“I had older brothers and sisters who were doing drugs and playing rock music and doing all those insane things. I was watching.” – Paul Thomas Anderson
A quote like this is so fascinating and illuminating to me when thinking about Paul Thomas Anderson’s films and the characters that inhabit them. One of the many reasons PTA’s films are so fascinating to me, besides the brilliant directing, acting, and storytelling, is the dichotomy that seems to exist between the man and the art he creates. Anderson does not give a ton of interviews and when he does, he doesn’t reveal too much about himself so it’s not like we know a lot about him. But he often comes across a bit understated, very thoughtful, and in many ways not like the type of person who would make the kinds of films he makes. His films are often filled with flawed, outsized, ego-driven, and destructive characters. It’s clear after reading a quote such as the one I started with though, that part of what makes PTA such an effective creator and storyteller is his ability to observe. To observe those around him, how they behave in certain situations, what motivates them, and how they treat the people around them. A great artist, in any field, needs to have great powers of observation.
PTA’s characters are, to me, the highlight of his unpredictable, historically great, and award-worthy filmography. I admit there is obviously a great deal to admire in terms of his technical skills as a director, the beautiful look to his films, and the innovative and engaging ways he shoots his scenes. But, it is his characters that always stick with me the most when I finish watching one of his films. A lot of this has to do with the performances he is able to get out of his actors. There is a strong case to be made that PTA is one of the best directors of all time in terms of pushing actors to their limits and getting them to reach their full potential. There are more than a handful of actors who you can point to and confidently say that the best performance of their career belongs to a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, which is a rare achievement for a director. This is an especially impressive statement when considering the fact that he has collaborated frequently with some of the greatest actors of their generations. Certainly the story of PTA’s career can’t be told without mentioning names like Daniel Day-Lewis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Joaquin Phoenix. Three men with legitimate claims to that title of “best actor of their generation.” But, not only do PTA’s films include standout moments in the careers of these three gifted men, but in a host of other actor’s careers as well. These actors include, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Adam Sandler, Julianne Moore, Mark Wahlberg, Tom Cruise, Philip Baker Hall, Vicky Krieps, Burt Reynolds, Amy Adams, and many more. Each of those men and women do some of their best, and most memorable work in PTA’s films, because he is the definition of a director who knows how to get the most out of an actor.
The challenge of ranking PTA’s films is a great one. I did this for another one of my favorite directors, Noah Baumbach, and in many ways that was an easier task because his films all share a similar sensibility, so they are easier to compare to one another. PTA’s films on the other hand are all so unique and unpredictable. His style has changed and evolved greatly during the course of his career. He has created mosaic-style films that follow many characters and string together a variety of storylines such as, Magnolia and Boogie Nights. But, he’s also created films that study one central character such as, Phantom Thread and There Will Be Blood. I suppose there is indeed a particular style that binds together all his works although it may be difficult to describe, but you certainly know a Paul Thomas Anderson film when you see it. The level of attention to detail and care he puts into each moment, each shot of his films is such an important part of his work, and a large portion of why he is so beloved amongst cinephiles. His style is just simply his own version of masterful filmmaking, which is why many consider him the 21st century Stanley Kubrick. This style, and this careful construction of every moment in his films is another reason why this list was so difficult to make because there is so much to think about, admire, and get out of each one of PTA’s films. He challenges the audience in just the right way. This is a great thing, one of the marks of a truly great filmmaker is their ability to provoke you while also entertaining you. PTA does this with each and every one of his films. There are certain moments, scenes, or lines of dialogue from his films that will forever be engrained in my brain. His movies are perhaps THE movies I think about for examples of films that stick with me for a long time after I view them.
I’m aware that the term “genius” is overused and, to some, can sound a little gross or pretentious when applied to artists or filmmakers but I unapologetically consider this man to be a genius. I am grateful for the art that he has created and continues to create. Even though PTA is one of a kind for sure, Hollywood always needs more filmmakers like him. I’m excited to talk about each of his films in greater detail so, to borrow a quote from my Noah Baumbach blog, without further ado let’s unnecessarily take a bunch of meaningful works of art from a brilliant filmmaker and pit them against each other for no apparent reason.
(Disclaimer: I will not be including PTA’s 2015 documentary Junun, which I have seen and enjoy quite a lot. However, I decided to only include his narrative feature films for this list.)
8. Hard Eight (1996)
“This is a very fucked-up situation.”
Hard Eight, a film that I really do enjoy, lands at the lowest spot on my list, which only speaks to the strength of PTA’s filmography. This is Anderson’s first film which he made at the impressively young age of just 26. There are indicators in here that point towards the heights PTA will eventually reach, however, when compared to his other successes this film just doesn’t stack up in the same way. Hard Eight, easily the most under-stated film of PTA’s career, is a story of the friendship between a mysterious professional gambler named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) and a young, down on his luck man named John (John C. Reilly.) The film also contains two notable supporting performances given by Gwyneth Paltrow, and Samuel L. Jackson. Interestingly enough, Hard Eight remains the only collaboration with PTA for both of these stars. This is most likely the smallest film PTA has ever made and because of that it is easy for it to be left in the wake of his larger, more successful, more ambitious creations but I feel there is a lot to admire about this film. The actors give great performances. PTA is able to lull you into a sense of comfort early in the film until the central event plays out towards the middle, which then fills the rest of your viewing with an effective amount of tension. Although, PTA clearly went on to greater heights later in his career, his first film remains one worth watching especially if you are interested in a quieter, more modest film.
7. Inherent Vice (2014)
“It’s groovy being insane man, where you at?”
First, let me start by noting that there are some people that are much higher than me on this particular film. I do think of it as a beautiful film and enjoy it very much. I find myself liking it more and more after each viewing (I did not love it the first time I saw it) however, I just can’t place it up there with my favorite PTA films. This film is of course based on the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name. What I love about the film is how unique it is, moreover how unique the experience of watching it is. Movies like this certainly don’t get made today, except for when you have names like Joaquin Phoenix and Paul Thomas Anderson attached. It is perhaps the most bizarre film PTA has ever made, and the most comedic film he’s made outside of Boogie Nights. Describing the genre of this movie could very well be as difficult as reciting the convoluted plot, but I would call it part stoner comedy, part dark, drug-fueled mystery. The story centers on a private detective named Doc Sportello (Phoenix) investigating the disappearance of a former girlfriend, among other things. Like I said, the plot is certainly difficult to follow at times and may take multiple viewings to truly appreciate, but this is a film I found myself enjoying much more once I just gave myself over to the journey PTA was taking me on. Also, I’ve found this movie is less about plot and more about feel. The emotion, the comedy, and the tone work so well for me that I don’t need to necessarily follow the plot to the fullest in order to enjoy the overall experience. Furthermore, I believe the convoluted nature of the plot is intentional and meant to mirror the drugged-out, cloudy mind and lifestyle of our protagonist. As with all PTA films, the performances are all spectacular. I would probably not recommend Inherent Vice be someones introduction to PTA if they have never seen any of his films. But I think once you build up an appreciation for him as a filmmaker, you’ll be able to greater understand and appreciate what makes this film special.
6. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
“I don’t know if there is anything wrong because I don’t know how other people are.”
PTA’s take on the romantic-comedy lands at number six for me. Punch-Drunk Love is the shortest film of PTA’s career with just a 95 minute runtime. It’s also his sweetest film. Romance plays an aspect in many of his films but this quite simply a love story, well, at least a love story made by Paul Thomas Anderson anyway. It’s interesting to note that this film, one of PTA’s smallest film, was the followup to 1999’s Magnolia, his most ambitious idea. At the core of this film is a psychologically troubled and depressed character named Barry Egan (Adam Sandler). Up until 2019’s Uncut Gems I, and many others, considered this the best performance of Sandler’s career. It’s just another incredible example of PTA’s ability to get the most out of an actor. Sandler truly feels like a real person in this film. He is a character with a great amount of quirks, who struggles to get through life on a day-to-day basis. Sandler gives a performance that illustrates this spot on, it feels authentic. Furthermore, I love that this movie is exactly what it is. It’s unapologetically a sweet and romantic film, but one that never crosses over into corny. It is still riddled with PTA’s distinct style and his masterful hand behind the camera is evident when watching the movie. There are so few filmmakers that can go from a movie like Magnolia to this, but that just shows why PTA is truly one of the greats.
5. Magnolia (1999)
“This happens. This is something that happens.”
Magnolia is difficult to describe to someone who has not seen the film or is not familiar with the work of Paul Thomas Anderson. The most ambitious film of PTA’s career is a three hour epic chronicling the lives of several different characters with interweaving storylines. This is a film about death, love, childhood, parenting, regret, and of course raining frogs. The act of reading out the cast-list is an achievement in and of itself, it includes names like Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, and Melora Waters, among others. All the performances are stellar (with a bit of overacting on the part of Julianne Moore) and I simply don’t have the time or space to go into detail on each one. Cruise’s performance is perhaps the most notable, he was the only one in the cast to receive an Oscar nomination for his work. It would take a similarly long amount of time to describe all the individual plot lines contained within this film. Instead, I’ll talk about some of the things I admire about this film. First of all, it looks amazing, PTA shoots this film in a way that only he can. Second of all, I love how this is he biggest and most ambitious film in PTA’s filmography, but there’s also so much of it that feels quiet and contained. The massive scale of the film does not take away from the personal and intimate view we get into the lives of these troubled characters. I also love the arrogance of this filmmaking. PTA once said about the film “I have a feeling, one of those gut feelings, that I’ll make pretty good movies the rest of my life. And maybe I’ll make some clunkers, maybe I’ll make some winners, but I guess the way that I really feel is that Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I’ll ever make.” I get the sense that he knew he was making something grand and special with Magnolia, and while he was making it he was essentially saying “fuck you, watch this” and I’m grateful he had that confidence because, somehow, he pulled it off.
4. The Master (2012)
“I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.”
At the time of its release, The Master was quite possibly the most anticipated film PTA had ever made. It had been five years since he released a film and with the rumors that this was essentially a movie about the beginnings of scientology, people were waiting with bated breath to see what PTA had in store for us. What he delivered was, in my opinion, a masterpiece. Some critics criticize this movie by saying it asks big questions but provides few answers. While I certainly understand what they mean, I believe that was intentional on the part of PTA. He certainly does not walk us through this film holding our hand, he does not explain everything, he leaves us perplexed by things, he challenges us, provokes us, and mesmerizes us, and I appreciated all of it. When I stated in the opening that there are certain moments from PTA’s films that are forever engrained in my brain, many of the moments I was thinking about come from this film. The acting trio of Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams provide us with three of the best, most memorable performances of the decade. Phoenix is probably about to receive the first Oscar win of his career for Joker but this remains THE performance of his career for me. Phoenix plays the quick tempered, troubled, alcoholic Freddie Quell, a man that catches the eye of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), an L. Ron Hubbard-eque figure. The movie explores the father-son relationship that bonds the two men, as well as themes of faith, power, and family. It is tough to choose one but if I had to, I would say this remains the most visually stunning PTA film for me personally.
3. Phantom Thread (2017)
“Is this an ambush? Are you sent here to ruin my evening? And possibly my entire life?”
PTA’s most recent film just barely edged out The Master for a spot in the top three. There are so many things I love about Phantom Thread. It ranks very high on this list, however, it is different than many of PTA’s other films. It is not set in California, it is more restrained, it is much more elegant, and it was a chance for PTA to explore some different themes and characters. The film is set in the 1950s and centered on a renowned dressmaker named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) whose life is changed after meeting a young woman named Alma (Vicky Krieps) who becomes his lover as well as his muse. I’m aware that that plot description may not sound like the most interesting of all time, but I can’t stress enough how deeply wonderful this film truly is. Day-Lewis has stated that this movie will be the final performance of his career and if it that turns out to be true he gave one of the best performances of his career in his final effort. Krieps, however, is the true revelation of this film. It is the back and forth between the two main characters that makes this film as great as it is, and Krieps plays the strong-willed Alma perfectly. Along with the performances, it is the screenplay that I most remember from this film. I don’t know if this film was more clever than I expected it to be because I certainly expect a great amount of thought and intelligence to go into all of Anderson’s scripts, but it was certainly funnier than I thought it would be. The quick-witted, sharp dialogue somehow fits in perfectly to this world PTA created. The film goes to places you are unable to see coming and truthfully the ending may not work for some people, which I understand. I appreciated every minute of this film though, and it is truly one of the strangest, most twisted romance films of our time.
2. Boogie Nights (1997)
“What can you expect when you’re on top? You know? It’s like Napoleon. When he was the king, you know, people were just constantly trying to conquer him, you know, in the Roman Empire. So, it’s history repeating itself all over again.”
PTA’s second film remains one of the greatest achievements of his career. For those who don’t know Boogie Nights is an unbelievably entertaining film about the porn industry set in 1970s California. Like Magnolia, it is an ensemble film riddled with great performances but the star is Mark Wahlberg who plays a young man who makes his way into the porn industry and soon finds a pseudo-family and great success under the name of Dirk Diggler. The cast is full of memorable characters played by incredible actors including, Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), Rollergirl (Heather Graham), and Little Bill (William H. Macy). It is the empathy Anderson has for these characters that makes this film as special as it is. It is clear that Anderson has a real love for this cast of misfits and it is the familial relationship shared amongst them in the film, that makes this movie one you are able to rewatch so many times. There is something so endearing about seeing these lost souls, outsiders, and outcasts find each other and create their strange little family. With this film, PTA creates a world you may not want to live in, but you certainly wouldn’t mind visiting for a while. This is also the funniest film PTA has ever made. The screenplay is rich with quotable lines and memorable dialogue. Each character gets to shine with his or her own great moment that is remembered by the audience. The darker second half of the film may not hold up as well as the first half does but the magic of that first half and the redemption at the end of this film are special enough for me to feel comfortable giving this the number two spot on my list.
1. There Will Be Blood (2007)
“I… drink… your… milkshake!”
The 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood remains the crowning achievement of PTAs career in my opinion. This film has everything you want from a PTA film, beautiful cinematography, a gripping story, extraordinarily good performances, a memorable script, and moments like you’ve never seen on screen before. This movie will shock you, it will disturb you, it will mesmerize you, and it will move you. It is truly one of the great American films of all time. Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Daniel Plainview, a greed-filled egomaniac consumed by the idea of the “American Dream” is honestly in the conversation of greatest performances of all time. That may sound like hyperbole to some, but I really do believe it. Day-Lewis embodies Plainview in a horrifying, enthralling way that will stick with you after you watch this film. This film is not only about the rise and fall aspect of Plainview’s story, but also about family, religion, greed, and competition. The supporting cast, headlined by Paul Dano’s portrayal of Eli Sunday, is also incredible. Furthermore, I’d be remised if I didn’t mention the score by Jonny Greenwood, which is one of the most important aspects of this film, and creates a real sense of tension and anxiety throughout. With There Will Be Blood, PTA created a film that knows how to get under your skin, but also keep you engaged from the first shot to the last. Films like this truly don’t come around often so we need to appreciate the ones that we do get. I, for one, am very grateful that a man like Paul Thomas Anderson is around to give us films like this, and all the others on this list, because the world of film is better off because of it.