We’ve ranked the feature films of Paul Thomas Anderson from worst to best in celebration of his latest release.
The ninth film from everybody’s favorite auteur-but-not-pretentious-about-it filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson just hit theaters to pretty widespread acclaim. The San Fernando writer/director has been putting basically all other filmmakers to shame since his feature debut in 1996 with Hard Eight, followed by his explosive sophomore effort Boogie Nights. Since then, critics and film bro’s alike have gone weak in the knees at the mere mention of a new PT Anderson project, and were given the greatest Christmas gift of all this year with yet another banger from the filmmaker in the form of Licorice Pizza. To celebrate its release, we’ve painstakingly ranked all of his films from worst to best, if it even makes sense to call any of his films as “worst.” Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.
9. HARD EIGHT
Hard Eight is an incredible film, an absolute banger of an indie darling, and a remarkable character study that touches on themes of trust, addiction, love, coming of age, and consequences. It’s a wonderful debut that barely feels like a first feature, and that this one is at the very bottom of the list of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films should tell you all you need to know about what this guy brings to the cinematic table.
MVP: Phillip Baker Hall? In a beautifully written leading role? Playing a veteran gambler with a heart of gold despite having no trouble pulling the trigger on someone that tries to mess with his happiness? What’s not to love?
Best Quote: “Never ignore a man’s courtesy.” —Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall)
Best Line Reading: “I will f*ck you up if you f*ck with me, ok? I know three kinds of Karate: Jujitsu, Aikido, and regular Karate.” –John (John C. Reilly)
8. INHERENT VICE
Paul Thomas Anderson is something of a Robert Altman heir-apparent, and Inherent Vice might be the closest we’ll get to a PTA version of The Long Goodbye. Based on the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name, this bleary-eyed SoCal bong rip of a private detective romp follows a bleary-eyed SoCal bong ripper of a private detective (Joaquin Phoenix) doing his best to unravel a mystery that seems to make less and less sense regardless of the amount of pot smoked. Phoenix bumbles around Southern California in a constant hippie dream-like slow motion, crossing paths with a variety of oddball players, from Josh Brolin’s frozen-banana-deep-throating cop, to Martin Short’s crab-walking, coke-crazed dentist. Like the source material, PT Anderson’s Inherent Vice makes less sense with the more sense you try to make of it, and is best served with several grains of salt, ideally rimming a margarita glass.
MVP: Martin Short as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, D.D.S. Short was snubbed for a Supporting Actor nod at the Oscars (Inherent Vice earned one nomination for PTA’s adapted screenplay), perhaps because the role was too small, or perhaps because the oddity of Inherent Vice was largely misunderstood and overlooked following the looming shadows of The Master and, PTA’s biggest Oscars juggernaut, to date, There Will Be Blood.
Best Quote: “It’s groovy to be insane, man, where you at?” —Denis (Jordan Christian Hearn)
Best Line Reading: Less of a line reading, and more of a line screaming — The way Joaquin Phoenix screams when he looks at that photograph.
7. THE MASTER
Sex. Power. More sex. More power. Eventually, they become the same thing (as if they weren’t already). The Master takes aim at power tripping and masculinity complexes as they exist entangled with the primal nature of sex. Really, The Master could be about anything because, at the end of the day, the film is a showcase for the powerhouse performances of Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and PT Anderson’s usual suspect Phillip Seymour Hoffman (in his final collaboration with the filmmaker before his untimely death) more than anything. The Master also features some mind-numbingly wicked cinematography, courtesy of Mihai Malaimare Jr., effectively ushering in (on the heels of There Will Be Blood) PTA’s string of gorgeously shot and atmospherically drenched period pieces. As far as commentary goes, the film is a searing, albeit intentionally vague, indictment of the psychological absurdity of certain cults and religions (such as Scientology, though never explicitly confirmed). Paul isn’t exactly one to shy away from robust social commentary, but the anti-heavy-handedness with which he pulls it off is effortless and, frankly, a little bit magic.
Best Quote: “Leave your worries for a while. They’ll be here when you get back.” —Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman)
Best Line Reading: “No more of that boy’s hooch.” —Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams)
Best Scene/Sequence: Has there ever been a better, more twisted, more darkly hilarious hand job ever featured in a motion picture? The film’s best line reading occurs during its best and most twistedly funny scene. Amy Adams giving Phillip Seymour Hoffman a pity tug in from of the bathroom sink is the unsung centerpiece of the film. It’s such a small scene that simultaneously reinforces and tears down both major thematic tenets of the story– sex and power.
6. BOOGIE NIGHTS
Paul Thomas Anderson may have burst onto the filmmaking radar in a big way with Hard Eight, but it was his second feature that catapulted him to the status of bonafide, Hollywood rockstar. Boogie Nights, is a story about the coke-fueled, porn-soaked pitfalls of fame, stardom, and power– themes PTA would revisit later in vastly different and infinitely thoughtful ways through Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master, Phantom Thread, and Licorice Pizza. Here, it’s about Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg, being the most Mark Wahlberg but the least annoying he’ll ever be), a kid from California with an enormous, engorged talent that catches the eye of Burt Reynolds’ porn director. With a cast that literally makes you blurt out, “Oh man, they’re in this, too?” at just about every turn, the slam dunk success of Boogie Nights is the reason we’ve got everything that came after it, especially the film that immediately followed (more on that later).
MVP: Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s pitiful, puppy dog fanboy. It’s painful to watch at times but, trust me, if you remind yourself that it’s only a movie, the performance (minor as the character may be) is one of Hoffman’s sneaky best.
Best Quote: “There’s shadows in life, baby.” —Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds)
Best Line Reading: “I’m looking forward to seeing you in action. Jack says you’ve got a great, big cock.” —The Colonel (Robert Ridgely)
Best Scene/Sequence: All of the footage of Mark Wahlberg and John C. Reilly as Brock Landers and Chest Rockwell. Simply… *chef’s kiss*
5. LICORICE PIZZA
PTA drifts back toward ensemble territory (something we’ve not seen from him since Magnolia) in a small way with this year’s Licorice Pizza, a 70s coming of age story that’s so damn good it feels impossible not to have existed for as long as it did. It feels reductive to bill it as a story of a cheeky entrepreneur child actor in the San Fernando valley and his relationship with this older woman that would love nothing more than to clock the living daylights out of every man that looks sideways at her, because the film– and the experience of seeing it– is so much more. Featuring some sure-to-be-iconic supporting turns from the likes of Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, and Benny Safdie, and lead by two home-run performances from Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim that are made even more incredible by the fact that both of them are making their film debuts, Licorice Pizza is the kind of movie that may go under appreciated now, but this is the kind of flick that your dad will call you about in twenty years because he’s watching it on TNT at one in the morning and he can’t believe he’s never seen before. And, as if that weren’t all enough, it’s a rare reminder of the correct way to use a kick-ass soundtrack not just as an underscore, but as a way to tell and propel the story.
MVP: Harriet Sansom Harris’ scene-stealing bit role in Phantom Thread earned her another spot on the Paul Thomas Anderson all-star lineup, this time as a Hollywood agent in a single scene, during which she eats up every word of dialogue like a delicious, succulent ham as if it was the last meal she’d ever have.
Best Quote: “I’m not going to forget you. Just like you’re not going to forget me.” —Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman)
Best Line Reading: Anything that comes out of Bradley Cooper’s mouth, but especially: “My only problem in life is that I love tail too much. I love it. I love it so much. I love it so much… I love it so much, it’s gonna kill me one day.” —John Peters (Bradley Cooper)
Best Blink-And-You-Miss-It Line: “Yes, I’m the real Herman Munster.” —Herman Munster (John C. Reilly)
4. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE
This is the story of Superman. It’s not, but it is, in its own warped way. Punch-Drunk Love tells the story of Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) an everyman superhero that just hasn’t grown into his super-ness yet, and what he lacks in confidence or bravery, he more than makes up for in depression, anxiety, and a heart full of so much love he doesn’t know where to put it all (a recurring minor theme for PT Anderson). All of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are a little bit like fairytales, or cautionary folklore, and this is no exception. Punch-Drunk Love feels, moves, and looks like a dream: the camera rarely stops moving, the colors and lights sizzle and pop across the screen with lens flares abound, and the unsentimental, decidedly-anti-Spielbergian triumph of the human spirit launches the story to emotional heights reserved typically for films that do lean into that Spielbergian over-sentimentalization of its characters, their tribulations, and their pathos. But Paul Thomas Anderson, who scooped himself up a Best Director prize from Cannes for this outing, isn’t interested in any of that nonsense. Punch-Drunk Love is a singularly awkward, unimpeachably lovable fairytale in which Paul Thomas Anderson is interested in pointing and fixing a camera on Adam Sandler, simply because “he makes me laugh.”
Best Quote: “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. I would say that’s that, Mattress Man.” —Barry Egan (Adam Sandler)
Best Line Reading: “No, no, no, shut up! Shut the fuck up. Shut up, will you shut up? Shut up. Shut- shut- shut- shut- SHUT UP. Shut up. Now… are you threatening me, dick?” —Dean Trumbell (Phillip Seymour Hoffman)
Best Scene/Sequence: Adam Sandler going literal toe-to-toe with Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a cinematic experience to behold.
3. THERE WILL BE BLOOD
In which Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis team up to absolutely drag capitalism. Not only drag it but beat it up, light it on fire, drag it through the mud, and toss it off the side of a bridge, all without breaking a sweat. But despite all the dragging, the real brilliance of it is that they actually have you rooting for capitalism the whole oily way. The mastery of PTA and DDL’s respective crafts coalescing with There Will Be Blood was like the merging of two galaxies in outer space, but instead of it wreaking cosmic havoc to everything in and around them, it produced this enormous, gorgeous swirl of artistry that makes everyone staring up at the stars through a telescope in 2007 how this convergence never existed until then. The relationship works so well because, at least from the view through this telescope, those two knuckleheads are made of the same weird, wicked, black comedy stardust. There Will Be Blood is so close to being in the number one spot on this list. In fact, my arrangement of the top three or four on this list probably changes depending on the day of the week and the state of my mental health. And while this one may not always be in the number one spot of Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography, it is undoubtedly the best American film of the 21st century.
MVP: It’s hard to pick anyone other than Daniel Day-Lewis (not that he doesn’t deserve it) when his mean, mustachioed mug occupies nearly every frame and sequence of this film. It’s a towering performance that somehow feels forgotten, if ever even heard of (“What’s There Will Be Blood?” “Oh, I think I heard of that.”). For a film with such staggering cinematic enormity, its reach extends so far past the social atmosphere that it feels like an underdog indie that flew under the radar at some film festivals. But DDL’s performance, like the film itself, are the things we’ll remember ten, twenty, fifty years down the line, so long as we have annoying cinephiles like me that grab you by the collar and scream incoherently at you about drinking milkshakes until you simply cannot forget it.
Best Quote: “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” —Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis)
Best Line Reading(s): Literally everything and anything that Daniel Day-Lewis says. Here are some highlights:
•“I told you I would eat you up.”
•“They should have put you in a glass jar on the mantelpiece.”
•“Can I build around fifty miles of Tehachapi mountains? Don’t be thick in front of me, Al.”
Best Scene/Sequence: The best sequence is probably the point at which the movie begins, and then wraps up right as the credits roll.
2. PHANTOM THREAD
If there’s one person who can drag Daniel Day-Lewis out of the depths of retirement, it’s got to be Paul Thomas Anderson. The pair are two for two when it comes to collaborations, the second of which, Phantom Thread, is an honest to gosh masterpiece in every sense of the word. Take your pick: performances, cinematography, score, lighting, costuming, colors, camera angles, unspoken tension, sideways glances, spoons scraping teeth, lavish New Years Eve parties, antagonistic mushrooms… It’s all there. Phantom Thread is the story of 1950s dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (DDL) in postwar London, a confirmed bachelor who finally meets his match in the form of a just-another muse (Vicky Krieps). The psychological warfare betwixt the two of them, not to mention the added deliciousness of Reynolds’ sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), drives the film from ominous, fireside start, to fucked-up fairytale finish. It’s far and away the cinematic masterpiece of Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography to date.
MVP: It’s thought out there in time and space, and even tougher to be stacked against Daniel Day-Lewis in a cast. Lesley Manville is not only up for the challenge, but relishes it. Manville’s deliciousness with which she delivers every word as DDL’s sister and business partner earned her an Oscar nod for Supporting Actress (the film surprised that year, tallying up 6 Oscar nods including Picture, Director, and Actor) and her brilliant cadence led to some of the film’s most memorable quotes, including…
Best Quote: “Don’t pick a fight with me. You certainly won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through you, and it’ll be you who ends up on the floor. Understood?” —Cyril Woodcock (Lesley Manville)
Best Line Reading: “Sixteen and a half. Eight and a half. You have no breasts. Twenty-two…” —Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis)
Best Scene/Sequence: There’s a ton of comedy in this film, dark or hidden as it may be, but the best sequence is one of its most earnest: the New Years Eve party. I don’t know why, but it makes me cry (I do know why: it’s because it’s a masterpiece).
After the success of Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson was basically given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. What came out of it was not only one of the best and most energetic, eccentric, and entertaining ensemble black dramedies of all time, but a film that forced the viewer to think about their lives and their loves and their existences in ways that no other film has come close to provoking. Magnolia is PTA’s magnum opus, a film that chronicles the both casual and wildly specific interweaving narratives of a group of people in the San Fernando valley across a single day. It’s an epic, psychological study of forgiveness, happiness, misery, happenstance, fate, redemption, and meaning. It’s a film that, as a cautionary tale, challenges the notions of what it means to be alive and how we look at ourselves in the mirror. It’s a film that, as a film, challenges all other films to be anywhere as downright good as it is, in the most unassuming and effortless of ways. While Magnolia may not be his most visually impressive, nor his most crowd-pleasing, nor boast the most accolade-worthy performances, it is, without a doubt, Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film.
MVP: Tom Cruise was never better before and has not been better since his role as Frank T.J. Mackey. Period.
Best Quote: “And I’ll die. Now I’ll die and I’ll tell you what. The biggest regret of my life. I let my love go. What did I do? I’m 65 years old and I’m ashamed. A million years ago. The fucking regret and guilt, these things, don’t ever let anyone ever say yo you you shouldn’t regret anything. Don’t do that. Don’t. You regret what you fucking want. Use that, use that. Use that regret for anything, anyway you want. You can use it, ok? Oh god, this is a long way to go with no punch. A little moral story, I say. Love. Love. Love. This fucking life. Oh.., it’s so fucking hard, so long. Life ain’t short, it’s long. It’s long, goddamn it. God damn… what did I do? What did I do? What did I do? What did I do?” —Earl Partridge (Jason Robards)
Best Line Reading: “I want you to come in with me, and I want you to stay away from me. I want you there in case he needs anything, ‘cause I am not gonna help him. And, Phil? I will dropkick the fucking dogs if they come near me.” —Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise)
Best Scene/Sequence: The “Wise Up” Aimee Mann pseudo-music video. I think the first time I saw this happen, my jaw was on the floor, like, this is something that’s happening in this movie that I’m watching in real life? It’s one of the many sequences across the film (and the only to specifically connect each ensemble member in a direct, albeit entirely filmic, way) that lifts your heart out of your chest and reminds you that this is what movies can do, and it’s why Paul Thomas Anderson is one of our greatest living filmmakers.