Posted on Friday, December 12th, 2014 by Germain Lussier
Two movies. That’s all it took for every single Paul Thomas Anderson movie to become an event. His first film, Hard Eight, opened with relatively little fanfare. His second, Boogie Nights, announced to the world that Anderson would be a filmmaker to celebrate. One whose work we would anticipate, possibly revere. With each subsequent film, film fans everywhere have salivated to find out what Anderson has in store for us next.
The latest event, Inherent Vice, opens in limited release this weekend. It’s both a huge departure for the director in that it’s the first film of his directly based on someone else’s work (the inspiration for There Will Be Blood was very different from the final film), but somehow it also perfectly fits into his career. Like most of his movies, it’s a film set in and around California and tells a story about its history. Anderson loves California, and that interest shows in almost every one of his movies. And while exploring that running theme, each of his seven movies gets more confident and daring. There has yet to be a single misstep.
Still, there has to be some kind of hierarchy, right? Some kind of almost impossible deathmatch in which these seven glorious works are pitted against one another, to see which triumphs.
Below, read our ranking of the best Paul Thomas Anderson movies.
7. The Master (2012)
Calling The Master “the worst Paul Thomas Anderson movie” is a total disservice. There should be no negative connotation here. The Master was one of my favorite films of 2012. It features jaw-dropping lead performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Adams, stunning 70mm photography by Mihai Malaimare Jr., and complex, interesting thoughts on the nature of humanity, character, and religion. It’s a fantastic movie. However, when you look at the work of Paul Thomas Anderson and you’re looking for a film to rewatch, a film to enjoy, The Master just so happens to be last on the list. Still, the “worst” Paul Thomas Anderson movie is literally better than probably 95% of the other movies out there. That’s how good this movie, and the rest of this list is.
6. Sydney aka Hard Eight (1996)
It’s almost unfathomable that Sydney, eventually retitled Hard Eight, is the first feature film by Paul Thomas Anderson. The dialogue (written by Anderson, as all of his movies save for the very Thomas Pynchon-reliant Inherent Vice) is realistic and hard-boiled. Performances by actors Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson — performers who were at the time under-utilized and underrated — are all understated and intense. The script is as tight as a drum, with not a superfluous scene or moment, all of it adding to this seemingly simple story of one man’s kindness as a way of penance. If there’s anything that marks Sydney as a first feature is a structural simplicity. But everything within that is so rewarding and rich, you just knew this kid was going to be big. And boy was he ever.
5. Inherent Vice (2014)
At this point, I’ve only seen Inherent Vice once and you can read my review here. Eventually, as I see it multiple times, as I’ve seen all the other films on this list, I think it’ll probably move up at least one spot. But for now, here’s where it lies. Inherent Vice is a very big step for Paul Thomas Anderson as narrative, something that was so important in most of his early films, is now pushed to the back burner for a bit. This film is all about the novel’s original author, Thomas Pynchon, and creating a specific, moist, lived-in vibe. Every frame of the film, from the production design to the cinematography, performances and sound just makes you feel good. Sometimes you might not know why; other times you know exactly why, and it’s just a wonderful trip of a movie.