Director Series – Paul Thomas Anderson

His latest release, Licorice Pizza, has received typically strong reviews and as is the case every time he releases a film, reminded everyone that we are in the midst of a truly great director’s career. The son of a radio performer who grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the 70’s, Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) was already making films at 12 years old with his Betamax camera. A half-hour mockumentary filmed in high-school, The Dirk Diggler Story, would eventually evolve into his sophomore feature, Boogie Nights. Clearly ready to go at a young age, PTA made short film Coffee & Cigarettes at 23, which he would again expand on two years later into his feature film debut, Hard Eight.

The fact that I’ve already written about three of his nine films in my Favourite Films series – Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, and The Master – probably gives a good idea of my feelings on Paul Thomas Anderson.

Hard Eight (1996)

Something of an inauspicious start in the big time; PTA’s Las Vegas crime caper is definitely a minor film for the director, completely as he intended. Refined and economical, in a way he would definitely not become known for, Hard Eight does provide early insight into the types of compelling characters PTA can create. It would also be the beginning of frequent collaborations with several members of the cast and crew, notably actors Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and cinematographer Roger Elswit. No classic, but all the signs were there.

Boogie Nights (1997)

The big breakout, a comedy-drama set in the world of pornography in PTA’s native San Fernando Valley in the 1970’s, Boogie Nights was a wild, expansive film that felt new and fresh and was clearly the work of a serious filmmaking talent. With former boy band member and model Mark Wahlberg fronting one of the great ensemble casts, including an Oscar-winning turn from Burt Reynolds, the who’s who of Hollywood are given either funny side bits or strong dramatic material at every turn. The length is trying, some elements feel indulgent, and several characters may be off-putting; but for someone to make something like this is their mid-20’s seems quite ridiculous now. It also garnered PTA his first screenwriting Oscar nomination.

Magnolia (1999)

The success of Boogie Nights afforded PTA the luxury of making whatever film he wanted, however he wanted to make it. That he made a film centred around a little-known folk singer’s work and a frog-rainstorm says a lot about who he is. The ensemble here is even bigger, and provided career best work for the likes of John C. Reilly, Melora Walters and in his biggest casting coup to that time, Tom Cruise. Following the lives of a whole bunch of people during a few gloomy days in the San Fernando Valley, Magnolia is an emotional whirlwind the likes I’ve rarely seen since. The acting is immense and the weaving of the storylines showcases elite screenwriting talent; while a singalong to the aforementioned Aimee Mann’s ‘Wise Up’ somehow works. A singular, challenging piece of work, and he was only getting started.

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Although beloved by many, and even considered his best by some, I’ve always found Punch-Drunk Love to be PTA’s worst film. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad film at all. A quirky, offbeat romance that kicked off Adam Sandler’s serious acting career, it’s a pleasant film that often feels like it’s trying too hard to find its way. As expansive and complex as PTA’s films are, this is the only time I can really recall feeling the effort as I’m watching the film. That being said, the relationship between Sandler’s anxiety-riddled Barry and Emily Watson’s sweet Lena is another perfect example of Anderson’s remarkable ability to pair off two singularly unusually yet perfectly matched people.

There Will Be Blood (2007)

A towering piece of art that was roundly spruiked as a masterpiece almost immediately, There Will Be Blood is a bold, almost arrogant piece of work that challenged all audiences and blew away most. Enlisting the help of the legendary Daniel Day Lewis to play the now iconic oilman Daniel Plainview, PTA was able to examine greed, capitalism and corruption, in a perfectly-rendered early 1900’s America. The battle between Plainview’s desire to expand his empire and preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) to spread his faith is one for the ages. The first of five outings with composer Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead fame) and helping cinematographer Roger Elswit to an Oscar win, There Will Be Blood is a technical and thematic beast, and still not my favourite work of the director’s.

The Master (2012)

Which I think is this one. As with Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, I’ve gone far more into depth in their individual write-ups, and even then it’s impossible to cover it all. Centered around the relationship between erratic, PTSD suffering Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and charismatic, domineering ‘religious movement’ leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), The Master is as thematically rich and complex as any film I’ve seen. There is of course the critique of Scientology sitting on the surface, but PTA manages to provide insights into everything from settling into life post-war to man’s animalistic nature. Ultimately though, this is about the relationship between one very lost man and another who thinks he can save him. Phoenix and Hoffman are mesmerising in two vastly contrasting styles of performing, and however you interpret it, the final meeting between the two will forever remain one of the most beautiful moments I’ve seen on film.

Inherent Vice (2014)

After the seriousness and goodwill of There Will Be Blood and The Master (a combined 11 Oscar nominations), PTA turned his hand to something a little lighter. Inherent Vice, with Joaquin Phoenix backing up as hippie PI “Doc” Sportello, is an adaptation of one of notoriously complex author Thomas Pynchon’s more accessible works. Essentially a neo-noir crime film, PTA hits the comedy a little harder here, with Doc his most obviously comedic protagonist and with some pure comedic turns from the likes of Martin Short thrown in as well. There are some gripping moments though, and the sum of everything, once you work out what’s going on, is a uniquely rewarding viewing experience. Lacking the profundity of previous works, but with all the complexities and filmmaking genius intact, it will likely remain PTA’s most underrated work.

Phantom Thread (2017)

Following up an odd film with possibly his most unusual entry of all, Anderson steps way out of his comfort zone and into the 1950’s London world of fashion. One of the most elegant films of recent years, the production level on display here is off the chain. Reunited with an as-always brilliant Daniel Day Lewis and pairing him with little-known Luxembourgish Vicky Krieps, with sizzling support work from Lesley Manville; it’s also one of the best acted. Lewis’ designed Reynolds Woodcock is another incredibly esoteric creation from PTA, while Krieps goes toe-to-toe and perhaps even comes off the better against the acting titan. Subtly funny and filled to the brim with romantic tension, Phantom Thread draws the viewer in with possibly the cleanest storytelling of the director’s career.

Licorice Pizza (2021)

See my review on Letterboxd for my thoughts on PTA’s latest. His most chilled outing, despite heavily involving a taboo subject, and possibly his most enjoyable. The only one of these films I haven’t rewatched yet, it’s lasting value remains to be seen. Odds are, it’ll do just fine.

My Top 5 PTA Films

  1. The Master
  2. There Will Be Blood
  3. Magnolia
  4. Phantom Thread
  5. Inherent Vice

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