Having recently re-listened to Paul Thomas Anderson’s (PTA)’s interview on the Marc Maron podcast, “WTF”, I felt a strong urge to revisit his filmography. To my delight, I found his movies even more enjoyable and insightful on a second viewing. Though his movies tend to be dark and strange, it’s hard to deny how much art and emotion he manages to instill within them. So with that said, let’s begin our countdown of PTA’s 5 best.
#5: Inherent Vice
Also known as “Incoherent Vice” by viewers baffled by the story line (which is most of them), this PTA yarn follows the investigation of Private Eye Larry “Doc” Spolrtello (Joaquin Phoenix) while he attempts to solve a case as a favor to his ex girlfriend. While it may not seem the most cohesive of his movies (and that’s saying something), it still remains an enjoyable viewing experience thanks to a stellar performance by its cast. As greats like Owen Wilson, Josh Brolin, and Martin Short play bit parts along Phoenix’s hazy adventure, they all manage to complement a manic energy that speeds the narrative along, even if the amount of information being thrown at the viewer makes it hard for them to keep up. Personally, this movie is drastically aided by the fact that it shares so much DNA with one of my all time favorites, The Big Lebowski. With ‘stoney’ protagonists as leads, dense storylines, off the wall characters, and a California setting, even PTA admitted having a tough time trying to distinguish his own film from the Coen Brothers’ classic. All in all, despite the difficulty of material, it’s amazing just how coherent, let alone entertaining, PTA, managed to keep Inherent Vice.
#4: Boogie Nights
His breakthrough hit, Boogie Nights, that also made a star out of Mark Wahlberg, introduced the world what they’d come to expect from PTA’s future works: Off the wall plots; deep, flawed characters; amazing camerawork; and an ability to extract A+ performances from A-list actors. One of my favorite things about Boogie Nights is the way the tone abruptly changes midway through, as it shifts from Wahlberg playing a well-endowed young man swept into the high life of the 70s Porn giant to the immediate 80’s decline; Boogie Nights goes from a fun, raunchy time to, later, some very dark territory to follow how far down the rabbit hole the characters descend. It not only refreshingly (and dramatically) changes the pace but gives the actors more chances to shine while dealing with some difficult material. It’s also in this latter half where the best scene in the movie happens, featuring firecrackers, a drug dealer, and a trigger happy friend. This is one of the most intense sequences that PTA has put on camera, and in the top-running for best scene of his career.
#3: There Will Be Blood
Winner of Best Achievement in Cinematography and Best Performance by a lead actor at the 2008 Oscars, There Will Be Blood details the birth and story of ruthless oil tycoon, Daniel Plainview. Throughout the movie, we see his empire grow as he slowly becomes more and more corrupted by blind ambition, all the while battling a greedy and incessant preacher.
While many of PTA’s movies are held together by huge casts, this Blood subverts the trend as a one-man show, that rests solely on the shoulders of lead actor Daniel Day Lewis. He boats a truly menacing presence on screen as he bullies his way to success, alienating everyone, including his son, in the process. The movie is helped even more by beautiful cinematography, and along with some terrific scenes of oil rig accidents and showdowns between opposing characters, it becomes a gritty and fascinating epic.
Where to even start with this one? This movie is best summed up with four letters: A LOT. What I mean by that is, in a 3-hour run time, there are so many ideas, themes, and characters explored that, by the end, it feels like it might explode (hitting the medium’s capacity). Throughout Magnolia, we follow several intersecting character arcs during one of the hardest days of their lives, as they come to grips with an essential battle.
Like any show or movie with multiple storylines, some here I quite enjoy, while others I’m not so crazy about. My least favorite has to be John C. Reilly’s, as a police officer trying to woo a drug addict. While the acting between the two is great, their characters are often grating due to constant aggressive conversations and contradicting personalities. In contrast, my favorite storyline has to be Tom Cruise’s, as he plays a professional womanizer who learns of his estranged dad’s illness and limited time on earth. As the movie draws to a close, Cruise meets with his father in his final moments and gives an incredible performance as he lets out his frustration, saying goodbye. While all the storylines deal with regret and the strained relations between parents and their children, such Jason Robards’ brilliant performance recounting a lifetime of regrets, Cruise’s, the most heart-wrenching and enthralling, brings these issues to the forefront.
While not all the storylines are the best and run time is slightly long, PTA still considers it his masterpiece. And, while I concur that Magnolia is a fantastic example of PTA’s filmmaking, there’s just one other that beats it out for top spot.
#1: The Master
While you can argue that any of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies are masterpieces, I believe The Master is his finest film to date.
The strength of The Master, although its beautifully shot, is its performances. Phoenix and Hoffman completely disappear into their roles, and its gripping to see them go head-to-head at it. Phoenix’s Freddie Quell, a recently returned navy veteran, is a live wire who destroys everything he comes into contact with. Phoenix adroitly portrays that as he struggles to hold relationships, integrate with society, and control his temper. Thus, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, a hyper-charismatic cult leader, knows just what to say to bring Freddie under his control. As they’re characters’ relationship grows, both actors are able to display their range as they constantly challenge and feed-off each other. Even with spectacular production, the whole movie can be anchored by the weight of the two’s acting alone.
The viewer also might notice the many similarities between Hoffman’s cult and Scientology, mainly because that’s exactly what PTA is mimicking here. And it’s chilling to watch back to back The Master with HBO’s Going Clear, and realizing just how much of Scientology and Hubbard PTA and Hoffman were able to capture in The Master.
Although it may be difficult to find relatable due to its subject matter, uncomfortable score, and off-beat editing, after each viewing, I can’t stop thinking about The Master. Whether it’s the beautiful cinematography, the unbelievable acting, or the strange story being told, it makes me want to re-watch and see what else I can glean.
Paul Thomas Anderson has slowly become one of my favorite directors over the past few years, thanks to his amazing filmography. He may make films that are at times frustrating and hard to understand; however, most are incredibly rewarding to those that are patient enough to give them a chance.