5 Punch Drunk Love (2002)
A tense, yet reassuring experience that puts you squarely in the mind of Adam Sandler’s nervous doormat character, Punch Drunk Love is an unconventional romance that clocks in at a brisk (especially for Anderson) 95 minutes. Sandler shows off genuine acting chops as Barry, a novelty toilet plunger salesman who has lived his life dominated and bullied by his seven sisters, which has left him socially awkward and prone to fits of violent rage. After his sister Elizabeth (Mary Ann Rajksub) sets him up with her friend Lena (Emily Watson), Barry is forced to fend off harassment by some violent scamsters (who are shown to be led by none other than Philip Seymour Hoffman) who feel he owes them for phone sex services, greatly empowered by his new love. Balancing dark comedy, brutal confrontations, and airy romance, Punch Drunk Love is a unique footnote in both Anderson and Sandler’s careers.
4 Magnolia (1999)
The epitome of ensemble film acting, this story of interconnected, highly distraught San Fernando Valley residents holds almost too many amazing performances to list. Let’s start with Tom Cruise as a venomously chauvinistic motivational speaker in a charismatic and visceral turn that earned accolades and awards. Julianne Moore as his pill-popping stepmother is a marvel to watch come undone. William H. Macy and John C. Reilly provide the film’s heart as a beleaguered ex-child star and lonely, goofy cop, respectively. Melora Walters is hard to forget as a volatile cokehead who Macy takes an interest in. An emotionally bleak (people are usually yelling, cursing, crying or all three) yet profusely re-watchable film about regret, Magnolia leads to an ending that offers hope and forgiveness. The film also features some great songs by Aimee Mann, including a cover of Harry Nilsson’s “One” that accompanies the intriguing opening montage.
3 Boogie Nights (1997)
Following the rise and fall of porno star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) during the 1970s-80s (the supposed “Golden Age” of the industry), Boogie Nights starts as a joyous study of excess then deteriorates into a maddening journey through Cocaine Hell. Wahlberg shines as a dim, well-endowed kid from Torrance, CA, who makes it big in adult film under the guidance of ace director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds in a career-reviving, Oscar nominated turn). The large and thoroughly incredible supporting cast includes Juianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, fleshing out the various denizens of a debauched subculture. The energy of Anderson’s direction and the expansive soundtrack evoke Scorsese, not at all detrimental to this charged portrait of sex, drugs, and violence.
2 The Master (2012)
A pulsating, raw nerve of a film that uses a Scientology-like cult as the backdrop for the electrifying dynamic between two unforgettable characters, The Master is, like There Will Be Blood, a beautifully shot period piece with a score by Jonny Greenwood. Joaquin Phoenix hands in the performance of a lifetime as Freddie Quell, an alcoholic WWII vet with a knack for whipping up his own dangerous libations from ingredients such as jet fuel and paint thinner. Phoenix’s squirrelly, damaged degenerate meets Philip Seymour Hoffman’s eloquent L. Ron Hubbard stand-in, and is taken in by him and his organization, constantly proving along the way that he is not one to be properly tamed, much less indoctrinated (He pretty much spends the film behaving like you would suspect someone who constantly drinks jet fuel to behave). Amy Adams delivers a quiet, yet powerful turn as Hoffman’s sincerely devoted wife. The Master is a film that deals out a different, yet not necessarily less potent, brand of devastation than There Will Be Blood.
1 There Will Be Blood (2007)
Based loosely on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, this turbulent, haunting, darkly funny film showcases Daniel Day-Lewis’ instantly legendary performance as cynical, steely oil man Daniel Plainview, a character whose inner darkness eventually proves all-consuming, as do his unwavering ambition and greed. Day-Lewis imbues the vivid, often monstrous character with a voice and manner that render his every utterance quotable, his every expression compelling. As distinctive and memorable as Plainview himself is the bracing score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, serving the underlying madness of the oil boom quite well. Paul Dano makes a remarkable foil/rival to Day-Lewis as shrill California prairie preacher Eli Sunday, the questionable religious counterpart to Plainview’s blatantly secular capitalist hustler. All of this is framed in gorgeous, indelible imagery, thanks to cinematographer Robert Elswit, who rightfully took home an Oscar for efforts. As perfect as film gets.
Hard Eight (1996) – This film was Anderson’s first feature, a subtle crime flick that stands at one of the best 90s entries in the genre. Hard Eight stars future Anderson regulars Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly, as a Nevada gambler and his protégé, as well as Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson.
Well, those are just about all the films Paul Thomas Anderson has made, every last one worthy of your attention. If you’ve got some kind of gripe with the order, feel free to let us know with your own version of the list.