Actually, now that I think about it, maybe it's even better than Jackie Brown?

I know. Crazy! Jackie Brown is 22 years old; Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction came out... however many years before that. And now Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is here, and it's right up there with Quentin Tarantino's best stuff.

In part, at least, that's because for long stretches, Once Upon a Time doesn't have the self-conscious, This Is a Quentin Tarantino Film™ feel of the filmmaker's past few movies. Make no mistake: Nobody besides Tarantino could have made Once Upon a Time—like all of Tarantino's movies, it's a singular thing, uniquely dialed in to his obsessions and quirks. But like Tarantino's best movies, it feels neither reliant nor focused on those obsessions and quirks. While The Hateful Eight, Django Unchained, and Inglourious Basterds couldn't help but poke you every few minutes to remind you that you were watching a great movie, Once Upon a Time is content to just be a great movie—and the result is something that's funnier, more affecting, and more genuine than anything the filmmaker's made in decades.

The movie's a few other things, too—it's long and meandering, though every crooked hallway it wanders down, and every dank closet it peeks into, is worth a visit. It's a jaw-dropping showcase for Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie, all of whom are fucking phenomenal. It's a tender love letter to Los Angeles, and all of that city's glitzy grime. And it’s a movie that’s sometimes a comedy, sometimes a western, sometimes a thriller, and sometimes a tragedy—but it’s mostly a fantasy, albeit one with an acid aftertaste.

"Why can't real life be more like the movies?" Tarantino's film asks longingly, even as the filmmaker recognizes the naïveté of the question. While Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is an enormous amount of fun, the shadows of each frame remind us that reality is far darker, and much more cruel, than anything on the silver screen.

Andrew Cooper

Like Tarantino's best movies—Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Pulp FictionOnce Upon a Time technically has a plot, but it's one that takes plenty of detours. We spend the bulk of our time with three people: Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), an earnest, anxious, B-list actor whose career is right about to curdle; Cliff Booth (Pitt), Rick's toughed-up, chilled-out former stuntman and current BFF; and Sharon Tate (Robbie), a bubbly, captivating actress who's just starting to enjoy her first taste of success in show business.

Two of these people—the ones who're beginning to realize the world is no longer all that interested in what they have to offer—are fictional. The third is not, and how much you know about the real-life events that occurred in and around Los Angeles in 1969 will profoundly color your experience watching the film. How Tarantino plays with history in Once Upon a Time is one of the more intense and surprising elements of the film—and, thankfully, it's also one of the best.

That comes as a relief. Starting with 2009's Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino began setting his often-fantastical movies during key periods in history—in the midst of World War II, in the time just after the Civil War, in America's slavery era. Tarantino twisted and tore and changed history in order to make it fit his pulpy narratives, but his cleverness in doing so was undermined by the fact those periods were defined by brutal, complicated issues of race and gender—issues that remain raw and unresolved today. Tarantino, though, has always been less interested in real history than in Hollywood's make-believe version of history, and as time wore on, his predilection for gleefully gruesome violence—and his pervasive, frequently tone-deaf fascination with the N-word—felt increasingly oblivious.

I won't spoil the ways Once Upon a Time deals with the very real, very tragic events that clearly inspired it, other than to say that, thankfully, Tarantino walks the minefield with a singular, unexpected sensitivity. Once Upon a Time never gives form to some viewers' entirely justified fears (buttressed by the director's since-apologized-for statements about Tate's husband, the noted writer, director, and child rapist Roman Polanski) that Once Upon a Time's historical elements would feel crass or exploitative.

True to its title, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood never stops being a fantasy, a film that longs for a time and place that never really existed.

Remarkably, they don't, even with Tate and Polanski so close to the action that, at least in the world of Once Upon a Time, they live right next door to good ol' Rick Dalton. Rick spends his time at his house getting drunk, rehearsing his lines, and practicing self-loathing; Cliff spends his time at Rick's house chilling with his excellent dog, Brandy, and stripping off his shirt to fix Rick's TV antenna—revealing light, razor-thin scars along his arms and his collar bone, the markings of a stuntman who's been on the wrong side of too many stunts.

(Even when the cameras aren't rolling, Cliff fights: One of the film's best scenes sees Cliff starting shit with none other than Bruce Lee, played by Mike Moh—much to the consternation of two other stunt veterans, played by Kurt Russell, who played Stuntman Mike in Death Proof, and real-life stunt hero Zoë Bell, who beat the shit out of Stuntman Mike in Death Proof.)

And meanwhile, outside of town, off on a forgotten, sun-dried ranch where Rick and Cliff used to shoot westerns, a bunch of evil hippies are getting up to some evil shit.

Even for all its sadness and threats of doom, Tarantino's film remains laugh-out-loud hilarious the whole goddamn time—you're going to want to see this with a crowd, to hear both the laughs and the screams, particularly during one remarkable sequence. (And, thanks to cinematographer Robert Richardson's saturated palette—resembling nothing so much as the glossy, color-soaked pages of a 1960s issue of Playboyit's worth seeking out in 35mm.)

Tarantino's ability to convey LA's bright, desperate sweatiness is never short of remarkable: Throughout Once Upon a Time, heat rises, dust blows, tires screech, and neon signs crackle to buzzing life in gorgeous twilight while Deep Purple and Neil Diamond take over the soundtrack. The soundtrack changes up, and so does the tone: There's romance (the bromance between Cliff and Rick is one for the ages), and splattering bursts of blood (it's a Tarantino movie!), and lingering shots of bare feet (it's... a Tarantino movie). But true to its title, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood never stops being a fantasy, a film that longs for a time and place that never really existed. It's a movie about the stories people tell about themselves, and the mythology Hollywood built for itself, and the lies that movies tell us. It's about the kind of stories that are all the better, and all the more melancholy, because they're too good to be true.

The excellent but obnoxiously punctuated Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood opens Thurs July 25.