Ranking the Paul Thomas Anderson Films

PT Anderson is one of the last real United States studio-backed filmmakers left. When his films come out, it is still something of an event – an all-too tragically rare thing these days. When looking back at his career, you can pretty neatly divided into two distinct halves. Before Blood, he made a lot of notable films very well, but in retrospect, they do not overall stand out as much. From Blood on though, he really found his own distinct voice and visual style and has just been off to the races ever since.

9. Magnolia [1999]

While many of PTA’s films are rather genuine and not terribly cynical (Boogie Nights is about family!!!), you rarely ever feel like you could call them trite or corny. But that is exactly what Magnolia feels like. The one musical number about two-thirds of the way through made me laugh out loud. Virtually nothing about this film emotionally resonated, and it feels like a film that would roundly mocked if the exact same film was made by someone disliked at large (otherwise known as The Speed Racer Theory. In full disclosure – the refutation of this theory is called The Alita Paradox. So, who is to say if I know what I am talking about.)

 

8. Punch Drunk Love [2002]

Beyond having a big star there to keep things mildly interesting, there is not much to this one besides a notable score bopping around in the background. The Sandler characterization feels very zoo animal in the most non-loving manner possible. The film distinctly keeps its sole character at a distance so that one can only pity him instead of relate or empathize with him. It forces us into a position where only the wretched could identify with this Smeagol like creature. The Sand Man does an excellent job with nothing here, but beyond the abbreviated run time, this can be most generously described as containing all the weakest parts of Magnolia and thus making it a brutal stretch for PTA.

 

7. Licorice Pizza [2021]

I cannot find the original tweet but I saw someone describe auteur PTA’s defining attribute just being telling stories about two freaks fucking each other up a lot more than they already are. And that idea seems to be especially important when thinking about this one.

I found Licorice Pizza to be quite sad and melancholy, and the reason is simple: it is about two freaks fucking each other up…only they are quite younger than the typical PTA leads. While one can take a certain amount of pleasure from watching Daniel Plainview smack Paul Dano around or the mind games happening in Phantom Thread.  Cooper Hoffman is a fifteen-year-old hustler with a golden smile, and he aggressively pursues Alana Haim – a 25-year-old lost soul who is desperately trying to find meaning and purpose for herself and gets pulled to Hoffman seemingly without control.

They proceed to have an After Hours adventure where they meet a bunch of Guys (but over the course of several months and not just one night). They proceed to fuck with each other while trying to tragically build incredibly shallow existences for themselves in this sad world. That is actually a really great concept for a picture, and I am really curious to revisit it and see how I feel about it in the years to come.

For the moment, the biggest issue seemed to be that I did not laugh a lot or find much of it funny when it was the kind of film that really needed to be funny. There is a lot going on here and a lot to be intrigued by. I am just not sure if I am there with it yet.

 

6. Hard Eight [1996]

Anderson’s debut film, much like his next few, feels less unique and less distinctly PTA than everything since There Will Be Blood. If there is one connection that the films of the first half and the second half of his career have though, is that on some level, the main (and often supporting) characters of his films are looking for some kind of sense of community – whether it be a larger community or a more tighter knit family-like situation. Hard Eight is no different in that regard. While the film feels slight in some ways, the core emotion of it is still the same need for love, companionship, and family that drives so much of what everyone does in this world. And Philip Baker Hall is just outstanding as well. Good film.

 

5. Boogie Nights [1997]

While this has some real IMDb Core energy for reasons outside of its control, this film is simply a beautiful tale of lonely people looking for love, family, and community. There is a youthful earnestness and sincerity to everything about this film, and something that was a surprising marker of early PTA films. In the hands of most writers and filmmakers, this story easily could have felt schlocky and the characters shallow. Anderson though reveals a genuine interest in the lives of the people here even the ones who have less opportunities on screen. The porn stuff turns out to be a really great hook for audiences to stop and stare (literally). In reality though, that is merely the surface of a film that is truly about the passage of time, getting left behind, and flying too close to the sun with wax wings. Boogie Nights is by far the best of early PTA.

 

4. There Will Be Blood [2007]

Much like Boogie Nights, the IMDb core energy to this film is undeniable and hard to wash off but I will attempt to do so all the same because Blood is pretty damn great. There are a lot of different levels to which to enjoy this movie. For starters, Daniel Day Lewis fucking with Paul Dano is the type of things I can watch all day. Secondly, there is something incredibly sad about watching this film as it reveals the ways in which we just destroy ourselves to “get ahead.” Thirdly, this is just a fascinating artifact of the late W. Bush era. I can absolutely see why 18 y/o me just lapped this up as the background of the cynical intersection of oil/capitalism/religion certainly must have appealed to me and many others whose foundational years were when George W. Bush was the most powerful individual in the world.

 

3. Inherent Vice [2014]

A stoner neo-noir played mostly kinda straight and with total sincerity but also much more explicitly about vibes than even the plot-holiest noir. You really just want to sit back and let this soak over you. I have never had much more to say about it than that. My connection with the film is shallow, but I do not meet that as an insult. Joaquin was on just a killer run at this point of delivering just mesmerizing performance after mesmerizing performance.

 

2. The Master [2012]

“If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.”

We really did not understand what Paul Thomas Anderson was becoming yet at this point in time. The first half of his career definitely felt like him trying to make his versions of the masters but without a defining style or ideas that could be pointed to as a means of distinguishing his own work. Little did we understand fully at the time, but There Will Be Blood was the turning point. His visuals and use of sound and music took several leaps forward at that point, and he has been off to the races ever since then.

I have never been able to find the original light bulb tweet that pointed the connecting tissue of the second half of his filmography, but I will do my best to explain it now. Anderson has mostly focused his films on two fucked up people fucking each other up even worse than when they met. It’s a concept that is both beautiful for its compelling simplicity and the for the universal truth that it captures. What is life but a series of overlapping experiences where you forge connections with fellow fucked up souls and more often than not come together to do permanent damage to one another and yourselves. Yes, I am being glib and reductive but for a purpose, just like Anderson.

I first saw this film in one of the many times I was in such a pattern. One of the things I found when I was stuck in these destructive periods and locking up with someone and destroying each other is that it impacts how you experience the world and particularly art. You have so little sense of yourself and the world. It is really quite tragic, and I do not know if any film has captured what is so sad about that dynamic as well as this one.

Also, Philip Seymour Hoffman singing “Go No More A Roving With You Fair Maid!” is simply one of the most pleasurable scenes in the history of motion pictures.

 

1. Phantom Thread [2017]

The concept of a “twist” ending seems very trite in many ways, but the reveal that that Alma is not trying to kill Reynolds with poisoned mushrooms but instead is merely trying to keep him ill so she can take care of him is one of the most powerful moments I have seen in an onscreen relationship.

And that is what this film is really about: being in a relationship and all that comes with it. It’s not about passing judgment on the life Reynolds and Alma have made with each other. It’s not about saying their relationship is good or bad, healthy or toxic. Phantom Thread explores how relationships progress and develop.

The film probes and asks questions about what binds people together? How do people establish their needs and desires? What boundaries do they create for themselves? How do they develop their dynamic that works (or doesn’t work) for them? What do relationships reveal and hide about ourselves?

What makes this film such a classic is that understands how people come together and somehow decide that they think they should stay together forever. There is nothing truly profound about what the film is saying, but the feeling the film gives you is indescribable. I can and will watch this film forever and ever.

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