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, critics have compared him 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 have a feeling history will remember him uniquely as Paul Thomas Anderson.
From Anderson's latest directorial efforts to his earlier career-making hits, here is every one of PTA's films, ranked from best to worst.
There Will Be Blood
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 ensemble as he had done in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but was able to turn his lens on smaller storylines with more interesting, nuanced characters, complete with their own sets of problems, anxieties, and flaws.
If Punch-Drunk Love‘s Adam Sandler is 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) is 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 (it won an Oscar), the movie also features some of Day-Lewis's signature acting chops as Plainview (he also won an Oscar for the role). It's Anderson's best character study to date, and his best film thus far.
After Anderson's debut success with Hard Eight, the young director felt pressure 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, Boogie Nights follows a group of adult film actors during the 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 veterans and newcomers alike, with fantastic performances from Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, Heather Graham, John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Ball, and many more.
PTA managed to deliver in a way few young filmmakers do, while also establishing himself 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.
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 enjoyable movie. Sandler gives one of his 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, playing the part of a sleazy, blackmailing sex line operator/mattress salesman extraordinaire to perfection. At a brisk hour and a half (PTA's shortest film so far), the only flaw of this movie is that it isn't longer.
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 tackled 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). They both deliver outstanding performances—although that's not meant to take anything away from the amazing script, cinematography, or direction.
Licorice Pizza offers a character study of two very different people. Set in Anderson’s favorite locale of 1970s Los Angeles, it follows a precocious teen actor/aspiring entrepreneur (Cooper Hoffman) and a young photographer’s assistant (Alana Haim) who fall in love in spite of their age and vastly differing personalities.
Licorice Pizza mixes Anderson’s signature blend between humor and subtle romance into a celebration of youth and love in particular, focusing on the meandering misadventures the young characters.
Benefiting from great performances from Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim – two faces we hope to see in future PTA films – Licorice Pizza is yet another exciting entry in Anderson’s filmography, as well as one of his most personally moving projects yet.
Phantom Thread saw Anderson return 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) with whom he slowly begins to have a very strange romantic relationship.
Anderson has always thrived in 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 Hitchcock's Rebecca, with impressive results.
The movie feels extremely cold at times but still manages to capture the nuances 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.
After a series of films rooted in character studies, Anderson returned to the more ensemble-heavy, Altman-esque type of project following 2012’s The Master. Anderson's second novel adaptation (he'd based There Will Be Blood on Upton Sinclair's Oil!), Inherent Vice focuses on hippie private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in 1970s Los Angeles.
Baed on Thomas Pynchon's original novel, Inherent Vice‘s Doc finds himself in over his head with three cases all 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, labyrinthine 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 characters 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—Inherent Vice generated a mixed response on release, with a few of Anderson's fans confused by the complex storyline. The movie still managed to achieve notable success at awards ceremonies, with some critics believing it will likely grow to cult status in the future.
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 set over the course of a single day.
Set 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 stories that intersect. As conflicting in tone as many of the stories seem, they all share certain tropes, including estranged relationships with parents, and the difficulty in finding forgiveness and being able to move on from a troubled past.
Magnolia proved a massive undertaking and bore similarities to Boogie Nights. The film also saw PTA turning toward a different, more contemporary direction from his previous film, and one that didn't probe as deeply into its characters as Boogie Nights had.
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 entertains, but doesn't hit nearly as hard as some of PTA's other films.
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 pair at first, complications arise when the young man falls for a cocktail waitress (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Hall, an underrated actor, does a fine job playing the aloof, man-with-the-past main, alongside 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).
Hard Eight might seem minor compared to Anderson's larger epics featuring huge casts, but it still showcases his talents as a director, which 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, but Hard Eight ranks up there with other impressive indie debut films like Clerks and Reservoir Dogs.