The 20 Best Performances In Paul Thomas Anderson Movies

Over nearly 25 years, Paul Thomas Anderson has established himself as one of the great artists of modern American cinema. His earlier works were defined by the style of filmmakers who inspired him, from Martin Scorsese to Robert Altman. As he's grown, though, it's become clear that Anderson is also an incredibly skilled director of actors, not just content to populate his films with recognizable faces and sit back to let them do the work. His eight films encompass a deep and rich span of American history, and those films have boasted some powerhouse performances. Here, then, are the 20 best performances in PTA's films, in ranked order.

20. Alfred Molina, Boogie Nights (1997)

Most of Anderson's breakout film Boogie Nights (not his debut, to be clear) feels like a heady riff on films like Goodfellas and Nashville, bringing together a vast group of people in the mid-1970s at the forefront of the pornographic film movement in the San Fernando Valley. Though the film gets darker in its second half, you feel like you have a general idea of what's going on in the rise and fall of young Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg, about whom we'll talk more soon). And then Dirk and two of his buddies, in the throes of drug addiction, go to some stranger's house and are nearly all killed. That stranger, Rahad, is played masterfully and creepily by Alfred Molina, in the kind of one-scene cameo that threatens to upend the entire movie. Rahad has a predilection for singing to Rick Springfield songs, letting a buddy throw firecrackers throughout his house, and calling his new friends "puppies." It's a strange scene, anchored by Molina's fearless and utterly unforgettable acting choices.

19. Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice (2014)

Inherent Vice, now just five years old, is perhaps the oddest film in Paul Thomas Anderson's filmography, and that's saying a lot. Of his eight features, it's not his only adaptation — he also technically adapted Upton Sinclair's Oil! for There Will Be Blood. But Inherent Vice, based on the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name, is the most labyrinthine, deliberately daffy, and convoluted film he's made. Like many of his other projects, it has a killer cast – yet one of the true standouts was one of the less recognizable performers. Katherine Waterston, as Shasta Fay Hepworth, has to recall the femme fatales of old-school film noir while also capturing the blissed-out sensibilities of California circa the end of the 1960s. And she does so capably, as if she walked right out of that time period onto the set of the film. This is a sneakier, more seductive performance than most of what you'll find in PTA's filmography, and great breakout work from Waterston.

18. Burt Reynolds, Boogie Nights (1997)

One of the earliest selling points of Boogie Nights wasn't just that it had a sprawling cast, but that one of its main characters would be played by Burt Reynolds. The legendary star had a rough go of things in the early 1990s, but the role of Jack Horner, famous porn producer and director, felt like the kind of thing to revive his career in the same way that John Travolta's career was given new life by his work in Pulp Fiction. Though Reynolds' post-Boogie Nights roles didn't take off similarly, he's doing fine work here with a delicate character. Jack somehow never feels predatory thanks to Reynolds' smooth performance and line deliveries. Just as Dirk is looking for a new family, Jack genuinely seems to strike a paternal figure, even when communicating his anger and frustration at his surrogate son. It's a deservedly Oscar-nominated performance from a fallen icon.

17. Philip Baker Hall, Hard Eight (1996)

Anderson's debut film, Hard Eight, might feel at odds with just about everything else he's made since then. The tightly focused crime drama is decidedly low budget in ways that don't often become clear in his other films. (Of course, its cast includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. But still.) Hard Eight is anchored by two actors, John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall. The latter, a longtime character actor from the stage, TV, and film, is the lead of Hard Eight, a wise and blunt gambler who mentors a young hustler (Reilly) through some tough times in Las Vegas. There's more to the story than that, of course, but Hall's performance is what makes Hard Eight worth discussing after so many years. He would work again in other PTA films, but this is the performance that helped vault him back up to the top of casting directors' lists to get hired for every possible role of corrupt authority.

16. Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice (2014)

Putting it lightly, there's a lot going on in Inherent Vice, where the various ways in which characters intersect with each other is as hard to untangle as the core mystery. Yet the other big standout performance comes from someone who's become very adept at taking his innately gruff exterior and turning it comic. Josh Brolin, as the antagonistic cop Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, is the constant thorn in the side of our hero Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). But Brolin really thrives with all sorts of unexpected visual and verbal gags, heightened because he's playing them completely straight. Brolin's only worked with Anderson the one time, but it was a perfect mix of director, actor, and character.

15. Emily Watson, Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Still the strangest and most opaque film of Paul Thomas Anderson's career, Punch-Drunk Love is also one of his best. The 2002 character study ostensibly achieved two major shifts in the director's career: he made a relatively short film and worked with a pretty stripped-down cast, led by Adam Sandler at the height of his comedic career. Sandler is playing a darker version of his man-child characters, an emotionally stunted toilet-plunger salesman who connects with an English woman named Lena who seems laser-focused on being in his life. Emily Watson, as Lena, is both alluring and utterly confusing. Unlike Barry Egan, we know little of Lena's life, why she would be attracted to Barry, and whether she has ulterior motives. But Watson — in a performance that now feels like a preview of the female lead in Phantom Thread — is charming and appropriately mysterious in a role that gets more fascinating with age.

14. Jason Robards, Magnolia (1999)

Of the various epic dramas Paul Thomas Anderson has made, Magnolia is the most personal and ambitious. In between falling frogs, a mid-film sing-along, and other dramatic flourishes, there's the core character of Earl Partridge. Jason Robards, in his last film role, plays the vaunted TV producer as a scared and confused old man hovering between life and death. Robards never gets out of bed, all while hazily monologuing about his past, about regret, and more. It's a rough and deeply felt performance, as we get a glimpse into the man Earl Partridge was before he gave up his morals to pursue success, other women, and a life without the family he helped create. Magnolia is bursting with emotional performances, but Robards' is the key.

13. Julianne Moore, Boogie Nights (1997)

Just as Jack Horner serves as the surrogate father of the strange family unit at the core of Boogie Nights, Amber Waves is the surrogate mother, portrayed tenderly by Julianne Moore. Moore worked with Anderson once more, in a harsher and more brittle character in Magnolia, but her performance in Boogie Nights is truly gutting. Through her subplot, we learn that Amber is an actual mother, but the father of her child has no interest in letting a porn star have any interaction with their son, no matter how much she clearly wants to be in the boy's life. Moore, more than anyone else in the film, is tapping into a raw nerve as someone who has plenty of love to give but (as another character in PTA's work says) nowhere to put it. 

12. Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood (2007)

As the story goes, Paul Dano wasn't supposed to play both Eli and Paul Sunday in the 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood. He was originally cast as just Paul, but when the original actor set to play Eli was recast, the decision was made to have him take on both roles. Paul Sunday only appears in one scene, leading the oilman Daniel Plainview to Little Boston and the biggest find of his life, while the young preacher Eli Sunday is at the forefront of the rest of the film. Dano leans very heavily into Eli Sunday being a truly weaselly figure, making him as odious (if not, somehow, more odious) than Plainview himself. Though Eli is a wimpier figure, he's shrewd and stands toe to toe with Plainview throughout, an accomplishment achieved through Dano's multi-layered performance.

11. Amy Adams, The Master (2012)

Over time, Amy Adams has proven herself to be one of the great actresses of her generation. The Master, where she plays the Lady Macbeth-like wife of Lancaster Dodd, is one of the films that helped solidify that proof. Adams is unquestionably the third lead of the period drama — Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are the true protagonists — but she makes her presence known often in surprising and fierce ways. It's not just that we see she's as passionately involved in proselytizing The Cause, but that her presence to Freddie Quell is simultaneously terrifying and comforting. Adams plays both sides of Peggy Dodd well, in a performance that sneaks up on you.

10. John C. Reilly, Magnolia (1999)

It would be very easy to turn Jim Kurring into a joke of a character. The LAPD officer who loses his gun during a very long day, however, is the emotional soul of Magnolia. For a while, it's not entirely clear how he connects to the other major characters, what with his being off on his own police-tinged adventures before going on a date with a woman whose apartment he visited regarding a noise complaint. But even after we learn about that woman (Melora Walters) and her connection to the world of game-show host Jimmy Gator, Kurring's innate kindness and humanity help make him feel important. John C. Reilly makes Jim into a man instead of a caricature, one of the truly pure and good characters in a PTA picture.

9. Mark Wahlberg, Boogie Nights (1997)

When he wants to, Mark Wahlberg can be an incredible actor. He's worked with some impressive directors, from David O. Russell to Martin Scorsese, but it's his serious work as the young stud Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights that served as proof that he was more than just an underwear model/rapper. Dirk, in a lot of ways, feels like yet another example of Paul Thomas Anderson figuring out just the right way to craft a character who both reflects and refracts a star's persona (years before Wahlberg would be as known for his Entourage-style lifestyle and more). Dirk Diggler isn't the sharpest tool in the shed, but Wahlberg's childlike glee and frustration make him a weirdly likable character. And the long-take shot of Dirk slowly realizing he has to escape Rahad Jackson's house in the aforementioned standout sequence communicates depth Wahlberg has not often displayed since.

8. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Magnolia (1999)

The other truly pure and good character in Magnolia is Phil Parma, the nurse/caregiver for the dying Earl Partridge. As Parma, Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers one of his very best performances, showcasing his extreme range as an actor. The late Hoffman appeared in five of Paul Thomas Anderson's films (five of his first six, to be exact), and performances like this make it clear why the filmmaker kept working with him. You can't find a shred of Phil Parma in the other characters Hoffman played, but he imbues this man with a bottomless depth of kindness and caring that somehow never feels stock or one-note. He's one of many characters in Magnolia that you wish could have gotten their own full story — the performance is just that good.

7. Tom Cruise, Magnolia (1999)

Not every showy performance is always good, but Tom Cruise is at his showiest and most magnetic in Magnolia, and it's just irresistible. Cruise here plays Frank T.J. Mackey, a motivational speaker known for peddling misogynistic tactics to men for how they can seduce and destroy women. As we learn throughout Frank's subplot, he's really the abandoned son of Earl Partridge, and he took the old man's attitudes about women to heart for his work. By the end of the film, Frank has been laid emotionally low once he learns that his father is about to die. But both at this extreme and the opposite — when we meet Frank, he's introduced via "Thus Sprach Zarathustra" from 2001 — Cruise is at his most oily and charming.

6. Adam Sandler, Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

As has been recently proven by his abrasive and intense performance in the Safdie Brothers' Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler can do a lot more than just play gibbering goofballs in movies like Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy. The first filmmaker to tap into his darker side was Anderson, with his remarkable and mysterious comedy-drama Punch-Drunk Love. Here, Sandler plays Barry Egan, a small businessman who's beset upon by his nasty sisters and attracted to the strange woman (Emily Watson, mentioned above) who seems unwilling to let him go. There's a lot about Barry Egan that we don't fully understand — whether his emotional issues are a sign of a larger mental illness, for example — but Sandler makes him a truly captivating and surprising lead character.

5. Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread (2017)

If he sticks to it, Daniel Day-Lewis really is finished with acting on film. Should that end up being the case, then his work as Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread will be his final role, and it's a hell of a way to go out. Reynolds is not, on the face of things, remotely as scary as the other character Day-Lewis played for Paul Thomas Anderson. But he's got a ruthless sensibility that's turned away plenty of women before he meets the beautiful young waitress Alma on a vacation where he's got a voracious appetite. The way Reynolds and Alma go head to head throughout the film, with a distinct sense that Reynolds hasn't met a lot of women who push back on him (except for his sister), is brought to life marvelously through Day-Lewis' huffy performance, as someone less willing to get his hands dirty but happy to verbally destroy someone if they look at him the wrong way.

4. Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread (2017)

Alma is one of the best and most intriguing characters in Paul Thomas Anderson's work, brought to life with an air of mystery by Vicky Krieps. When we meet Alma, she's a waitress at a small restaurant whose looks enchant the fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock. But soon, their relationship moves from the honeymoon phase to something more vicious. And then, of course, Anderson reveals a shocking twist in terms of what their relationship could be, all of which is played with aplomb by Krieps. Among the actors on this list, she's a relative newcomer (and inexplicably, she hasn't gotten a role since this film of even a smidge of its magnitude), but Vicky Krieps is the true key to why Phantom Thread works so well. Reynolds Woodcock, we can figure out; Alma is a lot more mysterious, all because of Krieps' compelling work.

3. Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master (2012)

One of the greatest scenes that Paul Thomas Anderson has ever directed or written comes fairly early in The Master, after Freddie Quell encounters Lancaster Dodd on his personal ship and gives him some homemade hooch to drink. Lancaster encourages Freddie to indulge him in some "processing," in which the former asks the latter a series of rapid-fire questions that he must answer truthfully while not blinking. Joaquin Phoenix — and don't worry, we're about to get to him — plays the scene to the rafters, while Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Lancaster Dodd, is almost disturbingly calm. His performance is less showy than Phoenix's, but just as important to why The Master is one of Anderson's best films. The few times Lancaster does let an outburst escape, it's more terrifying precisely because of how preternaturally calm and wise he tries to be through the rest of the film. This movie is a two-hander, and Hoffman, in one of his last performances, is delivering a hell of a hand.

2. Joaquin Phoenix, The Master (2012)

If you love Joaquin Phoenix as the Clown Prince of Crime, then you should probably thank The Master, a film in which Phoenix portrays someone who's similarly mysterious, unhinged, likely insane, and utterly animalistic. (You should also watch The Master, since, unlike that other movie I just referenced, it's...y'know, good. Ahem.) When The Master was first announced, it was implied that Anderson would be taking direct aim at Scientology. While that's partially what The Master is about, it's also a fascinating and unblinking character study of man as an animal, as depicted by the shiftless World War II veteran Freddie Quell. Phoenix, it should be noted, was mostly considered a pure and unsalvageable oddball at the time: this was his first film role since the controversial faux-documentary I'm Still Here. But he tapped into the utter strangeness of his life to play Freddie, whose life is opaque and disturbing. Phoenix's raw work is arguably what revived his career after a true low point.

1. Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood (2007)

This may seem like a gimme to some of you. Daniel Day-Lewis, who justifiably won an Oscar for his performance in this film, is widely and correctly considered one of the greatest film actors who's ever lived. And Daniel Plainview throws a long shadow in the whole of Paul Thomas Anderson's films. But sometimes, conventional wisdom is right for a reason. Day-Lewis delivers one of his most intense and terrifying performances in this epic drama about how an oil man makes his riches in the early part of the 20th century. Though we may now think of this film through moments such as the finale, in which he utters the unforgettably weird line, "I drink your milkshake!", Day-Lewis finds much more complexity in a man who embodies the soullessness of capitalism than even that scene might imply. Plainview's hidden depth of emotion, as displayed when he reconnects with a man he believes is his brother, is gasp-inducing to watch. Day-Lewis is, yes, one of our very best actors. And this is his best performance, in Anderson's best film. How could this not be the top spot?