Ranked: Paul Thomas Anderson Films From Worst to Best

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Paul Thomas Anderson and Dainel Day-Lewis

One of the most exciting directors of our time, Paul Thomas Anderson, broke into the mainstream in 1997 with Boogie Nights. He releases his sixth film, The Master, today. Loosely based on the early days of Scientology, it reunites Anderson with his frequent star Philip Seymour Hoffman and will probably be talked about for a long time. In eager anticipation, we’ve ranked his five movies to date.

5. Hard Eight (1996)

Hard Eight is very clearly a debut film. That’s not to say it’s bad, but it feels a little tentative, lacking some of the audacity Anderson would later be known for. Working on a small budget, Anderson had far less creative control than he would eventually gain over his work. (His financiers forced him to change the title, among other things; he wanted Sydney and argued that Hard Eight sounded like a Skinemax movie.) Those constraints show in the final product — there’s less of the epic scope, encyclopedic film nerdery, or controlled camera movements we now associate with his style. That said, the young director already had a great eye for character actors, hiring many talented people he’d work with in the future, including John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Philip Baker Hall.


4. Magnolia (1999)

Like a telenovela, or the most ambitious Pedro Almodovar movie ever, Magnolia is an intricate soap opera punctuated by pathos and melodrama. It’s full of wonders, but I’m putting it at fourth because its reach exceeds its grasp; it wants so badly to be important, and it will not let you forget that. Even moments of absurdism like the notorious rain of frogs feel heavy with import. Despite the fact that Tom Cruise is as engaging as fuck, Julianne Moore is super-good at both crying and being gorgeous, and the seemingly disparate stories are woven together nicely, I rarely feel drawn to revisit it. There’s a clip in the DVD special features in which Anderson and then-girlfriend Fiona Apple act out their interpretations of critics’ takes on Magnolia — Apple dances around goofily while Anderson whines, “It’s just not Boogie Nights!” But truthfully, Magnolia might’ve benefited from some of Boogie Nights‘ levity.


3. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

I love this fucking movie. As with most of Anderson’s work, it’s a complicated narrative about fucked-up, lonely people, living in a slightly seedy suburban L.A. But it’s also Anderson’s only certifiable love story, so strange and vulnerable that it feels very real, despite its unlikely plot contrivances. (To put it in the simplest terms, a man collects pudding tops to gain frequent-flier miles, while at the same time being harassed to the breaking point by his evil sisters and a mattress salesman who runs an extortionist phone-sex operation on the side.) If you’ve ever doubted PTA’s skill with actors, look no further than here, in which normally offputting Adam Sandler (like Tom Cruise in Magnolia and Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights) gives an unexpectedly brilliant performance. The soundtrack, by Jon Brion, is also wonderful, and I love the strange, light-art interludes. Also, also, also, who could resist the moment when Sandler, too shy and weird to ask for a date like a normal person, follows the woman he loves to Hawaii, and in an inevitable moment of awkward silence, muses, “Boy, it sure looks like Hawaii here.”


2. Boogie Nights (1997)

You know when you see a movie or read a book in your youth and it’s super-important for the whole rest of your conception of art and life and cinema and everything? And then you watch it later in life and it’s still pretty fucking good, even if it’s remarkably on the nose? Well, this is that movie for me and I’m guessing many others. I’m not sure if it is a very funny drama, or a very dramatic comedy; either way, it’s an embarrassment of riches, with endless inventive camera movements, playful insights about porn culture, one of the greatest casts ever assembled, and numerous indelible scenes. Mark Wahlberg and his huge prosthetic penis! Rollergirl! Tube socks! “The Touch”!


1. There Will Be Blood (2007)

Anderson is remarkable with actors, as all his previous work demonstrates. But pair an astonishing actor with an astonishing director, and you’ll get something like There Will Be Blood, except there’s nothing like There Will Be Blood. It’s quotable like a comedy, yet as unsettling as any horror film, and shares the physical intensity of both genres at their best. (Side note: I once had a boyfriend who dressed up like Daniel Plainview for Halloween and carried a stuffed animal to a party; he’d leave the thing around and shout, at random moments, “I’ve abandoned my boy!”) A gorgeously shot, dark, dense yarn about the American West, oil, religious fanaticism, greed, madness, and power, this film is completely unlike PTA’s previous work, yet unmistakably belongs to his authorial voice, and no one else’s. The humor I’m so fond of in his work is present here, but it’s so sinister and terrifying that it dares you to laugh simply because you’re not sure what else to do when some crazy greaseball threatens to drink your milkshake.