There are three major Andersons when it comes to Hollywood directors. There’s Wes Anderson. He does the quirky movies. Paul W.S. Anderson. He does the action movies. And then there’s Paul Thomas Anderson. He does the serious movies. And while I have to be in the mood for a Paul W.S. or a Wes Anderson film, I am always in the mood for Paul Thomas Anderson movies. Sometimes funny, sometimes haunting, but always cerebral, Paul Thomas Anderson is, in my mind, America’s greatest director, following closely behind Stanley Kubrick.
And it’s because his movies always bring something exciting to cinema. It doesn’t matter if the story deals with a porn star with a massive penis or an oil baron going insane. If it’s PTA, then it’s A-OK. Actually, it’s better than A-OK, because whatever he makes usually turns out to be a masterpiece. But with 8 films under his belt, and another untitled project on the way, what are his very best films? I’m sure your picks will differ from mine (I know Inherent Vice has its supporters), but can we all just agree that the man still hasn’t made a bad film yet?
8. Hard Eight (1996)
In this neo-noir film, Philip Baker Hall plays a gambler who tries to mold a young man (played by John C. Reilly) into his protégé. Things go well until Reilly's character meets a cocktail waitress, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. The film slowly unfolds into a crime film once things start going downhill. Philip Seymour Hoffman also has a great turn as a young gambler who will buy you a drink, Big Time.
Hard Eight would likely be the best movie in most director’s entire filmography, but this is PTA we’re talking about here. The Paul Thomas Anderson mood is definitely present, but it also feels like it’s just developing. More great stuff was yet to come!
7. Inherent Vice (2014)
Based on the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name, Inherent Vice is about a pot head private investigator (played by Joaquin Phoenix) who’s searching for his former girlfriend and her new boyfriend, who have gone missing. But laced within this plot, which is actually meant to be a comedy, is a much darker story involving L.A.’s criminal underbelly. It’s sort of like a ‘70s version of The Big Lebowski, but with zero bowling and even more drug use.
I know Inherent Vice has its fans, and that it’s a great film, but it’s just not for me. I love the sun-soaked locale and how physically hot the whole movie feels. But unlike most of PTA’s films, where I feel like there’s some deeper undercurrent that I need to uncover through repeated viewings, Inherent Vice leaves me a bit too bored to want to give it multiple viewings. Still, as an overall comedy, it’s probably his funniest movie next to Boogie Nights.
6. Magnolia (1999)
Magnolia is an ensemble film involving multiple stories that all coalesce in some way. Starring Tom “Respect the cock” Cruise, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, and many others, it’s the kind of movie where anything seems possible. Even frogs raining down from the sky.
Magnolia is a beautiful, often surprising film, but it’s also super long, and it feels it. All of the performances are fantastic, and I especially love William H. Macy as “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith, but I think the film would have been better if it was more concise. A great film, in parts, but it could have used some trimming.
5. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
The first movie that showed that Adam Sandler could truly act, Punch-Drunk Love is about a slightly deranged man (played by Sandler) who falls in love with an English woman (played by Emily Watson). But it’s also extremely strange, with a subplot involving a phone sex mattress salesman and frequent flier miles acquired by buying lots of pudding. It’s weird, but oddly sweet.
Punch-Drunk Love is tonally bizarre, but beautiful because of it. Sandler’s character has random outbursts of rage, but you’re still deeply invested in his character, and you hope for his unlikely romance to work. It’s a highly regarded film, but it still somehow feels like Paul Thomas Anderson's hidden gem.
4. Boogie Nights (1997)
Paul Thomas Anderson's breakout film (sorry, Hard Eight) is about a dishwasher-cum-(eww)-porn star (played by Mark Wahlberg) with a massive penis who becomes a sex star in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It features an all-star cast and feels dirty, but in a good way.
Boogie Nights has it all. It’s funny, it’s bold, it’s always surprising, and the acting is out of sight. And strangely, it’s also educational about the porn industry. PTA had the touch with this one.
3. Phantom Thread (2017)
Paul Thomas Anderson's most recent film and also Daniel Day-Lewis’s last, Phantom Thread is about a dressmaker (Day-Lewis), who falls in love with a waitress, and their somewhat sweet, somewhat toxic (but classy) relationship.
It’s hard to explain what’s so alluring about Phantom Thread, but it is alluring, and also maddening. The story is simple, but it’s still rich in detail and layered with odd subtext. It’s probably PTA’s strangest movie to date, but also one of his most fascinating. It’s the kind of movie where you say, “that’s it?” by the end credits, but it still leaves you constantly thinking about it for days. And the fact that it’s probably Johny Greenwood’s best soundtrack to date doesn’t hurt, either.
2. The Master (2012)
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams, The Master is about a troubled Navy vet who takes solace and meaning from a traveling religious group.
But what is The Master really about? Is it an indictment on religion? A story about control and release? A morality tale? I don’t know! I’ve seen The Master five times, and each time, I feel like I’ve grasped a portion of its deeper meaning, only to be questioning everything I saw by the time the credits roll. The Master is PTA’s most complex movie, but it’s always thought-provoking and engaging. It’s my favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film (It’s his favorite film of his, too) but not his best. That would be…
1. There Will Be Blood (2007)
An oil baron (played by the Academy Award winner, Daniel Day-Lewis) is starting up his business, and business is booming. But along the way, he has to contend with everybody from a local preacher, to other oil magnates, and even his own madness.
There Will Be Blood is the best movie of the 2000s. While The Master is my favorite PTA film, There Will Be Blood is one of my favorite films, period. It’s the kind of movie where you feel like you’re going insane watching it, and a film where Daniel Day-Lewis putting a napkin over his face in a restaurant seems like the most natural thing in the world.
Daniel Plainview is a towering character, and There Will Be Blood is probably the most elusive film I’ve ever seen in that I'm still not entirely sure of its deeper meaning. It’s a very demanding movie, and one that doesn’t answer any questions, but it’s all the better for it. It will probably be discussed and studied for years to come.
Whatever Paul Thomas Anderson makes, I’ll watch. But what are your favorite films of his? Sound off in the comments.