One of the most acclaimed directors under the age of 50, Paul Thomas Anderson is a master of character-driven dramas. He is known for working with some of the world’s finest actors in films about obsessive men. Some of those men are obsessed with such predictable vices as gambling (“Hard Eight”), porn (“Boogie Nights”) and drugs (“Inherent Vice”).
The poison of other obsessive men in Anderson’s films has been more complex — a mind-controlling religious cult (“The Master”), the oil industry (“There Will be Blood”), sexual politics (“Magnolia”) and haute-couture dressmaking (“Phantom Thread”). Anderson’s actors never disappoint, but occasionally his dramas do. We take a look at the eight films PTA has made in a little over two decades, and rate them worst to best.
8. “Inherent Vice” (2014) • Fans insist the film requires at least two viewings, but the idea feels more like punishment than enlightenment. Maybe it’s only worth watching this cannabis-infused tale of 1970s stoner life with sufficient weed at hand. This incoherent, absurdist examination of capitalist excess may put all but diehards off. Some of that may be attributable to Thomas Pynchon’s dense source material — to which Anderson was notably faithful, particularly in much of the dialogue — but the filmmaker’s interpretation of the noir novel’s plot feels muddled and tedious, despite the all-star cast which includes Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro.
7. “Phantom Thread” (2017) • While this is a less popular view, it may be because most film critics are men who regard the obsessions of an ill-tempered and selfish dandy intriguing, while women may find it tiresome. Or even offensive. The story of an abusive genius seems particularly ill-timed in this #MeToo era. While the production design is lavishly brocaded, the acting (especially by Daniel Day-Lewis as self-absorbed fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock) is masterful, the story feels too off-putting to work as a romantic drama. We know too little about Woodcock’s motivations or inner life. We only know that he is massively controlling, easily annoyed and excessively irritating. Let’s hope it’s not really Daniel Day Lewis’ last acting role.
6. “The Master” (2012) • It’s bittersweet to watch this character study of a charismatic cult leader now, after the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman is enthralling in the title role, patterned after Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Joaquin Phoenix is also compelling. The ambitious film, however, is uneven. It has moments that are beautiful rendered and deeply haunting, bolstered by sumptuous cinematography, and others that are enigmatic to the point of infuriating. It’s both too sprawling and yet doesn’t provide enough character development. Side stories don’t seem to go anywhere amid unanswered motivational questions.
5.”Hard Eight” (1996) • PTA’s confident, yet low-key first feature starred actors who became his regular ensemble players in his first few movies — Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Luis Guzmán, Philip Baker Hall. Hall, particularly, is one of the best-ever character actors. And yet awards honoring Hall’s talents have mystifyingly eluded him, though his two SAG nominations came as part of Anderson’s ensemble casts (“Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia”). Hall’s humanity shines through here. The film also lent gravitas to a young Gwyneth Paltrow and included then-up-and-coming actors like Samuel L. Jackson. The dialogue is sharp and unstrained, the characters compelling, and the performances memorable.
4. “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002) • Though known best for its stunt casting of Adam Sandler in a serious role, this oddly moving comedy actually showcases the comic actor’s astonishing acting ability in a film that blends drama and comedy. Sure, it may be the movie that Sandler haters point to as his only tolerable one, but it’s far more than that. Sandler plays a lonely, socially awkward plumbing salesman. He has an obsessive streak — to acquire a million frequent-flier miles — and is prone to occasional sudden bursts of temper. Then he meets a woman he can love in Emily Watson, whose character, unfortunately, is not well enough developed. But this is the only Anderson movie that clocks in under 90 minutes and that can be categorized as a rom-com, albeit one with a melancholy and unsettling underbelly.
3. “There Will be Blood” (2007) • An epic tale of a rapacious oil pioneer, played impeccably by Daniel Day-Lewis, it’s a supremely American film: sprawling, relentless and centered on a man’s insatiable appetites. Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview will stop at nothing to attain his goal. He’s beyond deceptive and manipulative, eventually leaving the realm of sanity. Loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil!” — which was loosely based on the life of oilman Edwin Doheny — this tale of false prophets and massive profits is ultimately a kind of parable. The vistas are beautifully composed by regular Anderson cinematographer Robert Elswit. Stunning twists abound; the ending will stay with viewers long afterward. It’s Anderson’s “Citizen Kane,” brilliantly demonstrating his uncompromising and singular vision.
2. “Boogie Nights” (1997) • The film that put PTA on the map, it’s a fascinating, electrically charged and thoroughly entertaining exploration of the world of porn film production in the San Fernando Valley in the late 1970s. It manages to be equal parts unflinching portrait and humanist saga, all the while filled with grace and style. Its wide-ranging cast included veteran actors like Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore and Alfred Molina and star-making roles for then-newcomers Heather Graham and the pop star formerly known as Marky Mark. Other notable performances by Don Cheadle, Luis Guzmán, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly rounded out this sweeping, exuberant, original and thoroughly involving yarn that palpably evoked the disco era. It was the movie everyone was talking about 20 years ago, and it holds up brilliantly.
1. “Magnolia” (1999) • A multi-layered, exhilarating, and deeply moving film about the interconnections between people in crisis, this is Anderson’s masterpiece. Hugely ambitious, it may also be the most divisive of his films. Face it, you either love or hate the biblical rain of frogs set to an Aimee Mann tune. But for many of us, that scene is transcendent, and the film is easily one of the most powerful, emotional movie experiences ever. As a plus, it features the best-ever performance by Tom Cruise (and a complete departure for the action star) as a bombastic and misogynist MRA guru. It’s also the last big-screen performance by the great Jason Robards as, fittingly, a dying man. The man’s raging young wife is indelibly played by Julianne Moore, and his dutiful, sad-eyed nurse is beautifully portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. John C. Reilly’s cop and the coke-addled woman he tries to save, played by Melora Walters, are heart-wrenching. The style of interweaving, overlapping stories and slow reveals is reminiscent of Robert Altman. Once we piece everything together, we are left shaken and deeply stirred by this astonishing mosaic of lost and damaged souls.