Top 10: Best Performances in Quentin Tarantino Films

Through less than ten films so far, Quentin Tarantino has managed to get dozens of memorable performances out of his various casts. Seven of those turns have been cited with Academy Award nominations, though only two so far have actually won Oscars. Still, more than almost any other filmmaker, Tarantino crafts characters that audiences are excited to see actors and actresses sink their teeth into.

Below are, in honor of the forthcoming release of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” ten of the best performances in Tarantino’s filmography. We’re avoiding listing anything from the director’s latest movie, in part because it’s so hard to whittle things down to ten already. As it stands, there are multiple honorable mentions that are painful to exclude. Steve BuscemiMichael Madsen, and Tim Roth from “Reservoir Dogs,” for starters. Uma Thurman (though she’ll show up elsewhere) for “Pulp Fiction.” Lucy Liu from “Kill Bill” and Michael Fassbender from “Inglourious Basterds.” Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz (more on him soon) from “Django Unchained.” And Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins, Samuel L. Jackson (look for him below), Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Kurt Russell from “The Hateful Eight.” There’s over a dozen names above that easily could make up their own list, that’s how stacked the choices were here. Plus, that doesn’t even include Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie from Tarantino’s latest. It truly took a long time to wind up with just ten, a sure sign of quality.

10Brad Pitt in “Inglourious Basterds” (2009)
dir: Quentin Tarantino

The leader of the Basterds, Brad Pitt‘s Lt. Aldo Raine cares about one thing and one thing only: killing Nazis. Popping in and out of “Inglourious Basterds,” Pitt’s character is pure wish fulfillment for Tarantino. At the same time, it’s an incredibly fun role, one the actor dives into with aplomb. There may not be the depth of some other roles throughout Pitt’s career, but it’s a terrific use of his considerable star power.

9Robert Forster in “Jackie Brown” (1997)
dir: Quentin Tarantino

One of the most underrated performances in any Tarantino film, Robert Forster does the opposite of what many others on this list do. While the nature of the screenplays here encourage actors and actresses to go big, Forster avoids that – he goes small. He does less, creating a realistic character. “Jackie Brown” just would not be the same without him.

8Leonardo DiCaprio in “Django Unchained” (2012)
dir: Quentin Tarantino

Leonardo DiCaprio got to play evil for the first time here. Clearly delighting in the awfulness of Calvin Candie, DiCaprio goes all in when he appears onscreen in “Django Unchained.” His racist plantation owner treats his slaves like toys, has hatred in his heart, and is a complete 180 from where DiCaprio’s characters fall in moral code. All of that made him a great choice for the role, as he attacks the horrific nature of Candie with gusto. DiCaprio has never gone all out for a part like he did here for Tarantino.

7Pam Grier in “Jackie Brown” (1997)
dir: Quentin Tarantino

Tarantino loves to give actors and actresses he worshipped a second shot at fame. It’s a staple of his work. Pam Grier certainly qualifies in the title role of his third film, “Jackie Brown.” Together, Grier and Tarantino make her character a true hero, but not a traditional one. The hesitancy and realistic stress she goes through in the picture is incredibly relatable. The film is easily Tarantino’s most realistic, filled with identifiable characters, with Grier’s Jackie at the top.

6Harvey Keitel in “Pulp Fiction” (1994)
dir: Quentin Tarantino

Harvey Keitel took what could have been a throwaway role in “Pulp Fiction” and made Winston Wolf an absolute delight. Fixers are nothing new in crime dramas. Someone as classy and cultured as Keitel’s character was pure Quentin Tarantino inventiveness. Then, give the role to an actor like this and watch him shine. The delivery of even casual remarks are impossible not to smile at.

5Melanie Laurent in “Inglourious Basterds” (2009)
dir: Quentin Tarantino

The most overtly emotional story arc Tarantino has given a character, Mélanie Laurent is not just trying to take down the Third Reich from the projection booth of her small movie theater. Shosanna is also avenging the death of her entire family. If it means offing everyone in the German high command? Well, that’s no problem for her. Watching Laurent in “Inglourious Basterds,” it’s easy to miss out on the passion in her work. In particular, the expressions on her face as she navigates one dangerous situation after the next. An underrated turn, she’s brilliantly compelling from start to finish, truly providing the through line for the movie.

4John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction” (1994)
dir: Quentin Tarantino

The most lauded of Tarantino’s reclamation projects, John Travolta was down and out when he signed on to make “Pulp Fiction.” Allowed to challenge himself, portray a character unlike any other in his career at the time, and risk being unlikable at times, Travolta re-emerged as an A-lister here. Nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, he fell short of an Oscar, but was embraced once again by Hollywood, a far more valuable currency. Travolta owes a lot to Tarantino, but it goes both ways, as he interprets the ambitious screenplay perfectly.

3Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill” (2003/2004)
dir: Quentin Tarantino

Uma Thurman has long been considered a muse for Tarantino. Here, he finally gave her a showcase, and boy did she take the ball and run with it. In both “Kill Bill: Volume One” and “Kill Bill: Volume Two,” she mixes determined vengeance with an empathy and humanity that sometimes can be lost otherwise. Considering her work as one long performance, “Kill Bill” represents a mix of the emotional and the physical that would challenge any actress. That Thurman not just is up to the task but turns in the best work of her career is only appropriate, considering how they bring out the best in each other.

2Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds” (2009)
dir: Quentin Tarantino

When Christoph Waltz was cast, no one knew what he could do, except Tarantino. Needing someone who could speak multiple languages as the Nazi detective Col. Hans Landa, he tapped Waltz, elevating him from an unknown to an Oscar winner. Diving into Tarantino dialogue like few can, he does something truly unique. It may appear like Waltz is chewing the scenery, but he’s actually just relishing the verbosity of the script. The joy of acting is apparent in every frame of Waltz’s performance. The Academy Award win in Best Supporting Actor for his turn in “Inglourious Basterds” was well deserved.

1Samuel L. Jackson in “Pulp Fiction” (1994)
dir: Quentin Tarantino

The most iconic performance in a Tarantino flick belongs to the actor he collaborates with the most: Samuel L. Jackson. A scripture quoting hitman, Jules Winnfield undergoes the most profound change in “Pulp Fiction.” Initially just a cold hearted and wise cracking criminal, the events of the film lead him to re-evaluate his life. The evolution of the character represents not just the most compelling part of Tarantino’s best movie, but Jackson’s best performance to date. He goes big, but it’s in the smaller moments where he truly shines. Jackson was cited by the Academy with a Supporting Actor nomination, but that nod doesn’t do this work justice. It’s truly the most memorable performance in any of Tarantino’s films.

Which performances in Quentin Tarantino films are your favorite? Comment below and share!

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