The Long Take: The Career of…Paul Thomas Anderson (1970 – present)

This is a new editorial series I am starting. Essentially, I choose a filmmaker and watch all of his or her films, and then review each of them. Once I have completed their filmography, I will write a piece, ranking their films and doing a general overview of their strengths and weaknesses as filmmakers, looking through all their films.

However, a director isn’t merely a film director – they often branch out into commercials, music videos, documentaries and even sometimes act in the films of others. For the purposes of clarity, this series will only look at the feature films of directors, and all other forms of films, such as short films, music documentaries, and commercials, will be excluded from the ranking, but they may possibly be discussed throughout the piece. It just becomes a bit difficult to compare feature-length narrative films with music videos and documentaries. (Special mention to my friend Andre, who gave me the idea for the title of this series – and he also chose the director who will be the subject of the next edition of this, which will be announced very soon)


Without any further ado, let us proceed:

There was very little doubt as to who I would choose as the subject for the inaugural entry in this series. Paul Thomas Anderson is perhaps my favorite filmmaker of all time, and his films always mean something special to me. I always talk about how Anderson is responsible for my cinematic “awakening”, and that is certainly very true. There is something about Anderson’s sensibilities that make him a truly extraordinary filmmaker.

He is also is a true Californian filmmaker – with the exception of his first film (which was set in Las Vegas), and the film he is currently working on (set in London), all of Anderson’s films have been set in California – his filmography weaves an interesting narrative of the state, from the early 20th century mining expeditions in There Will Be Blood, through to the post-Second World War era of the1950s in The Master, to the back-end of the Psychedelic Sixties in Inherent Vice, right through to the contemporary age. His films form a beautiful and varied quilt of the state’s history through the lens of various stories and characters, showing it in a way very different from how it is portrayed elsewhere.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Anderson is that he achieved his status as a brilliant cinematic mind very early on (and much like many of his contemporaries, he found his initial home in directing music videos) – he made two masterpieces – Boogie Nights and Magnolia, when he was still only in his twenties – and over the years, he has accumulated a filmography that is somewhat small, but also utterly incredible. Ranking his films is difficult because even the film in the last position is better than the #1 film for some other filmmakers. The fact that he was somewhat of a wunderkind in the film industry, crafting amazing films that exceeded his youthful age, has allowed him to mature into a great filmmaker who is considered one of the greatest of all time.

There is just something so genuine about Anderson. He seems like such a grounded, interesting individual, which we can see in his films. It would have been so easy for him to make bigger films, but that would sacrifice the heart of his films – the fact that he has made fewer films than other filmmakers isn’t a bad thing, because each of them are filled with heart and soul, and have genuinely interesting characters. His interest in the human condition, and what makes society thrive, is explored throughout each and every one of these films – he creates characters that are remarkably well-developed and casts them with actors that are so perfect for the role, they inhabit the characters fully.

If there was someone to help carry the baton of great filmmaking of this generation, then it certainly is Paul Thomas Anderson. I cannot be the only one thoroughly excited to be living in the same period that Paul Thomas Anderson is making films – he is going to go down in history as one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live.

Having said that, let’s take a look at his films (click on the titles to see my full reviews of each film)

#7 – Hard Eight (1996)

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This was a difficult list to compile, because as with any list like this, there has to be one film placed last, and unfortunately, that turned out to be Hard Eight. I do love Hard Eight, very much indeed. However, in Anderson’s varied filmography, it is also the film with the weakest characterization, and it lacks the spark that made his later films so hypnotic. This isn’t to say Hard Eight is a bad film at all – it is a very good film, but the difference is that when Anderson’s filmography is composed of great films, the merely “good” films do often fall to the wayside. It is still a very good film, and it serves as a solid debut, but ultimately it just lacks something special.

#6 – Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

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In Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson tried something a bit more experimental – he attempted to create an arthouse version of an Adam Sandler film. I am someone who finds Sandler tending towards being utterly annoying at times, but Anderson forced me to view Sandler in a new way, and convinced me that he actually does have a shred of talent in him. Punch-Drunk Love is a charming film, and I really did like it – it is funny, sweet and meaningful. But there was no doubt it was going to be in the bottom part of the ranking, because as good as it is, it is (along with Hard Eight), the only two films Anderson ever made that we could call his “lesser works” – it is a wonderful film, but compared to the rest of the films, it is also somewhat lacking, and cannot hold a candle to the remaining five films.

#5 – Boogie Nights (1997)

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When compiling this list (which I have been toying with for about a month now), there were five remaining films after Hard Eight and Punch-Drunk Love, each one of them occupying the #1 position at some point. The problem is that each of these five films are utter masterpieces – which made ranking them such a challenge. My decision to put Boogie Nights at #5 is a controversial one, but I stand by it. I am aware that many consider this to be Anderson’s magnum opus. I used to agree, until I actually rewatched all of his films, and found myself to like this one of the least out of the five, while still considering it one of the best films of the 1990s. The problem is that it just feels a tad too stretched, and it doesn’t have the rewatch value of Anderson’s other films. However, it is still a truly amazing film, with some of the best directing of Anderson’s entire filmography. It is a film that is nearly perfect, just not as perfect as the rest of the films that I deemed to be better. I really do like Boogie Nights, and for most other filmmakers, this would be far-and-away the winner of the ranking, but for Anderson, I just preferred the other films a tad bit more.

#4 – The Master (2012)

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There was no denying that Paul Thomas Anderson and Philip Seymour Hoffman had one of the best friendships and working relationships in Hollywood – Anderson consistently brought out the best in Hoffman, and of the seven films made in Hoffman’s tragically short lifetime, he worked with Anderson on five of those occasions. None of them were as brilliant as The Master, which gave Hoffman his greatest performance, while also bringing out the true brilliance of Joaquin Phoenix, who I consider to be the greatest actor of his generation. The Master is a biting, often terrifying ode to post-war society, as well as the dangers of religions and cults. Anderson really took on a monumental challenge here, and what could have been a huge failure actually turned into an utter masterpiece. Anderson was taken slightly out of his element here, which is clear throughout, but he rose above it and delivered a knockout film that showcased the best of his two leads, who gave performances that are amongst the greatest ever committed to film.

#3 – Magnolia (1999)

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Magnolia was the film that made me fall in love with the films of Paul Thomas Anderson. It is a complex, beautifully made modern-day odyssey through the challenges of contemporary life. Telling the story of a few people, it intertwines narratives to prove that we are all connected. It is a beautifully shot and powerfully resonant film about love, loss, and hope in a bleak world. It has the best cast Anderson has ever assembled, as well as being his most meaningful film. I adore it, and on a good day, I consider this to be Anderson’s best film – but there are two other films that I feel represent Anderson a bit better, but that isn’t to say Magnolia isn’t an exquisite masterpiece and the best film of the 1990s (perhaps only after Naked, but that’s another story)

#2 – Inherent Vice (2014)

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This is perhaps the most controversial decision I have made, but Inherent Vice is Anderson’s second best film. I know that this film is very divisive, and many people despise it. Yet, I adore it so much, for a number of reasons. The most important is the fact that I love Thomas Pynchon. He is not only my favorite author, he is a true hero of mine, and his writing awoke my mind to endless possibilities. It only took over half a century to adapt one of his novels, and it speaks to his true courage that Anderson was the person who made that leap. Adapting a novel that was already a masterpiece into a film was no easy task, but Anderson pulled it off – his charismatic leading man, his magnificent cast and the manner in which Anderson captured the zany nature of Pynchon’s novel. He took it and made it his own – and regardless of what others say about its length, or its incoherence, Inherent Vice is a funny, entertaining and complex film that shows Anderson in his element – daring and complicated, with a keen sense of direction and beautiful character development. It is everything I could’ve asked for, and considering Anderson is my favorite director, Pynchon is my favorite author and Joaquin Phoenix is my favorite actor, I was bound to love it – but believe me when I say that my biases didn’t play any role in placing this film in this position. It truly is a film that deserves a rewatch from all its detractors, because it is a charming and entertaining piece of cinema in all regards.

#1 – There Will Be Blood (2007)

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Come on, how can this not be #1? Not only is it Anderson’s best film, it is the greatest film of the 21st century. It is a remarkably brilliant piece of cinema that defied all expectations – it is dark and menacing, but also beautiful and delicate. It is grounded by Daniel Day-Lewis, that gives one of the greatest performances of all time (and I don’t subscribe to the idea that he is the best actor of his generation – I like him, but I also am hesitant to believe he is the definition of great acting). Not only is it a meaningful film, with complex messages about faith and the role of wealth in an unforgiving society, it is the best directorial achievement of Anderson’s entire career – the long takes from Robert Elswit’s brilliant photography, to Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score, to the production design that left every scene looking like a beautiful painting – this is the very definition of a masterpiece. It is a perfect film, void of any flaws or weaknesses. If there was one film to prove that Anderson is a master filmmaker, There Will Be Blood is it.

It was with There Will Be Blood  that Anderson found his way into the cinematic history books, but he is assured a place in there forever because of the rest of his films. He is a truly extraordinary filmmaker, and someone I admire for his ruthless development of characters, his magnificent talent as a writer and director, and someone who proves that films can make you both feel genuine emotion, and think about life’s big questions. The best part is that Anderson is still relatively young, so I have no doubt that he has a few more masterpieces in him – and I am beyond thrilled that he is working on Phantom Thread now for release later this year. I think the cinematic world is just a tad bit more wonderful because Paul Thomas Anderson is in it.

 

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