There aren’t many directors working in Hollywood today who can provide the density of critical acclaim that Paul Thomas Anderson can provide with his stunning filmography.
Over the course of only nine films, the director has confirmed himself as a budding auteur and future legend of the field. Below, we’re ranking the director’s feature films in order of greatness, giving you the opportunity to start your discovery of Paul Thomas Anderson at exactly the right point.
Paul Thomas Anderson recently reinforced his global status as a prominent filmmaker with his latest project Licorice Pizza which has already entered the coveted race for Best Picture at this year’s iteration of the Academy Awards. Anderson also nabbed an Oscar bid for Best Director, edging out other pioneers such as Denis Villeneuve.
However, Anderson’s work goes all the way back to his stunning debut Hard Eight in 1996, followed by the exemplary Boogie Nights which turned Anderson into an Indiewood legend alongside the likes of Quentin Tarantino. Below, we’re ranking the director’s films from worst to best.
Paul Thomas Anderson films ranked from worst to best:
9. Inherent Vice (2009)
Anderson’s zonked-out adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 neo-noir-meets-1970s-California might be the director’s least ambitious project, but that’s only because the material he’s working with requires him to be hands-off.
Anderson leans hard into Joaquin Phoenix’s perpetually stoned point of view throughout Inherent Vice. Events just happen to tumble in and out of the plot, whether it actually works for the film or not. That makes Inherent Vice the least essential PTA joint.
8. Hard Eight (1996)
Nobody knew the name Paul Thomas Anderson in 1996. But at the Cannes Film Festival, there was suddenly a self-contained crime film starring Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Samuel L. Jackson that was stylish, exciting, and enthraling.
Hard Eight is a film ripe for rewatches, but it mostly serves as a precursor to the heights that Anderson would reach later in his career.
7. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
What was the point of Punch-Drunk Love? Was it to show that Adam Sandler could actually act, or was it to show that Anderson could helm a more down-to-earth after the sprawling Magnolia?
Whatever the motive was, everyone involved sticks the landing on Punch-Drunk Love. It’s PTA’s most understated film and Sandler’s quietest lead role, both of which serve Punch-Drunk Love well as an underrated gem.
6. Licorice Pizza (2021)
If you can get past the weird quasi-paedophilia at the centre of it, Licorice Pizza is a wonderfully wacky dissection of innocence, ambition, and love. Working with two leads not especially known for their acting chops, Anderson manages to will an immense amount of charm out of Licorice Pizza.
It usually works, like in Alana Haim’s own disbelief in her falling for Cooper Hoffman and Bradley Cooper’s bananas take on real-life bananas human being Jon Peters, and even when it stalls, Licorice Pizza always seems to get the audience back on its side in no time.
5. Magnolia (1999)
When PTA went big, he went BIG. A three-hour-long anthology film that also features frogs raining from the sky, Magnolia is the biggest and most insanely ambitious project that Anderson ever embarked on.
There are plenty of times when Magnolia can’t hold up all of its very messy and disparate elements, but when it works, Magnolia can’t help being mind-blowing. Weirdly, Magnolia had a very real chance of tanking PTA’s career, which is stupefying considering how enthralling the movie is.
4. Phantom Thread (2017)
A love letter to passion and intricate design, Phantom Thread could have been an overly-masturbatory exercise had it not been helmed by two of film’s brights talents – Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel-Day Lewis.
It’s hard for Phantom Thread to escape the shadow of Lewis’ retirement following its completion, which automatically saddles the film with too many expectations. Phantom Thread actually isn’t all that ambitious: it’s just a quietly beautiful film about obsession and perfection from people who know a thing or two about that.
3. There Will Be Blood (2008)
Anderson gets some phenomenally moody mileage out of the rocky terrain and old-school Americana of his setting and story, but let’s be honest: There Will Be Blood is Daniel Day-Lewis’ film from beginning to end.
It very well could be Lewis’ best performance in a career of legendary acting roles, and the only reason that There Will Be Blood isn’t higher on this list is that Lewis dominates it so thoroughly. If this was a DDL list it might be number one, but it’s not the biggest and best of PTA.
2. The Master (2012)
Anderson’s most thoughtful and thought-provoking film, The Master plumbs the depth of emotion and the human condition to try and dissect why people choose the paths that they embark on. As a search for meaning, you can’t get any more intense than The Master.
Featuring what very well may be the finest performances from both Joaquin Phoenix and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master also finds Anderson working at the very apex of his storytelling abilities. It’s not always the easiest watch, but it’s nearly impossible to come away from The Master without feeling something.
1. Boogie Nights (1998)
What makes Boogie Nights the best Paul Thomas Anderson film? It’s the mix between the auteur and the blockbuster. Equal parts intense period drama and ecstatic cinematic indulgence, Boogie Nights is a film that can play to any audience at any time. That’s saying a lot for a porn film.
Or, rather, a film about porn. Marky Mark was never better onscreen, and neither was Burt Reynolds. But the true revelation upon the first, fifth, and fiftieth viewing of Boogie Nights was Anderson and his uncanny ability to mix brooding darkness with joyous excitement and entertainment.