Because today (26 June 2020) is the 50th birthday of director Paul Thomas Anderson, here’s a rundown of his eight feature films so far – ranked in order of preference…
8 – Inherent Vice (2014)
A disappointing period film-noir starring Joaquin Phoenix as a hippie private eye involved in several not-very-interesting cases. The slow and erratic tone suits its drug-taking characters, but few elements catch your interest. Dazed and confused.
7 – The Master (2012)
Dominated by two characters – Joaquin Phoenix’s compulsive, damaged Navy vet Freddie Quell and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s seemingly calm and charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd – this film is about many things. It’s a critique of post-war America, a satire of cynical religion, an examination of an unhealthy father/son-like bond. These themes and more are all part of a sometimes fascinating, sometimes meandering 120 minutes, but the film often seems reluctant to draw any conclusions. The contrast between Phoenix and Hoffman’s acting styles is compelling, though – the former gives an Actors Studio performance of anger and ticks and extreme posture, while the latter has an old-school power that comes from stillness and control.
6 – Hard Eight (1996)
Anderson’s debut is part of that subset of mid-90s movies that came along in the wake of Quentin Tarantino‘s early success. It’s a crime story with a focus on everyday dialogue, an opening scene in a diner (a la Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction), a confident man dressed in a black suit and tie, and even the presence of Samuel L Jackson in the cast. But Hard Eight is more considered than QT rip-offs like Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995) and 2 Days in the Valley (1996). It’s also lower-key, only really featuring four characters: expert gambler Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), his naive protégé John (John C Reilly), a hooker with a heart called Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Jackson’s shady criminal. Anderson had the film taken away from him in post-production, much to his chagrin; the title was also changed from Sydney against his objections. It passes the time well enough without ever feeling vital.
5 – Phantom Thread (2017)
Haute couture fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis in his last film before retiring) is a revered and successful genius, but also a temperamental, arrogant man-child. His tightly defined life is then knocked off-kilter when he falls for a waitress called Alma (Vicky Krieps, superb). He takes her as his muse and, later, his lover – and for a while the film seems to be playing out a 1950s version of My Fair Lady. But the complex Alma is moulding Reynolds just as much as he is her… Glacially slow at times but always graceful and with lots of detail, the film also features a terrific Lesley Manville as Reynolds’s steely sister/manager, Cyril.
4 – Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
In this perverse take on the romantic-comedy genre, business owner Barry Egan falls for a friend of his sister… while at the same time evading extortionists who conned him when he phoned a sex chatline. He’s also trying to exploit a coupon offer and having to deal with some major anger issues. The shortest film Anderson has yet made, it feels taut and claustrophobic, and we’re quickly drawn into Barry’s jittery, paranoiac world. Adam Sandler is very impressive as the impulsive and compulsive Barry, while Philip Seymour Hoffman also has an enjoyable small role. (The critic Mark Kermode has argued that Punch-Drunk Love is a Superman movie in disguise. Watching it with this in mind, you do spot some parallels – especially with the blue-and-red design of Superman’s costume.)
3 – There Will Be Blood (2007)
Sometimes cited as the best film so far of the 21st century, this is a perfectly paced period-drama epic about a turn-of-the-century oilman dragging himself up from nothing to a fortune. It’s headlined by a searing performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, who combines theatrics with genuine emotion. The storytelling has both an enormous, mythic sweep and plenty of insightful character moments, while the attention to detail in the production design, set dressing and choice of locations is absolutely stunning. You really feel the grime and the slickness of Daniel Plainview’s oily world. The doom-laden incidental music, by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, also fits the tone perfectly.
2 – Boogie Nights (1997)
Wearing its influences (Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman) proudly on its shiny, patterned sleeve, Anderson’s second film is an absolute monster – just like its lead character’s most prized asset. Aggrieved by how he’d been treated with Hard Eight, the writer/director resolved to make a sprawling, self-indulgent epic and set it in the world of the 1970s/80s pornography boom. The story follows an up-and-multiple-comer called Dirk Diggler (a fantastic Mark Wahlberg), whose natural attributes soon make him the biggest star in the hedonistic sub-culture. It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt…. The large cast is wonderful (worth especial praise are Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Don Cheadle), while Anderson stages several scenes in audacious long takes. The soundtrack is also a mix-tape of joyful 70s and 80s classics.
1 – Magnolia (1999)
A three-hour, multi-character behemoth, which follows various interlinked stories across 24 hours in Los Angeles. The stellar cast includes Anderson regulars William H Macy, Julianne Moore, John C Reilly, Philip Baker Hall and Philip Seymour Hoffman plus star names like Tom Cruise and Jason Robards. The character-based stories cover anger, anxiety, death, regret and change – huge, mythical themes being played out in everyday situations. A movie that cross-pollinates seemingly separate storylines wasn’t a new idea. Magnolia owes a huge debt to Altman’s Short Cuts as well as to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. But the magic here lies in the way that Anderson compares and contrasts. We get a godlike perspective as overarching events (a surreal rainfall of frogs, for example) impact more than one story at the same time. Masterful.