One of the finest writer / directors of this (or indeed any) generation is the masterful auteur Paul Thomas Anderson. With a new film set for release this winter, a period drama set in 1950s London, Anderson again teams up with Sir Daniel Day-Lewis and composer Jonny Greenwood, to surely produce a serious contender in the 2018 Academy Awards season.
With only 7 feature films to date, you would think that selecting a PTA top 5 would be relatively straight forward. However, it’s incredibly difficult. When compared to other modern writer / directors e.g. Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Kevin Smith, The Coen Brothers etc, all of whom I absolutely love, there are no PTA films that I feel are weak or that I can say I didn’t particularly enjoy as much as the others. For me, the aforementioned directors all have great films, good films, mediocre films and weaker films. I genuinely would struggle to class any Paul Thomas Anderson film as less than great.
Before I descend into the top 5, I must warn you that it’s a subjective top 5 countdown and I’m sure many people would completely disagree with my ranking. That’s fine though, I’ll try and make my case as well as I can, but do please remember, I think all of these films are terrific pieces of work. Also, this top 5 is interchangeable daily. After re-watching all of Anderson’s films in quick succession, this is purely where I’m at as of today.
The 2 that unfortunately didn’t make the top 5 cut are PTA’s debut feature and his latest release. 1996’s Hard Eight or Sydney as it’s known in some territories is a wonderful drama about the world of professional gambling. With supporting performances from Samuel L. Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow, Hard Eight would be the first assembling of a collection of actors that would help form the Paul Thomas Anderson stable, and feature in his subsequent releases for years to come. Namely Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Inherent Vice is a superb, drug-fueled, noir-esque mystery / drama. Set in 1970, the film has one of the best designs and soundtracks of any of Anderson’s films. Alongside the rich pop soundtrack featuring artists such as Neil Young, Jonny Greenwood’s original score is some of his best work to date. Any other day, these film’s may have snuck into the top 5, however it’s a water tight list.
5. Boogie Nights (1997)
One of the greatest ensemble casts in the history of cinema. Boogie Nights is a snappy glimpse into the adult film industry. Set in the late 1970s, the film centres around an erotic film producer played by Burt Reynolds (in an Oscar nominated performance) and his latest discovery, an up and coming star played by Mark Wahlberg. The film shows the highs and colossal lows of an industry struggling to adjust to the modern world. As the 70s end and 1980 begins the anti-heroes are thrown into disarray as their winning production formula is under threat from a new breed of adult filmmakers. The story descends into chaos involving prostitution, drug addiction, robbery and suicide and showcases the darkest possible side of an incredibly fickle business.
For me this is probably Anderson’s most accessible film. It feels like a mainstream production throughout and has whispers of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, a Tarantino-esque pop-soundtrack and a cast littered with Hollywood A-listers. It’s the first PTA film I ever saw, and probably the one I’ve seen the most times. Having owned it on VHS all those years ago and as a 1970s period piece it still holds up remarkably well today, despite being 20 years old. Anderson definitely has a remarkable knack for period detail, and also for casting. This will become even more evident as the list continues.
4. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
This was my favourite PTA release for a very long time. I was (and still am) obsessed with this film. It completely blew me away after the first viewing and It’s probably the PTA film I’ve been most excited to introduce people to. As it’s so choppy, an hour and 35 minutes long, you absolutely blast through the piece. Despite it’s relatively short run time, there’s so much to love and get excited about. Outlining the plot isn’t really necessary, as it’s far from what the film is about. It’s more about wonderful cinematography, a completely unique soundtrack and the greatest acting performance of Adam Sandler’s career. It’s funny, it’s emotional, it’s violent, it’s heartwarming, it’s surreal, it’s relatable. It’s all of this, and so much more, and it somehow manages to be all of this at the same time.
Light years away from Boogie Nights tonally, Punch-Drunk Love is a much more ambient cinematic experience, and it’s the most eccentric way I’ve ever seen a love story play out. Any other day this film could be at number 1 in the list. But then again, so could any of the others.
3. Magnolia (1999)
Reuniting many of the Boogie Nights ‘players’ including Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman, Philip Baker Hall and Alfred Molina, Magnolia is an epic drama in which over a dozen characters stories interweave. It would require a completely fresh blog post to try and outline the story, as there are so many plot stands unraveling simultaneously, and because of this it really doesn’t feel like a film that runs for over 3 hours. As you’re constantly wandering in and out of various characters threads and there’s so much intrigue and revelation occurring, the film hurtles along at a staggering pace.
It’s almost as if PTA is directing 5 or 6 separate features, all of which are brilliant in their own right. Yet somehow they slot together so organically and with such ease that even when the film descends into surrealism you (as an audience member) just completely go with it. Because you’re so engrossed in the characters and the narrative, the director has omnipotence and can take the story anywhere. And he does.
2. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Objectively There Will Be Blood is probably Anderson’s finest work. I think a straw poll involving film critics and PTA fans would see the Daniel Day-Lewis historical drama top the list. This top 5 is subjective however and TWBB just missed out on the top spot by a fraction so small that it can’t even be comprehended in modern mathematics. The first time I saw There Will Be Blood, I was completely blown away by almost every aspect of it. The (Oscar Winning) lead performance from Day-Lewis. The intense and surreal score by Jonny Greenwood. The beautiful cinematography. The masterfully adapted screenplay from the Upton Sinclair novel. The exploration of epic and biblical themes. There are so many amazing things to love in the movie.
One of my favourite elements of seeing the piece for the first time was that it was one of those very rare occasions where I had absolutely no idea where the story was going. It almost demands an immediate repeat viewing. From a dialogue-less opening 20 minutes to a gory conclusion, at no point did I know which path the narrative was going down. It is truly a cinematic masterpiece and one of the finest films of the millennium.
1. The Master (2012)
As stated above, this is a subjective list! On release, The Master seemed to divide movie goers, and when compared with Anderson’s previous work was a box office bomb. Under performing at cinemas, the film was warmly received by critics but with an average audience rating of 61% on Rotten Tomatoes, it was the least successful Anderson film (in terms of audience rating) to date. All this aside, The Master is a sublime piece of work. I absolutely adored it the first time I saw it and it’s my favourite PTA film to revisit.
In terms of narrative, it isn’t a plot heavy piece. It’s more atmospheric and exploitative of it’s themes. The general consensus is that the film is an interpretation of the birth of a cult like religion, very similar to Scientology. Never specifically referred to as Scientology in the film, the leader of the movement, Lancaster Dodd, is played breathtakingly by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The charming and eloquent Dodd is juxtaposed brilliantly with Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell, a tortured World War II veteran whoes alcoholism and post-war trauma lead him to be an unstable and often violent individual. The Master is very much a mutual love story between the two characters, who find each other by chance. Alongside the two leads is a wonderfully understated performance from my favourite actress Amy Adams. Playing the pregnant wife of Hoffman she’s caught up in the whirlwind of her husbands eccentricity, and gives one of the finest performances of her career. Exploring bizarre religious practices, challenging any skeptics and attempting to grow and nurture Dodd’s following, the film is a perfect example of pure cinema. An ambient work of art that is, for me, Paul Thomas Anderson’s finest work.