Quentin Tarantino has always worn his love for vintage Hollywood on his sleeve, and his penultimate film is his ultimate postcard. From the opening shots of a PanAm 747 landing at LAX in 1969 to the individual authentic props that dot the film from start to finish, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is as much an adoration of a long-ago era as any film that has come before it.
But it’s not Tarantino’s attention to detail that makes the film one of the best of the year—those are just happy bonuses that elevate the film even higher off its already lofty perch. No, instead chalk the film’s success up to Tarantino bringing together three of the world’s top actors, giving them an exquisite script, and setting it all in a riveting, pseudo-real world Hollywood that has long-since disappeared.
Leonardo DiCaprio anchors the film as RIck Dalton, a once-iconic actor whose best roles are behind him. He hasn’t, however, lost the companionship and devotion of his trusty pal and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). It’s easy to picture a time when the pair ran the town, but a solid decade has passed since then. Relegated to playing guest-star “heavy” in second-tier shows, Dalton is still holding out hope for one more shot to get his career back on track.
Meanwhile, he’s getting new next door neighbors in the form of real-life actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her fiancé Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha). Dalton, you see, lives near the top of Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, and we’ve been dropped into Hollywood six months shy of the brutal Manson Family murders that claimed the young actress’ life (along with four others).
The parallel storylines of the film are deftly knitted together, and even though we have a vague sense of where this whole thing is headed (we even get a brief glimpse of “Charlie” Manson himself), it takes it’s sweet, sweet time to get there. But don’t let the film’s 161-minute run time scare you off—Once Upon a Time winds up feeling like a tightly-packed can of cinematic goodness that you wish could go on for another hour at least.
The movie unfolds gradually, almost like an exquisitely crafted novel, with dozens of characters, a hyper-detailed setting, and subplots upon subplots. There’s no denying the Pulp Fiction-like feel (though, mercifully Once Upon a Time doesn’t play back-and-forth games with the space-time continuum), and Tarantino makes every second count. And then he doubles-down by throwing in a multitude of Easter eggs, in-jokes, and so many super-smart details that a second (and possibly third) viewing is almost required.
DiCaprio and Pitt, sharing the screen for the first time, fit together better than chocolate and peanut butter, and their characters’ long-standing friendship is instantly believable, forming the rock-solid backbone of the film. We know implicitly that they have each other’s back, and dammit if you don’t want to jump through the screen and hang out with them for the rest of your life. Likewise, Robbie channels Tate with such a subtle grace and wide-eyed wonder that you get to put aside her utterly tragic demise for just a moment and appreciate her for the talented actress that she never really got a chance to become.
From the film’s supremely of-the-time soundtrack (including real clips of radio jingles and ads from the now-defunct KHJ-radio Los Angeles) to the phenomenal camera work of cinematographer extraordinaire Robert Richardson to its plentiful, fun-bonus films-within-a-film, Once Upon a Time is an artistic time capsule, a love letter (to 1969, Tate, and to old Hollywood, all at once) and a masterclass of acting and screenwriting wrapped up into one damn-fine package. It’s so brilliant, in fact, that Tarantino might want to reconsider his plan to retire after making ten films and just stop at nine. This one’s gonna be tough to beat.