“This is the first shot of this movie that I think we should all unashamedly try to make a great movie. And don’t apologize, let’s just try and make a really, really, really fantastic movie. Cause there’s no shame in that.” Thus spake Paul Thomas Anderson on the first day of shooting “Magnolia” (as recorded in the “Making of” documentary from the DVD) and it’s a moment that has stuck with us ever since we first watched it. Who in hell announces that he wants to make a fantastic movie and then actually goes and makes a masterpiece? Paul Thomas Anderson, that’s who.
As we mentioned when running through the films of David Fincher recently, career retrospectives are something we’ve historically tried to reserve for filmmakers with a back catalogue that at least stretches into the double figures. But there are rare occasions we break that rule, and rarer occasions still when it feels like, far from being premature, we might actually be a little late. Anderson, at this point only the director of seven feature films, is one such case.
Where most filmmakers need a couple of movies to find their groove, and a few more years on them before they gain the experience to truly find their own voice, and often even take longer before they really gain the confidence to turn in career-defining work, Anderson made that leap pretty much in the single year that separated his debut film “Hard Eight” from his sophomore “Boogie Nights.” Since then, Anderson has honed and refined his craft, has experimented and expanded his visual repertoire, and has formed multi-film relationships with some of the most exciting and talented collaborators working today—Robert Elswit, Jonny Greenwood, and a virtual repertory of actors including Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, Philip Baker Hall, William H Macy, and Joaquin Phoenix. But every single film from “Boogie Nights” on has been unmistakably Anderson’s; as much as we have ambivalent feelings about the usefulness of the term at this stage, the man is an auteur.
“Inherent Vice,” the seventh feature in his already illustrious career, while it’s just been announced as the Centerpiece Gala at AFI Fest on November 8th, won’t open for the public until its limited release on December 12th. In the meantime, having already ranked his music video output, we thought we’d get in the mood by mounting a retrospective assessment of his films so far. In chronological order, then, here are the seven films of Paul Thomas Anderson, with apologies for tardiness—he’s perhaps one of the only living filmmakers for whom we could probably have started a career retrospective three films in.
“Hard Eight” aka “Sydney” (1996)
Retrospective appreciation is probably the main reason “Hard Eight” gets any play at all these days. Its original release was fumbled and precious few people saw it back then, though it did score a slot in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes. An expansion of one segment of Anderson’s second short film, “Cigarettes and Coffee,” his debut feature centers on Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), a mysterious low-stakes gambler. Befriending a seeming stranger, the despairing John (John C. Reilly), over the course of years Sydney becomes his mentor, father figure, and best friend, to the point of arranging his first date with his cocktail waitress/hooker crush, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow). But once Clementine and John’s friend Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) are on the scene, there are parts of John’s life that are beyond Sydney’s control and old secrets and new crimes threaten the peace of their existence. The film feels oddly sterile now, just these four characters swimming around each other like they’re in a casino-shaped fish tank, and the dialogue feels heavily Mamet-indebted and often rather stilted. But Anderson’s nascent style shows too, like where he tries out the tracking shots for which he’d become justly famous and uses to such effect in his next two movies. But it’s really in the performances and the performers where Anderson most obviously finds his level: Baker Hall and Reilly would become recurring players for him, and Philip Seymour Hoffman makes a lasting impression in just one scene as a loudmouth craps shooter. All the turns are deliberately understated, somehow tuned to a lower frequency that lends the neo-noir a certain lonely, tragic air. But let’s not oversell the film. In other ways it’s quite ordinary and, based on this beginning, Anderson could easily have become a kind of under-regarded indie director like a John Dahl, rather than the all-conquering arthouse titan he has become. In fact, these days, as solid as “Hard Eight” is, it’s most impressive for being the lower end of one of the most remarkable leaps of scope, ambition, and skill between a debut and a sophomore film ever. [B-/C+]
“Boogie Nights” (1997)
“Hard Eight” might have put Anderson on the map, but it was “Boogie Nights” that circled him in red and drew a giant arrow next to him, marking him as one of the major breakouts of the mid-1990s indie/studio revolution alongside the likes of Quentin Tarantino and David O. Russell. Seeing the director set up shop in the San Fernando Valley, where he was raised, the film centers on Eddie (Mark Wahlberg), a high-school dropout who’s selected for stardom by porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, in a role turned down by Warren Beatty, who reportedly wanted to play Wahlberg’s role instead…). Rechristened Dirk Diggler, our hero finds himself with a new surrogate family, including co-stars John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, Don Cheadle, and Julianne Moore, boom operator Philip Seymour Hoffman, and assistant director William H. Macy. But as the glory years of the 1970s turn into the 1980s, the group descend into a murky mire of addiction, prostitution, crime, and perhaps worst of all, shooting on videotape (even before shooting on digital was a thing, PTA was taking a stand against it). It could be argued that the filmmaker would go on to make stranger, richer, more distinctive work, and this is still evidence of a director nodding to his influences—mainly Scorsese and, of course, Altman—but nothing in his career to date is quite as satisfying, quite as vibrant. The filmmaking is dazzling, but the cast of characters even more so, with a warmth and compassion to the way that every performance (even Reynolds, who fired his agent after seeing the movie—he was later nominated for an Oscar) comes across. Perhaps most importantly, there’s a deep melancholy to the second half of the picture—it’s divided almost perfectly by that bravura, shocking shot in which Macy’s Little Bill kills his wife in a murder/suicide at a busy party—that lingers long after the firecracker filmmaking. A filmmaker that made “Boogie Nights” could probably retire pretty happily, but that Anderson has continued to grow in the years since makes him one of the modern greats. [A]
A consensus around Paul Thomas Anderson’s position as one of the preeminent, visionary American directors is pretty easy to achieve. Not so easy is a consensus over which is his best film. Excluding “Hard Eight,” perhaps, there are people who will go to bat for almost every one of his films to take the title of the PTA Masterpiece, and despite personal preference, the reasonable viewer has to admit that there are probably at least three that could easily take the crown. However, this writer is not reasonable at all, “Magnolia” is Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film. A glorious, aching, sprawling mosaic of individually perfect moments and performances, marshalled together into a seamlessly elegant, orchestral whole, “Magnolia” is precisely the sort of outrageously ambitious ensemble film that should, especially running over three hours, collapse into pretension. But Anderson’s note-perfect tonal control, his formal flair, and peerless talent for casting and getting the best from some of the finest actors of their generations, combine instead into something sublime. The interlocking stories of nine different L.A. inhabitants that somehow coalesce into a single story of the grandest philosophical and ontological scope. Featuring career highs for John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Jason Robards, Melora Walters (oh, that smile!) Julianne Moore, Tom Cruise (best-ever), William H. Macy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and shot with fluidity, warmth, and compositional grace, Anderson still has room for experiments. These sequences, like the famous montage of the characters singing Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up,” are never just grandstanding, there’s an emotional need for them to happen as they do. Maybe that’s the great trick that “Magnolia” pulls off so dazzlingly. Its momentum is so strong that it carries us smoothly over narrative bumps until it feels like it simply takes off, flying on an emotional plane high above the ground below. To have the balls to attempt “Magnolia” is impressive. To have the craft to pull it all together is more remarkable still. But to have the compassion and insight to make it sing such a clear, bittersweet, lovely song about life and death and chance and goddamn regret, is nothing short of incredible. [A+]
“Punch-Drunk Love” (2002)
After the quick one-two punch of “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” serious, wildly entertaining epics full of attention-grabbing filmmaking and bold ideas, Anderson’s fans must have reacted with puzzlement to the idea that the director’s next film was a 90-minute romantic comedy starring none other than fratboy comedy A-lister Adam Sandler. It’s likely that they were even more baffled by the finished product, which proved to be the director’s most divisive work up to that point. Indeed, the disharmony continues today. Some believe the film to be Anderson’s greatest masterpiece, others his biggest misfire. We’re somewhere in between, though leaning to the former. The film’s occasionally problematic, and arguably minor in the PTA canon, but still swooning and gorgeous and inventive and unlike anything that the director’s made before or since. Sandler, in a performance that’s still easily his best, plays Barry, a lonely man with seven overbearing sisters (one of the film’s missteps, to be honest, coming a little close to misogyny in places), who owns his own novelty business, and has something of an anger management issue, or more accurately a blinding rage issue. He falls hard for Emily Watson’s Lena, but her business trips, his temper, and a blackmail scheme from a phone-sex operator, threaten to disrupt their blossoming love. It’s a sort of canny inversion of Sandler’s usual movies (he’s essentially playing a deeper, richer version of the character he generally plays in his studio comedies), and Anderson’s artful, borderline-experimental subversion of the genre, complete with borderline-abrasive Jon Brion score and visual art interludes by Jeremy Blake, is fascinating and unique, while still managing to be genuinely funny (in a Jacques Tati way, rather than a “Wedding Singer” way), and heart-jumpingly romantic. Indeed, the film feels like an attempt to capture the reality of being in love, not just the joy, but the panic, the anger, the sickness. But Watson’s character is such a cypher (though she’s at least painted more sympathetically than the other women here), and the film ultimately so transient, that for us, at least, it doesn’t rank with what came before or after. [B]
“There Will Be Blood” (2007)
In Which Our Hero Is Accepted By The Establishment. Anderson’s previous films had generally been made within the studio system, and even featured A-list stars, but “There Will Be Blood” was acclaimed almost immediately as an instant classic, one of the best films of the decade or, indeed, of all time. In 2012, the Sight & Sound poll of directors called it the 79th greatest film ever made. While his earlier films had found mixed success in awards season, this received eight Academy Award nominations, including winning Best Cinematography for Robert Elswit, and Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis, plus Anderson’s first directing nomination (he lost out to Joel and Ethan Coen). That’s all the more remarkable considering what a strange, unruly picture it really is. Adapted, somewhat loosely, from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel “Oil!,” it stars Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, an ambitious oil prospector who sets up in California, complete with adopted son H.W, but soon becomes drawn into a long-running conflict with a local preacher, Eli (Paul Dano). It’s a massive film in every way, dealing with meaty subjects like the American dream, capitalism, religion, family, and madness, and Day-Lewis’ performance is appropriately large, from over-enunciated accent to his final, instantly quotable screaming milkshake-themed meltdown. Interestingly, the showiness of the filmmaking in Anderson’s earlier work is mostly gone here, switching gears to a classical approach that John Ford would have nodded sagely at. It’s an enormously satisfying seven-course meal of a movie, and if anything stops it from being our favorite of the director’s work, it’s that the final dessert course—that operatic jump-forward-in-time finale—feels jarring, even rushed. Still, it’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, and one that, after a five-year gap, announced a new, bigger and bolder phase of the director’s career. [A]
“The Master” (2012)
Rather belying the five-year gap that exists between them, while “The Master” is a very different film from “There Will Be Blood,” as a pair, they are perhaps more closely related than any two other contiguous titles in Anderson’s filmography. Both are unashamedly grown-up, richly intelligent, considered films, unafraid of challenging the audience to rise to their level, and supremely confident in their utter mastery of all the tools at a filmmaker’s disposal. If anything, “The Master” is even more enigmatic and unknowable than ‘Blood’ because where the earlier film built to a portrait of bombast and rage and towering monomania, “The Master” is about a quieter sort of brokenness. It’s about the impossibility of escaping our natures and our inability to outrun our pasts, self-deception and external deceit, and the knife-edge ambivalence that exists in a relationship predicated on the idea that one participant can “save” the other. Furthermore, beneath the stunning 70mm polish of its surface, perhaps no performances in Anderson’s astounding portfolio of showcase roles are rendered with such fathomless, oceanic depths as here. Central of course is Joaquin Phoenix’s unforgettable, irreparable Freddie Quell, as perfect a portrait of lost, fearful volatility as we might ever see, pitched into the orbit of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd. Within the now heartbreakingly closed loop that is Hoffman’s career, this role, despite having much less screen time than many of his others, proves all over again just what a great he was, and provides a pretty stunning grace note—who else could have lent so much nuance to the L. Ron Hubbard-esque part that it totally resists any easy assumptions about the “charismatic leader” role, while also defining it? A film that can easily slip through your fingers on first viewing, it continues to reveal itself subsequently, and from the stunning photography (from Mihai Malamaire Jr. rather than regular DP Robert Elswit) to the excellent Jonny Greenwood score to the richness of the setting and the mise en scene, “The Master” is PTA at his least accessible, and his most rewarding. [A-]
“Inherent Vice” (2014)
If Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “The Master” was an inscrutable picture with a threadbare plot that eschewed conventional narrative, then “Inherent Vice” is possibly just as enigmatic and/or impenetrable, only this time exhaling a maximalist fog of plotting—at least on the surface. An astute but loopy adaptation of Thomas Pynchon‘s stoner detective mystery, PTA does tackle the dreadlock-dense plot, but only as a means to explore the book’s hazy, blissed-out themes. Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” is an ideal touchstone for a similarly laconic noir, but thematically ‘Vice’ is also a sprawling farewell to an era of hopes, dreams, and innocence from the peace and love generation. Within, there are flashes of absurdist comedy, swirling moody mystery and danger, and a melancholy longing for more. “Inherent Vice” takes a while to unpack because it is so vibrantly rich with tactile life. A loose-limbed Joaquin Phoenix is the perfect lead for a movie that includes a cavalcade of characters played by folks like Owen Wilson, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, and indie fairy-folk singer Joanna Newsom, to name just a few, but it’s also so atmospheric and textured. You can practically smell the swaths of pot-smoke, nervous sweat, patchouli and unbathed hippie stank that rises from them. Set at the top of the Charles Manson-era, just as hippie-dom is about to curdle into something feared and nasty, “Inherent Vice” also has a trajectory that eventually goes south. As the sun-soaked vibes and stoner comedy dissipates, even as that nostalgic forlornness dissolves, an uneasy feeling takes hold. “What’s next? Where do we go from here?” the characters ask themselves. Of course Anderson leaves this all to be inferred and many will leave the film questioning its coherence or lack thereof, but that’s a wash. It’s a beautiful, sad mood piece that demands multiple viewings before we can really pin it down. The titular “Inherent Vice” is a maritime legal term that essentially means that certain transported goods cannot be insured (also tying in to a mysterious boat that’s part of the plot). Somewhere in that miasma of love, loss and potsmoke, Anderson (and Pynchon) are suggesting nothing’s a sure bet, not even the ideals of would-be halcyon bygone eras. Expect to be baffled, at least until you get to soak it in once again. [B+]
–Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton & Rodrigo Perez