Paul Thomas Anderson Movies Ranked (And Where to Stream Them)

No director is quite like Paul Thomas Anderson. Whereas most filmmakers take some time honing their craft over the years, getting better with each subsequent new movie, PTA's career took off at a rapid sprint, creating incredibly enthralling movies from the offset of his debut.

Even his less popular films are still far more entertaining than most other filmmakers’ projects out there, a testament to Anderson’s seemingly natural skill as a director who is—at least, so far—pretty much incapable of making a bad movie, a talent few directors have and most envy.

In the past, he's been compared to icons and visionaries in the field, like Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, and Orson Welles. Despite these comparisons, though, fifty years down the line, we're sure he'll only be remembered distinctly and uniquely as Paul Thomas Anderson.

Paul Thomas Anderson Movies Ranked (And Where to Stream Them)

With Anderson's newest film, Licorice Pizza, set for a limited release on November 26 before a nationwide release on Christmas Day, we thought we'd take a look back at Anderson's career so far, ranking his movies from worst to best. However, it's worth mentioning, like all the best directors, Anderson doesn't really have that many bad movies, so this list can also be viewed as Anderson's movies ranked from very good to excellent.

List Criteria: Similar to other noteworthy directors like David Fincher and Edgar Wright, Anderson has made a career making a number of feature-length movies, short films, music videos, and documentaries. For this list, we’re focusing only on Anderson’s full-length movies, rather than any of his other projects.

Hard Eight

Hard Eight
Courtesy of The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Anderson's first feature-length movie showed the director's capabilities and creativity from the get-go. After the success of his short 1993 film, Cigarettes & Coffee, Anderson expanded the script into a full-length film.

Influenced by French New Wave crime movies, Hard Eight follows a mysterious professional gambler (Philip Baker Hall) who takes a young man (John C. Reilly) under his wing. While things go well for the two at first, complications eventually arise when the young man falls for a cocktail waitress (Gwyneth Paltrow), threatening to undo their partnership.

Hall, a highly underrated actor, does a fine job playing the aloof, man-with-the-past main character, with some fairly strong performances from Reilly and Paltrow, as well as co-stars Samuel L. Jackson and Philip Seymour Hoffman (who has a small but memorable appearance as an annoying gambler on a hot streak).

Hard Eight might be a relatively smaller project compared to Anderson's larger epics featuring a huge cast of veteran actors, yet it still remains a highly enjoyable movie that perfectly shows his talents as a director, which—as you see in the film—appear more fully formed than most young filmmakers. It's a movie that feels like it’s made by a filmmaker with ten years of experience rather than a director first starting off.

It may not be Anderson's best movie to date, but Hard Eight possesses very few weaknesses, and ranks up there with other impressive indie debut films like Clerks and Reservoir Dogs.

Streaming on Prime Video

Magnolia

Magnolia
Courtesy of New Line Cinema

Following his ensemble breakout success, Boogie Nights, Anderson tried to take on a project similarly rooted in a huge cast of characters, following multiple overlapping storylines that takes place over the course of a single day.

Set predominantly in and around Los Angeles, Magnolia uses a wide array of diverse actors—including established actors like Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Jason Robards, Michael Murphy, William H. Macy, and Philip Baker Ball, and rising stars like Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly—to tell numerous complex stories that share some similarities. As conflicting in content as many of the stories seem to be, they all share several overlapping similarities, including estranged relationships with parents, and the difficulty in finding forgiveness and being able to move on from a troubled past.

Anderson's third film, Magnolia was a massive project to take on, similar in many ways to Boogie Nights, but also turning toward a distinctly different, more contemporary direction from his previous film, and one that didn't probe as deeply into its characters as Boogie Nights had previously.

Perhaps lacking a main narrative focus or character to act as a center point to the storyline (as Wahlberg had done in Boogie Nights and Joaquin Phoenix would later do in Inherent Vice), Magnolia is an engaging enough movie to watch, but one that doesn't hit as hard as some of PTA's other films.

The film achieved praise for its direction and ambition—not to mention the actors' fine performances—but also faced some criticism for its excessive length (at just over three hours, it's the movie's biggest flaw, and one that Anderson himself has said he regrets).

Streaming on Netflix

Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Anderson's most recently-released film, Phantom Thread, returned to a character-driven exploration of a pair of intricate, seemingly completely characters drawn to each other (a type of project he had done to such an amazing degree in The Master). In this film, Anderson focuses on the 1950s' English world of fashion, with a story set around a perfectionist dressmaker (Daniel Day-Lewis) who soon finds a creative muse in the form of a young waitress (Vicky Krieps) whom he slowly begins to have a very strange romantic relationship with.

Anderson has always thrived off of making non-conventional romance stories about troubled individuals coming together, but Phantom Thread features his most off-beat and intricate exploration of romance yet. An acting tour de force for Day-Lewis, Krieps, and co-star Leslie Manville, Anderson seemingly channels a more Gothic approach with the film's story, modeled after films like Hitchock's Rebecca, with more than impressive results.

It's a claustrophobic film that feels extremely cold at times, but still manages to capture the nuances and warmth of the odd relationship between Day-Lewis and Krieps' characters. Day-Lewis' final film before his retirement, the veteran method actor couldn't have chosen a better film to bookend his career with.

Like virtually all of Anderson’s films, the movie went on to earn numerous prestigious nominations, including Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Day-Lewis), Best Supporting Actress (Manville), and Best Original Score (Anderson’s go-to composer, the always talented Radiohead alum Jonny Greenwood), winning for Best Costume Design.

Streaming on Hulu and Prime Video (premium subscription required for both)

Punch-drunk Love

Punch Drunk Love
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

It’s heartbreaking to put a movie as good as Punch-Drunk Love this low on the list—but as mentioned before, this ranking isn't meant to take anything away from any one of PTA's many marvelous movies, it's more meant to put into perspective how good all of his movies really are.

After the ensemble-dominated epic projects that were Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Anderson went back to analyzing a limited number of characters (something he excelled at in Hard Eight and would return to with similar success in The Master, There Will Be Blood, and Phanom Thread) following a somewhat simple plot threat.

Punch-Drunk Love focuses on a socially awkward businessman (Adam Sandler) who begins a romantic relationship with one of his overbearing sister's coworkers (Emily Watson). In a story full of plot escalations that feels it could turn into a Coen brothers movie any second, Sandler's character subsequently gets involved with a shady phone sex operating manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman), which threatens the romance he's waited for his whole life.

Through its quirky characters and meandering plot, Punch-Drunk Love remains an extremely enjoyable movie. In fact, depending on who you ask, it's one of PTA's best. Sandler gives one of his absolute greatest, most underrated performances as the socially inept main character who has reached an emotional breaking point. Hoffman also manages to shine through with minimal screentime, perfectly playing the part of a sleazy, blackmailing sex line operator/mattress salesman extraordinaire. At a brisk hour and a half (PTA's shortest film so far), the only flaw about this movie is that it isn't longer.

Streaming on HBO Max

The Master

The Master
Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

Anderson had taken on ensemble-heavy projects with Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and had managed to then turn towards more singular character-driven stories with Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood, both to extreme success.

For his next project, Anderson attempted to tackle another introspective character study of a flawed individual, but this time, rather than focusing on one character, he attempted to analyze two very different people who are paradoxically drawn to each other.

The Master focuses on an unstable, aimless drifter, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who is recruited into a Scientology-esque religious group led by its charismatic leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). As Freddie grapples with his own troubled past, he attempts to integrate himself into the group, forming a somewhat tumultuous relationship with Dodd, who may not altogether be the enlightened thinker he makes himself out to be.

A wild ride of a movie, The Master blends Anderson's archetypical main character—an outsider unable to find happiness or connection with society—and the role religion plays in securing an individual's happiness or fulfillment.

Easily, the movie's strongest point is the chemistry and onscreen relationship between Phoenix and Hoffman, two brilliant actors who manage to feed off each other's energy (similar to how their characters feed off each other in the movie—Quell looking for direction and fulfillment, Dodd looking for someone his religion can fundamentally change and grant happiness to). They both deliver outstanding performances—although that's not meant to take anything away from the amazing script, cinematography, or direction.

Anderson's self-professed favorite movie, it's one of the most original films made in the past few decades, and—like most of Anderson's films—made numerous critics' top ten best movies list for 2012.

Streaming on Netflix

Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

After a series of films rooted in character studies, Anderson returned to the more ensemble-heavy, Altman-esque type of project he had built his career making following 2012’s The Master. Anderson's second novel adaptation (he'd very loosely based There Will Be Blood on Upton Sinclair's Oil!), Inherent Vice focuses on perpetually stoned hippie private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in 1970 Los Angeles.

Faithfully following writer Thomas Pynchon's original novel, Inherent Vice‘s Doc finds himself in over his head with three individual cases all seemingly tied to each other through a missing millionaire (Eric Roberts) and his girlfriend (Katherine Waterston), who also happens to be one of Doc's former lovers.

A long, nearly impossible to figure out mystery ensues, full of free love, far-right police, criminal organizations, cults, drug-smuggling dentists, and some of the most absurdly funny names in all of cinema (a strong point in any Pynchon novel, with his work inhabited by such memorably-named individuals as Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke [Mason & Dixon], Blodgett Waxwing [Gravity’s Rainbow], and Inherent Vice’s Sauncho Smilax [Benicio del Toro]).

Modeling his neo-noir mystery after the classic noirs of Humphrey Bogart—especially The Big Sleep, a movie that has a notoriously hard-to-follow mystery that Anderson took inspiration from—Inherent Vice was fairly positive upon release, but a few of Anderson's fans felt confused by the convoluted, often complex storyline.

However minor that complaint was, the movie still managed to achieve notable success at awards ceremonies, including an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (Phoenix), with some critics believing it will likely grow to cult status in the future.

Inherent Vice may cause you a headache trying to figure it out, so we suggest just sitting back and enjoying it scene by scene and character by character.

Not currently streaming, but can be rented online

Boogie Nights

Boogie Nights
Courtesy of New Line Cinema

After Anderson's debut success with Hard Eight, the pressure was on for the young director to make a movie that adequately followed up his previous project. The result, Boogie Nights, which remains one of PTA's greatest achievements, and one of the most original and memorable movies of the 1990s'.

Based on a short mockumentary film Anderson directed when he was young, Boogie Nights follows a group of adult film actors during the 1970s' Golden Age of Porn into the industry slump of the 1980s'. Channeling his inner Robert Altman (one of PTA's favorite directors), Anderson relied on an ensemble cast composed of veteran actors and newcomers alike, with fantastic performances from Mark Wahlberg (easily his best movie), Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, Heather Graham, John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Ball, and many more.

It was a huge project that most directors probably would've waited until their mid-career point to take on, but PTA managed to deliver in a way few young filmmakers are able to, while also establishing him as a fresh new voice in Hollywood now that he was outside of the indies.

The movie's success not only served as Anderson's breakout film, but also launched the careers of Wahlberg, Graham, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and was responsible for reigniting Reynolds' then-declining career as well.

Winning critical praise shortly after its release, Boogie Nights was nominated for several awards, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Reynolds), and Best Supporting Actress (Moore) at the Oscars, and has consistently been ranked as one of Anderson's best films to date.

Streaming on Hulu and Prime Video (premium subscription required for both)

There Will Be Blood

Paula Thomas Anderson
Courtesy of Miramax Films

It's fair to say Anderson's first foray into a singular character study in Punch-Drunk Love was more than a successful one.

In it, he managed to show audiences he was capable of handling not only large ensembles of characters as he had done in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but was able to turn his lens on smaller storylines with more interesting, nuanced characters with their own sets of problems, anxieties, and flaws.

If Punch-Drunk Love‘s Adam Sandler was the hopeful, likable outsider who wanted to but was unable to fit in with society, There Will Be Blood's Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) was his spiritual opposite in every way. Cold, cynical, and completely misanthropic, Plainview is an oil baron who wants to find his fortune so that he can “get away from everyone.”

Screwed over by the world too many times, he hates everyone and everything, thinking only in terms of currency and how he could use a situation to his own advantage, putting him at odds with an equally manipulative, weaselly small-town priest (Paul Dano) in early 1910s' Southern California.

Loosely based off of Upton Sinclair's Oil!, There Will Be Blood is Anderson at his best, offering an intense look at an utterly despicable character that is also—disturbingly—sympathetic (who hasn't thought about getting enough money to get away from everyone at least once or twice?).

Complemented by a tight script and beautiful cinematography (which it won an Oscar for), the movie also features some of Day-Lewis's signature acting chops as Plainview (he won an Oscar for the role). It's Anderson's best character study to date, and almost certainly his best film ever.

Streaming on Netflix

Final Thoughts

There are so many good things to be said about Paul Thomas Anderson and his impressive filmography. His films are bold in vision, often grand in length, maintain a distinct style, and boast incredible performances from the actors involved.

From his earliest days as an indie director in Hard Eight to his most recent work on Phantom Thread, Anderson has proved himself time and time again as one of the greatest American directors currently working in the field today.

No matter the kind of movie he directs, there’s guaranteed to be numerous things to ogle at and be impressed by, whether it's the characters, writing, direction, music, cinematography, or acting. He's made Big Lebowski-esque neo-noirs, Gothic period romances, and Altman-sized ensemble films, all of which have met with equal success.

Like everyone, we’re excited to see what Anderson has up his sleeve in his newest film, Licorice Pizza, set for release at the end of November, but no matter, we're sure it won't be disappointing.


Richard Chachowski is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He loves reading, his dog Tootsie, and pretty much every movie to ever exist (especially Star Wars).