The filmography of Paul Thomas Anderson ranked

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See how the director’s latest film, “Phantom Thread,” ranks in this brief retrospective of Paul Thomas Anderson’s acclaimed filmography

Hard Eight (Sydney)

The black sheep of the list, it’s easy to forget just how effective of a film “Hard Eight” is. Mangled in post-production by an overbearing distributor, “Hard Eight” still comes off as a tightly plotted, character-driven thriller. Featuring Philip Baker Hall in one of his best performances, “Hard Eight” follows an aging criminal and his budding friendship with a kid struggling to score some cash at a casino.

While Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are known for their sincere and messy emotional content, Hard Eight stands out for just how cool it is. Mainly inspired by the thrillers of Jean Pierre Melville, PTA allows Hall to glide through the casino with a swagger and confidence associated with Alain Delon. It’s a sharp, tight, calculated punch to the gut.

Magnolia

“Magnolia” seems to be one of those films that works in spite of itself. It’s a bit too long (by the director’s own admission), features some unresolved plot threads, and can be a little too show-offy for its own good. But by the time the film ends, it’s impossible to deny the emotional and cathartic impact it brings. By stitching together a myriad of plot threads and stories, “Magnolia” brings forth a powerful and intelligent tale of guilt, identity, grief, and family. Yet, the film never allows itself to barrel into full-on melodrama. Instead, it constantly maintains a darkly comedic tone that runs alongside its emotionally charged story. Featuring some career best performances from the likes of Tom Cruise, John C. Reilly, and Melora Walters, this movie is the definition of a flawed masterpiece.

Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film is, at once, his most accessible and his strangest film in a while. On its surface, it’s a sweeping period romance, complete with detailed sets, ornate costumes, and committed performances from some of Europe’s finest actors.

But, upon further inspection, Phantom Thread reveals itself to be a deeply twisted, unsettling, and surprisingly funny dissection of a dysfunctional relationship. Featuring a high final note in Daniel Day Lewis’s acclaimed career and a stunning breakout performance from Vicky Krieps, PTA has crafted a costume drama that’s less “Titanic and more the result of his own obsessions with disturbing characters.

There Will Be Blood

It speaks to PTA’s mastery of the craft that a staggering film like There Will Be Blood is ranked in the bottom half of the list. After the visual pyrotechnics of his previous work, PTA adopts a style that, while equally epic, is restrained to the point of near frustration. Its execution is a combination of David Lean and Stanley Kubrick and its story unfolds like a classic novel.

Featuring iconic performances from Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano, PTA weaves a compelling tale of greed, corruption, religion, and capitalism all through his singularly character driven lens. It may not be at the top of the list, but it easily stands as one of the most important American films released in the 21st century.

Boogie Nights

It’s easy to compare “Boogie Nights'” delirious style with Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.” The two films both share the same cocaine-fueled kinetics, the wall-to-wall needle drops, and even the same general outline of the “rise and fall” story arc. However, “Boogie Nights” retains PTA’s great sense of character. Here, he paints the 1970’s porn scene with an eccentric, but endearing, cast of characters. What’s important to note here is that this film never glamorizes or condemns the lifestyles of these characters. Rather, it looks at their lives with a profound sense of empathy and clarity, bringing us uncommon insight into the kinds of filmmakers Hollywood usually overshadows.

Inherent Vice

Misunderstood upon its first release as a rambling, plotless, confusing mess, “Inherent Vice” eventually started to gain cult status as… a rambling, plotless, confusing mess. It’s hard to pin down exactly what makes “Inherent Vice” such a memorable film, but if I were to try I’d say it’s the tone.

PTA nails a deceptively tricky balancing act. It’s funny as hell, sure, and the satirical elements are always sharp. But there’s this great underlying layer of melancholy beneath it. We see it in Joaquin Phoenix’s eyes when he’s thinking about his ex-girlfriend, or in the kaleidoscope of colors that Robert Elswit uses to paint the nostalgic past. Every time I watch this film, I feel like I’m discovering something new, yet I still have no idea what the plot is. That’s kind of the fun of it. Just sit back, and enjoy the ride.

The Master

This has got to be one of the most difficult movies made by a Hollywood studio. “The Master” is kind of a miracle. It’s a period piece epic/Freudian psychodrama using the history of Scientology as a backdrop. If that doesn’t sound like the weirdest thing to come out in theaters then I’d really like to know what kind of theaters you’ve been going to.

This is easily PTA’s least accessible film, and it’s one that I didn’t like that much upon first viewing. But, after several viewings, the film’s bizarre story started to grow on me and, suddenly, this thorny character study about cultism, PTSD, and sexual dysfunction was… kind of sweet?

I realized that this was basically a movie about two social outcasts finding companionship with one another. Now, it’s ended up becoming one of my favorite movies of this century and the fact that it contains career-best performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t hurt.

 

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