The Filmography of Paul Thomas Anderson: Ranked

With eight films, six Academy Award nominations, a three-letter moniker and legions of adoring fans to his name, Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most renowned living filmmakers in the world.

Aged just 50, his eight features have pretty much all received critical acclaim. But despite always being the bridesmaid and never the bride at awards ceremonies, off the red carpet he’s a tour de force revered by everyone from Ingmar Bergman to Sam Mendes.

‘PTA’ is often unfairly castigated as being a bit ‘film bro.’ But you can’t criticize a director just because of a select group of irritating fans with a penchant for mansplaining. Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is still a great movie, despite seeing that Uma Thurman poster grace the bedroom wall of every boy you regret dating at Uni. 

In a varied career, we’ve seen Anderson’s films swing wildly from porn sets to oil wells, cults to couturiers. A true ‘actor’s director’ with a distinct visual style and predilection for pathos, his films have the distinct stamp of an auteur while all having their own personalities and idiosyncrasies. With his upcoming project currently in pre-production, I hereby present the filmography of Paul Thomas Anderson, ranked in my personal order of greatness.

8. Inherent Vice (2014)

Inherent Vice joaquin phoenix

Synopsis: In Los Angeles at the turn of the 1970s, drug-fueled detective Larry “Doc” Sportello investigates the disappearance of an ex-girlfriend.

In the life of a stoner, a lot of time passes where nothing really happens. Such is the structure of Inherent Vice, a two-and-a-half-hour trip that can fittingly be watched through languorous, half-lidded eyes. For his seventh feature, PTA teamed up once again with Joaquin Phoenix to bring Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel to the silver screen. I personally found it a little tonally confused, being both a mocking take-down of slacker hippie culture while also revelling in it. It’s both alienating in its stoner slowness, but lacking that hallucinogenic vibrancy you’d want from this lurid plot and drug-addled protagonist (the lack of any real anything makes this film a little Incoherent Vice). One review says that the film “should come with a choice of a joint, or a second ticket – you will need one or the other.” I have to agree.

7. Hard Eight (1996)

Hard Eight (1996) directed by Paul Thomas Anderson • Gwyneth Paltrow

Synopsis: A stranger mentors a young Reno gambler who weds a waitress that moonlights as a sex worker and befriends a vulgar casino regular.

Everyone had to start somewhere, and Paul Thomas Anderson is no exception. That’s not to say Hard Eight is bad—it isn’t—but it does feel like PTA is testing the waters of themes and styles he’d go on to establish more assuredly later on. It features actors he would later work with multiple times—John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman—as well as stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson. But despite all the recognisable faces, it feels a little slight, somewhat textureless; a rather shallow emotional pay-off considering what we now know the director is capable of delivering. 

6. The Master (2012)

Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master

Synopsis: Freddie, a volatile, heavy-drinking veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, finds some semblance of a family when he meets Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic leader of a new “religion” he forms after World War II.

I found the intensity of The Master a little alienating, with Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman both swinging their dicks to give the most out-there, unhinged performance. Perhaps viewing their characters in isolation I would have enjoyed what they were going for, but the film comes across like two soaring melodies that, when layered on top of one another, sound out of key. At times, The Master’s looky-here-I’m-clever symbolism feels a tad obnoxious and gets in the way of seeing the characters as people, not stand-ins for a metaphor. Nonetheless, peeking into the worlds of these people PTA created is fascinating; some of the two-hander scenes are gripping and, unsurprisingly, the film is shot beautifully. Considering this is my third least favourite PTA film, I still enjoyed it enormously.

5. Phantom Thread (2017)

Phantom Thread Paul Thomas Anderson

Synopsis: Renowned British dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock comes across Alma, a young, strong-willed woman, who soon becomes a fixture in his life as his muse and lover.

I enjoyed Phantom Thread in a vacuum, without all the discourse surrounding it: a human centipede of pandering shithousery to the ‘genius’ of Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis (a point explored more eloquently by Aleksander Hemon in the New Yorker). But this cold yet uproariously funny film has an utterly unique tone that continuously evades where you think it’s going to go. With the camerawork as textured and tailored as the storyline, the film is a sartorial feast for the senses. Food becomes both a source of ammo and a kinky plaything; there’s a deliciously deranged relationship at its centre that culminates in one poisoning the other and the impossibly hot line “kiss me my girl, before I am sick.” It’s more distancing than the emotional sucker-punches of other films in PTA’s repertoire, but nonetheless a thing of sumptuous, swelling beauty. 

4. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

punch-drunk love movie still

Synopsis: A socially awkward and volatile small business owner meets the love of his life after being threatened by a gang of scammers.

Some suggest that Punch-Drunk Love is an outlier in PTA’s filmography, being much shorter and lighthearted than his other sprawling dramas. This film is also, perhaps, single-handedly responsible for making the world take Adam Sandler seriously. Elevating the actor out of fart-joke stoner-buddy comedies, Sandler delivers a performance that is both funny yet empathetic, a uniquely manic and energetic role that walked so Uncut Gems could run. When protagonist Barry finally realises his worth and what he has to give to the world after being downtrodden his whole life, it’s euphoric: “I have so much strength inside of me. You have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”

3. Boogie Nights (1997)

Synopsis: Set in 1977, idealistic porn producer Jack Horner discovers Eddie Adams, a hot young talent working as a busboy in a nightclub, who soon becomes an infamous pornstar who goes by the name Dirk Diggler. When disco and drugs are in vogue, fashion is in flux and the party never seems to stop, Adams’ dreams of turning sex into stardom are about to collide with cold, hard reality.

Thinking about how Paul Thomas Anderson made Boogie Nights aged 27 fills me with terror and ennui (I officially have four years to get my shit together and make some kind of masterful art). I’m happy to go ahead and posit Boogie Nights as PTA’s most entertaining feature, a film that constantly pummels you with visuals, gags, plot and tension. There are so many strong performances that it’s nigh on impossible to highlight just one: Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Alfred Molina, Burt Reynolds. Mark Wahlberg’s weasely voice and general presence do make this all a tad odious, but this all only works the film’s favour and Dirk Diggler’s characterisation. I was missing that sense of genuine 70s porno sleaze you see in something like Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, but nonetheless everything from the outfits to the score makes Boogie Nights a groovy treat. There’s one iconic scene that induces such skin-crawling anxiety in me it took all my might not to reach out and press pause. The end scene is deservedly earned and iconic.

2. There Will Be Blood (2007)

there will be blood movie still

Synopsis: Ruthless oil prospector Daniel Plainview uses his son to project a trustworthy image and cons local landowners into selling him their valuable properties for a pittance. However, local preacher Eli Sunday suspects Plainview’s motives and intentions, starting a slow-burning feud that threatens both their lives.

The first time I watched There Will Be Blood, my ‘review’ simply read: “wow wow wow wow wow wow wow wow wow wow wow wow wow wow wow wow wow wow wow wow wow wow wow wow WOW.” Perhaps now’s the time to be a tad more eloquent. It’s as close to perfect as a film can get; a searingly original, haunting, skin-crawling tale communicated in pitch-perfect precision with jaw-dropping visuals and some of the best acting performances you can hope to see on the silver screen. Daniel Day-Lewis acts with every cell in his body to enliven the terrifying character of Daniel Plainview, while Paul Dano’s Eli Sunday gives DDL a run for his money and debut actor Dillon Freasier steals frames with eyes filled with silent terror. Some niggle at the film’s ‘masculineness’, as if that’s something women could never understand or critically engage with; let’s not forget Elle Hunt’s godawful write-up on the film for The Guardian where she decrees the film as Not For Girls, as if There Will Be Blood is a Yorkie Bar. But the broad notion of masculinity branches into a thousand divergent roots in the film, from capitalism to the fallacy of religious faith. People remember it for the iconic “I drink your milkshake!” line and showy finale, but it’s so much more than the sum of its parts.

1. Magnolia (1999)

Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Magnolia'  Tom Cruise

Synopsis: An epic mosaic of many interrelated characters become part of a dazzling multiplicity of plots, all in search of happiness, forgiveness, and meaning in the San Fernando Valley.

“I am always looking for that nuance, that moment of truth, and you can’t really do that fast.” PTA tested this theory pretty literally with Magnolia, a 3h 9m plotless epic interconnecting the lives of disparate souls on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Perhaps it’s not as great with a capital G as There Will Be Blood, which injects you with a showy shot of straight-up Kino. No matter. Magnolia is a masterpiece of empathy, where weighty topics—guilt, penance, loss, regret—are agonizingly built up until a biblical act of catharsis washes you with a feeling of pure euphoria. Deeply humane and affecting despite not offering a crystal-clear resolution, it’s crazy to think that this film is so arrestingly emotional when Tom Cruise plays an incel overlord who shouts things like “RESPECT THE COCK!”. The scenes between Philip Seymour Hoffman and a dying Jason Robards are ones forever seared into my retinas; Melora Waters as Claudia is one of the most quietly devastating performances I can think of. It’s hard to articulate lucidly in one paragraph the chest-crushing effect this film had on me. A beautiful tessellation of all the very best of Paul Thomas Anderson has to offer as a filmmaker and a storyteller.

Words by Steph Green

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