Paul Thomas Anderson is easily one of the most exciting filmmakers currently in the game. The 43 year-old from Los Angeles is a master with the camera, and his ability to direct ensemble casts is almost unparalleled. He's obsessed with family strife and self-exploration. While his characters aren't always the most like-able, his films are immersive and dramatic.
With a career that spans six films over sixteen years, where's the best place for a newcomer to get acquainted with Anderson? Let's rank his filmography to see if we can't create some sort of jumping-off point.
1. Magnolia (1999)
It's easy to call a film "divisive." It's kind of a copout, though. "Some people like it, while others don't." Fine. But few films truly "divide" an audience like Magnolia manages.
Magnolia is so grand in scope that it's almost difficult to concisely describe. The film follows many characters and plot-lines and often shows how these seemingly unrelated facets connect. You have a remarkably intelligent child who's in the midst of a historic run on a television quiz show; a former child quiz-star who's battling the after-effects of his past life; a mysogynistic self-help "guru" who preaches a mind-set of "respect the cock;" the host of the long-running quiz show, who's recently been given very little time to live; the quiz show host's daughter who, following a fall-out with her father, has found herself knee-deep in a drug habit; and on and on and on. Seriously. Those aren't all of the interconnecting plots Magnolia attempts to conquer.
However, with a run-time that clocks in at around three hours, Magnolia has every intention of fully realizing all of these plots. And it does so masterfully.
Some will certainly find the way Anderson connects his story--as well as the grandiose ending which takes some of its cues from religious works--contrived. But for those of us who are completely sold on this world of extreme coincidence and humanity, it's an exceptional, one-of-a-kind ride.
2. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
It's one thing to make a film that features Adam Sandler up to his usual throat numbing, ear-piercing antics, but to make a film that hones those mannerisms into something moving and meaningful? That's cinema worth watching.
Such is Anderson's Punk-Drunk Love, which follows Sandler's Barry Egan, a socially awkward business owner who's obsessed with societally uncanny hobbies--like purchasing a ton of pudding to cash in on frequent flyer miles. Egan fumbles his way through a freshly commenced relationship with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), while trying to fend off the perilous goons who work for a sex hotline he called in an extreme moment of loneliness and regret.
We get plenty of the Sandler we're so accustomed to, but when put in the context of a character who deals with depression and obvious anger issues, it's heart-wrenching rather than off-putting.
Punch-Drunk Love is moving, and humane, and just barely misses being P.T. Anderson's best work.
3. There Will Be Blood (2007)
There Will Be Blood is by far P.T. Anderson's most financially successful work. With a budget of $25 million, There Will Be Blood pulled in a cool $76 million.
TWBB is also Anderson's most violent and aggressive work. Taking place in the late 19th century, There Will Be Blood follows prospector Daniel Plainview--who's exquisitely played by Daniel Day-Lewis--as he strikes oil. Plainview starts a drilling company, and what follows is a series of violent outbursts and belligerent grasps for cash.
The film is aesthetically magical and presents a wonderfully bleak, bygone world. But it misses its mark at times with a comparatively weak supporting cast and a marginally unfulfilling ending.
4. Boogie Nights (1997)
Before watching Boogie Nights, I'd never found myself pondering the unusual and alternating life of a 70s porn star. These are precisely the types of scenarios Anderson loves to plunge head-first into.
Eddie Adams is a boy with a plan and an exceptional...amount of talent in his desired career field. He wants to be a porn star. He was BORN to be a porn star.
When Eddie by pure chance encounters porn aficionado, and director, Jack Horn, his life is sky-rocketed into a supernova of success, money and all the blow any human could ever desire.
This lavish life doesn't come without it flaws, though. Eddie is forced to deal with a changing pornography market, near constant overdoses and a crowd of fresh, young pornographic wannabees.
Boogie Nights sports a wonderful ensemble that includes Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore and Burt Reynolds. The film loses steam towards the end, as it descends into the madness that is the 1980s, but its performances and vibrant sets keep it active throughout.
5. Hard Eight (1996)
P.T. Anderson's first work is the 1996 neo-noir thriller Hard Eight (originally titled Sydney). When Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), an old-time gambler, stumbles upon a glum John (John C. Reilly) sitting idly outside a diner not far from Reno, he learns that John is unable to pay for the funeral of his mother. Sydney takes John under his wing, showing him the ins-and-outs of working the local casinos.
Things get sticky for John when he falls for casino waitress Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow). When a man refuses to pay Clementine for sex, John and Clementine beat and hold him hostage until his debts are paid. With nowhere to turn, John drags Sydney in to clean up the mess.
While Hall, Reilly and Paltrow all do fine jobs, Hard Eight doesn't boast the performances of the works that comprise the upper-echelon of Anderson's career. There's also a twist near the end which feels a bit too expected and forced.
6. The Master (2012)
Despite coming off an impressive run with Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood, Anderson's latest, the 2012 film The Master, is his most lack-luster production. But for fans of the director, it's not completely devoid of charm.
Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is The Master--the leader of a hypnosis-like movement known as "The Cause." When Dodd discovers Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a WWII vet. who's stowed away on a boat The Master is using for the marriage of his daughter, he takes him under his wing, exposing him to the practices of "The Cause." We follow Dodd and Quell as "The Cause" grows, expanding its follower count, while examining the father-son-esque relationship the two share.
Not unlike Anderson's other films, The Master boasts impressive performances--Hoffman and Phoenix are in top form. Unfortunately, Anderson fails to make anything of these performances, leaving their relationship dangling and concocting an unmemorable ending.
It speaks volumes about Paul Thomas Anderson as a filmmaker that his most disappointing venture is by no means a bad film. But when you've churned out complete joys like Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, the standards are through the roof.