In 1993, a 23-year-old Paul Thomas Anderson submitted his short film, Cigarettes & Coffee, to the Sundance Film Festival, and unwittingly changed modern cinema. Before he was 30, Anderson had made three beloved feature films—Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia—and had already secured his spot as one one of the great contemporary American directors. Now, he’s got nine films under his belt, each more singular and masterfully constructed than the last. Anderson’s films, largely character studies rooted in his own San Fernando, are defined by their luminous cinematography, recurring powerhouse performances by revered actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis and Julianne Moore, inimitable scores by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, and idiosyncratic, unexpected subjects.
Anderson’s new film, Licorice Pizza, knocked us out. The film sees Anderson returning to his Californian roots: A tender character study with an ensemble cast, our critic calls it “a delectable, playful, sentimental reminder of what it means to be young, as well as an embodiment of what it feels like to grow up.”
Unsurprisingly, Licorice Pizza lives up to our exceptionally high standards for the auteur. Given this, we saw it high-time to do a comprehensive ranking of every Paul Thomas Anderson film to date—from great to greatest.
Here are all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, ranked:
It’s hard to think of a director who came onto the film scene with a louder bang than Paul Thomas Anderson. His feature debut Hard Eight arose after his 1993 short film, Cigarettes & Coffee, made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival Shorts Program. This led the Sundance Institute to invite him to a Directors Lab, where he would develop a feature film: Hard Eight. Because this is the film biz, development did not come without its fair share of headaches. Anderson shot the film in 28 days, but the studio he paired up with didn’t like his cut, and it took a year of arguments before it was finally released. The struggle was worth it, though, as Anderson’s finished product is whip-smart and engrossing. The film follows Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), an old man who takes the hapless John (John C. Reilly) under his wing and teaches him how to be a successful gambler. The two get mixed up with cocktail waitress/sex worker Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), who, in turn, gets them mixed up with a precarious hostage situation. Hard Eight traverses the difficult terrain of keeping a crime-heist film fun without having it verge into camp. The film successfully remains a moving, insightful character study—while still not sacrificing moments of thrilling action—all the way through. And though at times the editing is awkward and performances are a little stiff, it still often seems like the work of a veteran in the director’s chair. It’s hard to believe that Anderson was only twenty-five when he made it.—Aurora Amidon
The fog that envelops Inherent Vice might bring to mind the old expression “thick as pea soup.” But that’s not quite right. Sometimes it’s like cotton candy, at others like ominous smoke. Paul Thomas Anderson’s drug-fueled detective odyssey depicts the end of the 1960s in a way that’s both mournful and madcap; coherency isn’t a priority—or even intended—in this tale of an era of endless possibilities coming to a close. Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel is both unnervingly surreal and pliably, affably keen to take every detour possible on the road from A to B. While its gags are ingenious and plentiful, heady themes rise from the madness: Some good for laughs—the culture war is at the forefront of the story, and Anderson isn’t beneath milking a chocolate-covered banana’s phallic qualities as a hippie-hating authority figure devours it—and some, sometimes the very same themes, conjure up a distinct melancholy in the same breath, as in how the ideal of free love gives way to disturbing sexual dynamics.—Jeremy Mathews
It may be hard to recall, but there was once a time when the world believed in Adam Sandler—and we have P.T. Anderson to thank for such a glimpse of hope. Compared to the scope of There Will Be Blood, or the melancholy of Boogie Nights, or the inexorable fascination at the heart of The Master, Punch-Drunk Love—a breath of fresh, Technicolor air after the weight of Magnolia—comes off like something of a lark for Anderson, setting the stage for the kind of incisive comic chops the director would later epitomize with Inherent Vice. But far from a bit of fluff or a reactionary stab at a larger audience, Punch-Drunk Love is what happens when a director with so much untapped potential just sort of throws shit at the wall to see what sticks. A simple love story between a squirmy milquetoast (Sandler) and the woman (Emily Watson) who yanks him from his stark blue shell, the film is part musical, part silent film and all surreal comedy. That this is Sandler’s best role is hardly up for debate; that this may be Jon Brion’s best soundtrack is something we can talk about later. That the rest of the film, which in any other director’s hands would be a total mess, feels so exquisitely felt is almost … magical. And that? That’s that, Mattress Man. —Dom Sinacola
Anderson’s script is based loosely on Oil!, Upton Sinclair’s incendiary 1927 novel, but it’s hardly a literal reworking: Anderson promptly discounts Sinclair’s political agenda, instead latching onto the notion of the oilman-as-arrogant-sociopath—hunched over, hacking into the earth, harnessing and harvesting underground oceans of volatile, viscous goo. The film follows Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a silver miner who, determined to claw his fortune out of the ground, winds up in the oil business. After one of Plainview’s coworkers is fatally impaled by an oil drill, Plainview adopts the man’s infant son H.W. (Dillon Freasier), launches his own drilling operation, and follows a tip to Little Boston, Calif., where he snatches up acres of priceless, oil-addled land from the devout—if naïve—Sunday family, whose son, Eli (Paul Dano), is a preacher in an upstart evangelical church. n the grand spirit of Citizen Kane, There Will Be Blood touches on broad American themes, and Plainview’s story (itself based loosely on real-life prospector-turned-millionaire Edward Doheny) feels oddly topical, given America’s reliance on petroleum (and the lengths we are willing to go to in order to procure it, both as individuals and as a nation). But, ultimately, There Will Be Blood is not a film about oil or prospecting or the allure of endless cash: the movie focuses—sometimes distractingly—on one man’s epic ascent and crumble. Lewis is unrecognizable in an Oscar-fated turn that feels, at times, dangerously private—the actor has internalized Plainview so thoroughly that Plainview’s motivations are never entirely evident, and despite Day-Lewis’ considerable screentime (he’s front-and-center for nearly every one of the movie’s 158 minutes), he manages to keep Plainview surprising.—Amanda Petrusich
You might know of the 1993 short film Cigarettes & Coffee as Paul Thomas Anderson’s first filmmaking endeavor. But before Cigarettes & Coffee came his 1988 mockumentary short: The Dirk Diggler Story. The short follows the life of porn star Dirk Diggler as he navigates the rise and fall of the industry from the 1970s to 1980s. Boogie Nights, Anderson’s second feature film (crazy, I know), expands The Dirk Diggler Story into one of the director’s most exciting works. Mark Wahlberg stars as Eddie Adams (who later adopts the stage name Dirk), a teenager discovered by a hotshot porn director (Burt Reynolds) one night when he’s working at a nightclub. From there, the film paints a sweeping portrait of the so-called Golden Age of Porn, and, halfway through, miraculously metamorphoses into a study of the drastic changes that the world underwent when the clock struck midnight on the eve of the 1980s. The film boasts incredible performances (Philip Seymour Hoffman as Scotty stands out in particular), an impeccable soundtrack (show me a better use of “Jessie’s Girl” in a film, I’ll wait), and one of the most shockingly awesome endings of all time. This is undeniably Paul Thomas Anderson at the height of his powers.—Aurora Amidon
Licorice Pizza is writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s second ode to Los Angeles in the early 1970s: A city freshly under the oppressive shadow of the Manson Family murders and the tail end of the Vietnam War. But while in his first tribute, Inherent Vice, the inquisitive counter-culture affiliate Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) earnestly engages with his surroundings and follows the threads of societal paranoia all the way to vampiric drug smuggling operations and FBI conspiracies, Licorice Pizza’s protagonist, 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim), refuses to follow any such thread. A bored, directionless photographer’s assistant, Alana nonchalantly rejects any easy plot-point that might help us get a grasp on her character. What are her ambitions? She doesn’t know, she tells successful 15-year-old actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) over dinner at a restaurant called Tail o’ the Cock. What interests and excites her? It’s hard to say. When Gary first approaches Alana while she’s working picture-day at his high school, it’s hard to imagine that Licorice Pizza isn’t going to follow the playful design of a sunny Southern California love story. Alana is instantly strange and striking, and—when Anderson introduces her in a languid dolly-shot with a mini-skirt, kitten-heels, slumped shoulders and a gloriously pissed expression—we are compelled to fall in love with her, just like Gary does, at first sight. Of course, Anderson quickly rejects the notion that Licorice Pizza is going to be a straightforward romance. Anderson knows that this ambling, disjointed structure reflects what it’s like to be young, awkward and in love. Each shot, filled with dreamy pastels, glows with a youthful nostalgia. Anderson and cinematographer Michael Bauman balance out this haziness with a unique control of the camera, implementing long takes, slow dollies, and contemplative pans galore. What is it that Alana gets from being friends with someone ten years younger than her? And why does Gary always return to Alana even when she tries her best to put him down? Like gleefully gliding through the streets of L.A. in the midst of a city-wide crisis, it’s a madness you can only truly understand when you’re living it.—Aurora Amidon
Phantom Thread is a movie that is so wonderfully made, so meticulous in its construction, so deeply felt in execution, that you can almost overlook how prickly and scabrous it is. Ludicrously luscious to watch, the film is in large part about how self-centered and inflexible the world of relationships can be, how we can only give up so much of ourselves and it’s up to our partner to figure out how to deal with that, if they want to at all. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a world-famous dressmaker who clothes celebrities, royalty and, sometimes to his chagrin, déclassé wealthy vulgarians. Almost everything that doesn’t meet his exacting standards is vulgarian, until one day while in the English countryside, Reynolds comes across a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) who both meets Reynolds’ physical requirements (specifically so he can make dresses for her) and has a certain pluck that he instantly finds fascinating. Both of the principals of Phantom Thread are absurd and insane in their own ways, and one of the many thrills of the film is watching them bounce off each other, and then collide again. It’s the oddest little love story, so odd that I’m not even sure it’s about love at all. My colleague Tim Grierson said this first, but it’s too good an observation to ignore: This movie is in large part about the absolute unknowability of other people’s relationships. From the outside, it makes no sense that Reynolds and Alma would have this sort of connection with each other; it’s difficult to tell what either person is getting out of it. This is an uncompromising movie about two uncompromising people who try to live with one another without losing too large a part of themselves, and the sometimes extreme lengths they will go to get their way. What’s unfathomable about it is also what makes it so powerful.—Will Leitch
The Master is deeply troubling; you won’t realize why you have such a problem with it until you realize why it is so damn good. At first, it seems a relatively straightforward if unique set-up: Adrift after World War II, Freddie Quell (a primal Joaquin Phoenix) gets sucked into a sort of pseudo-psychological cult led by charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Amy Adams is also present and also great, of course. The first part of the film is spent relishing in its performances and its craft (luminous 65mm photography and fastidious period detail)—what you’d expect from Paul Thomas Anderson, really—and you’ll find Dodd’s cult suspect and you’ll think you’ll predict the path the story will take. Then you get to the “processing” scenes and realize that you’re not ready for what PTA wants to say: That everything is far more complex and far more simple than we make it to be; that we can never really be what we want; that evolution is pain folded in on itself and multiplied, over and over. As the film progresses you’ll probably find yourself wanting something specific or maybe generously ambiguous from its resolution. Whichever, The Master will absolutely refuse to give you what you want. Instead, it will give you wisdom. Now, wisdom can be a terrible gift—an amorphous yet heavy thing that’s difficult to grasp even as it hurts and burdens, all while offering little hope for practical change. That’s the kind of wisdom that The Master wants to share with you. Yes, terrible, but take it. Take it so that you too can know your master.—Chad Betz
Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnum opus follows multiple plotlines, while still deeply developing each of the film’s many principal characters, played more than ably by some of the decade’s greatest actors—Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Robards and Alfred Molina, to name but half. Father/child relationships are explored, but the themes throughout are grand ones. Add in Tom Cruise’s best performance of his life and a killer soundtrack from Aimee Mann, and you have one of the greatest movies of the 1990s.—Josh Jackson