Before 2006, I wasn’t really into movies. I had some staples of my childhood (which were mostly Disney movies, like The Great Mouse Detective and Aladdin). But other than those projects, I just didn’t really care about movies all that much.
And then I saw Magnolia.
After that, everything changed. Paul Thomas Anderson was the director who showed me that movies could be more than I had ever allowed them to be. From there, I immediately sought out every other classic movie I was required to watch in order to become a cinephile. I needed to find every other movie that could fill that void in my life I never even knew existed.
But it all started with Paul Thomas Anderson—or “PTA” as his fans like to call him. After Magnolia, I sought out Hard Eight and Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love. And moving forward, I was counting down the days until the next Anderson project became available.
So, needless to say: I’m a PTA fanboy. Which means ranking all of his films isn’t easy to do.
Yet, here I have made an attempt. This is my personal ranking of every Paul Thomas Anderson movie.
Note: I’ve excluded some of the lesser-known projects like The Dirk Diggler Story and Junun.
8. Phantom Thread (2017)
Look: I’m sorry. I know I’ve already lost a lot of you. Phantom Thread is heralded by both movie critics and PTA fanboys alike as a masterful departure for the director.
And I have to admit, he extracts two incredible performances out of his lead actors. There are many beautiful shots. The movie’s pacing and editing is fluid in an exquisite and experienced manner. And the characters are deeply written and beautifully drawn out.
But this is my personal list, and I cannot lie about the fact that—even after three viewings—I simply can’t find a connection with PTA’s latest film. Each subsequent watch of this movie pulls me a little further away from liking it, to the point where I’m pretty sure that I’ll never find the “in” that allows me to enjoy this film.
While I am invested in the characters on paper, the tone of Phantom Thread is what ultimately always establishes the disconnect. Much like the characters, it’s a movie that never opens up quite enough to properly invite me in. If this is done purposely so, then I can admire that—but I cannot connect with that. I can’t help but think the movie is playing an elaborate joke on me, as the catharsis of the film is too Freudian-ly tongue-in-cheek for me to take it seriously. Especially when I’m so ready to care about these characters.
I enjoy watching Phantom Thread. But if I have to put a movie at the bottom, then this is it. Sorry.
7. Hard Eight (1996)
This is the obvious pick for the “worst Paul Thomas Anderson movie.” And I kinda understand why. The editing of this film seemed to be a complete disaster. At one point, PTA said he believed that his first feature film “had been taken away from me completely” after much infighting with Rysher (the film’s production company). “It was financed by people whose roots were in television—bad television like Baywatch,” Anderon later said. That strain between PTA and the production company seemed to take a toll on the director during the filmmaking process.
But still, Hard Eight became the beautiful blueprint for the PTA formula. The wizened figure guiding a younger protege; animalistic eruptions of violence that have severe consequences; an alluring antagonist who forces the protagonist to a philosophical crossroads. On paper, it reads basic and formulaic. But I’ll be damned if PTA’s earliest attempt at a feature-length story isn’t an engaging-as-hell watch.
More than anything, I love the energy of Hard Eight. The whip-pans, the roving camera, the wise-cracking dialogue—it’s a PTA-film-that-most-people-have-never-heard-of before there were even any PTA films. Anderson had established his style right out of the gate. And while the story itself is simple, the film laid the grounds for what his intricate narratives would eventually evolve into.
6. Inherent Vice (2014)
I love Inherent Vice because it represents the moment PTA went where I never thought he’d go. In many ways, The Master felt like a sister to There Will Be Blood. The tone, the pacing, the score, the unraveling of the human psyche—there were so many similar elements I saw in The Master that I thought this was Anderson’s new style moving forward. Which is great! But I wanted Anderson to evolve and master other storytelling formulas.
Cue Inherent Vice—a welcome charismatic, flamboyant surprise. The film is PTA’s take on both the “stoner comedy” and the “neo-noir crime” genres. And what a beautiful fusion it is. Anderson breathes life into Thomas Pynchon’s wacky detective story, writing a script that allowed Joaquin Phoenix to inhabit and become the ever-curious-and-unpredictable Larry “Doc” Sportello.
Following Doc through this weaving, layered portrait of 1970s California is such a unique feel. On paper, Inherent Vice owns a lot of the same beats as other PTA films. Yet, at no point are you ahead of the story. You are tracking the mystery at the same rate as Doc, resulting in a post-cinematic narrative that’s constantly unfolding and constantly interesting.
5. Boogie Nights (1997)
I have a slight correction to make from earlier: I shouldn’t have made it seem as though Magnolia was the first PTA movie I ever watched. In fact, it was Boogie Nights, which I once saw way back in high school because my friend claimed I needed to see “Heather Graham’s you-know-what.” Whenever I look back at my achingly awkward teenaged self, that has always been a painful memory to recall.
Yet, at the same time, this seemingly inconsequential and embarrassing coming-of-age moment is what kickstarted a lifelong love of Anderson’s work. At the time, I knew there was something special, something different about PTA’s first stab at this kind of unfurling and biopic-ish narrative. I just needed my tastes to evolve before I understood the attraction.
And now, years later, I get it. Boogie Nights is absolutely stuffed-to-the-fucking-brim with style and glamour. The editing is electric; the chemistry between actors is magnetic; the storytelling and character development is innovative and captivating. This film is an amalgamation of fantastic ideas coming together, which can sometimes result in a mess—but not Boogie Nights. Paul Thomas Anderson’s sophomore effort isn’t a slump, but instead an undeniable triumph.
4. The Master (2012)
You can look at every Paul Thomas Anderson film and showcase two great performances. But is there a better one-two punch than Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master? Individually, they’re fantastic. But together? Playing off of each other? My god…there’s simply nothing else like it.
Throw in a script that details a man’s philosophical search for inner peace, a quietly grandiose score from Johnny Greenwood, and some of PTA’s most intriguing-and-eye-opening moments of mise-en-scene? Then you’ve got The Master—what I would consider to be Paul Thomas Anderson’s most underrated film. Despite owning much of the same energy and epic-ness as There Will Be Blood, The Master has always been viewed as a “lesser” project by the moviegoing public.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, I have There Will Be Blood ranked higher on this list for sentimental reasons. But I also connect more with the human struggle at the center of The Master. The entire film was molded with psychological pain and mental suffering. Personally, The Master is hard for me to watch—probably because the film can sometimes feel like looking in the mirror. But that’s also the reason I watch movies in the first place. So.
3. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Here in the Top 3, it becomes downright impossible to rank these films. They each mean something so important and so different to my being. Magnolia represents my entry into the film world, while There Will Be Blood was the most fantastic theater experience of my life. But neither of those movies fulfill the void that Punch-Drunk Love has provided over the years.
When you love someone, or maybe when you’re ready to love someone, you feel naked, vulnerable, exposed. We need to completely give ourselves over to another person if we want to experience “true love.” The promise of love is so attractive and enticing…yet, we constantly fuck it up. Because we can’t handle being that naked, that vulnerable, that exposed.
And nobody feels more exposed than Barry Egan, who is constantly searching for his tiny place in this giant fucked up world. The promise Lena presents throws him into turmoil, as the prospect of love forces Barry to reconcile with his ugliest traits and tendencies. The entire film is an uncomfortably detailed portrait of a man who is on the brink of either winning love or losing everything—which, honestly, has always hit home for me. Losing that other person is like losing a part of yourself. It’s something you cannot lose, but could easily lose if you’re attentive to yourself mentally.
2. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Back in my early days of PTA fanboyism, Magnolia was my true outlet. It was the one movie I could constantly return to in order to remember how powerful movies could be. In 2006, there was simply no other film in the world that ever could possibly match its power.
Except, perhaps, for Anderson’s new mysterious film.
Between 2006 and 2007, I remembered hearing about There Will Be Blood and being invariably intrigued. PTA had moved from the confines of the San Fernando Valley and escaped into the open fields of capitalistic America where riches and glory could be found. As opposed to the contained-and-condensed narrative of his previous efforts, There Will Be Blood was open and alluring and mystifying.
And—as I found out after I secured one of the few tickets available for an early screening of the film in Chicago and sat down in a theater filled with other eager movie lovers—scary. Even after watching the trailer for There Will Be Blood upwards of 100 times, nothing prepared me for that first viewing. The crowd was communally captivated during the most dramatic moments, awkwardly laughing during the strangest stretches, and impossibly quiet for the film’s final, bloody showdown. Paul Thomas Anderson’s first stab at a true “epic” did not disappoint. I’m positive no other movie will ever capture that cinematic moment in my life.
1. Magnolia (1999)
There’s no suspense in this moment. From the get-go, I indicated that Magnolia was my unequivocal #1 Paul Thomas Anderson movie. And, really, Magnolia isn’t just my favorite PTA movie—Anderson’s 1999 ensemble classic stands above all other movies. Period.
I have yet to encounter a movie that so seamlessly weaves together so many different characters at once. In Magnolia, several seemingly disparate souls become one, forming a work of art that captures something more complex and abstract than a landscape painting or a portrait could ever attain. Magnolia is more than a character study—it’s a cinematic depiction of humanity.
Loneliness. Gratification. Melancholy. Joy. Loss. Enlightenment.
I almost want to take that last sentence back. Dumbing Magnolia down to one adjective would be downright reductive. There is no way to describe this film—it simply is. It’s the very definition of effort, of truth, of life. There is no real story in Magnolia just like there is no real story to your life or their lives or mine. We are all connected and disconnected at once. We’re just trying to make it through this stupid-and-beautiful world, and we never know who is going to inhibit us—or, hopefully, who is going to make that journey just a tiny bit easier.