Every week, Criticwire asks film critics a question and brings you their responses in The Criticwire Survey. We also ask each member of the poll to pick the best film currently playing in theaters. The most popular choices can be found at the bottom of this post. But first, this week's question:
Q: What is Paul Thomas Anderson's best film?
The critics' answers:
"Paul Thomas Anderson's best film is one he hasn't made yet. Call me optimistic, but he's the rare home run hitter that doesn't swing at everything, and it seems more than likely that with talent that gets better and better, his best work is still ahead of him. Of course, everything he's made has been so thoroughly impressive that it might be tough to spot his magnum opus when it's first released. We'll leave that to the Sight & Sound list of 2032. For now, 'There Will Be Blood' is the obvious answer."
"'Punch-Drunk Love,' for its new form of expressionism, which, to quote my film-scholar wife, reaches beyond itself only into other movies. 'PDL' also features the greatest Adam Sandler performance, only to be approached by James L. Brooks' under-appreciated 'Spanglish.'"
"Judging Paul Thomas Anderson's oeuvre is no easy task, especially when the films are measured not by which films are masterpieces, but by how much of a masterpiece each one is. And please believe me when I say that I don't usually throw out the term 'masterpiece' lightly. Each of his films from 'Boogie Nights' onwards is one that I hold in very high regard. Just last year I wrote an impassioned 'defense' of why and how 'Punch-Drunk Love,' his most divisive picture and the one that strays most closely from the path of comfort, deserved to sit alongside the rest of his body of work, in the upper echelons of the canon, thanks to the neat manner in which it subverts the Sandlerian man-child with note-perfect perception. Each of his movies has a special place in my heart. 'Boogie Nights' was the first 'adult' movie I saw in the theater (on a double-bill with Verhoeven's 'Starship Troopers'), while 'Magnolia' formed a part of that wonderful Autumn of 1999 that saw so many great American films break through to the mainstream (David Fincher's 'Fight Club,' David O. Russell's 'Three Kings,' Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's 'Being John Malkovich'), which just so happens to be the year in which i really started to take film seriously myself. But, and I'm fairly certain that I'll be sitting firmly in the consensus with this one, it's his most recent film (prior to 'The Master') that I find to be his very best. 'There Will Be Blood' has shaped the way in which I've looked at the American cinema for the past five years, and continues to amaze every time I return to it."
"As good as most of them are and as ambitious as they all are, Paul Thomas Anderson's best is still 'Boogie Nights.' It wasn't until recently catching it on TV (with the original aspect ratio preserved) that the intricate beauty of nearly every shot in that movie really popped. But what raises 'Boogie Nights' over 'There Will Be Blood' — PT's other unqualified masterpiece, of which the same can be said — is, not to be gooshy, its heart. A friend of mine recently said something I hadn't realized about 'Boogie Nights,' but that is absolutely true, which is that it's essentially a fairy tale, the story of a (mindbogglingly well-hung) innocent who strays from the light into the dark, but finds the way back to the light by way of a helpful star. Which, in this case, is a penis of immense size. Hey, fairy tales become eternal through varying the specifics, what can I say."
"It's almost impossible to choose a favorite from a career that has been one masterpiece after another. But under duress, my mind keeps returning to the iconic shot of Sanaa Lathan and the Predator running together in slow motion near the end of 2004's stunning 'AVP: Alien Versus Predator.' It is a moment freighted with the subtext of utopian post-racial harmony, as a minority woman and an illegal alien must put aside their differences to defeat the xenomorph unleashed by their wealthy corporate overlords. I hope 'The Master' is even half as powerful. (I also hope nobody beat me to this joke yet.)"
"This is the 'Sophie's Choice' of Criticwire Surveys, but I'm giving the edge to 'Magnolia' for a few reasons: it has the best opening sequence of any opening sequence in the history of ever; Julianne Moore's wrenching, unhinged pharmacy speech is one of the finest moments of acting your eyeballs will ever witness; Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey; Jon Brion's score, featuring original music from the incredible Aimee Mann. I'm a sucker for an ensemble epic, but 'Magnolia' is unequivocally one of the exquisitely-crafted, indelible greats. Plus, it kinda broke my heart (and I liked it)."
"I don’t know how to properly pit his films against each other, and I haven’t seen 'The Master.' But if you don’t mind a simple answer: 'Punch-Drunk Love.'"
"Emotionally draining but ultimately exhilarating. Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece symphony 'Magnolia' interlinks nine specific Los Angeles people en route to personal destruction before the skies rain down a form that could only be described as repentance. This divine intervention brings down the walls of shame. Among them carrying lifelong wounds is Tom Cruise as a seduce-and-destroy motivational speaker, Philip Baker Hall as a game show host recently diagnosed with cancer, Melora Walters as his hermit-druggie daughter, William H. Macy as a former whiz kid obsessed with getting braces, John C. Reilly as a cop who loses his gun at a crime scene, Jason Robards as a dying rich man and former heavy-duty S.O.B., and Julianne Moore as his unhappy trophy wife. Somehow the film with its splintering dichotomy is dark but reassuring, acrid and harmonious, and endlessly exultant in terms of filmmaking and message."
"There's no denying 'There Will Be Blood' is PTA's most acclaimed film, but I'd argue that 'Punch-Drunk Love' is his most ambitious and — to an extent — his most accomplished. It features Adam Sandler's best performance to date (by far), and employs a narrative rhythm as chaotic and unpredictable as its main characters' ticking time-bomb temper. It's a brilliant anti-romantic comedy that manages to convey more sincerity and sweetness than any of his other films."
"I think 'Boogie Nights' because it offers you so much. It's dark, light, deep, sad, romantic, and at times overwhelmingly funny. This is Paul Thomas Anderson using all of himself as a filmmaker. From the music to the shot selection to the amazing ensemble cast (easily his best), it all just works so well. To this day I still watch 'Boogie Nights' and find new things to love about it."
"Anderson's best film is undeniably 'There Will Be Blood'… just kidding. That should really read arguably, because, boy, were there arguments at the time of its release. Despite one fatal flaw, one which I recently proposed might actually be deliberate when discussing the movie with a friend, there is something transcendent about the film. I mean it transcends the usual limitations of Anderson's still admittedly fine work to become something wholly other. First, the chink in the armor: Paul Dano. My friend argues that his casting is 'There Will Be Blood''s biggest failing because he is never really able to hold his own with Daniel Day-Lewis. But though Dano's unctuous Paul Sunday is obviously meant to represent Daniel Plainview's opposite number, Anderson is deliberately stacking the deck here. The viewer is meant to see the world from Plainview's frightening perspective, to sympathize with him. To what end? I'm not certain. Anderson has crafted a film that repeatedly confounds expectations. This isn't the first time he has made a character study focusing on a protagonist who alienates himself from the rest of the world ('Boogie Nights' and 'Punch-Drunk Love'). This time, though, Anderson masterfully puts us inside Plainview, making us feel the gradual separation of the man from co-workers, society, and even his son. And it's an odd feeling when you find yourself rooting for the monster to finally seal his sorry fate by squashing the spineless Sunday for good."
"Easily 'There Will Be Blood.' While I appreciate his earlier efforts, there's always a bit of a sense of unfulfilled ambition. 'There Will Be Blood' was for me the first time PTA's grasp matched his aim, resulting in a truly whole work, a sense of completion and inevitability."
"It'd be easy to select 'There Will Be Blood,' which probably should have won Best Picture that year based solely on the incredible performance of Daniel Day-Lewis… but, for me, it has to be 'Boogie Nights,' which features stellar performances from the entire cast top to bottom, and doesn't just tell one story well, it delivers on five or six threads with rich, fully realized characters. If 'Boogie Nights' is on, I am absolutely stopping to watch it, even if that means my plans for the next couple of hours are no longer. I'm a star, I'm a star, I'm a star… forget going to the mall."
"Without question, 'There Will Be Blood,' an engrossing drama that's both intimate and sprawling. It continues to haunt me. And even if it doesn't wind up being the greatest film he ever makes, I think it's going to be the high-water mark by which the rest of his work will be measured."
"'There Will Be Blood,' but it sure is adorable when people argue otherwise. The greatest testament to 'TWBB''s brilliance is that it towers over PTA's other work, despite being his only film to lack an impossibly brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman performance (or — in the case of 'Hard Eight' — an impossibly brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman appearance)."
"Cards on the table: I'm something of a Paul Thomas Anderson skeptic, always finding myself enthralled by his undeniable talent and applauding his ambition and emotional generosity even as I often feel his reach far exceeding his grasp, especially in his epic films ('Boogie Nights,' 'Magnolia,' and especially 'There Will Be Blood,' though, sure, the later film is probably the best of the three). So to my mind, Anderson's best films are his smaller-scale ones, especially 'Punch-Drunk Love,' which was the first of his films since 'Sydney/Hard Eight' to feel like more than the sum of his plentiful movie references, pointing the way toward a genuinely original and personal directorial vision (a breakthrough that 'There Will Be Blood' mostly confirmed)."
"My favorite PTA film is 'There Will Be Blood.' I think he keeps improving his art and it's only natural that my favorite of his is his latest. Daniel Day-Lewis' stunning performance doesn't hurt."
"When I first read this question my response was instant and easy. Then I started thinking about the entire catalog of Anderson's films and spiraled into a period of self-doubt and hand-wringing. Thanks for that. After that entire process though, I came back to my original instantaneous response and decided on 'Punch-Drunk Love.' Somewhere between 'Magnolia' and 'Boogie Nights,' in both theme and style, 'Punch-Drunk Love' always felt like the most intimate of Anderson's films. All that and the fact we get to see Adam Sandler be talented makes this one my favorite."
"'There Will Be Blood.' Come on."
"'Punch-Drunk Love' remains his best and is of my very favorite films, period. It still feels like his purest expression. His other works bear the marks of his predecessors (Altman, Kubrick, etc.), but this one seemed to come from someplace else. A truly unique film in its characterization and depiction of longing and self-loathing."
"I'm just glad Paul Thomas Anderson exists. He and his fellow 90s indie-cool directors gave a generation of kids a model to emulate, only to have it kind of crumble thanks to this stupid internet… and video games. As far as best goes I'd have to say 'The Master.' Because I haven't seen it yet. And seeing a new Paul Thomas Anderson film is the best."
"If you don't say 'There Will Be Blood,' you're a bastard from a basket! (Incidentally, I'm setting the over/under on contrarian 'Sydney-don't-call-it-Hard-Eight' mentions at 3.5.) You could certainly argue that 'Punch-Drunk Love' pulled this off first, but I thought 'Blood' most strongly revealed Anderson's unique personal vision. As much as I love 'Boogie Nights' and 'Magnolia' — and the clear influence of Scorsese and Altman on both — there was that underlying sense that he was like the sax wunderkind who can play Coltrane's most complicated solos note for note, but didn't quite have his own signature sound yet. 'Blood' was his 'Kind of Blue,' his first full-on masterpiece."
"As of now, 'The Master.'"
"What do you think is Paul Thomas Anderson's best film? You tell first. Wait: Let's do it at the same time! One. Two. Three! With the potentially disqualifying caveat that I haven't seen 'The Master' yet and I've never seen 'Hard Eight,' either, I have to go with 'There Will Be Blood.' It isn't as quotable as 'Boogie Nights' and it doesn't end with a plague of [REDACTED], but it captures the American Century in a way that maybe no film since 'The Godfather Part II' has."
"Choose one? 'There Will Be Blood,' obviously. But I feel compelled here to make my case for 'Boogie Nights,' which I think too often gets categorized as ''Goodfellas' except with porn' when I think Anderson is doing something much more unique and audacious. Yes he is directly quoting Altman, Scorsese, Kalatozov, and many more filmmakers, and yes his film is stylistically overloaded. And obviously he is interested in the surrogate family dynamic that forms around Jack Horner and Dirk Diggler, but I think the film goes deeper into the idea of identity, because everyone in the film has a false one, and any exposure of the true self (consider Don Cheadle's love of country music) is seen as odd, awkward, and terrifying. The film isn't just about the surrogate family accepting who you are — they are accepting of who you want to be, until you realize how that turns on you (see: the 80s). To build on that formally, Anderson indulges in film history — he makes everything seem cool, plunging the camera into the water. But then he elongates those passages later in the film, using the same stylistic notations but with a much darker tone to highlight how twisted the dream has become. And what does it all come to? A 'Raging Bull' imitation, but again 'Bull' wasn't about how awesome things could be, it was man confronting his own identity. And sometimes your identity is what's hidden inside (and in this case, inside one's pants)."
"'Boogie Nights.' A thrilling ride into the L.A. porn world, told with panache and grace by a glorious ensemble. And the soundtrack! You know you're in for something special as the first blast of audio fills the theater; the jolts continue right up until that last, 'revealing' scene. There's nothing like watching this film for the first time, yet on each viewing, I am captivated and discover something new. Great, adventurous filmmaking."
"I'm wowed by all of Anderson's films, but the one that also moves me is 'Punch-Drunk Love.' Somehow Anderson took Adam Sandler, added Emily Watson and a harmonium, and came away with a rapturous movie romance. I love this film — all its oddness, tenderness and rage included."
"This is a hard one because I'm a huge fan of his. For a long time I would have said 'Magnolia.' It came out the year I started reviewing movies (1999), it was my top film of that year and it remains one of my favorites. I was totally wowed by the energy, the operatic intensity of it all, and the technical prowess. But now I have to say 'There Will Be Blood.' It's his masterpiece, and I say that even after seeing 'The Master.' It's just gorgeous, unpredictable, and daring. And Daniel Day-Lewis is, of course, terrifyingly great. I'm finished."
"P.T. Anderson's greatest film: 'Resident Evil.' (as a side note, if i'm the only one who answers with this smart-ass response, I should add that 'Boogie Nights' always amused me with Marky Mark covering Stan Busch's 'The Touch.' If only to subtly send home the fact Dirk was always a nerd who had no clue what he was walking into. Which weirdly laid the groundwork for Wahlberg's other film, 'Rock Star.')"
"In my humble opinion, the best Paul Thomas Anderson film to date (I'm actually still a day away from seeing 'The Master') is 'Magnolia.' Few films have ever had the initial power over me that PTA's three hour epic did when I first saw it. I was hooked from the first moment on and when the credits ran I literally wanted to immediately watch it again and chew over the masterpiece I was pretty sure that I had witnessed. The filmmaker's ambition here is hard to match, and the fact that he pulls it off is something to behold. Factor in the ensemble cast all at the top of their games and this was nearly a perfect film in my eyes the night that I saw it for the first time. Subsequent viewings have confirmed that opinion for me, and while I think Anderson has yet to make a bad film (with 'Boogie Nights' a close second in his oeuvre), I still find 'Boogie Nights' to be his crowning achievement and one of my ten favorite films of all time."
"I know most people will be writing in 'There Will Be Blood,' which is a contemporary classic (even though, crazy enough, I preferred 'No Country For Old Men' that year), and while I absolutely love 'Boogie Nights,' 'Magnolia' and 'Punch-Drunk Love,' I really love PTA's first film, 'Hard Eight' (or 'Sydney,' as I sometimes see it referred to). Philip Baker Hall is amazing in the film, as is PTA regular John C. Reilly. Samuel L. Jackson in a fantastic role, as well as Gwyneth Paltrow, who I tend not to be a huge fan of in general. So that's the power of PTA behind the camera and his words being read by actors of varying degrees of skill. The better they are, like Hall, it will come out sounding like poetry. I really want an extras laden Blu-ray of this film. Criterion, are you listening?"
"This is kind of a difficult question, as Anderson essentially emerged on the scene with a fully-formed mastery of filmmaking technique. At the same time, he has used his success to take some daring chances with each new project. So while I'd probably pick 'Boogie Nights' as my favorite Anderson fillm, I'd have to go with 'There Will Be Blood' as his best. From the extended silent opening to the abrupt and over-the-top conclusion, Anderson did a lot of the things you're not 'supposed' to do in a movie and, more importantly, he made them work. He also displayed a strong sense of character development, in addition to an understanding of how to effectively use music/sound (or lack thereof) to heighten a scene's mood. I haven't yet seen 'The Master,' so I have no idea where it will fall within his filmography, but I do know that 'There Will Be Blood' is one of the most thrillingly gutsy pictures I've ever seen."
"'There Will Be Blood' isn't just PTA's best film — it's one of the best films of the decade."
"'Boogie Nights' has always been one of my favorite films about the movie business, albeit that other movie business, and it's the film that made Anderson the 'big, bright shining star' he is today."
"For all the wild ambition in 'Magnolia' and 'There Will Be Blood,' I still hold 'Punch-Drunk Love' as the height of Paul Thomas Anderson's artistic achievement. It uses the cinema to wildly expressive ends, not letting tools many have come to regard as outdated — from expressive color to lighting changes not motivated by a 'realistic' environment to that beautiful Jon Brion score — go to waste. It doesn't hurt that it revealed depths to Adam Sandler that have since remained dormant, nor that Emily Watson finds a character that even she admitted doesn't really exist on the page. But this is the kind of movie I could watch all day — achingly, unapologetically romantic, both for the sake of love and for the cinema itself."
"Paul Thomas Anderson's best film is 1999's 'Magnolia,' which is also my favorite film of all-time. This film changed my life and the way I watch movies today. Its interweaving tale of regret, loneliness, and coping with the past not only told an engaging story, it dared to be a movie more about its themes than its narrative. This is why so many people are frustrated when they watch this film. While it's true its plot isn't the most dynamic, its thematic storytelling is what makes 'Magnolia' so powerful. Although 'Punch-Drunk Love' and 'There Will Be Blood' are arguably better films, 'Magnolia' is the one film that makes Paul Thomas Anderson a unique filmmaker and storyteller."
"Best? 'There Will Be Blood' is his most technically accomplished and one I marvel at most, but I certainly have the most fun with 'Magnolia' or 'Punch-Drunk Love.'"
"'There Will Be Blood' grows on me more and more year after year — I was convinced at the time that 'No Country For Old Men' was better, and I'm now totally the opposite — but I still think it's 'Boogie Nights.' Maybe I just like something that feels a little more lived-in, a little less stylized, a little more human-sized. Maybe I just secretly want to join that group of people for a little while. Whatever it is, 'Boogie Nights' is the one I return to most and think of the most fondly. Then again, I haven't seen 'The Master' yet."
"Despite liking all of Anderson's films a great deal, I like them in spite of a great deal of issues that I find with them. When considering which is his best I therefore find myself drawn to 'Boogie Nights,' a film that I find myself returning to more than any of his other films and the one that I don't find myself mentally taking notes on its issues whilst watching it. Despite enjoying Anderson's 'experimentation' and unusual approach in films such as 'Punch-Drunk Love' and 'There Will Be Blood,' 'Boogie Nights'' more consistent brilliance places it far above his other work for me."
"Part of me wishes Paul Thomas Anderson would’ve pulled a George Costanza move after 'There Will Be Blood,' essentially quitting the business and saying 'That’s it for me!' Because how on Earth can he make anything better than this tour de force? Of course, the rest of me thinks this is a crazy notion, because I’d love to see Anderson try to top himself. Seriously, 'There Will Be Blood' has solidified itself in my mind as the best American film of the new century. I find myself compelled to rewatch it every few months, just to see a group of people at the top of their game (Anderson, composer Jonny Greenwood, cinematographer Robert Elswit, Daniel Day-Lewis, and others). It’s more layered, ambitious, and successful than any other film I’ve seen in a long time. I could spend all day discussing in detail its best sequences (the opening, a nearly silent look at how Daniel Plainview began to amass his wealth; the oil derrick explosion; Plainview’s vicious shaming-via-slapping of Eli Sunday; the iconic 'I drink your milkshake!' closer) or the disturbing dialogue — 'Every day, I drink the blood of lamb from Bandy’s tract' stands out — but I’m better off stopping now. Anderson’s entire filmography is superlative, and he’s one of the best directors under 50. 'There Will Be Blood,' however, is his magnum opus (for now)."
"I have plenty of love for PTA's sprawling dramas, but if I'm forced to choose, I'll go with his lone romantic comedy, 'Punch-Drunk Love.' It's smaller in scope than the rest, but compensates by being wonderfully one-of-a-kind. Adam Sandler turns his man-child screen persona inside out; Emily Watson matches him with her sweetness and sensitivity; and the whole movie's shot through with whimsy, from Jon Brion's score to the uses of light and color. Alternating between moments of sheer vulnerability and increasingly violent interludes, 'Punch-Drunk Love' earns the hell out of its happy ending. So odd, so intense, so lovable. That's that, Mattress Man."
"There are very few filmmakers I love as much as Paul Thomas Anderson, so the thought of singling out one film over the others is difficult. Okay, so maybe it’s not so hard with his first, 'Hard Eight' — good, but not great. After that though, it’s almost impossible. 'Boogie Nights?' Excellent. 'Magnolia?' Amazing. 'Punch-Drunk Love?' Yes please. But if I have to pick just one, I would have to go with 'There Will Be Blood.' There’s an element of restraint and maturity running throughout that film that is unlike anything from before, especially in its remarkable opening sequence and the subplot involving Daniel’s relationship with his son."
"In my world, 'Magnolia' is Paul's masterpiece. I have watched this film's three hour running time three times in one day. This is a true story. Ask me about it, sometime. That said, my favorite film from him is 'Punch-Drunk Love.' I am a sucker for uncomfortable romance. Accompanying the above, it's ambitious to tell an audience what someone's best work is because of its subjective nature. Unless, of course, we are talking about PTA's best film, which is 'Magnolia.' If you disagree, I will fight you."
"Every one of them for different reasons! 'Magnolia' is, I think, the most daring structurally; 'There Will Be Blood,' the most poetic visually. 'Boogie Nights,' though, is the one that I will watch again and again, even after only catching a few minutes of it switching the channels. Can't wait to see where 'The Master' falls in all this…"
"I will always be partial to Anderson's first film, 'Hard Eight' (or, if you want to use the title that he would have preferred it to have, 'Sydney'). I think no picture has ever captured so well the desperate, screwed-up people who settle in places like Las Vegas and Reno, and the small-time hustles that they have to operate to keep going. Philip Baker Hall would like to be a sensei in this world, but the incredible final shot shows that he's scrambling to cover his mistakes as much as anyone else."
The Best Movie Currently In Theaters on September 10, 2012: