Paul Thomas Anderson: Film Ranking

Paul Thomas Anderson is known for his experimental and fearless quest into exploring characters in ways that are unflinching and at times, uncomfortable. He isn’t afraid to delve into the psyche of a character and make them unlikeable. In fact, Anderson tends to thrive on the flaws of a character for example Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. One can argue that Plainview is an ambitious character in the quest for the American Dream whereas this results in a relentless and deadly exposure on greed in an age of unapologetic capitalism where the divide between rich and poor is monumental. Anderson presents us with the two sides of the same coin and creates a world that equally affects and is affected by this. Anderson is also known for his multiple collaborations with cast and crew alike such as actors Daniel Day-Lewis, Julianne Moore and Joaquin Phoenix, composer Jonny Greenwood and DP Robert Elswit. My favourite collaboration of all was that of Anderson and the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Together they created 5 films and before Hoffman’s death, there was only one film he hadn’t starred in (There Will Be Blood). Anderson knows how to draw a cast member’s strength and intensify on that to create complex and captivating performances such as Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master.

With the announcement that Paul Thomas Anderson will be returning to 1970s California for a new high-school set film as his ninth feature, it makes perfect sense to look at this director’s incredible filmography. PTA is my favourite living filmmaker and I don’t think he has actually made a bad film so it’s important to note that the lower ranked films are not bad by any means. The films that do rank highly are among the best modern features in late 20th/21st century cinema and I recommend that you give all of these films a watch at some point.

Without further ado, let’s start with the chronological reviews for the films of Paul Thomas Anderson:

Hard Eight (1996)

Although it’s not the most iconic directorial feature debut around (insert Reservoir Dogs here), Hard Eight proved to showcase the start of a lengthy and successful career. Privileged with connections in the industry from the get go, Anderson recruited the likes of John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson for his first film. Following Philip Baker Hall as gambling addict, Sydney Brown who comes across a younger man, John Finnegan (Reilly) who has lost all his money gambling. Sydney is sympathetic and take John under his wing and the two begin a successful gambling duo. Compared to what would follow, the plot is simple with the focus being kept on a small number of characters that follow limited plotlines. It isn’t a film that is challenging if compared to Anderson’s other offerings in the future but it is still a profound film that explores themes such as vulnerability in masculinity, brotherhood and greed in capitalist America. The film also stars Philip Seymour Hoffman in a small role as a craps player which is always welcome, particularly in an Anderson film, and proved to be the start of a great collaborative process for the two in future projects. It would be easy to assume it’s low ranking on my list is because it’s a bad film but this is absolutely not the case. Hard Eight is a great film that shows off Anderson’s skill as a writer with a distinctive vision and the fact that his filmography only improves after this is a credit to that talent.

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Boogie Nights (1997)

If Hard Eight proved to showcase a promising career then Boogie Nights banged on the door before knocking it down. This film marked Anderson’s true arrival on the film scene. Following Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a high-school dropout who has a chance encounter with porn producer, Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) who propels him into the spotlight of adult film under the moniker, Dirk Diggler. The film brings drama, light comedy, acting legends, newcomers, movie magic and gritty realism which is interweaved into a large spiderweb that is just as complex as the mind. It is a colourful insight into the human condition and the lengths that a person will go in order to retain their legacy. The cast is as starry as the Hollywood lights with Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle and Philip Seymour Hoffman being the standouts for me (the number of standouts shows just how star-studded this film is!). Boogie Nights brought two of its cast, Reynolds and Moore Academy Award nominations and gave Anderson his first Best Original Screenplay nomination. It would be easy for a film about the porn industry to turn into a gratuitous portrayal from a male gaze but Anderson is mindful not to fall into this trap. The film is not made to be aspirational or shaming and provides a more factually based and neutral perspective. The wonderful thing about Anderson is that he doesn’t patronise his audience and encourages the audience to draw their own interpretations from the film. Indeed, by viewing Boogie Nights a simple flick on the porn industry would be to miss the underlayer that explores tragic themes such as the American Dream as a lie, female oppression, misogyny and racism.

Magnolia (1999)

Commonly remembered as Anderson’s epic, this 3 hour saga follows the seemingly isolated lives of various characters and their eventual biblical crossover. Magnolia builds on the legacy of Boogie Nights by incorporating more stars and more stories than its predecessor. Set in LA, we follow the day of a policeman who finds a body in a closet, a terminally ill gameshow producer and a child progeny who is set to compete on the gameshow who suffers from abusive parents. The cast features Anderson regulars such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore and John C. Reily but also brings a wider cast led by Tom Cruise who brings an energetic and charismatic performance as motivational speaker, Frank T.J Mackey and Jason Robards as the ailing gameshow producer, Earl Partridge. Magnolia tends to split critics and the audience due to its melodramatic feel and long running time but these aspects are justified and add to the uniqueness of the film. It’s a film that is seemingly ingrained in its own reality but this is turned on its head with the iconic scene in which frogs suddenly fall from the sky. The film takes its audience through the full spectrum of emotions. Anderson wants us to feel uncomfortable and confused at times. It is a film centred around human nature and the emotions within that.

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Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Whoever says that Adam Sandler has never turned in a great performance has never seen this gem of a film. Sandler plays Barry Egan, a depressed businessman who owns a company selling novelty items such as toilet plungers. He has seven sisters who constantly ridicule and abuse him, making fun of his shortcomings and inability to find a fulfilling relationship. He meets the elusive Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), who works with one of sisters and the two get on well with relationship between them soon blossoming. Soon enough, Barry finds himself engaged in a slew of unfortunate events when a sex-line operator extorts him and demands the collection of a large sum. He tracks down the manager of the sex-line and finds mattress store owner, Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman). His interaction with Dean is interesting because it is Barry’s vulnerability and sensitivity (which are often perceived as “feminine” traits) that actually intimidate Dean. What Anderson presents us with is a complex insight into masculinity and femininity and the societal expectations that are held for both. Barry and Lena are ostracised because they openly hold traits in both and reject the norm. Lena is a successful travelling businesswoman. The final act of the film that sees Barry agree to openly support her. The reversal of the gender norms isn’t done to show a sign of weakness in the relationship but Anderson concludes that their relationship is stronger because of their differences and unwillingness to fit in.

There Will Be Blood (2007)

The Big Kahuna. The game changer. The one that made Anderson a solidified mainstream beast of cinema. There Will Be Blood takes its inspiration from the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair and follows Daniel Plainview (played magnificently by Daniel Day-Lewis) and his climb to the top during the Southern California Oil Boom. The film is set in the late 19th century and is a seemingly traditional retelling of the American Dream but as with any PTA, not all is as it seems. Quickly Plainview’s ambition is replaced with cruelty, deception and manipulation particularly in the relationship deterioration with his son, H. W. Plainview (played by Dillon Freasier and Russell Harvard as child and adult H. W., respectively) and the mistreatment of local preacher/proclaimed prophet, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano who also plays Eli’s twin brother, Paul Sunday). Winning Day-Lewis a second Best Actor Oscar (my favourite Day-Lewis performance) and featuring a career smash for Dano, Anderson shows his control and maturity as a filmmaker with this one. Masterpiece is a term often thrown around meaninglessly but it is more than justified here. It’s a shame that it was up against the Coen Brothers’ offering, No Country for Old Men as it lost out on several deserved Oscars. Not to say No Country for Old Men shouldn’t have won but There Will Be Blood feels more impactful and tighter than the former.

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The Master (2012)

My love for this film is something I have spoken about in depth on my website. You can read my review here and a short piece I wrote on ownership and identity in the film here so I won’t dwell too much on this review. There is a strong argument for this film being crowned the best of the 21st century so far with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s transformative performance as cult leader, Lancaster Dodd would easily be my pick for best performance of the 21st century so far. The basic premise of the film follows alcoholic, sex-addicted ex-marine, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who stumbles onto a boat ran by The Cause, a group of people using the theories of one’s past and past forms to bring wider realisation and findings into the present. Hoffman plays Dodd, known as The Master while Amy Adams steps in as his ruthless wife, Peggy. This film was grossly underrated and did not receive the release it deserved and thus only stood out for its cast at awards season. What is remarkable about this film is the perfection of every aspect and the detail Anderson brings to each frame. The score by Jonny Greenwood is again revolutionary and follows on the amazing track record that the previous There Will Be Blood brought. Anderson’s script and direction can only be described as aspirational and inspirational, showcasing the best of modern auteur cinema.

Inherent Vice (2014)

Based on the California hippie hallucination of the early 1970s by postmodern writer, Thomas Pynchon, Anderson sets himself a difficult challenge as the first (and to date only) person to adapt a Pynchon novel for the screen. Remarkably enough, he even received Pynchon’s support and blessing for the production making his approval an even more validating experience from one master to another. As a fan of Pynchon and the novel in particular, I understand why this one was picked to adapt out of all of them. Pynchon is not a writer for the light-hearted. Even after the unique use of syntax and whirlpool of characters, he introduces drug-fuelled ideas that only make relative sense once you allow yourself to be fully immersed in the text. Inherent Vice is the most straightforward text as far as plot and setting goes as the focus on a singular character, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) makes the film more accessible than say Gravity’s Rainbow which has hundreds of named characters. This film had the lowest critical reception of PTA’s filmography but I think that that comes from an unfamiliarity to the source material. Anderson does Pynchon justice and although I doubt that there will be many more Pynchon adaptations to come, Anderson rose to the task and delivered. Phoenix delivers another knockout performance as the aloof Sportello, a drugged out cop trying to find his missing ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). It’s a great film, a great script and highly underrated. This is not a film to underestimate.

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Phantom Thread (2017)

The hype for this film was electric with much of the buzz revolving around Phantom Thread being the swansong for method acting master, Daniel Day-Lewis (top 5 performances can be read here). Here, he takes the role of Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned classically trained fashion designer who finds himself lost for inspiration. He soon finds it in his muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps) who almost becomes a lifeforce for Woodcock as his creativity is sparked. On the surface, the film explores the flight and fancy of high society in 1950s London but beneath lies a darker world of manipulation, the unwavering quest for perfection and the consequences this has. The film is a love story but underneath the romance lies something much darker. Reynolds is controlled by his watchful sister, Mabel (Lesley Manville) who openly dislikes Alma who controls Reynolds by poisoning his tea with wild mushrooms. It’s an endless cycle of creativity and struggle to maintain that inspiration. Reynolds survives and thrives on that perfect idea but when it fails or runs out, it physically and mentally takes its toll. Alma is an interesting character because the world she comes from clashes drastically with Reynolds. Having worked as a waitress previously, she is thrust into the spotlight and into the eye of high society. She fits the role physically with ease but the emotional impact the societal expectations and, more important, Reynolds expectations have on her makes for some intense encounters. Manville also lights up the screen as Mabel and her character is blunt and brash but her job is to keep the standards high. She is the constant as Reynolds wavers from high to low and high again. Mabel’s presence is not only exciting but necessary to the friction between the characters as her treatment is consistent and her unapologetic way in demanding respect from Reynolds in particular is exciting as we rarely see a woman so equally challenging and empowering.

So that’s all of the reviews done and dusted. Writing about them opened my eyes even more to the genius of PTA. I don’t think any director has shown this much range and skill since Kubrick. Anderson’s characters are always deeply thought out even if this doesn’t come across initially. He doesn’t create characters to be liked or disliked, he presents the audience with a neutral point of view. It is simply this neutrality that makes him stand out. Each audience member takes what they want from each of his films regardless of how simple or complex that interpretation may be.

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Here’s my final ranking for the filmography of Paul Thomas Anderson:

1) The Master (2012)

2) There Will Be Blood (2007)

3) Boogie Nights (1997)

4) Phantom Thread (2017)

5) Magnolia (1999)

6) Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

7) Inherent Vice (2014)

8) Hard Eight (1996)

So that’s it for this post! Which PTA film is your favourite film? Let me know in the comments below!

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