Ranked: Paul Thomas Anderson

As Phantom Thread readies for home release, I thought I’d indulge in a deceptively difficult and openly personal task; ranking the feature films of Paul Thomas Anderson. Expect a multitude of adjectives in my rundown below. The ordering you may well disagree with; everyone’s preferences are different. What has struck me, however, is how good all of these efforts are, even the half-formed and the experiments. It seems a little obvious to cite him as one of the greats of modern American cinema. But he is, for all his foibles, tics and indulgences. Because of them.

On to the list.


9. Junun (2015)

It’s a credit to PTA that the lowest placing film on this list is no failure, but takes the bottom spot only for its comparative slightness. Running to 54 minutes, Junun is his only documentary feature so far, presenting, without narrative, a series of jam sessions between Shye Ben Tzur and Anderson’s own frequent collaborator Jonny Greenwood. Appearing soon after Inherent Vice, which disappointed at the box office, it also found the venerated auteur dabbling in digital photography, boasting some playful experiments with drones. The music itself is wonderful, and more than fills the picture, but Junun also feels like PTA unwinding, taking advantage of the opportunity to be less precious. A minor work, but one that could prove influential on future endeavours.


8. Sydney / Hard Eight (1996)

A robust feature debut, but one which doesn’t wholly prefigure the masterworks to come. Still, it’s a solid little character driven thriller, one which generously allows Phillip Baker Hall an all-too-rare leading role, and showed the true potential of John C Reilly as something other than a comedic actor. Anderson didn’t quite win the battle to keep the film’s original title; it’s known as much by one as the other, but it’s a film primed for rediscovery.


7. Magnolia (1999)

This is where it starts getting tricky. Already. Magnolia is a gigantic ensemble sprawl of a film, taking in one day for a number of intersecting Los Angeles locals, culminating in a cathartic release of Biblical proportions. Bigger even than Boogie Nights and running to a full three hours, the sheer weight of Magnolia might be the only real reason for placing it comparatively low; all that melodrama can be a little daunting to revisit. Yet, the film boasts a wealth of pleasures, from Tom Cruise actually trying to perhaps the most touching and likable Philip Seymour Hoffman performance. Mondo have recently released a damned tempting deluxe version of the soundtrack too, containing both Jon Brion’s music and Aimee Mann’s iconic songs.


6. Boogie Nights (1997)

So Mark Wahlberg repents for starring in Boogie Nights? That’s a shame, as its one of the best projects he’s been involved in. Anderson’s breakthrough about the dwindling halcyon days of the 70’s porn industry arrived right on time to make him a serious player. Tarantino’s popular films had reignited a sense of cool for the era, while the 90’s were rife with sprawling tales of cocaine nights. Two decades later, it remains a great film about strange, damaging and fractured family.


5. Inherent Vice (2014)

Perhaps PTA’s most undervalued picture, Inherent Vice proved something of a balm after the dense psychological knots of The Master. A breezier, more playful tone prevails as Joaquin Phoenix stars as stoner PI Doc Sportillo, unraveling a noir-style mystery in the LA of 1970. An ode to the comedown following the summer of love, its a work as funny as it is melancholic. The sprawling ensemble of players is one of Anderson’s most impressive, and if the narrative is pure Pynchon, PTA makes it his own via his now signature presentation. Kubrick echoes in Anderson’s work as often as Altman. On those terms this is his Dr. Strangelove.


4. The Master (2012)

Not quite the ‘Scientology movie’ many were expecting, PTA’s slipperiest picture depicts a strange love affair between two isolated men. Joaquin Phoenix’s agitated war veteran Freddie Quell butts up against Philip Seymour Hoffman’s self-made mentor Lancaster Dodd. The two fascinate one another and the film depicts the ways in which they stalk around each other, trying to understand their complex reflections. Critically hailed as a masterpiece but one of Anderson’s more divisive pictures, it is perhaps his most personal. Personal in the sense that it feels molded by intuition; Anderson following his own inner road map wherever it goes.


3. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Adam Sandler gives an awards-worthy performance in Punch-Drunk Love. Deeply troubled by his inferiority complex(es), his Barry Egan is a flinching mess of fear and neuroses in a film which percolates with a sense of impending disaster. This from a romantic comedy. Echoes of Robert Altman persist again, manifesting most literally with the use of Shelley Duvall’s rendition of “He Needs Me” lifted from Popeye. It’s a cute, crazed little picture (coming in at a tidy 90 minutes), and found Anderson’s getting loose and playful following the austere Magnolia. It suited him very well indeed.


2. There Will Be Blood (2007)

But that looseness couldn’t last. After taking a relative breather with Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson dug deep to create one of the great masterpieces of the new millennium. Daniel Day-Lewis astonishes as the gravelly, growling Daniel Plainview, a bulbous pantomime monster of early 20th century capitalism. An epic, a western, an arch comedy and a tragedy as vast as the country depicted by regular cinematographer Robert Elswit. The film is as grand and strange as Jonny Greenwood’s memorable score. All together now… “I… drink… your… milkshake!”


1. Phantom Thread (2017)

Yeah. Some might blanch at placing his latest at the top, but Phantom Thread feels so close to perfect that I can’t have it anywhere else. Reactionary? Fuck it. Day-Lewis, again, impresses with his commitment, this time to uppity fusspot fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, but he shares the limelight here with the fearsome and under-praised Vicky Krieps. And then there’s Lesley Manville on the sidelines, acidic witness to their deliciously twisted relationship of give and take.

Anderson debuted as cinematographer for this one, and proved himself every bit as adept as his past collaborators. Jonny Greenwood’s score is his most giving and luscious. What’s more, simply, after a series of impressive but detached and Kubrickian movies, Phantom Thread shows genuine, even extravagant heart. It swoons.

As is often the case, PTA’s inclinations proved a touch too eccentric for the Academy (even in a season that favoured romance between a woman and her fishman), but Phantom Thread‘s legacy feels inevitable. Time will tell. My wholehearted recommendation is to get on board now.

Anyone for mushrooms?


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