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  • Writer's pictureZachary Zanatta

Paul Thomas Anderson: Ranked

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most important names in 21st Century American cinema. Exploding onto the scene in the late 90s, Anderson’s blend of New Hollywood technical bravado and independent swagger instantly established him as a force to be reckoned with. Over his career his style has evolved as he charted a distinctly “PTA” chronicle of American history. Beginning as a young up and comer indebted to the masters of the past, Anderson has since become a titan who’s inspired the new generation of filmmakers. Here is my personal ranking of his 9 feature films.

#9: Hard Eight (1996)

Anderson’s first feature has all the hallmarks that would make him such a force to be reckoned with in a few short years. It’s slick and beautifully shot with fantastic performances from actors who would become staples in his acting ensemble. For a debut, it demonstrates an unmistakable confidence behind the camera, one that very few debuts possess. However, for all of Hard Eight’s ability and heart, its narrative falls short. Its weak characters are stretched far too thin, and their relationships hardly warrant the meandering plot. It also takes a bizarre left turn into generic 90s crime film territory in the second half, creating a film that’s not only narratively jarring but emotionally unsteady. It’s a fascinating exploration into the career of an iconic filmmaker, but outside of that, it's a weak film.

#8: Inherent Vice (2014)

One of Anderson’s favorite filmmakers to pull from is American legend Robert Altman, and Inherent Vice is one of Anderson’s most Altman films in his career. Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, Inherent Vice has Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye wr, Inherent Vice is a sprawling, languid noir. It’s a slow exploration of California’s dark underbelly made unrecognizable beneath Anderson’s cinematic haze. For many, this druggy trudge through LA is a hypnotic trip, for me it’s a slog. Its lethargy gets grating fast, and the intentional disconnect makes for a forgettable experience rather than an interestingly alienating one. It’s Anderson’s most divisive film, and for me it falls in the lower part of his filmography.

#7: Phantom Thread (2017)

When Anderson burst onto the scene, he was known for a brash and loud style drowning in volume and kinetic camerawork. As he evolved his style changed drastically, Phantom Thread is the most telling of his metamorphosis. Phantom Thread is a quiet, clean, proper feature. Its cinematography is still and gorgeous, complimenting the beautiful Johnny Greenwood score. Daniel Day Lewis and Vicky Krieps give two muted performances that breathe life into the pitch black and complex relationship at the center of the film. It’s one of Anderson’s most mature films that demonstrates a director who has fully mastered his craft, Phantom Thread has been lauded as a masterpiece and deservedly so. Personally, the film is slightly too muted, and I find it difficult to get truly invested in the twisty narrative at its center. Regardless, it’s a phenomenal film despite my personal taste and one that’s very worth watching.

#6: The Master (2012)

The second half of Anderson’s career is defined by complex dual relationships, and none are as compelling as the one at the center of The Master. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix each give their career best performance as cult leader Lancaster Dodd and his protégé Freddie Quell. The Master is a dense and spiritual film, the shifting power dynamics constantly leaving room for interpretation. It’s one of Anderson’s most rich films and each new visit provides a more rewarding and mystifying experience. Occasionally it gets too dense and borders on tedium, but it’s a rare occurrence in an otherwise incredible film.

#5: Boogie Nights (1997)

The film that put Anderson on the map is still as bombastic and dizzying as when it was first released. Its themes of found family and changing generations have been overshadowed by Anderson’s later films, but the volume of Boogie Nights remains impressive. From the opening long take to the New Year’s party to the drug deal gone wrong, the set pieces of Boogie Nights are as thrilling and effective as they are iconic. The characters are strong and it’s their authentic connections that make the standard rise and fall narrative so engrossing. Despite the length it’s always a great time to revisit and an incredible achievement for a sophomore feature.

#4: There Will Be Blood. (2007)

While Boogie Nights put Anderson on many people’s radars, There Will Be Blood catapulted him to a household name. An enormous film that marks a distinct “before and after” in Anderson’s career, commercially and critically. Where Anderson’s first 4 features feel like an auteur playing in a cinematic toybox, There Will Be Blood is a dead serious “grown up’ film. A grim tale of greed and faith where hell breaks loose on earth with oil and fire, the scope of the film is second to none. The truest definition of a modern classic, There Will Be Blood is a titan of 21st century cinema.

#3: Licorice Pizza (2021)

Anderson’s latest is a victory lap by a director who has redefined the canon. Returning to the San Fernando Valley that has played such an integral role in his filmography, Licorice Pizza is a loving ode to a past generation filtered through a dreamlike haze. Returning to the open playfulness of his earlier films, Licorice Pizza is a great movie to get lost in. Sprawling yet intimate populated with a cast of charming characters, Licorice Pizza is a portrait of immense detail. Its lackadaisical pace and back burner narrative is a turn-off for many, but to me it’s a master of the craft doing what he does best. Not a director on autopilot but an exercise in perfected familiarity.

#2: Magnolia (1999)

Magnolia is an overlong, overstuffed mess that’s as moving as it is immense. A product of a young director throwing all caution to the wind, Magnolia is a miraculous achievement. Anderson’s early career party tricks of music and cinematography reach an apex with the many spinning plates of Magnolia’s narrative that culminate in an unforgettable climax. A film that teeters on the edge of annihilation from overabundance, but instead becomes one of the most wholly original and human films ever made. Equal parts confident and naïve, Magnolia is unlike anything else I’ve seen and a true testament to the larger-than-life filmmaking of Paul Thomas Anderson.

#1: Punch Drunk Love (2002)

Anderson’s filmography has continuously pushed the boundaries of scale. Massive casts, painstaking commitment to detail, deep history, bombastic performances, but to me, Anderson’s finest hour is his smallest. The story of an awkward plunger salesman falling in love is one of the most affecting films I have ever seen. It’s startlingly raw with a sympathetic portrayal of anxiety, however it also flirts with the fantastic via a narrative that never truly feels “real”. It’s Anderson’s severing of reality that elevates the film from a romantic comedy to a deeply personal and timeless film. Obtuse and strange, but with a sympathetic heart that very few films possess, Punch Drunk Love is the best from one of the finest to ever make movies.

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