What are Paul Thomas Anderson’s best movies? One of our finest living filmmakers, Anderson’s oeuvre offers several of the most widely-regarded cinematic masterpieces ever made, and a few other top-tier classics to boot. An Oscars favourite, and commonplace on any Blu-ray collector’s shelf, the director behind Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, and most recently, Licorice Pizza, has fuelled many a hot take-laden discussion.
Besides his own incredible sense of mood, keen eye for set-design, and penchant for transporting us just about anywhere, the filmmaker has collaborated with some of the greatest actors of his generation. Joaquin Phoenix and Daniel-Day Lewis are regulars, and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman constructed some of his most alluring work while playing to Anderson’s lens.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Hard Eight, Anderson’s feature-length directorial debut, we’ve gone through his entire career thus far to find his biggest hits. Though all of these are beloved in their own way, as is just about anything Anderson’s touched in his career, we believe together they represent the bold artistry that’s made something new from him an event in itself.
What are the best Paul Thomas Anderson movies?
- The Master
- Punch-Drunk Love
- There Will Be Blood
- Hard Eight
- Inherent Vice
Like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cult leader Lancaster Dodd, The Master is inscrutable. The more you think you know, the more new meaning becomes apparent. Opposite Hoffman is Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a veteran who becomes an obsessive of Lancaster’s teachings and ‘The Cause’.
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After being heralded as a hero of modern cinema with There Will Be Blood, Anderson made a beguiling, introverted commentary on cults. The obvious aspersion is scientology, but there’s a sense of something deeply personal in the notion that placing people on platitudes is an unhealthy reflex. Whatever your takeaway, Hoffman and Phoenix are right at home and utterly spellbinding under Anderson’s sharp lighting and intimate camerawork.
Adam Sandler like you’ve never seen him before, in a tightly wound rom-com that’s very particular to Anderson’s humour. Through a series of strange coincidences, lonely toy company manager Barry Egan (Sandler) meets Lena (Emily Watson), with whom he quickly becomes infatuated. Their getting together is interrupted by attempted extortion, stalking, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the slimy ringleader behind it all.
In his violent tantrums, obsessive routines, and quiet longing, Anderson coaxes a performance out of Sandler that proves he’s much more than puerile laughs, nearly two decades before Uncut Gems did it all over again. The mundanity of Barry’s life, full of cheap suits and cheaper insults, cuts through Sandler’s established persona to reveal someone looking for what’s real. As Anderson keenly makes clear, such things are rarely neat, and you must hold onto them when they occur.
There Will Be Blood
The start of Jonny Greenwood and Anderson’s partnership, and a character-driven epic on American capitalism, shouldered by Daniel-Day Lewis in a career high performance. What starts as Daniel Plainview discovering silver in the late 1800s becomes an oil empire, with escalation that consistently finds ways to startle and amuse.
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One of Anderson’s most expansive pictures, There Will Be Blood finds gold in the harsh, grubby wasteland of the early-20th century United States. Oil lamps against beads of sweat at night, sunlight on Daniel’s well-dressed brow in the daytime; glints of shimmering beauty in an unrepentant depiction of greed. Paul Dano shines in a supporting role, the ideal fuel for Day Lewis’s fire in the shocking last scene.
Anderson’s feature-length debut is as unassuming as the kind gesture that opens it, where Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), a practised gambler, offers comfort to John (John C Reilly), who’s just been ransacked by Las Vegas. Gradually, though, the veil slips for a slightly sordid tale of unpayable debts and reverberating violence.
Based on his short Coffee and Cigarettes, Anderson leaves behind the $20 bill that unifies those characters for connections that are unspeakable. In fact, the only tie that truly binds is the camera, making us privy to every detail. Even as his runtimes got longer and longer, Anderson maintains an efficiency in the way he portrays disreputable protagonists that’s as evident here as his later work. Everyone’s got a secret in Sin City, but only the worst get left behind.
A film you can smell. Joaquin Phoenix leads this adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, as a private investigator who goes down several rabbit holes in 1970 Los Angeles for a series of increasingly strange cases. Near-constant marijuana and cigarettes create a smoky surrealism, encapsulating us in the fluctuating décor.
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We flit from grumpy procedural, with Josh Brolin, to seedy undercover thriller, featuring Owen Wilson, and back again. All the while, Doc and his ex-girlfriend Shasta can’t seem to decide if they should give it another go. The funniest of Anderson’s movies, it’s the lighting and texture that keep it lingering in the mind. Sure, others have gotten more awards attention and plaudits, but when you want to just hang out and vibe, Inherent Vice is where to be.