Best Paul Thomas Anderson Movies, Ranked

With his upcoming film Licorice Pizza starring Bradley Cooper arriving in theaters next month, visionary writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson continues to shake up Hollywood with his unique, Oscar-nominated storytelling on film. Ever since his acclaimed short Cigarettes and Coffee hit Sundance in the early 90’s, the now-51-year-old has been a filmmaking tour de force. Following his small-scale debut feature Hard Eight, the visionary auteur made a name for himself in Hollywood with his epic drama Boogie Nights, and the Academy has been showing him love ever since.

As we count down the days until PTA’s quirky Sean Penn starrer hits the big screen, we took a deep dive into the entire narrative filmography of “P.T. Anderson pictures.”

8Hard Eight (1996)

Originally dubbed Sydney, Hard Eight, the 1996 crime thriller was written and directed by Anderson, but notably not produced by the then-26-year-old. It was his first feature film and striking in terms of its modesty, especially in comparison to his later works. Nevertheless, the impressive debut features an ace ensemble of Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson. We even get a splash of a soon-to-be PTA-regular: the late, great Philip Seymour in that memorable “old timer” casino scene. In the film’s opening, we meet the mysterious Sydney (a never-better Hall), a professional gambler finding John (Reilly) outside a diner and offering to help John rig a casino for some extra cash. Following this small-scale drama that didn’t necessarily reach audiences and all critics, Anderson’s next feature, Boogie Nights is where we really see the visionary shine.

7Inherent Vice (2014)

Inherent Vice could be defined as “the tendency of material to deteriorate due to the essential instability of the components or interaction among components.” Thomas Pynchon, the reclusive MacArthur grant recipient, has built a career off extremely dense novels. Leave it to PTA to take on adapting Pynchon’s 2009 book. Should we be surprised, given the story’s SoCal setting? The end result is both a faithful take on the source material and an engaging work of art. There so many side stories and plotlines throughout this neo-noir that it’s perhaps comical to a fault. But it’s a P.T. Anderson picture, without a doubt.

6Phantom Thread (2017)

Daniel Day-Lewis’ swan song? We’ll have to take his word for it – for now. Anderson’s striking historical drama Phantom Thread set in postwar London follows a twisted romance tale graced with a reliably superb score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and sharp performances that might make you cringe – but perhaps in a good way. Day-Lewis’ fashion designer character has an obsessive streak and a supportive sister played by Oscar-nominated Lesley Manville, who will star in the upcoming season of Netflix’s The Crown. After a streak of back-to-back Joaquin Phoenix flicks and then Phantom Thread, some of us Anderson die-hards might be longing for those showoff tracking shots that defined his earlier works. Until then, Licorice Pizza!

5Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Winner of the Best Director award at Cannes in 2002, PTA’s art-house dazzler Punch-Drunk Love features an unusual but fascinating performance by veteran comedian Adam Sandler as a socially awkward business owner dominated by seven abusive sisters. When a mysterious woman (a wonderful Emily Watson) enters his shuttered universe, his emotions go haywire. This genre-bending gut-“punch” is a unique film experience, to put it mildly. And it so benefits from a trippy score by the famed Jon Brion, a frequent PTA collaborator.

4The Master (2012)

Anderson’s unforgettable character study The Master features three well-deserved Oscar-nominated performances. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an ex-naval officer suffering from PTSD who drunkenly stumbles into the hands of one Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman). As a Scientology-parallel leader of a movement called the Cause, Dodd (rhymes with “god”) finds Quell irresistible, perhaps in more ways that one. He provides Quell with a surrogate family, much like Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, with a sharp-as-nails wife (Amy Adams) and cynical son (Jesse Plemons). Open to interpretations, this psychological trip might just leave you speechless. All hail PTA!

3Boogie Nights (1997)

Boogie Nights, eaturing an incredible cast including several soon-to-be PTA regulars, this epic drama from the then 28-year-old writer-director deservedly earns multiple Oscar noms. Kicking off in the year 1977 in Anderson’s native San Fernando Valley, the ensemble film follows idealistic porn producer Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) as he discovers Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) and welcomes him into the extended family played by Oscar-nominated Julianne Moore, Heather Graham and more. The impressive cinematography here nods to several classics and will tickle any film buff’s fancy. Even when the plot ultimately turns dark, Boogie Nights remains laugh-out-loud funny and relentlessly entertaining.

2Magnolia (1999)

Where does one start when discussing this epic tale? The lives of several lost souls become intertwined over the course of a day in – you guessed it – the Valley, in Magnolia. Filled with biblical references, Anderson’s 1999 opus makes no secret of grappling with large themes and issues. And similar to Boogie Nights, certain long takes during the three-hour cinema treat will remind you why you fell in love with film art in the first place (Remember that Steadicam shot through the television studio?). Tom Cruise certainly deserved his Oscar nod – perhaps a couple other A-listers here could have used some recognition as well?

1There Will be Blood (2007)

Anderson’s first film scored by Radiohead’s Greenwood, There Will Be Blood is yet another sprawling epic set that remains Anderson’s finest work to date – even if he himself maintains that The Master is his favorite. The iconic tale follows Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis), a complex businessman who travels to a California tale and transforms into a self-made oil tycoon, not before butting heads (to put it mildly) with the community’s preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). “I’m finished” was quite the emblematic ending to this one-of-a-kind cinema delight, without spoiling its resolution. We see this masterpiece succeed most when it focuses on Plainview’s complicated relationship with his son, as it becomes imperiled by deception and the American Dream. And let’s not forget that cinematic feast of a scene when the oil rig explodes. That moment alone earned There Will Be Blood its cinematography Academy Award.

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