Taking a look at the films of Paul Thomas Anderson and ranking them on what makes them so memorable.
Written by Blake Hall
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the greatest filmmakers working today. He has fresh and ambitious ways of directing epic stories within different periods of the 20th century. His films always seem to strike the perfect balance of entertainment and artistry. He directs and writes stories that generally involve lost souls seeking fulfillment in life. Much like Quentin Tarantino, he is a self taught filmmaker. However, PTA makes completely different films. His primary influences range from Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman and Jonathan Demme. Here are his eight feature length films ranked from least favorite to favorite:
(Note: This is the most difficult list I’ve done to date. Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite filmmaker and, although I’m confident in my #1 and #8 ranking, just about everything else honestly could’ve been #2. I love these films dearly.)
8. Hard Eight (1996)
This is PTA’s debut film, and it certainly shows. Not to say this in a bad way, as it is still very good. It just sticks out like a sore thumb amongst his strong filmography as his least memorable effort. It doesn’t have the same kind of epic scope and personalized passion behind it.
Having said that, the fact this is anyone’s debut film is impressive in its own right. One can sense that PTA has already developed a phenomenal eye for bringing the best out of his actors. It simply lacks the intrigue, depth and scope of the rest of his films. More than anything, I see this as a blueprint of what’s to come.
7. Phantom Thread (2017)
Every single moment of this film is overwhelmingly enchanting. Please do not be fooled by the fact I have this ranked as my second least favorite PTA film. Every film from here on out is amongst my all time favorite films. I really had to nitpick to get this list made. Although it isn’t any less passionately made than his other films, maybe it just has a little less of that PTA spark than usual. I wonder if this is down to being his first non-American film.
Anyhow, Daniel Day Lewis is endlessly fascinating as Reynolds Woodcock, an empty shell of a man who cannot handle the slightest bit of interruption in his artistic routine. Having a romance in his life completely disrupts his carefully planned lifestyle and slowly breaks him down. The film is an endlessly fascinating study on the nature of romance. It’s also a study on what it is to be an artist. Is Woodcock a natural creative genius or someone who just puts in an endless amount of hard work?
Enough cannot be said about how brilliant Jonny Greenwood’s score is. It’s simply stunning and creates a unique world within this film. It’s possibly his greatest score he’s accomplished with PTA, which is really saying something. This is the least flashy PTA film to date, echoing the sweeping nature of a classic film straight out of the 1950’s while retaining the rich qualities of modern filmmaking at its best.
6. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
PTA is a man who knows how to bring the best out of his actors. He directs stunning performances out of actors such as Daniel Day Lewis, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Dano and…Adam Sandler??? Yep, that’s right. PTA brings a masterclass performance out of one of the ultimate comedic goofballs.
For this, PTA steps away from the large ensemble cast of Boogie Nights and Magnolia and makes a unique romantic comedy/drama. This throws Adam Sandler’s man child persona into the real world. What’s offered in Barry Egan, Sandler’s character, is a lonely, insecure and angry, yet ultimately good guy. It’s a story of a man who finds confidence within a romantic relationship.
It’s a powerful mood piece that evokes a visceral sense of anxiety. It’s uncomfortable because it feels so real. Yet, within that frantic anxiety is a story so sweet and full of heart that it’s impossible to not be swept away.
5. Boogie Nights (1997)
Being a near three hour comedy/drama about the life of porn stars, it sounds like it would be terrible on paper. However, PTA makes this one of the most masterfully made rise and fall stories of all time. The setting is colorful and flashy and the soundtrack is endlessly groovy.
It jumps around between an endless amount of entertaining characters. PTA doesn’t judge these outcasts but presents them as three dimensional and human. It’s a downward spiral tale heavily reminiscent of a Martin Scorsese biopic (specifically GoodFellas). It’s the start of PTA’s endless love of exploring lost souls seeking acceptance and fulfillment.
From a directorial standpoint, it has so many stunning moments. Look out for the pool scene. Or the party scene. Hell, don’t forget the drug deal scene either. There are way too many great moments. These characters are so much fun to hang out with.
4. Magnolia (1999)
PTA takes the formula of a Robert Altman ensemble film to express extreme, unreserved emotion. It is a stunningly intimate epic and is possibly PTA’s most ambitious effort to date. One can sense that 29 year old PTA was striving to make one of the greatest films of all time.
This film has so many characters to take in but it organically balances out the numerous story lines so it isn’t difficult to follow. Within these stories is a study of broken people who cannot escape their past trauma. It’s three hours in length but so engaging and sweeping that it feels like two. It’s an unbelievably stirring film that’s shamelessly uplifting, heartfelt and passionate.
It’s a shame that PTA doesn’t think as fondly of it nowadays because it’s an absolutely stunning work. Although his 21st century films are more restrained, there is a special charm to how flashy, ambitious and passionate it is. I love every moment of it.
3. Inherent Vice (2014)
Now here is a film that needed time to grow on me. I’ll never forget how confused and let down I felt upon initial viewing. As always, PTA doesn’t always give you want you initially want. It’s one of the strangest and most enigmatic films of the decade.
Many people seemed to react in a similar manner. It’s mostly disliked for its plot, which is near impossible to follow (I honestly still couldn’t tell you exactly what happens) but this one is all about the experience. Its overwhelming plot is part of its style. It’s an exploration on memory loss based on smoking way too much pot. What I find so addictive about this film is its vibe and endless amounts of wacky characters. It’s got that laid back hippie Los Angeles vibe, while also being complex and off kilter. It has an incredible soul, examining lost people struggling to cope with changing times.
There are an endless amount of great characters, a strong hazed atmosphere, a groovy soundtrack and stunning colorful direction. It’s a psychedelic noir cult classic unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Huge plus that I happen to be a fan of this particular era in history.
2. The Master (2012)
This is a film that really taps into something profound. PTA takes his love for lost characters seeking acceptance and delivers his most complex, multi-layered take on it to date.
It’s primarily referred to as the “Scientology movie” but it’s really so much more than that. The cult aspect is merely a backdrop for the true soul of the film. Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quells is a WWII veteran who is free to do anything, yet is an aimlessly broken person. He yearns to feel accepted. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd is the leader of the cult and sees something in Freddie. He is bogged down with so many labels and ambitions, yet desires to be free like Freddie. It’s ultimately a study of how everyone needs someone or something to look up to.
Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are absolutely unreal here. They both give one of the greatest performances of all time. It’s a film that’s simultaneously intense and soothing. It’s a modern masterwork that communicates with one in a subconscious manner.
1. There Will Be Blood (2007)
This is simply a cinematic marvel. It’s one of the most satisfying, interesting and plain stunning works of all time and is the moment where PTA fully hit cinematic mastery.
It’s an intense observation on human nature, playing as a parable on capitalism as well as religion. It’s a study of con men and how they manipulate others for personal gain. Daniel Plainview is such a fascinating character because he’s so multi complex. He’s ultimately angry, greedy and nihilistic. He’s a man who’s so ambitious that it’s psychotic. He will do absolutely anything to be on top. Yet he is an empty shell inside. The meat of the film is within the conflict between Plainview and pastor Eli Sunday (played by Paul Dano). Both of these characters are able to read through each others con, resulting in a battle of one upping each other. Hence, there will be blood.
This is a masterwork for the ages that I feel is the greatest cinematic achievement of the 21st century thus far. Daniel Day Lewis gives what is quite possibly my all time favorite cinematic performance. This is ultimately the film PTA will be most well known for. From the performances, atmosphere, haunting Jonny Greenwood soundtrack, screenplay and subtle black humor, it’s everything you could ask for in a cinematic experience.
Have a different ranking of Paul Thomas Anderson films? Let us know in the comments!