With a month to the limited release of Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson fans are readying themselves for how the acclaimed director will tackle Los Angeles in the ’70s (that is, for the third time). Starring Alana Haim of the band Haim, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, Maya Rudolph, and newcomer Cooper Hoffman (son of PTA’s frequent collaborator, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the film has had movie lovers buzzing in anticipation after a four year drought from the auteur.
Over the past 25 years, Paul Thomas Anderson made some of the most renowned movies in modern American cinema, as well the recognition by other directors as perhaps being the best alive. From detective tales and fashion exploitations to oil baron epics and chronicles of the porn industry, PTA’s settings can be found just about anywhere, but the consistent thread remains a fluency in cinematography, movements, and dialogue with enough layers to keep you warm through a long winter of backstabs, bludgeonings, and prosthetic genitals. Does he always hit the mark? Better than most, sure, but you can’t explore new spaces without driving off an edge here and there. Here are all eight of Anderson’s films, ranked.
Unclear how this happened. This is Anderson’s Zelda Goldman in how it must be hidden when company comes over and PTA fans have largely hoped it would die, its memory unattached from their nightmares forever. Inherent Vice is a detective story where you find yourself rooting for nobody, hoping anything concrete happens, and largely staring at your watch either until the movie ends or the hands begin feeling like little characters you imagine going on adventures yourself. Also, the worst sex scene of all time. But on purpose?
Your directorial debut says largely nothing about what talent you’ll eventually amass, but everything about what your voice sounds like without a megaphone. Hard Eight is character exploration against a world both familiar and indistinguishable: PTA’s bread and butter. Viewers get cool tips on how to scam casinos, appreciate a depth of relationship so hazy that it starts to not exist, and experience John C. Reilly in his deserved turn as a leading man.
Dare you to go back in time, pitch Magnolia to a studio first, and not get killed with a fireman’s axe by every studio head who survives your explanation of the second act. Magnolia‘s one of Anderson’s more charming ventures, an anthological forty car pile-up about how awful life can be for absolutely everyone. You’re allowed to hate it, you’re allowed to think it’s the New New Testament, but the important takeaways are that Bill Macy has braces, Tom Cruise has temporary acting chops, and frogs are either greater symbols or they are just frogs.
What’s most delightful about Punch-Drunk Love is that its existence itself feels like a fever dream. Before the Sandman went full “I am very good at acting now” with Uncut Gems, he would dip his toes into the indie waters here and there; PDL is the best iteration of that era. When you have two characters who aren’t sane fall in love with each other, the expected product is that love irons out their individual wrinkles and makes them contently sane (per factory default). PDL doesn’t demand that their love be burdensome, or cater to a social model, but flourish the exact way that the two of them do separately, but stronger.
Is liking PTA pretentious? Is even the acronym pretentious? Yes and absolutely. Don’t cower from it; just have fun. Boogie Nights is what happens when you give anabolic steroids to a little league batter: it’s such a chaotic delight to watch things go all the right versions of wrong that you forget to worry about what’s happening under the skin of the little fella. The movie sneaks up on you. It’s both about porn in setting, not at all about porn in themes, and one hundred percent about porn in every frame. If you want to upset a wannabe cinephile, say this is your favorite PTA. If you want to earn the respect of real film academia, say this is your favorite PTA and defend yourself by swinging the broken bottle of “I like when movies are likable.”
Find just about any other director and this would be their best movie, hands down. The Master looks at a dog and his adoptive owner through Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman as parallels to the creation of The Church of Scientology (as the movie calls it, “The Cause”). If you love stories about how institutions manipulate their own victims into being their own ferocious champions, this is one of the top stories of that ever. It’s devastating. It’s frustrating. It’s absolutely spellbindingly gorgeous to look at. Like Denzel was robbed for Malcolm X so he had to be redeemed at a later transaction, this was where Phoenix actually earned his Oscar.
2There Will Be Blood
Not putting this as number one is shocking, yes, because it truly may be perfect. Watching this movie is probably what it was like for math fans when Newton created calculus in a week and went back to playing with his cat. Daniel Day-Lewis is maybe in his most iconic role as Daniel Plainview, “an oil man,” and once his murderous pride butts heads with a local preacher (Paul Dano), his oil well and life are cursed to crumble under the weight of Plainview’s desire to bleed the universe of all its fealty. For screenwriters, the opening scene of There Will Be Blood has become dogma on how to introduce a character your audience needs to respect for the entire movie while that character becomes a character nobody should ever enjoy, embody, or even empathize with, but rather “cut their throat” and keep the head far from their body.
There is no greatest movie ever made; that’s assigning quantifiable certainty onto an objective and artistically qualitative hierarchy. Having said that, you found it. The cinematography, the script, the acting, of course the costume design, the score, the production design, the absolute mastery of what stories can do. It’s a movie that presents itself under his-and-hers expectations, then not only proves itself to be a worthy champion of those tropes, but inevitably subverts each and every one of them. This is your warning to watch this movie only if you’re dying soon, and please be very sure that you are; every other movie will live in its shadow forever and you’ll have to pick up other hobbies such as talking to your neighbors or chewing on wallpaper to pass the time in your post-Phantom Thread brain.