Every Paul Thomas Anderson Movie Ranked
A writer-director who would rather point his finger and give you a reality check than take you to the dreamy world of cinema, Paul Thomas Anderson is heavily praised in all areas of filmmaking; be that writing stories or screenplays, directing a film or working with the camera.
All Paul Thomas Anderson films are about soul searching and taking control of our unsettling life. They are exceptionally unique, and when you are familiar with his style of filmmaking, you can easily tell his films apart because of the realistic plot in an abstruse storyline, background scores that perfectly integrate with the visuals, and effective long shots.
P. T. Anderson is often seen to be involved in short films, video shorts, and documentaries alongside motion pictures. He worked on 36 short videos and short films and one documentary named “Junun” with the musician Johnny Greenwood. He has also directed 8 feature-length motion pictures. Here are all of those 8 movies, ranked.
8. Inherent Vice (2014)
Out of all the movies directed by PT Anderson, this is the only one he did not write himself. It was based on Thomas Pynchon’s dark comedy mystery novel “Inherent Vice” (2009). PT Anderson and Robert Elswit chose the hazed and faded color palette for the film and Jonny Greenwood made the puzzling background score. Thus, making the novel on the screen even more confusing and complex than it is in the text.
A hippie junkie Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a private investigator and gets into more trouble than he anticipates. Doc’s journey to crack the case of Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston) leaves the audience baffled as they cannot differentiate Doc’s actual investigation from his delusion. The plot has sub plots and many sub-sub plots . Inherent Vice uses The Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle of the protagonist Doc throughout the film.
After losing a loved one, he is seen to be in denial and slowly getting frustrated in rage. Then helplessly falling in depression, he starts bargaining and lastly accepts the situation and moves on. Though hard to grasp, it is not a bad film, especially for the ones who love working their brains. Inherent Vice, not at all a terrible movie, is ranked last simply because there are better films made by Paul Thomas Anderson.
7. Hard Eight (1996)
With this crime-noir, PT Anderson made his feature- film debut. With a very simple storyline, it is a character interest film focusing on Sydney (played by Philip Baker Hall), a gangster. This film also stars John C. Reilly as John, Gwyneth Paltrow as Clementine and Samuel L. Jackson as Jimmy. Philip Seymour Hoffman had a very small role in this film but proved himself with his outstanding performance and later continued working with Paul Thomas Anderson in four more films.
The two lead characters- Sydney and John- were written being inspired by the actors in real life. Being heavily impacted by old gangster films, PTA made a gangster his character interest in his first film, with an unconventional twist and by not ending the film on a generic note. It is a crime film, yes, but the humane side of Sydney cannot be overlooked as Hard Eight shows a story of friendship. This film reflects the guilt and penitence of a cool-headed, cold-blooded murderer.
Hard Eight was not a big-budget film yet PTA knew he would have to use a great cast because the film is mainly about the characters. Even though it was shot before Pulp Fiction, it was released after Pulp Fiction, and having the formidably impressive Samuel L. Jackson as a supporting actor, Hard Eight got more hype from the mass people and media than expected. It is not a must-watch, not a huge success but it gave the director the recognition he deserves. Hard Eight surely was a risk worth taking for the 26-year-old director.
6. Boogie Nights (1997)
In 1988, PT Anderson made a short mockumentary named “The Dirk Diggler Story” based on the adult film sensation of the ’80s- John Holmes. Nine years later in 1997, PTA released his second movie “Boogie Nights” with Mark Wahlberg in the lead as Dirk Diggler who is modeled after John Holmes as well. This film is where the filmmaker implemented the insights of his previously made short film.
Before getting named Dirk Diggler, he was called Eddie Adams, a busboy from a broken family. He abandons his family and comes across Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). The character of Jack Horner was inspired by Gerard Damiano, a renowned adult film director. After finding Eddie, Jack names him Dirk Diggler and casts him in his pornographic films. Jack’s wife, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) is a wonderful mother figure to Dirk, Rollergirl (Heather Graham) and Reed (played by John C. Reilly).
All these broken people find each other and create a surrogate family. Even though they are scandalous on screen, their real life is nothing like as shown. They know how to feel, care, and love. The film uses references from multiple places- recreating random scenes from adult films of John Holmes, taking TK-421 Stormtrooper from Star Wars and linking its characteristics to Buck’s (played by Don Cheadle), and surprisingly using his film “Hard Eight” and mentioning it to Floyd (played by Philip Baker Hall)! Boogie Nights is surely not a pornographic film, it is a film about the pornography industry. It efficiently shows the emotions, the connection of people behind the screens of an infamous industry.
5. The Master (2012)
The Master is the 5th feature-length film both written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson with an all-star cast of Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Rami Malek. It was the last performance of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman who portrays Lancaster Dodd, cult leader of a Scientology-esque movement. The character is clearly inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.
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Freddie Quell is a traumatized WWII Navy veteran, now a sexually frustrated alcoholic (portrayed by none other than Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with an underage girl and is told to wait. Pledging loyalty to her, Freddie fails to establish a romantic relationship with anyone. Being lonely and helpless, he wants someone to tell him what to do, how to lead his life, and then comes across Lancaster Dodd’s cult on a ship sailing through the Panama Canal. He joins the movement and thinks of Lancaster Dodd as the surrogate. He follows every order, every command of his master. Later, Lancaster Dodd’s wife (played by Amy Adams) takes measures to stop this unhealthy dominant-submissive relationship between her husband and his follower.
This critically acclaimed film has amazing actors and actresses but the communicated message of the film seems vague. As Roger Ebert puts it “The Master is fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air. It has rich material and isn’t clear what it thinks about it.” Nevertheless, The Master is a unique experience and an interesting watch, especially for psychological drama lovers.
4. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Punch-Drunk Love is written and directed by PT Anderson and it is his only rom-com. Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) and Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), this romantic comedy is one of its kind. Barry, a disturbed repressed middle-aged man, gets frustrated with life and calls a phone-sex line owned by a nefarious salesman.
While his life personal life is a mess, his entrepreneurial business is a failure and his seven sisters constantly bring up his anger issues, he falls head over heels for an English woman named Lena. But the consequences of his past events do not end in vain, putting his relationship with Lena in a question.
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The background score makes the ambiance of the film too unsettling for a love story but it somehow fits perfectly. Adam Sandler’s portrayal as Barry is probably the performance of his career.
3. Phantom Thread (2017)
Daniel Day-Lewis announced to end his acting career with Phantom Thread in 2017. This is the second movie where he and Paul Thomas Anderson worked together. It is the only feature-length movie where P. T. Anderson not only worked as a writer-director but also worked as a cinematographer. He proved how great he can be as a director of photography as well.
Set in 1954 London, Phantom Thread is a historical drama based on the renowned fashion designer Charles James, who is named Reynolds Woodcock (named and played by Daniel Day-Lewis) in the film. The designer is highly achieved when it comes to his job but his personal life is not content. He is notorious in the circle of his high society for having a controlling and rigid personality. Getting mesmerized by the charm of a waitress’ named Alma (played by Vicky Krieps), Reynolds makes her his muse, and gradually, they fall in love. The rigorous lifestyle of the perfectionist designer soon takes a different turn, bringing misery to both of their lives.
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It is no surprise that Mark Bridges won the Oscar in Costume Design for this film. The costumes are as elegant and graceful as the vibe created by the background score (again composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood) throughout the film. The performances of the cast on screen as well as the work behind the camera is mesmerizing. The film is beautifully crafted and adds a new dimension in the portrayal of romance.
2. Magnolia (1999)
With more than half a dozen of lead characters: Donnie (played by William H. Macy), Frank (played by Tom Cruise), Claudia (played by Melora Walters), Jimmy Gator (played by Philip Baker Hall), Linda (played by Julianne Moore), Jim (played by John C. Reilly), Stanley (played by Jeremy Blackman), and last but not the least, Phil (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), “Magnolia” is an ensemble movie that shows different lives of mostly unrelated people who have nothing but one thing in common, traumatic pasts.
Screenplay masterfully written directly for the screen and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Magnolia is a movie about reconciliation with the past, especially with the trauma affected by the child-parent relationship of the protagonists. Claudia, disturbed and abused by her father at a young age; Jimmy Gator, a TV show host and Claudia’s father who cannot forgive himself for the horrible things he did; Phil, troubled nurse catering to Jimmy Gator; Frank, abandoned by his father who let his mother die, and Donnie, a child TV star exploited for money by his parents. The film focuses on how we all made of our past, and heavily states it with the line, “And the book says we may be through with the past but the past is not through with us.”
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Ending with a shockingly arbitrary “frog rain” (yes, watch it for yourself), the filmmaker preaches how inevitable our past experiences are, and that we can do nothing but accept those and move on because that is what life is supposed to be- unpredictable. Magnolia ends with catharsis and gives the viewers a scope to connect with all the characters as well as take a momentary or lasting relief from their own traumatic experiences.
Like every other Paul Thomas Anderson film, Magnolia also uses music as a core component. Anderson is so influenced by the olfactory sense that he created this whole film being impacted by Aimee Mann’s song and she became the composer for the film too.
1. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood is one of the greatest films of the century. According to The Guardian, it as the #1 film of the 21st century. Loosely based on the novel “Oil!” (1927) by Upton Sinclair, the film is about a highly ambitious and competitive businessman, an “oilman”, who wants to take full control of his life and surroundings. Starring the brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis as the protagonist Daniel Plainview, this realistic masterpiece tells the story of sacrifices to reach the acme of success abandoning religion and family to cut all ties and getting indulged in revenge and redemption.
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Daniel Day-Lewis’ leading role won him yet another Academy Award. His performance in this Paul Thomas Anderson film is known as the most tremendous of this career. Alongside Day-Lewis, Paul Dano portrays two characters, one of them being Eli Sunday, a non-believer priest who earns a living by exploiting the villagers’ faith. Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday have their differences and are revengeful to one another but in the end, it is clear they are not that indifferent in being greedy and power-hungry.
The film is taken in such long shots that on average each shot is more than 13 seconds long. This gives the audience the ecstasy to get absorbed into the screen and live every moment. The filmmaker uses silence of the magnetic characters as a technique to contrast noise and silence along with the close shots of the camera. This awarded cinematographer Robert Elswit with a much deserving Academy Award.
There will be Blood is the best work of Paul Thomas Anderson till date being perfect at every creative and technical aspect. If you are an escapist and want films to take you away from the real world, to give you a break, then Paul Thomas Anderson might not be a fit for you. If you want to have a slice of reality and face the ugly truths of your past and surroundings, then his films would be a tailor-made fit.
PTA.’s collaborations with cinematographer Robert Elwist for most of his films, and with composer Jonny Greenwood since There Will Be Blood, have made him a true filmmaker who knows his element and comfort zones. The perfectly cast films with rich details can be compared to exquisite artistry by an exceptional craftsman. Every film by Paul Thomas Anderson can sublimely be called a post-modern masterpiece; cinema in its finest form.