Paul Thomas Anderson is the great exegete of the modern American psyche. His films are portraits of broken people who are each in their own way unsatisfied with their lives regardless of the levels of success that they have attained. In his hands, these films are frequently unflinchingly intimate portraits of these people, even if they are framed sometimes by an impressively sweeping backdrop. It is no surprise that his list of collaborators is basically a rundown of A-list talent, sometimes even in tiny roles, because he is if anything an actor’s director. He is also someone who rarely makes the same movie twice, and part of the joy of following his career is never really knowing what direction he will strike next (once, the answer to that question was a tiny documentary about the making of a world-music album that wasn’t announced until literally two months before it came out). It is true that the man does inspire some cult-like devotion in cinephiles like myself, but with each successive film it gets harder and harder not to argue that Anderson is at the very least one of the greatest living directors working today, if not one of the all-time greats.
9. HARD EIGHT (1996)
All the films on the lower half of this list will suffer one thing in common, in that they will all look not as good only by comparison. There is not a single bad film on this list, starting with Anderson’s debut Hard Eight. Made for an extremely small budget, the film is an anomaly in that the scope of the storytelling is so small. It tells the story of Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), a gambler who develops a friendship with a hard-on-his luck loser (John C. Reilly) and decides to teach him everything about gambling. Eventually his protege lands himself into trouble and it is up to Sydney to bail him out. It is easily the least personal film of Anderson’s career as he seems to stuff as many indie crime film tropes as possible (including a post-Pulp Fiction Samuel L. Jackson) and it seems to function almost as a “proof-of-concept” film for Anderson’s larger ambitions. In spite of this, Hard Eight still works, not least because it is clear that he has a special eye for character and for letting actors do what they do best.
8. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002)
This movie stands as a frustrating reminder that Adam Sandler is capable of not only putting in a typically good comedian-doing-drama performance but an unconditionally great performance. And for some reason, the man seems motivated to do one of these types of performances once every half-decade or so. Punch-Drunk Love is the closest thing Anderson has ever come to directing a romantic comedy, and as such is the sweetest movie he’s ever created. Of course it is still a story about a rage-aholic who has to juggle a struggling business, a difficult family, and his crippling sense of isolating loneliness. So, you know, just all the necessary ingredients for a feel-good time at the movies. But in all seriousness, it really is a pretty great love story.
7. JUNUN (2015)
Junun seems to have come about almost by happenstance. It is a documentary about the making of an album between Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur, the Rajasthan Express, and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. It seems like Anderson was literally along for the ride and at some point decided to pick up a camera and record the proceedings just for the fun of it. It is a fascinating documentary because there is some fantastic music being made and by being a fly on the wall we get to see the collaborative process of making music. But it is also fascinating because it is the closest thing we have to a home video by Anderson and we get to see him kind of just goofing off behind the camera, even experimenting at points with drones like some mere YouTuber. It is decidedly a minor entry into his oeuvre (and at 54 minutes barely counts as a feature), but it is also his most joyously simple.
6. INHERENT VICE (2014)
Inherent Vice is a mess of a movie, dense to the point of near incomprehensibility, with so many red herrings, and mysteries upon mysteries that any attempt of explaining the plot of this movie will be an exercise in futility. Even after the third time watching this I can’t make heads or tails about what is going on. Yet this movie is moment to moment is endlessly compelling thanks to the magnetic performance of dopehead P.I. Joaquin Phoenix. Toss in Jena Malone, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, and Maya Rudolph among others and you have a cast packed to the gills with people capable of making every moment of this movie an exercise in scenery chewing glory. It doesn’t alway work as a story, but who cares.
5. THE MASTER (2012)
From here on out, the movies move from being solid and good to unqualifiedly great, and honestly based on my mood I could probably switch the Top 5 around (except maybe the top spot). The Master is, like most of Anderson’s work, ambitious in its scope. He mines his usual obsessions of the American psyche and trains it on American religion in his thinly veiled examination of a Scientology-esque religion. Playing the leader is Philip Seymour Hoffman, in what is possibly his greatest performance who manages to steal the scene from the equally magnetic Joaquin Phoenix which is saying something. The movie features all the typical flair of a director who increasingly is in control of his craft and is gorgeous to look at. But unlike the movies that will make up the rest of the list The Master keeps you at arms-length, resulting in its relatively low place here.
4. PHANTOM THREAD (2017)
Phantom Thread finds Anderson moving into several new directions. It is his first film set outside of America both in location and theme. And while almost all of his films either fall into intimate encounters or sweeping epics, Phantom Thread is a claustrophobic affair that nonetheless is expansively ambitious in its themes. It features an evenly-matched trio of actors in Daniel Day-Lewis as a prickly and controlling fashion designer, Leslie Manville as his cold and shrewd sister and business partner, and Vicky Krieps as his muse, lover, and sometimes adversary. Together they create a lush and suffocating atmosphere for this twisty romance about the relationship between muse and creator, framed by a lyrical soundtrack, gorgeous dresses, and a film bathed in warm and faded light.
3. BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)
If Hard Eight showed that Paul Thomas Anderson was a director to keep an eye on, Boogie Nights showed that he had all the makings of being an all-time great director. Boogie Nights is his most conventional film in a sense as it follows the rise and fall of pornstar Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) in the porn industry of the late 70s and early 80s in the San Fernando Valley. Perhaps more impressive than the deft and assuredness with which he lands all the usual beats of this fictional biopic is the way he manages to portray Los Angeles as an actual city away from the usual glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Instead Anderson’s Los Angeles is a grimy land of strip-malls, broken dreams, and ordinary people trying to make sense of living in the shadow of the famous and wanting a piece of that fame in any way possible. Since the film is so propulsive, and also his first commercially successful movie which in a sense also makes it his most important movie, because it paved the way for the rest of his illustrious career.
2. MAGNOLIA (1999)
Fresh off the overwhelming success of Boogie Nights, Anderson had the license to create any project he wanted. And he shot for the stars by making a three-hour sprawling ensemble epic about isolated and lonely people who hurt and are hurt by one another set in the less-than-glamorous San Fernando Valley where the characters break out mid-movie into an Aimee Mann song and the climax features a literal plague of frogs. So in other words, your typical Hollywood moneymaker of a movie. Each and every one of the performances in this movie are a treat but it is Tom Cruise who is the standout as an uber-men’s rights motivational speaker who is as noxious as he is hurt. Fresh off his performance in Eyes Wide Shut, it is a reminder of a bygone era when Cruise didn’t just try to outdo his previous breathtaking stunt and instead gave truly brave and vulnerable performances. Hopefully someday he’ll return there again.
1. THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007)
The greatest contribution of Paul Thomas Anderson’s career unfortunately might be entering “I drink your milkshake” into the public lexicon. But in that he is in the same vaulted company as Orson Welles and “Rosebud”. And while evoking Citizen Kane might have seemed a little hyperbolic when There Will Be Blood first came out, it has only become more apropos in the intervening decade since. It belongs in the same vaunted genre as Kane or The Godfather as a movie that explores and explains the myths of America and of its empty depravity within its dreams. Daniel Day-Lewis puts in his best performance (which is saying something) as Daniel Plainview, the oil prospector who barrels his way into town to con the town into giving him their land and even willing debases himself to the religious leader of the town in order to get what he really wants, the luxury of liquid gold. The movie is bombastic, audacious, and operatic. And it is also probably the best film of the 21st century.