Every Paul Thomas Anderson movie, ranked

The cult director has a small but powerful filmography, from ‘Boogie Nights’ to ‘Licorice Pizza’ and beyond.

by Carrie Wittmer
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21 January 2022, 12:00pm

Throughout the 90s, Paul Thomas Anderson established himself as one of the most innovative filmmakers in the medium’s history. Inspired by New Hollywood, the filmmaker came up as a kind of younger, more stylish Martin Scorsese, with an uncanny knack for intimate visual storytelling. His first and second feature films, Hard Eight in 1996 and Boogie Nights in 1997, set the filmmaker apart for his understanding of cinema as an art form — audacious camera-work, innovative framing and meticulous compositions are all trademark PTA — as well as his appreciation of human nature and shared experiences.

A classic Paul Thomas Anderson joint is often a sprawling story that puts idiosyncratic characters in unconventional situations; through thoughtful writing and complex themes, a worldly cynicism takes shape alongside a cautious optimism, challenging the performers selected to take part as much as the audience watching them. He also, despite what his critics may say, has the range. Take, for example, There Will Be Blood — a messy period epic rooted in capitalism and religion — and put it next to an off-beat romantic comedy like 2002’s Punch Drunk-Love or even Phantom Thread (depending on your personal feelings about Munchausen’s by proxy). He has the range!

Over the years, Anderson’s technical filmmaking and storytelling skills have evolved unlike any other filmmaker’s. Some experiments have been a success, others… not so much. Here are all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films ranked, bearing in mind that even his worst films are, objectively, some of the best films ever made. Love you, king.

9. Inherent Vice (2014)

On paper, the composite elements of Inherent Vice suggest a Paul Thomas Anderson masterpiece: the film, based on the 2009 novel of the same name, is a neo-noir set in Los Angeles in the 70s (PTA’s absolute favorite time period and setting) with a killer cast: Joaquin Phoenix plays hippie P.I. Doc Sportello together with a number of frequent and new collaborators such as Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Eric Roberts, Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Joanna Newsom, Michael K. Williams and Martin Short. Unfortunately, a masterpiece it is not.

While challenging in a few intriguing ways, the film is ultimately just a bit incoherent. Sorry, ripping the band-aid off. Though Anderson at his weirdest may sound appealing, Inherent Vice just doesn’t play as well to his strengths as his other films do, placing it at the bottom of this list. They can’t all be winners!

8. Licorice Pizza (2021)

Okay, controversial, I know! Licorice Pizza is a sweet, unconventional coming-of-age story set in an early 1970s San Fernando Valley. It’s there we meet Alana Kane, a headstrong twenty-something pushing against the idea of growing up as hard as she possibly can. The events of the film kick off when Alana unexpectedly agrees to a “date” with Gary Valentine, a 15-year-old child actor and shockingly successful businessman who behaves well beyond his years, and the two strike up an intense friendship fuelled by an inexplicable mutual attraction.

While charming, and featuring unexpectedly stand-out performances from newcomers Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, the film simply isn’t PTA’s strongest — LP’s oddball anthological structure often feels clunky and contains some questionable content, including a racist character whose presence isn’t justified by the weak satire it brings to the story. The narrative and characters don’t carry the same emotional weight as those of his previous films, despite being compelling in their own right.

7. Hard Eight (1996)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s directorial debut is, in terms of visual style, almost unrecognizable in terms of the filmmaker he is today. But despite its flaws, Hard Eight established the kind of stories that PTA would tell throughout his filmography.

Starring John C. Reilly as a young gambler in Reno and Philip Baker Hall as his mentor, the film is a character study of two men and the layered relationship between them — one that reflects a kind of father-son dynamic. PTA chooses to leave his characters’ intentions and backgrounds in obscurity, heightening tension and allowing them to unfold in a drip-feed narrative as the film progresses.

6. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

If nothing else, PTA’s famously eccentric romantic comedy served the reputation of one (deserving) celebrity in particular — it acted as a showcase for Adam Sandler’s natural skill as a performer. No longer simply the guy who led silly, raunchy comedies like Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison, Sandler’s performance as Barry Egan, a lonely man-child with social anxiety, revealed his depth as both a comedic and dramatic actor.

Punch-Drunk Love has a smaller cast, a shorter run-time and a clearer focus than is apparent in Anderson’s earlier work. There’s less energy, and more focus on its main characters and their connection. His camera is more steady, his lighting more intentional. Punch-Drunk Love is not by any means PTA’s best or most beloved film, but is the bridge between his Scorsese-influenced earlier filmography to his quieter, more emotional work moving forward.

5. The Master (2012)

In 1950 — an era that PTA explores for the first time — Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a traumatized World War II veteran who finds a home in a religious cult led by Lancaster Dodd (one of a number of excellent collaborations with Philip Seymour Hoffman). While There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights examine American excess and greed, The Master is a challenging but fundamentally more optimistic film that explores the innate human desire to find your place in the world, as well as the purpose and the conflict that comes with that when you think you’ve found it, but still aren’t satisfied. The film has all of PTA’s signature elements: active camera work, meticulously framed shots, powerhouse performances and intricate relationship dynamics that propel its plot forward.

4. Magnolia (1999)

The more time that passes, the less convinced I am that Tom Cruise was acting in Magnolia. The sprawling, fearless philosophical melodrama is Anderson’s most ambitious film to date. Moving back and forth between the lives of different, seemingly-unrelated characters on the same desperate day in the San Fernando Valley.

Magnolia is, from script to screen, arguably PTA’s most stylish film. The strong ensemble, featuring career-best performances from Cruise and Julianne Moore, and its existential themes — of forgiveness, neglect and the pursuit of happiness — make it just weird enough to work.

3. There Will Be Blood (2007)

PTA had never made a movie quite like There Will Be Blood, and he likely never will again. A thrilling mediation on the rapacious capitalism behind the American Dream, the film merges PTA’s sharp yet subtle narrative style with frantic, high-energy image-making reminiscent of earlier films.

Sparse Western landscapes are juxtaposed with indulgence and violence throughout; the iconic yet sinister monologues from protagonist Daniel Plainview made There Will Be Blood an instant classic and a remarkable cinematic achievement. From screenplay to cinematography to terribly haunting score (h/t Jonny Greenwood). PTA didn’t need Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will be Blood to work, and Daniel Day-Lewis certainly didn’t need PTA to direct him into this Oscar-winning performance. But the two maestros synchronized in their respective crafts to heighten and elevate the film to one of the greatest motion pictures ever made.

2. Boogie Nights (1997)

Boogie Nights is everything at once. PTA’s second, groundbreaking feature film is an energetic yet restrained examination of the porn industry in a late 70s San Fernando Valley. It’s a comedy, it’s a drama, it’s an ensemble, it’s a star performance from noted maniac Mark Wahlberg. It’s a celebration of excess and a biting critique of it. Boogie Nights is the quintessential example of just how much PTA can do, and just how effectively.

Boogie Nights is to this day Wahlberg’s most extraordinary performance, and almost certainly always will be. Unless there’s some sort of cursed sequel in the works. In the age of the soulless reboot, we won’t rule it out.

1. Phantom Thread (2017)

Every successful filmmaker is intuitive. They know how to best frame a shot that builds to an intricate but clear narrative, or communicates the sharp outline of the inner-workings of a character’s mind. The film bears almost none of Paul Thomas Anderson’s signature hallmarks: there are no epic wide shots, nothing like the berserk camera movements of his early filmography, no star-studded ensemble cast. Rather, Phantom Thread is his most intelligent film because it is PTA at his most restrained.

In Phantom Thread, Anderson’s superior technical skill meets his deep understanding of human beings and complex relationships. PTA knew that he couldn’t tell the story of Phantom Thread — in which fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps) enter a literally toxic romantic relationship — in the same way he told Boogie Nights, Magnolia or There Will be Blood. PTA sacrifices his daring aesthetic to tell his twisted story, affording the camera a striking stillness. There’s a stillness to Phantom Thread that makes it stand out from, not just PTA’s own filmography, but cinema as a whole.

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