All of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films arbitrarily ranked from worst to best
Paul Thomas Anderson is an American filmmaker with 8 feature films under his belt, as well as a music documentary and a handful of shorts. In his early 20s, he scraped together money from a college fund, his girlfriend and gambling winnings to make a short film that ended up screening at the Sundance Festival Shorts Program in 1993. When Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction broke open the independent film market in 1994, many different small-ish media companies began searching for ‘the next Pulp Fiction’ to produce, hence how Anderson ended up with up with a 3 million dollar budget to make his first feature at 23 years old. Since then, he’s created a vibrant, unique filmography that is as enthralling as it is toxic and unsettling. As the media loves to do, Anderson is often presented as a “genius auteur” in a way that erases the collaborative work behind his films. He himself continuously credits his actors and crew with the success of his work, even during his younger, more insufferable years.
I find his body of work to be fascinating, especially when compared to the careers of other “boy genius” directors that came up in the late 90’s — early 00’s. Though a kind of hetero-crisis-masculinity is prominent in all of Anderson’s work, there’s a noticeable shift in perspective between the first and later halves of his filmography. His early work perpetuates the supremacy of frantic, overwhelmed men who lash out, while later offerings feature carefully crafted characters that clash and criticize each other. As he matures, his persona receeds and I feel more connected to the story.
Anyhoo, here is a list of all his feature films ranked worst to best according to me, a bad critic.
#8. SYDNEY / HARD EIGHT — 1996
Hard Eight (1996) was PTA’s first big feature film, adapted from his 1993 short Coffee & Cigarettes. Originally called Sydney, this feature had a rough road to its eventual release. Anderson wanted the final cut to be 2 ½ hours, but his financial backers were not into that idea. Egos clashed, and eventually the producers cut their own version, calling it Hard Eight. Since then, Anderson has spoken about his naivety at the time, as well as his intense drive to make “the best film”, at the expense of developing relationships and trust with his producers (or editing his work). Eventually Anderson scraped together enough funding to recut the movie himself, and negotiated the release of his version under the new title.
After all that drama, the movie itself is… fine. It feels like something from the precocious new kid on the block (which, it is). Older interviews with Anderson are really cringey; he seems super high-strung and totally self-possessed. The movie does have some really interesting technical elements — cinematographer Robert Elswit, who has since shot the majority of Anderson’s movies, set up some really lovely sequences, and a baby-faced Philip Seymour Hoffman absolutely steals his scene.
A lot of Anderson’s fans talk about Sydney/Hard Eight like it’s a hidden gem, but this movie is so full of Very Precious Dialog that it had me flashing back to my student film school days. Plus, John C. Reilly slaps Gwenyth Paltrow for being hysterical, and he’s supposed to be the good guy! No thank you sir! No ma’am!
#7. Punch Drunk Love — 2002
This is Anderson’s 4th feature film, and by the time it was released, Anderson was an established American auteur darling. His two previous films had racked up numerous awards & nominations, and Punch Drunk Love earned him an award for Best Director at Cannes.
For me, this movie is really rough. I know a lot of people loved this movie when it came out — it was the first time people had seen Adam Sandler in a serious role — but it has very heavy manic-pixie-dream-girl energy in the worst way. Back in 2002, I was very confused by the dynamic between Sandler and Emily Watson, and having watched it again in recent months, I can confirm that the romantic plot of this movie is very one sided. Sandler just kinda stares at her a lot, then rages out for reasons she doesn’t understand… I guess the film thinks she’s into it, even though we only ever see her through Sandler’s weird stalker-vibe gaze? She just acts like a vessel of desire, with not much agency of her own. They also throw the “f-” slur around a lot, cuz I guess Anderson thought that was really edgy back then. Gay panic comes up a lot in his earlier movies (we’ll get to that), but the subtext here is that Sandler is really angry for vague, undefined reasons related to his masculinity. Then a pretty lady walks through his door, so he’s fine, I guess?!
Technically, there are some interesting things going on in Punch Drunk Love. I do really love the washed out colour palette, and the score & soundscapes are interesting. Composer Jon Brion scored a lot of this movie while it was being shot & used the harmonium as a featured instrument in his composition.
But ultimately, this film is toxic, like every beat of it. In 2002, Anderson was at the end of a chaotic relationship with musician Fiona Apple, and based on her account, it doesn’t seem like Anderson had a grasp of what a healthy, caring partnership looked like. In her New Yorker profile from March 2020, she describes a relationship that “was painful and chaotic. They snorted cocaine and gobbled Ecstasy. Apple drank, heavily. Mostly… he was coldly critical, contemptuous in a way that left her fearful and numb.” Then there’s this anecdote that explains a lot about everyone involved: “She had quit cocaine years earlier, after spending ‘one excruciating night’ at Quentin Tarantino’s house, listening to him and Anderson brag. ‘Every addict should just get locked in a private movie theatre with Q.T. and P.T.A. on coke, and they’ll never want to do it again,’ she joked.”
For whatever reason, if you’re still like “but when I saw it 20 years ago I liked it!” let’s take a second to ponder this bit of trivia: when protagonist Barry punches his office wall, then rests a bloody hand on his piano, the cuts on his knuckles spell the word ‘love’. NO THANK YOU SIR. NO THANK YOU!
#6. MAGNOLIA — 1999
THIS IS A MOVIE ABOUT FEELINGS. AND FROGS.
Despite the drama around his first feature, Anderson had already started working on his follow-up, the 1997 break-out hit Boogie Nights. Following that success, he got carte-blanche to do basically whatever he wanted next, and many actors from Boogie Nights returned to work with him on this feature. He started pitching an idea for an intimate character project, but that somehow turned into Magnolia — an epic 3+ hour 9-person character ensemble with multiple 1-shot sequences, a sweeping orchestral score, and a sprawling 6-month production schedule. Everything ran long and over budget on what is essentially three different movies smashed into one. The result is a hot, beautiful mess, thanks to all the very talented people who just did the best they could.
I first saw this movie as an emotionally stunted teenager and fell head-over-heels in love with it. I thought it was daring, epic and deep (I was a teenager). Now, Magnolia feels so uncomfortable, like reading a teen’s diary. There are a lot of really brilliant sequences, like the two+ minute single-take shot that snakes through the game show studio, or everything Philip Seymour Hoffman does, or everything Julianne Moore does. Other parts are painfully dated — John C. Reilly’s loner policeman is supposed to be romantic, but he’s really creepy, and William H Macy is an example of the gayngst trope (gay angst) that I just wish would die & never grace my screen again. Together, these elements overwhelm each other and create a soupy mess of… something. There are frogs in it too.
That Moment, a behind-the-scenes documentary shot during the production of Magnolia, shows a fraction of the labour that went into realizing Anderson’s grandiose vision. He gives off lots of big ego chaos energy that seems so counter-productive. In it, Macy jokingly recounts his initial reaction to the script, saying “I went to Paul and I said ‘It’s great, it’s great, it’s a little long’ and he said ‘you fucking cocksucker, I’m not gonna cut one goddamned word of this thing!’” Later on, after listening to Anderson talk about how he’d made the poster & the trailer himself, Macy turns to the camera and deadpans “You know, he developed the film too. He sent it to a lab, he just didn’t like the work they were doing, so he set up a lab in his bathroom and he developed the film. … He ground the lenses, that we used in this film.” In a 2018 Reddit AMA, someone asked Anderson what he’d tell himself if he could go back to the set of Magnolia, to which he wrote “Chill The Fuck Out and Cut Twenty Minutes”.
The one thing that still really fascinates me about this movie, and what puts it ahead of Punch Drunk Love for me, is Tom Cruise’s storyline. His performance as misogynistic seduction guru Frank T.J. Mackey is unlike anything he’s ever done, and I especially love how that character is confronted by Gwenovier, a black female reporter (April Grace). Both of their performances are impeccable, and I really wish the movie was just Mackey fucking up his shitty “seduce and destroy” conference because a woman asked him about his mom.
#5. THE MASTER — 2012
Rounding out the bottom half of the Paul Thomas Anderson filmography is The Master, his 6th feature film, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Adams (in her perpetual role as The Bad Man’s Wife). This was one of Hoffman’s last films, and the last one he made with Anderson, having acted in 5 of Anderson’s 6 movies by the time he passed away in 2014. In his interview with Mark Maron in 2015, he said that he knew what love at first sight was like after seeing Hoffman in Scent of a Woman. “It was the strangest feeling sitting in a movie theater and thinking, ‘He’s for me and I’m for him.’ And that was it.” This movie was released over a decade after Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love, and already there’s a noticeable difference in how this film is constructed.
I admire this movie for two main reasons. First, the cult universe is really well crafted (one could even say it was inspired by the life of L. Ron Hubbard). The language they use is purposely dense and nonsensical, and we, like Phoenix’s character Freddy, have to struggle to figure out what the fuck these people are on about. The performances also capture the intense culty dissonance that comes with a belief system like this. And of course it wouldn’t be a PTA movie without some repressed-love vibes between Hoffman’s “Master” and Phoenix’s “student”. In that same Mark Maron interview, Anderson admitted “that’s probably why its a bit irritating, cuz you just want ’em to fucking start making out and get together.”
I also admire the cinematography, it is simply stunning. Anderson & cinematographer Mihai Malaimare chose to shoot the majority of this movie on super wide 65mm fine grain film stock with a variety of special lenses in order to mimic post-war still photography. When I think about this movie, I remember the breathtaking wide shots, the crisp & cool colours, and portraits of actors who occupy vast spaces with their presences.
For most directors working today, a movie like this would be considered among their best work. Every part of this film works together to convey the post-war void that drove so many people into movements like Scientology. It’s a technical masterpiece, and showcases cinematic excellence at all levels. But it’s a difficult watch, and since there’s not much joy throughout the story, it’s really hard to love.
#4. INHERENT VICE — 2014
Ok, here me out. Yes, this movie is almost incomprehensible on its first viewing. Yes, when I saw this in the theater, more people walked out during the movie than I’ve ever seen. And yes, I personally left that theater thinking “………..???????”. BUT. On my second viewing, it started to grow on me. If you are game to dive into a movie that is intentionally JUST VIBES, you’re gonna get a real kick out of this.
Inherent Vice is Anderson’s 7th film, and was released to very mixed reviews. Much was made in the media about this being the first ever adaptation of reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon’s work, a writer whose books are notoriously convoluted and dense. The story, set in 1970 Los Angeles, follows private investigator Doc Sportelo as he searches for his “ex-old lady” while navigating hippies, drugs, rage-aholic law enforcement, and a shadowy organization pulling everyone’s strings.
Stylistically, this is not what PTA fans were expecting, especially following his two previously very serious, straightforward films (There Will Be Blood and The Master). Inherent Vice is a gonzo slapstick film-noir, like a mash-up of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas and The Big Lebowski. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is hilarious and endearing, and the massive cast navigate the complex dialogue like it’s nothing at all. As has become a norm for Anderson, the colours and lighting are impeccable throughout every scene, thanks to Robert Elswit being back behind the camera.
This movie has a kindness to it that I haven’t seen anywhere else in Anderson’s work. It’s joyfully goofy, even though it juggles themes of addiction, denial, grief and mortality. Each sequence is it’s own beautiful, bizarre tableau, centering long takes and 2-shots (instead of cutting back and forth) that perpetuates a kind of paranoid, rhythmic tension.
This isn’t an easy film to love, but it gets richer and sweeter with every viewing. It’s a wonky jigsaw puzzle of a movie that Anderson has clearly assembled with love and devotion. In interviews he openly talked about his love for Pynchon’s work, while steadfastly protecting the author’s privacy. That defensive, possessive director from the early 00’s is nowhere in sight — Inherent Vice is miles from where we began.
#3. BOOGIE NIGHTS — 1997
This is the movie that broke open Anderson’s career. It’s energetic, entertaining & endearing with an impeccable ensemble cast and an amazing soundtrack. Yes, it’s about a 70’s porn star with a big 🍆 but it’s also about chosen family, and big dreams! Boogie Nights is a great example of the anti-character arc (something in a lot of Anderson’s work) — that is, characters who choose not to evolve. These characters mostly stay locked in their own bubble, for better or worse, which ultimately makes them achingly human.
During his struggles with his first feature, Anderson caught the eye of Michael De Luca at New Line Cinema. He then wrote a three+ hour script expanding his 1988 high school short film “The Dirk Diggler Story”. As he did on his next film Magnolia, he swore he wouldn’t cut any of it, and even settled for an R rating instead of NC-17 in order to keep the length. In a 1997 conversation with NPR’s Terry Gross, Anderson talked openly about his admiration for the cast while trying to please the MPAA so the movie would be rated R. “They had a problem with humping and talking at the same time” he explained, ultimately telling the actress to “‘hump once, stop, say your lines and we’ ll move on.’ And we did that, and put it in and got the R.” Good job, America.
There are also rumours that Burt Reynolds was really unhappy with the film. He told GQ in 2015 that he found Anderson to be young and full of himself, adding “every shot we did, it was like the first time [that shot had ever been done].” Still, he won a Golden Globe for his performance and was nominated for an Oscar in 1998. Julianne Moore was also nominated for her performance, alongside Anderson for his screenplay, which he ultimately lost to Weinstein’s favourite boys that year - Matt Damon & Ben Affleck (for Good Will Hunting). Still high on his own ego, the loss apparently set him off. In Fiona Apple’s 2020 New Yorker profile, they mention “After attending the 1998 Academy Awards, [Anderson] threw a chair across a room. Apple remembers telling herself, ‘Fuck this, this is not a good relationship.’”
This film remains a crowd favourite, with good reason. But this movie has a big, glaring problem, that pesky ‘gayngst’ trope I mentioned earlier. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a boom mic operator who’s desperately infatuated with Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler. Hoffman plays his character as wimpy, pathetic and obsessive. Why? Why make this choice, Paul? The “closeted and miserable” trope is hacky, despite being popular in many Oscar-bait films (looking at you, American Beauty). Not only does this feed into the “gay villain” trope, but it adds to the hetero-centric narrative that being queer means a life of misery, which is not true. Why can’t gay people just be happy in your movies, Paul??
#2. PHANTOM THREAD — 2018
Phantom Thread is Anderson’s most recent film, and supposedly Daniel Day-Lewis’s last. Together, they developed this monstrous man-child of a character named Reynolds Woodcock, annnnd honestly I’ll never sleep again! The intensity with which these characters stare at each other has given me actual nightmares while writing this list, and for reasons I don’t understand, that makes me love this movie so much more.
Anderson traveled to England for this production, and the crew took over an old Georgian Townhouse in London to shoot the majority of the movie. They used 35mm film and calibrated the lighting to pull out more grain from the film stock, giving it that washed-out, hazy kind of look. The costumes were meticulously constructed by Mark Bridges (who also designed the wardrobes for There Will Be Blood and Inherent Vice), and he created an entire fashion line for the fictional fashion house. The film grain and the fabrics combined created truly mouth-watering textures that digital projections just cannot replicate.
When comparing a film like this to Anderson’s earlier work, I admire how this movie seems wholly removed from his personal experiences. Even though the inspiration may have started from a personal place, this narrative and these characters were designed after months of writing, talking, and collaboration. When I watch this, I feel like I’m watching something crafted with intention and care, as opposed to some frantic collage of a strung-out kid.
I love every part of this fucked up movie. I love the performances of Vicky Krieps and Leslie Manville, especially when they put a petulant Day-Lewis in his place. I love the sheer will that Krieps conveys with every look she gives. I love how this movie feels both delicate and filthy — it’s revolting, and also deeply funny. Every viewing has me glued to the screen, and I don’t think there’s much more to ask from a film.
#1. THERE WILL BE BLOOD — 2007
There Will Be Blood is Anderson’s 5th movie, and was a massive turning point in his career. It also features the angriest mustache to ever grace the screen! Released five years after Punch Drunk Love, there is a lifetime of difference in vision, character development and craft between the two films. Based on part of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, TWBB earned Daniel Day-Lewis his 2nd Academy Award, and cinematographer Robert Elswit his first. They traveled to west Texas to shoot the vast landscapes that mimic early 1900’s California. Oddly enough, the Cohen Brothers were also out there shooting No Country For Old Men, and the two amazing films ended up competing with each other throughout 2008’s awards season. That year, I argued with friends at a bar 'til it closed over who was the better villain — Daniel Plainview or Anton Chigurh (sadly I cannot remember any of the actual arguments, only the hangover).
This film is a great example of how to make your protagonist a villain, without asking the audience to empathize with him. Plainview is a character who refuses to consider anything beyond his own drive. He pushes away anyone who dares to need empathy or kindness. Any perceived weakness seems revolting to him. He explains his own motivations in a rare moment of self reflection: “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people. … I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone.” As is the norm for Day-Lewis, he was very particular about which hat his character would wear in order to embody Plainview’s cold demeanor, eventually settling on a sturdy wide-brimmed fedora, thanks to the guidance of costume designer Mark Bridges.
While the performances are amazing (the way he screams “Draaaiiiiiiinaaaaaage!!” at end is both so terrifying and hilarious), and the cinematography is stunning, it’s Johnny Greenwood’s first ever film score that puts this film at number 1 for me. His composition during the oil derrick fire sequence sends tingles down my spine on every viewing. Same goes for the track Future Markets which scores an approaching train spewing black smoke into the clear blue sky. The score feels like a warning cry, like a battle between encroaching machinery and a chorus of generations out of time, cursing the greedy and ambition of these men who bleed the earth dry.
To me this film feels like a prophecy.
BC — April 2021