Paul Thomas Anderson’s characters are all defective in some way — not flawed so much as broken and incomplete. In an unpredictable filmography that spans from the waining days of the mid-’90s indie boom to the tenuous post-celluloid landscape of the modern age — a scattershot collection of stories that hops across the last 100 years as though its unstuck in time, resolving into a strange and feral people’s history of America in the 20th century — a fundamental sense of inherent vice might be the most consistent through-line. That feels especially true in the aftermath of “Phantom Thread,” which finds Anderson ditching his hometown of Los Angeles for London, but still retaining (or even doubling down on) his sincere affection for obsessive people with holes in their hearts.
Common wisdom suggests that Anderson’s career has been split down the middle, with 2002’s “Punch-Drunk Love” functioning as a gentle transition from the exuberant mosaics that announced PTA’s genius to the steely micro-portraits that made good on his potential. And while there’s a certain amount of truth to that superficial overview, the evolution of Anderson’s style is mostly interesting for how it illuminates the underlying things that bind his entire body of work together.
With “Phantom Thread” set to hit theaters on Christmas Day, we’ve decided to rank Paul Thomas Anderson’s films from worst to best (essentially just assigning them varying degrees of greatness), focusing on all things that have changed in his movies, and all the things that have stayed the same.
9. “Hard Eight” aka “Sydney” (1996)
Paul Thomas Anderson was only 26 when he managed to wrangle Philip Baker Hall and a $3 million budget for his first feature, an impressive feat by any measure. However, in light of what the upstart auteur would go on to make next, “Hard Eight” is more striking for its modesty — for its lack of ambition — than anything else. The low-key story of a friendship that forms between a mysterious gambler (Hall) and the penniless burnout (John C. Reilly) he meets at a diner somewhere between L.A. and Las Vegas, PTA’s preternaturally self-assured debut feels like a collection of leftover Sundance tropes trying to wrestle themselves free from a straitjacket. Dusty southwest environs, rundown motels, neo-noir shadings, Samuel L. Jackson, coffee, and cigarettes… if not for the wounded stoicism of Hall’s performance and the expert contributions of future PTA mainstays like Robert Elswit and Jon Brion, it might be tempting to lump this in with all the other Tarantino riffs that washed ashore after “Pulp Fiction.”
Still, as easy as it is to lose sight of this film in the vast shadow of what came next, “Hard Eight” rolls with a gentle humanism that gives it some life of its own. Sydney might have ulterior motives in lending a stranger $50 and showing him the ropes for how to rig a casino, but his deepening relationship with John only enriches the question that hangs over their first encounter: How much is a friend really worth to you? This is a small movie, and an awkwardly fractured one at that, but it’s full of inscrutably compelling actors at their best, their characters helped along by a writer-director who palpably believes in their pain.
8. “Junun” (2015)
Nobody really saw this delightful curio — Anderson’s only feature-length documentary — which premiered at the New York Film Festival before bypassing a theatrical run and heading straight for the internet. But “Junun” is hardly just a B-side for the director’s hardcore fans. If anything, it’s the most accessible thing he’s ever made, a hugely enjoyable 54-minute banger about the lightning-in-a-bottle joy of good people making great music together. An uncharacteristically invisible fly on the wall, Anderson hangs around the dusty environs of India’s Mehrangarh Fort, watching with rapt attention as regular collaborator Jonny Greenwood and Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur record a group album with the Rajasthan Express.
Seemingly made on a whim and without much of an agenda, the movie captures a once-in-a-lifetime collision of musical talent before everyone scatters to the winds. As jarring as it might be to see PTA shoot digital (the drones demand it), the music is so catchy and the vibe so full of life that you soon forget who’s behind the camera. “Junun” might be a footnote, but it’s transporting and whole and hard to forget.
7. “Inherent Vice” (2014)
So dense that it was probably destined to be the most under-appreciated of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films — there’s a certain prickliness to Thomas Pynchon’s source material, as even the most casually stoned of his novels is difficult to wrap your arms around — “Inherent Vice” is a sweet and strung-out noir odyssey through the fog of late capitalism. It’s also a movie where Jena Malone has wooden teeth, Josh Brolin fellates a frozen banana, and pixie folk goddess Joanna Newsom plays a narrator who might be a figment of Joaquin Phoenix’s imagination… so it’s not like PTA is trying to make things hard on us.
Shot like a faded postcard and full of fantastic characters, “Inherent Vice” borrows a lot from sun-dappled P.I. yarns like “The Long Goodbye,” but it’s sillier and sadder than Philip Marlowe ever was. Per genre tradition, the central mystery is actually several different mysteries all knotted together; good luck untangling what a heroin addict’s missing husband has to do with a real estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann and a drug cartel that calls themselves the Golden Fang. But while the plot may be hard to follow, PTA compensates by making the film’s emotional underpinnings as clear as Doc Sportello’s view of the California coastline.
The lost love between Sportello and his ex (Katherine Waterston) is achingly well-realized in just a few short scenes, while the pervasive sense of a country in decline is suffused into the atmosphere like so many patchouli farts (to borrow one of the best insults from a film that has dozens to spare). Forget “Boogie Nights” and the illusion of American possibility, “Inherent Vice” burrows into the feeling that we’ve already let it get away from us — that we’re all out there chasing our own tails. It gets a little bit sadder every time you watch it.