic warrior. Jackson would get plenty to do in later entries–including his own custom lightsaber in his trademark purple. George Lucas' first prequel remains unfairly reviled and underappreciated, so it's making this list. The film is not without its problems, but Jackson is far from one of them.

As recounted in Brian Jay Jones' "George Lucas: A Life," Jackson apparently told the talk show "TFI Friday" all the way back in 1996 that he'd be willing to play any role in a Star Wars film. "You can make me a stormtrooper if you want, I don't care. As long as I know I'm in the movie" (via BBC). Fortunately for the veteran actor, he got quite the plum role.

16. Django Unchained

Stephen is right up there with Samuel L. Jackson's most terrifying and despicable characters. The house slave is fiercely loyal to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, also eschewing any semblance of empathy or dignity) to the point of being a race traitor. As Jackson is wont to do, in "Django Unchained" he undergoes a dramatic physical transformation, glowering under old age prosthetics and a white wig.

Unsurprisingly, "Django Unchained" was the subject of much discussion upon its release, with some criticizing the Stephen character for exploiting the "Uncle Tom" stereotype. Jackson's frequent collaborator Spike Lee minced no words in expressing his distaste for the film, writing in a now-deleted tweet, "American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them." However you feel about the film's messy politics and downright reckless treatment of its subject matter, one thing you cannot deny is that Jackson is a frightening presence that stays with you long after the lights come up.

15. A Time to Kill

Made between his two notorious Batman films, "A Time to Kill" is another team-up between director Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. The film is the fourth adaptation of a John Grisham novel made during Hollywood's '90s love affair with the lawyer-turned-author. Crafted with his characteristic baroque elan, Schumacher's film is one of the finest in that cinematic subcategory (Schumaker had also directed 1994's "The Client").

Matthew McConaughey's crusading public defender Jake Brigance certainly has aspects of the White Savior trope, but the film does make some feints toward interrogating that concept. Brigance is hired by Samuel L. Jackson's Carl Lee Hailey to represent him in his murder trial after an enraged Hailey guns down the two white supremacists who kidnapped and raped his young daughter and left her for dead. Brigance and Hailey must confront the pervasive institutionalized racism of the state of Mississippi and a particularly nasty judge with the not-so-subtle surname of "Noose." They're aided in their case by Sandra Bullock's plucky law student Ellen Roark. Jackson's performance in "A Time to Kill" is a particularly soulful one, making the most of all-too-relevant dialogue like "When you look at me, you don't see a man, you see a Black man," and "America is a wall."

14. The Great White Hype

Samuel L. Jackson leads this grunge-era satire from Reginald Hudlin ("House Party," "Boomerang") which boasts an absolutely bonkers supporting cast (Jeff Golblum, Damon Wayans, Jamie Foxx, Jon Lovitz, John Rhys-Davies, Cheech Marin, and others). In one of his hammier performances (but not quite "The Spirit"-levels of ridiculousness), Jackson plays the scheming boxing promoter Reverend Fred Sultan. In describing the Reverend's distinctive look for "The Great White Hype," Jackson told The AV Club, "The director wanted me to look like Don King, and everybody knew who Don King was. But I didn't want to be Don King. I wanted the man to be Rev. Fred Sultan, so I decided to make him look like Julius Caesar. So I had a white, silvery Julius Caesar haircut underneath the turbans and all that."

The laughs in "The Great White Hype" come as fast and hard as the boxers' jabs, and the film's commentary on race, celebrity, and greed in late 20th-century America is as potent as smelling salts. Hudlin spares no punches (pun intended) and ridicules each and every character. The result is hugely entertaining and depressingly relevant to this day despite its abject '90s-ness.

13. Coming to America

Samuel L. Jackson is only in the 1988 fish-out-of-water Eddie Murphy comedy vehicle "Coming to America" for a little over a minute, but he makes a lasting impression. It's one of his earliest cinematic appearances, but it nevertheless establishes many of the hallmarks that would become associated with his oeuvre: the bellowing voice, the hair-trigger temper, and the mastery of profanity-ridden dialogue.

Jackson, credited only as "Hold-Up Man," barges into the McDonald's-parodying restaurant where Murphy's Prince Akeem is working and holds up the cashier (the dearly departed Louie Anderson) in an attempt to rob the place. One can't help but laugh when Akeen tells him, "Please refrain from using any further obscenities in the presence of these people." The spine of Jackson's career to come would largely be built on such a reputation for hurling f-bombs. Despite the scene living on in internet .gif infamy, Jackson was too busy to reprise his role in the recent sequel "Coming 2 America."

12. Jungle Fever

Though Samuel L. Jackson only plays a supporting role in this 1991 drama, he leaves a lasting impression as "Gator," the crack-addicted brother of Wesley Snipes' Flipper. He steals the scene in every moment he appears in Lee's incendiary exploration of interracial relationships.

His twitchy, profound performance was a deeply personal one for the actor. As recounted to Esquire Magazine, Jackson was "two weeks out of rehab. I'd been smoking cocaine for a year and a half, two years, and I understood the nature of the disease. I had done the research. So when I started talking to Spike about it, I said, 'You don't see him high that much. You always see him when he needs something. He's on a mission to get some s**t. That's what I wanna do.' And that was my breakthrough. That got me into Hollywood. It was the perfect marriage of experience and opportunity." For his incredible work, the prestigious Cannes Film Festival revived their Best Supporting Actor award to commend Jackson for his performance.

11. Hard Eight

When he first appears onscreen in Paul Thomas Anderson's inaugural feature film, Samuel L. Jackson is as reliably captivating as ever. He struts into frame and chews on every morsel of Anderson's Tarantino-lite dialogue. It's another in a long line of roles that seem to have been written specifically with the actor in mind. Anderson knows the power of a good Samuel L. Jackson monologue, and he serves himself an absolute feast of one in "Hard Eight's" climax.

His Vegas penthouse showdown with Philip Baker Hall is one for the ages. Jimmy (Jackson) is all fire and brimstone, whereas Sydney (Hall) replies in kind with a weary stoicism, keeping his guilt and fear just below the surface. One wonders how John C. Reilly's dopey John fell in with Jimmy in the first place, but it's undeniable that he carries himself with a palpable swagger. Jimmy may be one of Jackson's more typecast roles — the crass gangster dressed to the nines — but that doesn't make it any less impressive as a showcase for his particular set of strengths.

10. Chi-Raq

An impassioned film from Spike Lee's latest wave of socio politically-conscious films, "Chi-Raq" tackles the issue of gang violence in Chicago's south side, dubbing it "a reality TV urban murder show" (via Complex). In an inspired decision, Lee's angle on the hot button subject takes the form of a modern update on the ancient Greek play "Lysistrata" by Aristophanes. In both the play and film, the women of the city (or city-state) take a vow of celibacy to punish the violent men in their society in hopes of bringing an end to warfare.

Samuel L. Jackson serves as a narrator/emcee of sorts for the broad musical comedy, monologuing in a kind of half-rhyme. Tonally, the movie's closest point of comparison might be Baz Luhrmann's 1996 interpretation of "Romeo and Juliet," but "Chi-Raq" is distinctly Lee's joint through and through. No one does social commentary quite like Lee, and "Chi-Raq" is no exception. It's also notable as one of only two collaborations between Jackson and Lee since 1991's "Jungle Fever," as the latter had a falling out with the actor over the use of racial epithets in his films with Quentin Tarantino.

9. Eve's Bayou

Samuel L. Jackson received a surprisingly-infrequent top billing in this lyrical 1997 southern gothic drama which marked the directorial debut of Kasi Lemmons. Jackson's Louis Batiste is the patriarch of an affluent African American family in rural Louisiana. What should have been another idyllic summer for his kin is tested when his youngest daughter Eve (Jurnee Smollett) catches him in the act of infidelity. "Eve's Bayou" is arresting from its opening frames and is peppered throughout with suggestions of mysticism and the supernatural.

The narrative plays out like a classic of 20th century American literature, and Lemmons (who also wrote the screenplay), makes the most of the film's 1960s trappings. For his commendable performance, Jackson was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture (he lost to Djimon Honsou in "Amistad"). The late great Roger Ebert selected "Eve's Bayou" as his best film of 1997, writing, "It takes us into a realm of poetry and dreams, and shows us how deceptive memory can be. In the way it examines a family's emotional life, it reminded me of the family dramas of Ingmar Bergman."

8. The Red Violin

Though he primarily only features in this international coproduction's framing device, Samuel L. Jackson nevertheless makes a strong impression in "The Red Violin." This sumptuous indie is a centuries-spanning anthology chronicling the titular instrument as it passes from hand to hand in the lives of its diverse cast of characters. The origin of the violin is shown in 17th century Cremona, Italy. When a gifted luthier arrives home to find his wife dead and child stillborn, he lacquers a new violin in her blood. The film's second flashback features another tragedy, this time taking place in a Viennese orphanage in the late 18th century. A young Jason Flemyng (fresh off of "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels") stars in the movie's third episode, a doomed romance set against the backdrop of 19th century English nobility. The next chapter in the violin's life takes the audience to Maoist China, before finally circling back to Jackson's auction appraiser in modern day Montreal, where he learns of the instrument's sordid history.

"The Red Violin" is a sterling example of Jackson's ability to excel in everything from mega-budget blockbusters to arthouse fare and everything in between, and an indelible tribute to the transformative power of music.

7. Changing Lanes

The set-up for "Changing Lanes" is a simple but remarkably effective one: two men are speeding down Manhattan's FDR East River Drive, both desperate to make it to life-altering courthouse hearings. Obnoxious lawyer Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) collides with divorcee and recovering alcoholic Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson), and acrimony ensues when Banek attempts to pay him off instead of exchanging insurance information. The consequences for their subsequent tardiness to both of their court proceedings are dire –Gipson loses custody of his children and Banek's hotshot career is imperiled. Over the course of a manic 24 hours, the two men go to war with one another, lobbing blows financially, professionally, personally, and physically in this relentless breakneck drama. What starts as a tete-a-tete metastasizes into a cynical rumination on basic human decency.

It's also worth mentioning the outstanding supporting cast of "Changing Lanes": Toni Collette, Sydney Pollack, Richard Jenkins, Dylan Baker, Amanda Peet, and the late William Hurt.

6. Jurassic Park

By 1993, Samuel L. Jackson had already appeared in a handful of mainstream blockbusters ("Goodfellas" and "Patriot Games," for example), but he really popped off in Steven Spielberg's game-changing crowd-pleaser "Jurassic Park." As the harried InGen chief engineer John "Ray" Arnold, Jackson chain smokes and sweats his way through the film's second and third acts. Jackson serves as an audience surrogate — smart enough to know something terrible is imminent but resigned to go along for the ride regardless, while David Koepp's screenplay provides him with some of the film's best lines.

It's a shame that Hurricane Iniki prevented Jackson from being able to complete filming on his death scene, as his absence is definitely felt when he essentially walks offscreen. Descriptions of his demise in Michael Crichton's novel, however, are available. One wishes audiences could have heard Jackson's spin on Arnold's parting kiss-off to the velociraptor that's pursuing him: "Too bad, buddy."

5. Die Hard With a Vengeance

Released just a year after Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis appeared in "Pulp Fiction" (in which they barely share a frame) the third film in the "Die Hard" series wisely matched them up in this breakneck actioner from John McTiernan. Obviously, Jackson and Willis would work together again — their chemistry is effortless (in another timeline, Laurence Fishburne would have played Zeus Carver, and it's hard to imagine that casting working as well).

Adapted from a spec script from Jonathan Hensleigh called "Simon Says," "Die Hard With a Vengeance" chronicles another hellish 24 hours in the life of New York City police detective John McClane. An extremely hungover McClane is run through a gauntlet of riddles and death traps by a terrorist calling himself Simon, with Jackson along for the explosive ride as his reluctant accomplice. 

The film is an expertly conceived escalation of the basic "Die Hard" premise: the first movie confines the action to a skyscraper, the second to an airport, and in "Die Hard with a Vengeance," all of New York City is a playground for mayhem. Jeremy Irons makes a worthy heir apparent to Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber, bringing an air of Eurotrash smarm to the role of McClane's tormentor. In some corners, "Die Hard with a Vengeance" is considered the franchise's high water mark.

4. Unbreakable

In retrospect, M. Night Shyamalan's "Unbreakable" was ahead of its time — a masterclass commentary on comic book superheroism. The somber, grounded film presaged the deconstructions and realistic tones that would become de rigueur after the comic book blockbuster boom. Bruce Willis stars as David Dunn, a stadium security officer with a crumbling marriage. After he's the inexplicable sole survivor of the Eastrail 177 train crash, Dunne is sought out by Samuel L. Jackson's Elijah Price, a comic book obsessive afflicted with Type I Osteogenesis Imperfecta. Price's extremely brittle bones are the opposite of Dunne's seeming invulnerability. He believes they are a fated dyad of sorts, two sides of the same cosmic coin.

Jackson's chemistry with Willis is as strong as ever in "Unbreakable" (less so in the long-promised follow-up "Glass"). Like many Jackson characters, Price has a penchant for purple and dressing stylishly. In a panel at New York Comic-Con celebrating the film's tenth anniversary, Shyamalan revealed that he and Jackson took inspiration for Price's unique haircut from the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass (via CBR). If you've somehow never had "Unbreakable" spoiled for you, suffice to say that Price's fragility belies a terrible secret.

3. The Long Kiss Goodnight

"The Long Kiss Goodnight" is the only film listed here to include a dig at the misbegotten mid-'90s spin-off series "Baywatch Nights" (which is truly baffling if you can track it down — David Hasselhoff fights mummies and aliens. Seriously). The weirdly specific barb comes courtesy of writer Shane Black. With his gift for hurling obscenities and imbuing his characters with a lived-in set of idiosyncrasies, Samuel L. Jackson is a perfect match for Black's signature style, and it's disappointing that the two never collaborated again.

The 1996 romp stars Geena Davis as Sam, a housewife living a modest life of comfortable domesticity. Her world falls to pieces when repressed memories and sinister forces from her past life as a government assassin reemerge. Sam enlists the aid of Jackson's Mitchell Henessey, a hard-living private investigator with terrible aim, great taste in music, and a tic that makes him sing whatever he's doing out loud at any given moment. Jackson and Davis have fantastic chemistry throughout, proving Jackson is in rare form when it comes to playing in action movie two-handers.

2. Pulp Fiction

The jerry curl. The handlebar mustache. Bellowing one minute, staid, determined, and quiet the next. Samuel L. Jackson's Jules Winnfield embodies all of "Pulp Fiction's" quirks and contradictions. In what is likely his most iconic role, Jackson is perfectly cast as Quentin Tarantino's hitman-turned-philosopher. It would be an understatement to say that Jackson crushes every scene he's in, and Tarantino wisely gives him a series of brilliant monologues (incidentally, the bible verse Jules quotes in the beginning is completely fictional). In Jackson, Tarantino found the ideal vessel for his trademark foul-mouthed verbosity.

"Pulp Fiction" opens and closes with Jules — he is the heart of the film and the wellspring of its skewed morality. The movie also wisely gives Jackson ample room for comedy in its third chapter. Who amongst us hasn't found themselves quoting, "Goddamn, Jimmy! This is some serious gourmet s**t!" or, "I'm a mushroom cloud laying motherf***er, motherf***er!" The role of Jules would cast a long shadow over Jackson's career, with many of his subsequent roles banking on a similar attitude and bearing (no complaints here).

1. Jackie Brown

In 1997, Quentin Tarantino liberally adapted Elmore Leonard's novel "Rum Punch" (his only non-original work to date), infusing it with a Blaxploitation flavor and shifting the setting from Florida to Los Angeles. His "Pulp Fiction" follow-up intelligently gave Samuel L. Jackson ample room to play. As the arms dealer Ordell Robbie, Jackson is simply fantastic — whether in quieter moments such as his scene with Chris Tucker or spitting out fiery diatribes ("The AK-47! When you absolutely, positively have to kill every motherf***er in the room").

Ordell feels like the synthesis of both Jackson and Tarantino's strengths — a broadly sketched character with plenty of meaty dialogue and an undercurrent of simmering menace. His unique appearance was an intentional choice on Jackson's part. As told The AV Club, "[Robbie's] chin braid was an homage to me and Quentin's love of Hong Kong movies." "Jackie Brown" signifies the epitome of Jackson as a performer — he can be menacing, engaging, and appealing from moment to moment. He owns the screen whenever he is on it, and that's why he is one of our greatest living actors.