Ranking the Films of Paul Thomas Anderson

It’s no secret that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most celebrated film directors of the past 25 years. After having spent the better part of 2020 researching and writing about Anderson for my Honours thesis, I’ve come to appreciate the intricacies, nuances and overlooked aspects of his oeuvre (like his fascination with damaged male characters and their function in his films). With the director returning to roots in his latest 1970s, San Fernando Valley set Licorice Pizza (2021), it seemed fitting for me to rank Anderson’s work before the film hits Australian cinemas this month (I will update this list after watching the film). This list is very much a subjective one, but it it is a sum of my time spent with his films and the various journal articles, interviews, and reviews that I have read when writing my thesis. Therefore, I hope that any controversial rankings are taken with a grain of salt as, for what it’s worth, Anderson is one of my favourite film directors so I very much adore all of his films in their own way.

8. Hard Eight (1996)

John C. Reilly & Phillip Baker Hall in Hard Eight

While the first film of a director’s oeuvre often sits on the lower end of a ranking list due the belief that directors just become better as they make more films, Hard Eight (1996) is deservedly in the number eight spot.

Originally titled Sydney, Anderson experienced plenty of headaches with then production company Rysher Entertainment, as he battled for creative control and control over the final cut. The film was ultimately re-titled to Hard Eight due to the name better suiting the sort of promotion that Rysher were looking for, but Anderson managed to send his final cut to Sundance which was a longer version than the one Rysher had cut, and the one that Sundance would showcase.

Most directors today would be more than happy to claim Hard Eight as their magnum opus should they have made it, but Anderson isn’t most directors. The simple fact is that Anderson’s later films are both more stylistically pronounced as they begin to reveal who Anderson truly is as an auteur (his stylistic signature, technical competence, and interior meaning by Andrew Sarris’ measure), they dig deeper into his thematic concerns, and they present much more complex characters that are some of the most difficult to grapple with in recent times.

Hard Eight represents a taste of what Anderson would serve up in larger doses in his films thereafter. The best example of this is the themes that penetrate the directors work like the absence of the mother figure, dysfunctional families and even isolation as explored through largely distant and impregnable characters — all of his films following Hard Eight went deeper with those concerns.

Hard Eight also marks the start of what would be frequent collaborations with Phillip Baker Hall (who Anderson was a fan of and cast in the short film that would inspire Hard Eight, Cigarettes & Coffee), John C. Reilly, and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

The film also introduces audiences to the cinematic tools that Anderson continues to use today. For instance, there is a particular tracking shot and long take in a casino that tracks Phillip Baker Hall’s character as he moves through the casino and eventually lands at a gambling table. This is the first instance where Anderson applies the use of formal tools pertinent to indie cinema, in his filmography. This moment is significant as it marks the ever-present relationship between indie and more classical cinema (like narrative storytelling) conventions in Anderson’s work.

7. Inherent Vice (2014)

Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice (2014) is one of those films that I needed multiple viewings to wrap my head around which isn’t new when it comes to an Anderson film — they’re made to keep you coming back.

Anderson adapted Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, a figure who has evaded the public eye for so long you’d think he’d write a how-to book on the subject. What Anderson conjured up was a neo-noir unlike any from recent time. The film marks one of the directors most dialogue heavy films and easily his most hilarious script which is peppered with so much twists and turns that you’d be forgiven for not seeing the full picture the first time around.

In response to the lengthy dialogue scenes in Inherent Vice, Anderson said, “Look, cuts are great, and they’re exclusive to movies, but when you have a lot of dialogue with ping-ponging back and forth, staying out of the way is always preferable” (Hemphill, J. 2014).

Staying out of the way is what Anderson ultimately does as he lets the stellar ensemble comprised of Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Josh Brolin, Martin Short, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro and countless others, run the show.

The film is also Anderson’s second to be set in the 70s as it places a thriving Joaquin Phoenix in the mind of a hippy detective in what can only be described as perfect casting. With his mutton chops, sandals, long hair, notepad and blunt, the character of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is what Christopher Llyod’s Doc from Back to the Future would look like had he gone the route of peace, weed and inquisitiveness.

Placing this film in seventh position is a disservice to just how giving this film is upon multiple viewings. There’s always something new to decipher and there are plenty of moments that beg for your close attention and maybe even the pause button (like the recreation of the last supper but with hippies). My rating for this film gradually climbed to five stars and this placement is purely based on how I rated the films higher up in this list the same way after the first viewing. So, if that isn’t a sign of my feelings for just how near flawless Anderson’s filmography is, I don’t know what is.

6. Phantom Thread (2017)

Daniel Day-Lewis & Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread

I’ll never forget the first time I saw this in a cinema comprised of a significantly older demographic; one gentleman in his 80s turned and said to me, “you’re here to watch a real movie” and boy was his right.

Phantom Thread (2017) is an interesting film for multiple reasons. For starters, it’s the last film Daniel Day-Lewis would perform in but it is also the first film Anderson would set outside of the US social milieu that has informed and even shaped the the stories and characters he has brought to life.

Anderson takes the thematic concerns that have become a staple of his work (absence of mother figures) and tailors them to a British setting, ultimately providing a nuanced account of a dressmaker, his muse, and the tense and strange push-pull condition of their relationship (with one of my favourite closing sequences in recent times).

The story came about through a moment where Anderson found himself sick and helpless, with his wife Maya Rudolph, tending to him; that was the seed of the story but it had to grow.

The film also marks a shift from what is often a personal endeavour for Anderson as he writes his scripts on his own, to something more involving with Daniel Day-Lewis. With Phantom Thread, “his [Anderson’s] star practically co-wrote their second film together, refining the script and even choosing the protagonist’s hilarious, yet dignified name, Reynolds Woodcock.” (Solem-Pfeifer, 2018). Anderson had worked in a similar way (co-authorship) with “Phil [Seymour Hoffman] on The Master”, however on Phantom Thread, “I had less than I had ever had before when coming to Daniel, which I found to be a really good way of working, actually. We had the seed of the story and the character, but it had to grow.” (quoted in Bell, 2018, Pg. 22)

The result is one of Anderson’s most mature features as he explores this complex and impenetrable relationship of which its conditions are too formidable to access (with the latter having first stemmed from The Master); he takes on the role of cinematographer for the first time in his career (with frequent collaborator Robert Elswit not being involved); and writes one of his most hilarious scripts to date (behind Inherent Vice).

To top all of this off, Vicky Krieps’ performance as Alma matches Day-Lewis’ portrayal as the set-in-his-ways Reynolds Woodcock. Krieps matches Day-Lewis through her own ability to capture Alma’s headstrong nature, and the result is two performers working at the top of their game.

5. The Master (2012)

Phillip Seymour Hoffman & Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

If the central relationship between Reynolds and Alma is one that is difficult to penetrate, The Master (2012) does a stellar job at rendering the viewer completely expendable when it comes to Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd’s (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) relationship.

With The Master, Anderson delves deeper into ideas pertaining to human unknowability and surrogacy by using Quell and Dodd to play around with form — ultimately creating a greater disconnectedness between the audience and the narrative.

As George Toles writes, The Master (along with Anderson’s two films before it) represents a “departure from traditional, readable narrative structure” which “seems to be a necessary corollary for Anderson’s deepening fascination with human unknowability” (Toles, 2016, Pg. 4). In this way, The Master is a film that is difficult to grapple with due to just how far it deviates from a traditional narrative structure to the point where Freddie Quell can’t be relied upon to help guide your understanding of the narrative or to build an emotional connection with — he’s as far from a protagonist as you can get.

The Master is therefore more akin to Magnolia (1999) in terms of wandering focus as Anderson anchors us to Freddie who himself isn’t anchored to anything — he’s detached from the world around him.

Anderson uses Freddie to reinforce the subversive form of the film whereby the character himself begins to represent formlessness at a structural level while Lancaster Dodd begins to represent form. When the two characters clash and reconcile at various moments throughout the film, Anderson is taking formlessness and form and throwing them at each other, ultimately experimenting in his own way with the two (like with the informal processing sequence). In a way, Lancaster believes that he can tame the formlessness of Freddie and this is where Anderson’s other, more recognisable theme of surrogacy intersects with the theme of human unknowability — Lancaster assumes a surrogate role.

By the closing sequence of the film, Lancaster relinquishes his attempts to tame and nurture Freddie and chooses instead to release him — to release formlessness back into the world.

What is fascinating is how multiple different story and technical elements are in a constant tension in The Master — both in isolated instances, and altogether. Whether that be formlessness and form (structure), human unknowability and surrogacy (themes), Freddie and Lancaster (character) or each of the elements (structure, theme and character) between each other — Anderson creates an experience that is unlike any he has before or since.

Ultimately, The Master either landed for audiences or it didn’t due to its impregnable nature, the ambiguity it revels in, and its unrelatable anti-hero Freddie Quell. When considered in relation to the four films above it on this list, it could just as easily be in one of those positions, however it retains a solid position as number five.

4. Magnolia (1999)

Tom Cruise & Jason Robards in Magnolia

Magnolia (1999) is easily Anderson’s most ambitious film. The film is comprised of multiple storylines that connect the characters to each other even if they can’t see that they are connected to the other characters in their suffering.

Both Magnolia and Boogie Nights (1997) are the closest Altmanesque films we have from Anderson as they are very much ensemble pictures that offer the actors a degree of freedom that isn’t felt in the same way in Anderson’s other films. Unlike with Altman’s films like Nashville (1975) and Mash (1970), Anderson still retains a level of control that, while offering his ensembles more freedom (very much an Altman staple), allows him be more stringent when it comes to dialogue being delivered as written or characters serving clear narrative and thematic functions.

In this way, Magnolia is very much about a collective that experience a shared misery, but what separates it from Anderson’s other films is that this film prioritises character ahead of narrative. Essentially, audiences view one single diegetic day in the lives of these characters and the film is banking on the audience buying into “the passionate, melodramatic circumstances of characters living out another day in their lives,” (Sperb, 2013, Pg. 137).

This film explores the plights of these characters and, in a very Andersonian fashion, redeems and punishes certain characters by the closing sequence — which plays on the biblical ideas underpinning the film. The closing sequence is one of Anderson’s most poignant and philosophical as the raining frogs almost serve to allow Anderson to reach in beyond the diegetic world and inject it with this element of fantasy that alerts all the characters to a presence that makes all of their problems disappear, if but for a moment — leading some to certain realizations while punishing others for their wrongdoings.

Magnolia is an experience unlike any other with an incredible cast (Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Phillip Baker Hall, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and countless others), multiple storylines that are handled so well, and even an item number where the characters are unified through a spontaneous rendition of Aimee Mann’s ‘Wise Up’.

There’s nothing quite like Magnolia, and as with any other Anderson film, depending on the emotions you carry with you into one of his films, Magnolia could just as easily be number one on someone’s Anderson ranking list.

3. Boogie Nights (1997)

Part of the ensemble from Boogie Nights

The film that introduced me to Paul Thomas Anderson, Boogie Nights (1997) is an alluring, inviting, and intoxicating feature that draws you in the longer it plays. It would be superfluous to mention every aspect that made Boogie Nights as incredible as it is, after all this is a ranking list rather than a review, but here are some.

Set in the late 70s and early 80s Reseda, Boogie Nights paints a perplexing picture of the porn industry and almost dignifies it in a way as the ensemble of characters here find solace in their interconnectedness within the industry.

That approach sits in stark contrast to Magnolia’s characters who are connected without ever having met each other (for the most part, while some do cross paths), whereas in Boogie Nights the Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) household becomes more than just a ticket to an unconventional success story.

Keeping in mind that Anderson was 26 at the time, Boogie Nights is one of those films that a director like Quentin Tarantino wishes he had made but never did. Anderson makes you care for each of these characters while still exploring the business side of the porn industry (the need to adapt as video becomes more attractive and affordable than film) and weaving in concerns pertaining to surrogate families, family issues, and exotic danger.

Boogie Nights has plenty of incredible sequences (the ‘Jessie’s Girl’ sequence with Alfred Molina, Jack Horner’s new years party etc.), a mix of experienced and (then) young talents that all give it their all, and all the while managing to weave in its multiple storylines and provide a holistic viewing experience that continues to outdo itself.

Anderson clearly drew upon the work of Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman while forging his own place in cinema discourse, ultimately putting himself on the radar as one of the most exciting directors to emerge in recent times.

The result is one of the most celebrated films of the 90s and one of those films that lends itself to multiple viewings. Boogie Nights could just as easily be Anderson’s number one film.

2. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Emily Watson & Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love

My placement of Punch-Drunk Love (2002) in second position might be viewed as the most controversial ranking on this list.

To put it in Anderson’s own words, Punch-Drunk Love is “an art-house Adam Sandler movie” (quoted in Brooks, 2003) but it is also a film that goes against conventional rom-coms and their structure. Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) pushes everyone away (and with due cause) and even his eventual love interest Lena (Emily Watson) refuses to allow the audience any access into the connection she builds with Barry.

Barry expresses himself in such odd ways yet it’s the only way he knows how. For instance, he tells Lena that he desires to smash her face with a sledgehammer during an intimate scene and he even uses physical violence against those who unintentionally hurt Lena while trying to get to him, both for the sake of protection but also to express himself to her through these acts of violence.

What’s peculiar is that Lena reciprocates these emotions to Barry by, for instance, also playfully expressing that she wants to “scoop out” his “eyes” and “eat them”. Yes, these are all playful albeit odd expressions, but usually in rom-coms, if a character is ridden with defects, the ‘other’ in the relationship is the explanatory character who is there to explain their attraction to a character like Barry, but this is not the case with Lena. George Toles (author of the 2016 scholarly book on Paul Thomas Anderson) reaffirms this by writing that for a “normative” character like Lena, the “attraction or gradual succumbing to the problem figure’s initially well-masked allure” is usually met with an “ample explanatory framework” (2016, Pg. 45).

Punch-Drunk Love is just unlike any romantic comedy out there due to the way its characters interact and due to the use of unconventional (long take, jump cuts, tracking shots, dreamlike blue filters that overlay scenes) formal tools. But more than that, Punch-Drunk Love is filled with striking moments of cathexis and their eventual release (Barry destroying his sisters glass window/door after enduring ridicule, the confessions of love between Lena and Barry, the flipping car). All of these qualities allow Anderson to really assert himself and to forge his own identity that go on to contribute to his auteur status (a term so misused these days, it’s baffling).

With Adam Sandler playing the role of Barry in such a Sandler-like fashion (the boyish charm matched with the sudden outbursts that render him socially inept), he ends up cashing in his best performance. To top this off, Sandler’s knack for playing largely comical and flimsy characters is essentially perfect casting here (or a ‘perfect fit’ by Richard Dyer’s measure) as it sits in line with the unexpectedness Anderson is striving for.

From the methodical patience it creates to the unexpectedness of intense moments that follow — Punch-Drunk Love is unquestionably Anderson’s own. As Anderson told The Sunday Times in 2003, Punch-Drunk Love is “referenceless. When you start out, you latch onto other styles, to help you get across what you’re trying to say. But this one is mine somehow— and I’m proud of that.” (Sperb, 2013, Pg. 152). But more than that, it is a rom-com unlike any other and one that sees Adam Sandler at the top of his game after some hits, misses, but overall enjoyable films prior to this one.

If There Will be Blood (2007) didn’t exist, Punch-Drunk Love would be a shoehorn for Anderson’s most Andersonian film and his best.

1. There Will be Blood (2007)

Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood

Anderson’s magnum opus, the quintessential 21st century film, a classic before the fact — There Will be Blood (2007) is an achievement that feels as momentous and unreal today as it did 14 years ago.

I’ve mentioned that anything I write about these films is superfluous as there are countless reviews and analyses of Anderson’s films (including my own), but There Will be Blood was an event that really cemented Anderson in the pantheon of cinemas greatest directors.

With an Oscar winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as the ruthless prospector-turned-oilman Daniel Plainview (one of the greatest performances of all time), a rousing score by the legendary Johnny Greenwood, exquisite cinematography by Robert Elswit, and a perfect screenplay and direction by Anderson, There Will be Blood is what happens when all of the ingredients mesh into something complete.

Anderson created the ultimate period piece with so many iconic moments (the opening sequence in the oil-well, the legendary explosion of the oil-rig, the bowling alley skull bashing) and such an incredible script (adapted from Upton Sinclair’s ‘Oil!’). The film eschews a traditional, readable narrative structure so as to allow Anderson to entertain his now heightened interest in human unknowability. I mean, what better way to explore that thematic concern than by literally putting forward a greedy, power-hungry character who shuns everyone (even after he begins to trust them like Henry) and goes against the very will of god and plays god in his own life and the oil industry — as exacerbated by the films religious undertones.

What is most profound about Daniel Plainview is how Anderson is able to make him one of the most loathsome anti-heroes of all time, yet one that you can’t help but sympathise with. It’s a testament to just how incredible a performer Day-Lewis is that he is able to practically keep other characters and the audience out of his life, but you still feel like there is justness to his cause.

The supporting cast is also quite good (especially Paul Dano), but Day-Lewis outshines everyone and really captures the idiosyncrasies of Anderson’s characters. In turn, Day-Lewis transmutes everything you know about what an Anderson character looks, feels, and acts like, into something greater. Due to the performance and all of aspects of production, There Will be Blood ends up hitting a different level of ecstasy that is both frightening, and rewarding.

Everyone is at the top of their game in There Will be Blood and each scene plays out like a carefully crafted artwork. Had No Country for Old Men (2007) not been released in the same year (with both films having a relatively similar tone and setting), the 2008 Oscars would have been swept by Anderson’s once in a lifetime masterpiece. Even to this day, I vehemently believe that There Will be Blood deserved so much more than what it got even with the Coen Brothers having decided to make their own masterpiece in the same year. There are films and then there are films, and Anderson’s There Will be Blood is a lot of film to be had.

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