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Paul Thomas Anderson’s Films, Ranked

How do you rank a filmography full of bangers? Very carefully, it turns out.
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By  and  · Published on November 30th, 2021

5. Licorice Pizza

Hoffman and Haim in Licorice Pizza

It’s challenging to not get a touch extra-textual when assessing Anderson’s most recent movie, Licorice Pizza. The casting of Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) added a charge of emotion even when all we knew of the movie was a couple of set photos and a working title. And, in a movie that resembles Inherent Vice both for its ’70s LA setting and a drifting narrative, there are many ways to read what Licorice Pizza is “really about.”

But with Hoffman starring as 15-year-old child star Gary, who has an eye for lucrative side hustles and a crush on the older Alana (Alana Haim) it’s the absent detail that informs my reading. Namely, Gary’s father is not around, a fact that is mentioned briefly and not returned to but that does hang over my viewing of Gary’s character. In place of a paternal figure, he has run-ins with adults who range from blatantly racist to alarmingly unpredictable and prone to violence. And while Gary is charmingly precocious, he’s still 15 and highly impressionable. An underlying thread of the movie hinges on how he may absorb these influences and who he could become.

Of course, there’s no obvious answer here, and with a finale that recalls Punch-Drunk Love, there are many interpretations that could all hold water. But what is clear is that Licorice Pizza brilliantly balances its lighthearted adolescent escapades with thoughtful character studies. Alana is gorgeously realized as a 20-something caught in a stage of arrested development. She’s a wonderfully human character who is truly brought to life by Haim’s extraordinary performance. Whether bickering with her sister or getting lost in a conversation at a bar, she commands the screen. Oh, and don’t even get us started on the soundtrack. All around, Licorice Pizza is Anderson proving, once again, just how good he is. (Anna Swanson)

4. The Master

The Master Wife

Wracked with post-traumatic stress and alcoholism, Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) stumbles into a semblance of found-family when he finds himself on the ship of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). A charismatic leader of an emerging religion based in psychological science (a “scientology” of sorts, if you will), Freddie quickly falls under Dodd’s spell, following him like a loyal dog in an effort to cling onto a precious sense of stability.

A visually stunning and impeccably performed film, as air-tight and buoyant as Dodd’s ship, Alethia, The Master is a sharp and unflinching look at predatory cults of personality and the vulnerable realities of wandering war veterans. A waltz for two, and a precise portrait of mankind’s primal underpinnings, The Master is a funny, tender, and devastating film about the intricacies of systems of abuse. (Meg Shields)

3. Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread Photoshoot

Look, Anderson did not invent romance. But he did accomplish something incredibly special with it here. Ostensibly about the artist, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock, and his muse, Vicky Krieps’s Alma, Phantom Thread turns its central relationship dynamic into a game of chess between masters. Day-Lewis is excellent as the particular fashion designer, while Krieps, a relative newcomer, matches him beat for beat in one of the most outstanding performances in recent memory.

Considering Anderson made his name with brash, audacious epics, Phantom Thread is remarkably restrained and precise. But it’s also freshly alive, and while the tension can often be cut with a knife, there’s a comedic undercurrent and an unpredictability to the plot that makes the film hum as if on its own, special frequency.

It’s vibrant, human, and astoundingly mature considering the protagonist’s name was born from Anderson and Day-Lewis texting about innuendos. Tender, haunting, thrilling, and hilarious, Phantom Thread is an incomparable achievement as much as it is a fever dream that you never want to end. (Anna Swanson)

2. There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood Ddl

You could write an entire book on what makes Paul Thomas Anderson one of the modern masters of American cinema. But what continues to knock my socks off — time and time again — is his ability to smuggle comedy and romance into nightmarish scenarios. This is a movie designed to make you squirm. From Johnny Greenwood’s piercing string score to the genuinely hellish setpieces of oil, fire, and dust, There Will Be Blood initially hits like something just north of a horror film.

But if you duct tape yourself down, hide your phone, and give yourself over to Anderson’s frequency, chuckles may escape at the realization of what, exactly Anderson is doing. Namely, a ruthless but hilariously mocking portrait of greed personified in the mustached visage of oil prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). Taking aim at both religiosity and predatory enterprise, There Will Be Blood is, objectively speaking, one of the greatest movies ever made. (Meg Shields)

1. Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice Paul Thomas Anderson Movie

You could make a pretty strong case that Inherent Vice is a movie about nostalgia. In fact, that’s probably what its detractors would lean on: it’s an ambling, unfocused saga of a bygone era, where characters drift and nothing really happens. And sure, characters do drift, and the movie does amble on. And if you’re the type to want art easily classifiable into elevator pitch-style three-act structures, then, yeah, nothing happens.

But when you give yourself over to Anderson’s masterwork, Inherent Vice opens up in mysterious and melancholic ways. As we follow Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc through his investigation of strange disappearances, ex-old ladies, and golden fangs, the narrative is waved away like smoke drifting out a window.

In its place, Inherent Vice becomes an impressionistic romance. Paranoia, beauty, and hope are probably the three buzz words that come up when trying to write about this movie, but it comes with the realization that language fails here. This is a film of images and vibes.

As much as one can say Inherent Vice is about anything, it’s about half-remembered days in the rain, advice from someone who might not be real, and respect masked as pancakes. If any of that means anything to you, you know why this landed at our number one spot in our ranking of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies. And if it baffles you, hey man, that’s cool, too. (Anna Swanson)

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.