The post Every Paul Thomas Anderson Movie, Ranked from Worst to Best appeared first on Consequence.
This article originally ran in 2014 and has been updated.
Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of the man who gave us a sobbing Philip Seymour Hoffman.
In many ways, Paul Thomas Anderson is our 21st century Stanley Kubrick. You always get the sense that every single shot in his films have been carefully constructed. From the portrait of a man sitting down in an empty warehouse to a long shot following our lead through a porn party, the attention to detail is so great all we can do is just sit back and admire the man’s vision.
For that reason alone, it wasn’t easy ranking Anderson’s filmography, and once we started to dissect each film, we agreed that, while some movies may fare better than others, he hasn’t had a misstep yet. With Phantom Thread around the corner, what better time than now to discuss the career of a modern icon?
— Justin Gerbera
09. Hard Eight (1996)
Runtime: 1 hr. 41 min.
Press Release: Sydney, an aging gambler, takes fuck-up John under his wing, showing the boy how to hustle in the casinos of Reno, Nevada. Just as everything seems to jell, however, a slimy opportunist with knowledge of Sydney’s past misdeeds comes calling.
Cast: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Soundtrack: Chiming bells — the kind that underscore Boogie Nights’ most dire moments — ring beneath the opening credits, the first of several signs that Hard Eight is a funereal affair. Composers Jon Brion and Michael Penn — both of whom would have a hand in Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love — eschew recognizable pop (likely due to budget constraints) for boozy lounge music of the Angelo Badalamenti variety. It’s tonally consistent, if somewhat of a non-entity. Unlike those that followed, there’s no “Jessie’s Girl,” no “Save Me,” no “He Needs Me”; in other words, there’s no moment of musical catharsis.
Best Breakdown: It’s not a PTA joint if someone’s not yanking themselves from the hinges of their own sanity, and Hard Eight’s no exception. Though we see Sydney and Paltrow’s Clementine in various states of distress, Reilly takes the cake with a breakdown fueled by equal parts passion and desperation. After taking a bullish john hostage, John attempts to justify his actions to Sydney, anchoring his explanation on the love he feels for Clementine. Sadly, his cries of “I fucking love her!” ring hollow, as if he’s trying to not just convince himself that his violent actions were justified, but also that his feelings for Clementine are genuine.
Long Shot: This being the young director’s first feature, Anderson doesn’t overdo it when it comes to his notoriously difficult long shots. Though there are a few expertly choreographed pans at various points in the movie, the shot that best foreshadows Anderson’s talents comes as Sydney navigates a seedy Reno casino. The opposite of glamorous (and a far cry from the dizzying glitz of Boogie Nights’ opening), Sydney’s sad trek takes him past rundown denizens in flannel and baseball caps, sickly neon, and sleepy games of blackjack, craps, and poker. The MGM Grand this ain’t.
Gotta Start Somewhere: The dialogue in Anderson’s early scripts is sometimes the only indicator that the man behind these brilliant films is still a child himself. His later films, too, I suppose; Hoffman’s cry of “pig fuck!” in The Master felt supremely out of place in an otherwise elegant script. In Hard Eight, brilliant actors like Hall and Jackson can’t make a phrase like “big balls bet” work, let alone questions like, “You know the first thing they should’ve taught you at hooker school?” Anderson’s dialogue has always been best when it feels semi-improvised, as it does in some of Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love’s best scenes. Unfortunately, there are no such moments here.
Attention to Detail: Like Wong Kar-Wai and Stanley Kubrick, Anderson’s attention to detail is borderline OCD. Cigarettes, lighters, ashtrays, keychains, and other insignificant tokens are given significance by Anderson, who uses them to add dimension to both character and place. You can almost feel the squeak of the laminated plastic booths in the diner where Sydney and John first meet.
PTA vs. Producers: No one can say Anderson never took his lumps. The young director was fired from Hard Eight after multiple clashes with producer Robert Jones, who demanded sizable cuts and the title Hard Eight, as he felt the original title, Sydney, would make people think the film was about Australia. Anderson admits some of the producers’ notes were sound and that his own ego got in the way, but he also says that the battle to get his movie back from Jones and the other producers taught him to always fight for what he thinks is best for a film.
Analysis: Due to the director’s youth and the many compromises he had to make, Hard Eight feels somewhat thin and, as a piece of storytelling, a bit sloppy. Still, Anderson’s talent and vision shines through. Every shot feels painstakingly choreographed, and his camera moves with purpose through every tableau, with zooms and pulls seeming to climb and recede from the character’s minds. What’s also clear is his empathy for society’s castaways, as well as the presence of surrogate fathers and families that populate so many of his films. Though bold, ballsy, and confident, Anderson’s debut still couldn’t predict the masterpieces that would come in its wake.
— Randall Colburn
08. Magnolia (1999)
Runtime: 3 hrs. 9 min.
Cast: Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy
Press Release: A vast ensemble of interconnected characters collide in San Fernando Valley.
Soundtrack: Magnolia’s original score was composed by multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion, who also worked on the scores to the Anderson films Hard Eight and Punch-Drunk Love, and others such as Synecdoche, New York and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In addition, the soundtrack includes songs from the bands Supertramp, Gabrielle, and musician Aimee Mann, who wrote a couple of tracks expressly for the film, “You Do” and “Save Me.”
Best Breakdown: Tom Cruise sobbing uncontrollably at his estranged father’s bedside remains his finest work as an actor to date, searing the screen with raw truth, anger, sadness, resentment, and regret. This scene is made even more heartbreaking by the fact that Jason Robards, who plays a man dying of lung cancer onscreen, died of lung cancer in real life shortly after Magnolia was released.
Long Shot: A two-minute extended take through a TV network’s hallways, introducing multiple characters through creative, choreographed blocking and made even more impressive by its extensive dialogue, changes in lighting and set pieces, and lyrical, tracking camerawork.
Recurring Motifs: Exodus 8:2, which reads, “And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs,” is alluded to over a hundred times throughout the film. One more subtle reference is just before the attempted suicide of Sydney Barringer, when the wire below his feet is coiled up to form the number 8:2. Also, almost every location has a picture or painting of a magnolia flower hanging on the wall.
Hey, I Know You: Cameos include a nearly unrecognizable Thomas Jane as the young Jimmy Gator, Mary Lynn Rajskub as the voice of Frank T.J Mackey’s secretary, and Fiona Apple, also the artist behind many of the film’s flower paintings, as the voice of the wrong number that Phil Parma calls. Anderson also can be seen wresting an “Exodus 8:2” sign from an audience member after the start of the show “What Do Kids Know?”
Holy Snakes! Anderson wrote the bulk of the script over two weeks spent at William H. Macy’s Vermont cabin, afraid to go outside because he had seen a snake.
Analysis: Magnolia is a sprawling and ambitious film: often tedious, occasionally brilliant, frequently beautiful. Anderson is stretching his limits here, and although not every storyline, character, and connection is consistent or even credible, the big emotional hits do resonate. With his more abstruse follow-up to the breakout Boogie Nights, PTA proved that he could earn his keep, that he was still the same boundary-pushing filmmaker building on his own unique voice and vision, and that Magnolia — an opus that no other director could deliver as consummately, if it all — holds a message about love, loss, and loneliness that is worth imparting.
— Leah Pickett
07. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Runtime: 1 hr. 35 min.
Press Release: Barry Egan is a socially awkward, depressed salesman whose joy of finally falling in love is hampered by seven overbearing sisters and harassment from phone-sex employees. This is a real movie.
Cast: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Luis Guzmán, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Soundtrack: Newbies to the PTA canon are familiar with the great scores Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood has created for the director. However, before Greenwood there was music producer Jon Brion, who is best known for his work with Fiona Apple and Kanye West. His score here provides the soundtrack to poor Barry’s head — alternating between sweeping, romantic strings and the sounds one might hear working a night shift at Hell, Inc. In addition to the eclectic score, the use of “He Needs Me” from Robert Altman’s Popeye perfectly accentuates the innocent love that blossoms between Barry and Lena.
Best Breakdown: I mentioned in the press release that Barry suffers from depression, but this leads to bottled-up rage that explodes from time to time throughout the film. The most shocking, and hilarious, moment of sudden aggression comes at a party hosted by one of his awful sisters. Everyone is about to sit down for dinner when Barry smashes the sliding glass doors with a hammer, leading to everyone shouting at him while he just stands there and takes it. The breaking and the belittling are so expected in his sad life that they’ve all become a part of his rhythm.
Long Shot: A number of great examples here, especially the opening with Barry in a blue suit blending into the blue-painted walls, but the most telling shot of the whole film arrives when Barry decides to place a phone call to a sex-line. The camera follows a nervous Barry as he walks around his apartment giving out personal information to the operator before he sits down to wait for a call back. The camera slowly pans to the left to show an empty chair beside him just before the phone rings. He is alone, and it hurts.
All Those Wonderful Colors: Anderson forgoes traditional opening credits in favor of abstract, color-morphing projections that appear as color bars, stars in the sky, etc. all while Brion’s dizzying score plays in the background. Maybe those aren’t stars in the sky but part of a Rorschach test for the audience … I digress. They appear to represent Barry’s moods at any given point, and the man responsible for the art is Jeremy Blake, who sadly passed away in 2007.
When the Payphone Booth Light Comes On…: Did your heart explode? Mine did. Barry travels all the way to Hawaii to meet up with and surprise Lena. He calls his awful sister (I’m not being repetitive or cruel when I describe them as such, for they are awful) to find out where Lena is staying, calls the hotel only to be connected to the wrong room. He tries again and finally reaches Lena and … oomph. A perfect moment in a film full of them.
Is Your Love Strong Enough?: We could make a whole other feature full of the great quotes from the film (“Barry, I’m a dentist.” “My sister’s a liar. I have to go to the bathroom.” “Are you threatening me, dick?”), but I’ll just leave this here: “I didn’t do anything. I’m a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me ‘that’s that’ before I beat the hell from you. I have so much strength in me you have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine. I would say, ‘That’s that,’ Mattress Man.”
Analysis: Some devotees may scoff that Punch-Drunk is too far down on this list, but that’s only a testament to the strength of PTA’s career. The movie is short, its love story is incredibly sweet without ever being nauseating, and how did I make it to the end without highlighting the fact that the director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia decided to make a movie starring Adam Sandler? Anderson laughed in the face of skeptics, and it paid off better than cashing in pudding purchases for airline miles ever could.
06. Licorice Pizza (2021)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 13 mins.
Press Release: Amid the shambolic, slightly chaotic dreamland of the San Fernando Valley in 1974, two young people drift in and out of each other’s orbit. There’s teenage Gary Valentine, who’s quickly realizing his days as a child star are numbered, moving on to one cockamamie scheme after another. And there’s twentysomething Alana Kane, as headstrong as she is disaffected. Together, they’ll start a waterbed store, have a run-in with Jon Peters, and maybe (just maybe) fall in love.
Cast: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Tom Waits
Soundtrack: Licorice Pizza takes its name from the now-defunct SoCal record store chain of the same name, and it’s got the ‘70s playlist to match. Granted, PTA stalwart Johnny Greenwood returns to score, and he fills the non-sourced moments nicely with a sweeping kind of sweetness that reminds you of Jon Brion’s score for Punch-Drunk Love. But LP is all about the needle-drops, from The Doors’ “Peace Frog” to Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Let Me Roll It” to David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?,” which also features in the trailer.
Best Breakdown: There are plenty of frayed nerves among the tensed-up residents of the Valley, but this title clearly belongs to Bradley Cooper’s sustained nuclear fission as Barbra Streisand’s volatile boyfriend (and future movie producer) Jon Peters. Decked in an all-white getup and stalking his prey looking like a disco T-1000, Cooper lets loose a barely-contained explosion of a performance in his short segment, looping our heroes into a botched waterbed installation that turns into a nail-biting chase down the steep hills of the Valley backwards in a moving truck with no gas.
Long Shot: Licorice Pizza is full of sneaky long shots that feel more like subtle texture than attempts to show off. But the form is best used in Gary and Alana’s introduction, as the two walk through the halls of Gary’s school on picture day. Alana is all steely avoidance, walking deliberately as Gary dances and grins around her, pestering and charming with his smooth-talking wiles. He presses, she pushes back, but a curl of her lips says an impression has been made. It’s a lovely microcosm for the push-and-pull dynamic they’ll have the rest of the movie.
About that Age Gap…: While Licorice Pizza’s aim is to be sweet and avuncular, many have expressed some (understandable) trepidation about PTA’s decision to pen a romance between a 16-year-old boy and a 25-year-old woman. That said, the film’s all too aware of their age difference. After all, Alana’s immaturity, and her struggle to grow up, is a load-bearing element of her character’s journey; she’s a woman desperate to stay a girl, which endears her to Gary’s blinkered, puffed-up overconfidence. There’s an essentially platonic sweetness to their dynamic that elides much of those concerns; it’s about as racy as the kiss in Rushmore.
Turning Japanese: What should probably turn heads, though, are the two brief, uncomfortable scenes featuring John Michael Higgins as the blustering white owner of an Asian restaurant, who speaks to his demure Japanese wife (he has a different one in each scene) with a cartoonish accent. On the one hand, it’s a tongue-in-cheek indictment of racist white men who fetishize and infantilize Japanese women, especially in the brusquer ‘70s. On the other, it’s wildly jarring to hear it on a movie screen in 2021, and probably none too welcome for AAPI folks watching.
The Mattress Prince: Licorice PIzza is Cooper Hoffman’s (son of Philip Seymour) first film role, and it’s astounding how much he’s both the spitting image of, and wholly unique from, his dad. With his bright eyes and slightly crooked teeth, there’s something unformed about him, as if he’s still cooking. But it’s a delight to watch him bounce from scene to scene with all the energy of his pop, and he anchors a PTA film about as well. There’s one moment where he lifts his finger to shush someone while on the phone that will take you right back to Punch-Drunk Love.
Analysis: While PTA’s output has hardly been a laugh riot (There Will Be Blood and The Master are still basically interpersonal horror films), it’s not hard to see something as light and airy as Licorice PIzza coming. It’s got the sweet, slightly-wrong love story of Punch-Drunk Love, the ‘70s cultural touchstones of Inherent Vice and Boogie Nights, and the controlled-explosive supporting performances of Magnolia. What’s more, it focuses on two exceedingly winsome leads in Hoffman and Haim, who somersault toward the material with a childlike glee – even as their back-and-forth turns decidedly acidic. It’s a love song to the ‘70s and a pointed acknowledgment of its flaws, as the world around Gary and Alana hurdles headlong into modernity without the wisdom to handle it wisely. It’s only this low on the list because Anderson’s films are just that much better.
— Clint Worthington
05. Phantom Thread (2017)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 10 mins.
Press Release: In 1950s London, esteemed dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) lives a life of undisturbed routine and carefully constructed order, managed and assisted by his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). However, that equilibrium is disrupted with the arrival of Alma (Vicky Krieps), a resolute young waitress who challenges his sense of supremacy and control.
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps
Soundtrack: Anderson’s current muse, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, returns once more for a haunting, minimalist score that will cause all manner of confusion about its Oscar eligibility (sound familiar?). Strained violins and plinking piano hits evoke the austerity of Reynolds’ perfectly tailored life, slowly and surely distorting over the course of the film as Alma’s independence chips away at his authority, seamlessly melding with the classical music that also underpins his work. It’s simply incredible, and hopefully the Academy will see fit to overlook their technicalities and give Greenwood a nomination this time.
Best Breakdown: The whole film is essentially one sustained, long-form breakdown, but one darkly comic moment comes early in Alma and Reynolds’ relationship, where his morning constitutional is disrupted by the clinking and scraping of Alma’s bread and jam, much to his consternation. Each little movement cuts deep into the soundscape of the otherwise silent scene, until Reynolds (normally a very quiet man, even in his rage) blows up at Alma in that delicious Day-Lewis brio we’ve been longing to see all movie.
Long Shot: Most of Phantom Thread is slow, deliberate and lingering, but one standout moment is Reynolds’ inspection of a wedding dress commissioned by a French royal (whom Alma sees as a romantic rival). We won’t say why Reynolds has fallen ill (for fear of spoilers), but Anderson’s wavering camera trails along behind Day-Lewis as he walks around the mannequin in his presentation room, flanked by his female assistants all dressed in white. We know what’s about to happen, and that the hammer will fall at any moment, Anderson playing with that suspense by refusing to cut away from him and the dress until that instant of chaos arrives. It’s no single-take showstopper like the rest of his works, but it’s a fascinating heel-turn in Phantom Thread’s stakes that deserves attention.
Daniel’s Final Day? It’s rumored that Phantom Thread will be Day-Lewis’ final movie before retiring from acting. Whether he’ll pull a Brett Favre or Steven Soderbergh remains to be seen, but if this is meant to be his final bow, it’s a fantastically restrained one. Normally known for such showy roles as Daniel Plainview and Abraham Lincoln, Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock (what a character name to go out on) is an expertly calibrated machine who comes apart one cog at a time. Where Plainview was a blustering tower of American machismo, Reynolds personifies effete English dandyism, Day-Lewis capping his career with a wonderful decrescendo.
Sewing Discord: Aesthetics and order are everything in Reynolds’ world, as evidenced by his breathtakingly elaborate dresses (designed by Mark Bridges) and his own stylish array of patterned suits and bow ties. The push and pull between the order-driven Reynolds and the fiercely independent Alma (punctuated by some of cinema’s greatest side-eyes courtesy of costar Lesley Manville) could have no greater setting than an industry so dependent on clockwork precision and the maintenance of one’s reputation.
You Gotta Krieps, Krieps: Day-Lewis may be getting all the Oscar attention for his rumored final performance, but what’s more impressive is allowing a relative unknown to steal the entire movie out from under you. Vicky Krieps’ Alma is a force of nature, her calculated stares and subtle prods at Reynolds’ need for control the evidence of a fierce performer holding her own against one of cinema’s greats. Just as Reynolds’ master of his craft finds his confidence waning in the presence of such unpredictable magnetism, one can only imagine Day-Lewis finding himself unexpectedly challenged by his co-star, in a performance that will turn many more heads than his.
Analysis: In many ways, Phantom Thread is The Master by way of Project Runway: a battle of wills between two strong personalities amidst a sumptuous period subculture. This time, instead of a Scientology-like cult, Anderson leans on the cultural capital of elite dressmakers in 1950s London as a profoundly intriguing setting for romantic warfare. The psychosexual dynamics between Reynolds and Alma, two people unused to not getting their way, are presented with a deliberateness and sumptuousness only Anderson’s command of his period setting (and his actors) can sell. Like a well-tailored suit, or a perfectly-fitting dress, Phantom Thread wears itself with confidence, and carries more than a few secrets between its stitching.
04. The Master (2012)
Runtime: 2 hr. 24 min.
Press Release: A man returns home from war broken, and a search to find his place in society leads him to the charismatic Lancaster Dodd.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
Soundtrack: Jonny Greenwood back for more. After not getting a nomination for There Will Be Blood due to not meeting certain Oscar requirements, he just plain didn’t get one for his work on PTA’s sixth film. It’s a shame, for while the score isn’t as adventurous, it’s no less beautiful. The movie itself acts as a response to Norman Rockwell-ian America in the late ‘40s/early ‘50s, showing the darkness behind the well-dressed, well-spoken, and well-maintained lawns of the time period. However, the score remains faithful to the nostalgia, providing a perfect contrast to the story being told.
Best Breakdown: The best breakdown actually comes earlier in the film, but I need to save it for the next category in this feature. With that said, the scene that takes place in jail between Lancaster (Hoffman) and Freddie (Phoenix) after their arrests is another example of how far Phoenix is willing to go as an actor. It’s a role that is incredibly physical, and watching him slam his body up against a bunk bed before breaking a toilet is as exhausting to watch as it must have been for Phoenix to perform. Okay, maybe not.
Long Shot: Well, this is the scene that should have won Phoenix every award out there (damn you, Daniel Day-Lewis!). It’s during his “processing,” in which he is not allowed to blink. The camera sits on him as tears stream down his face, having to recollect a past that haunts him. He answers Lancaster’s questions in rapid succession before finally being allowed to close his eyes. It’s amazing, and all it is a shot of a man in a dark room.
R.I.P. Christopher Evan Welch: Although Helen (Laura Dern) comes close, the one character to truly call out Lancaster for his theories and beliefs is John More, played by the late, great Christopher Evan Welch. His relentless interruptions and questioning of Lancaster’s claims lead to The Master shouting out and calling him “pig fuck” in front of an audience of stunned rich people. It’s the only scene we see him in, but the impression is felt long after the movie ends. Welch starred in AMC’s short-lived series Rubicon and HBO’s Silicon Valley before passing away from lung cancer in 2013.
The Naked Truth: We get insight into Freddie’s mind through discussions of a history of mental illness in his family, intense discussions with Lancaster, and a humorous Rorschach test. However, the one time we truly see through his eyes is during a party for The Cause in Philadelphia. He sits alone watching Lancaster singing and dancing along to someone playing a song on the piano. Suddenly, we see what he sees: every woman is totally naked while the men are fully clothed. Is Freddie a sexual deviant, or is stripping them of their clothes giving him a sense of power? No easy answers in PTA movies, and we’re damned glad of it.
The Master, Indeed: Watch.
Analysis: I’ve always wanted to say this to an audience, so here it goes: “The Master? More like The Masterpiece!” Thank you. PTA’s film is intense from the moment we meet Freddie all the way to its penultimate scene. Does it have a happy ending? I think so, or at least as happy an ending as Freddie’s likely to have. The movie presents questions about faith, cults, and the power of suggestion that many feel is a slam on Scientology, and maybe it is. However, if you focus all your energy on the similarities between Dodd’s The Cause and Hubbard’s Scientology, then you are robbing yourself of not only a career-defining performance from Phoenix but one of the final performances from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, as well. It’s one of the best movies we have.
03. Inherent Vice (2014)
Runtime: 2 hr 29 min
Press Release: When Larry “Doc” Sportello’s ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth shows up one night at his Gordita Beach bungalow in 1970, talking about a creepy scheme involving her new lover and his ex-old lady and a loony bin, Doc’s dragged into a surreal-yet-familiar American journey involving drug runners, cops with dreams of Hollywood fame, white supremacists, and a continuously disappearing saxophone player.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Joanna Newsom, Hong Chau, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Martin Short, Eric Roberts
Soundtrack: Jonny Greenwood delivers yet another uneasy score for Anderson, all wiry nervousness and lilting oceanic tones in keeping with the alternately gorgeous and unsettling version of Los Angeles within the film. However, the film also boasts what may be Anderson’s best soundtrack since Boogie Nights, from the eerie tension of Can’s “Vitamin C” over the film’s opening sequence to Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World” ushering in the film’s sad but peaceful resolution. Also, that use of Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past” is one of the best needle drops in any film this decade.
Best Breakdown: It may be more subdued than some of the Anderson greats, but Bigfoot’s climactic weed-eating emotional break is somehow hysterical and devastating at the exact same time, the reflection of a man who clings to his flat-topped authoritarian leanings even as the urge to indulge in the counterculture is practically tearing its way out of him.
Long Shot: Speaking of that Neil Young sequence, it’s not a multi-minute tracking opus by any means, but one of the film’s most indelible images is Shasta and Doc, “late in their time together,” racing through the rain in an attempt to score some weed, getting lost amid a construction site, and scrambling to find shelter. The sudden back-and-forth dolly movements perfectly capture the heady exhilaration of running a fool’s errand with somebody you love, and the ways in which you’ll recall a moment like that years later.
Pynchon or not: Before the film was released, Anderson teased that the enigmatic author of Inherent Vice’s source text would make a cameo appearance somewhere in the film. People have pored over it in the years since, to no avail; last we heard, it was merely a tease, and Thomas Pynchon doesn’t actually appear in the film. That said, our money lies with the scene where Doc and Coy have their furtive chat in the oceanside cult house. Watch the background carefully, and you can see an omniscient observer wandering in and out of the near distance. We’re just saying.
A Brief Word on Stoner Cinema: A lot of stoner movies aren’t all that funny, not because of the jokes or subject matter (though man, have Cheech & Chong ever aged badly), but because they attempt to capture the pot-induced antics of their characters instead of what makes those things funny: the sensation of being high, in and of itself. Inherent Vice may be one of those only movies that strikes the latter note, ambling along with the logic and paranoia and occasional physical comedy of a night spend high and wandering.
A Different Kind of Legal Practice: When Doc convenes with Martin Short’s shady dental practitioner to seek information and blow rails, listen carefully for a quick mention of some deadly legal representation. Voorhees-Kruger would surely lay all other attorneys to rest.
Analysis: Inherent Vice may well be the strangest thing that Anderson has ever turned out as a director, but it’s the singular kind of experience that would’ve been right at home in the mid-’70s and most studios wouldn’t even touch today. (That Warner Bros. actually put this out is something of a small miracle.) It’s funny and achingly sad, wistful and yet sharply lucid about the ways in which so much countercultural nostalgia conveniently leaves out the ugliness of the era. It’s a world of free(ish) love and drug use, but it’s also a world where junkies are being exploited from top to bottom, political power is being reclaimed using the same channels railing against it, and everybody’s high on something but nobody seems to be truly happy.
At the center of all the madness lies Doc (Phoenix, in a brilliant turn), who’s at once every bit the burnout that “Bigfoot” Bjornsen says he is and probably one of the all-time great onscreen detectives. Through a mix of intuition and genuine skill, Doc finds his way into hell, and somehow back out again, but the world can never look the same from that point on. Even Shasta returns with faraway eyes, terrified by how easily she was seduced by privilege. As they drive off into the night together, the film makes a point that’s brutal in its realism: the closer you get to the truth, the more it’ll ruin your damn life.
02. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Runtime: 2 hr. 38 min.
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Ciarán Hinds, Dillon Freasier, Paul F. Tompkins
Press Release: Lured by the Southern California oil boom of the late 1880s, a silver miner turned oilman will stop at nothing to satiate his greed.
Soundtrack: Anderson, a longtime Radiohead fan, was impressed by guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s score for the film Bodysong; and, after hearing his orchestral piece Popcorn Superhet Receiver, asked Greenwood to score Blood. Three weeks later, Greenwood had recorded two hours of music at London’s Abbey Road Studios, which would then become the Grammy-nominated, critically acclaimed, and boldly experimental soundscape that audiences couldn’t stop talking about. Indeed, Greenwood’s mix of eerie locomotive rumblings and strings-led, classical-inspired compositions is its own character in the film, underscoring the action in the same way that a gust of cold wind makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Best Breakdown: It’s a tie between “I abandoned my child!” and “I drink your milkshake; I drink it up!” When it comes to characters losing their goddamn minds on film, it doesn’t get much better than Daniel Plainview’s two epic, seminal meltdowns.
Long Shot: The two-and-a-half-minute shot, the longest in the film, only moves a few feet. But as Sight & Sound has pointed out in analyzing Anderson’s signature use of the Steadicam, we get four distinct compositions: a profile close-up of Eli Sunday (Dano), a wide shot of Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis), a medium three-shot of Plainview, Sunday, and Fletcher (Hinds), and a final close-up of Sunday, resulting in an expository dance of spatial and dramatic push-and-pull.
Gang’s Not Here: Instead of relying on his usual, rotating coterie of players (Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Joaquin Phoenix), Anderson chose a cast for Blood that, for the most part, he had never worked with before (Day-Lewis, Dano, Hinds, Freasier) and has not worked with since.
The No Country for Old Men Connection: While There Will Be Blood was shooting on location in Marfa, Texas, the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men was the neighboring film production. However, according to IMDb, the two sets didn’t always coexist in harmony. In one instance, Anderson and his crew were testing the pyrotechnical effects of the oil derrick fire and caused an enormous billowing of smoke, intruding and delaying the shot the Joel and Ethan Coen were filming that day.
“And the Award Goes To…”: Blood was a hit at the 2008 Academy Awards, securing nominations for Best Picture, Actor, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, Film Editing and Sound Editing, and winning for Best Actor (Day-Lewis) and Best Cinematography (Robert Elswit, who has shot every Anderson film except The Master).
Analysis: At turns disturbing, puzzling, kinetic, languid, shocking, and mesmerizing, There Will Be Blood is a challenging exercise, not an easy film to watch or perhaps even to love. Audiences seems to fall into two polarized camps, adoration or hatred; and with material this ponderous and enigmatic, it’s easy to see why. But there is something to be said for Blood’s insidious ability to get under the skin and stay there, with larger-than-life characters that border on Shakespearean and atmospherics that are literally breathtaking in their gorgeous, unsettling emptiness. And thanks to a career-high performance from Day-Lewis, Greenwood’s electrifying score, and Anderson’s measured, hypnotic direction over that haunting Upton Sinclair-style wasteland, the blood of the film’s title, for better or for worse, doesn’t wash off so easily.
01. Boogie Nights (1997)
Runtime: 2 hr. 35 min.
Press Release: The rise, fall, and redemption of pornstar Dirk Diggler, a passionate California kid with a big heart and an even bigger schlong. After abandoning his abusive mother, Dirk finds refuge (and a surrogate father) in idealistic film director Jack Horner, whose pornography empire rises and falls as the ’70s give way to the ’80s.
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Nicole Ari Parker, Luis Guzman, Robert Ridgely, Don Cheadle, Melora Walters
Soundtrack: It’s easy to remember Boogie Nights for its infectious amalgam of ’70s pop, rock, and disco — Three Dog Night, Hot Chocolate, and Rick Springfield are used especially well — but Michael Penn and Jon Brion shouldn’t be forgotten for their melancholy instrumental passages. Sounding like something Brian Eno might’ve made had he joined the circus, “Big Top” provides a sobering counterpart to the era’s kaleidoscopic groove with cymbals, strings, and pipe organ that evoke a sad clown’s quivering lip. Anderson integrates “Big Top” to great effect, using it to transition into The Emotions’ jubilant “Best of My Love” at the beginning, then allowing it to emerge organically from the heartrending refrain of “God Only Knows” during the closing moments. You couldn’t ask for more beautiful bookends.
Best Breakdown: Is it Amber Waves and Rollergirl’s coke-fueled bonding session, where both fetishize the normalcy of pottery classes and cackle maniacally through tears? Or poor Scotty J., whose anger at his own shattered delusions can only be acknowledged in the phrase, “I’m a fuckin’ idiot”? Or is it meth-addled Dirk’s poolside meltdown, a scene that benefits from the real-life turmoil that bubbled over Anderson, Wahlberg, Reynolds and Thomas Jane, the latter two of whom reportedly got into a shoving match that day. Wahlberg’s breathlessness, Scotty’s cross-armed awkwardness, the way Jack tries to rip the rope headband from Dirk’s forehead. “You’re not my mom,” Dirk cries at Moore’s Amber. “You’re not my fucking mom!” It’s not only Wahlberg’s best onscreen moment, it’s Dirk’s simultaneous acknowledgement and, by using it as a weapon, destruction of the unspoken bond that exists between this band of misfits. It’s just about the cruelest thing he could’ve said in that moment, and it signals the sway of chiming bells that underscore the film’s most dire sequence.
Long Shot: Though that opening sequence through Maurice’s club is a marvel, I’m partial to the tracking shot that guides us through Jack’s backyard pool party. Like Dirk, we’re meeting most of the ensemble for the first time, and without letting his camera linger in any place for too long, Anderson is able to highlight their defining characteristics while simultaneously showing us how interwoven style and drugs were with this culture. By the time Anderson’s camera pursues a skimpy swimsuit below water, we’re already immersed.
Ensemble: Asking prudish American audiences to empathize with a surrogate family of pornographers wasn’t easy, so a strong ensemble was integral to making Boogie Nights a success. Luckily, Anderson’s sharp eye for talent overlooked Hollywood-approved hunks in favor of unconventional character actors: old standbys like Robert Ridgely and Philip Baker Hall; underappreciated indie darlings like Julianne Moore and Melora Walters; and then-fresh faces like John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Don Cheadle. Personality oozes from each of them, infusing every reel with neuroses, insecurities, and quirks that clash beautifully with the film’s more unsavory elements. Think of Don Cheadle’s rhythmic hips in the stereo store, Luis Guzman’s nasally “hasta mañana!,” or the verbal Ping-Pong Moore and Wahlberg play as he guides her through his home (“It’s my dojo!”). Not only did the crew provide color and texture to complement Wahlberg and Reynolds, they also went on to become Oscar winners, alt-comedy legends, and bona fide box office draws.
Focus! Anderson understands that the person talking isn’t always the person speaking. Take the diner scene between Jack, Dirk, Amber, and Rollergirl early in the film: as Jack expounds on his cinematic vision, the camera lingers on Amber, who watches Dirk with an intensity on par with a mother seeing her child for the first time. And then there’s Wahlberg’s silent collapse during “Jessie’s Girl,” which pings off his vacant gaze alongside the exploding firecrackers and Rahad Jackson ranting off-screen.
Name That Porn Star: Authenticity was important for Anderson, so his casting of actual porn actors in Boogie Nights was probably a foregone conclusion. And though porn legend Nina Hartley has the most sizable role as Little Bill’s philandering wife, it’s Veronica Hart that Anderson dubbed “the Meryl Streep of porn.” Unlike Hartley, Hart’s character (the judge at Amber’s custody hearing) isn’t defined by her sexuality. Instead, she’s portrayed as a woman of power and an arbiter of justice and does a damn fine job of doing it. Fame whore Ron Jeremy was also cast, though his scene, which involved him roughing up the Colonel James in prison, was cut from the final version. Rounding out the “adult” portion of the cast are “big bust” porn stars Summer Cummings and Skye Blue, who, as a pair of siliconed vixens, serve as representations of an industry that, in the ’80s, had come to be defined by superficiality rather than authenticity. Clever, that.
Analysis: Though each of his films are radically different, there’s a line that can be drawn through Anderson’s work. On one side, you’ve got accessible, emotionally complex narratives with traditional story beats (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia) and on the other more abstract character studies imbued with a certain thematic grandeur (There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice) — Punch Drunk Love, I’d say, tows the line. They’re all brilliant, but it’s Boogie Nights that has the biggest heart, entertaining just as much as it enlightens. And though it’s gorgeously shot and tells a story that’s uniquely American, the film’s biggest success is its ensemble, which Anderson bestows with an almost unparalleled level of empathy. Today, with pornography becoming more and more an accepted part of pop culture, Boogie Nights still stands, nearly 20 years after its release, as the definitive document of the art form. Yes, I said art form. Deal.