Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most revered American filmmakers of the last 20 years in part because he’s so unclassifiable. Working in a range of genres while tackling subjects that skew from anger management to American capitalism, religion and porn, Anderson has built a filmography distinguished by its unpredictability — and the sheer originality he brings to each new effort. Beyond the stories that distinguish his movies are the many ways in which they immerse viewers in fully defined worlds.
Every Anderson movie is an absorbing experience loaded with strange, funny, and shocking moments, all of which speak to the agenda of an artist keen on pushing the medium beyond its most familiar forms.
There may be no better way to survey the range of achievements in Anderson’s work than to dig through some of his best scenes. In honor of his 47th birthday, we’ve done just that.
10. An Awkward Party (“Punch-Drunk Love”)
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Few characters in the history of film have ever made an entrance as awkward as Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan at the birthday party for one of his seven sisters in “Punch-Drunk Love.” After waiting by the front door while his sisters recount their cruel childhood nickname for him — Gay Boy — Barry finally announces himself, only to to face a fresh onslaught of teasing and questioning. “Are you gay now?” one of his sisters asks. As they continue to probe and criticize, Barry strains to keep his composure, stumbling around the room and nearly stepping on a nanny. Anderson sets up the scene as a minefield of passive-aggressive remarks, steadily building the tension and then bringing things to a boil when Barry’s sister Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub) shouts that Barry refused to let her set him up on a date. A violent climax leads to a poignant moment in which Barry finally admits that he needs help. Sandler has never been better, and no scene from any of Anderson’s other films is as heartbreaking while also being hilarious. —Graham Winfrey
9. Craps Scene (“Hard Eight”)
Anderson’s 1996 debut is rarely singled out in appreciations of the filmmaker’s work, in large part because he has delivered much more audacious work in the years since then. But this taut, mysterious noir is a showcase for Anderson’s extraordinary talent when it comes to actors. John C. Reilly is ideally cast as the bumbling John, but “Hard Eight” is essentially a showcase for the legendary Philip Baker Hall, as the no-nonsense gambler Sydney, who takes John under his wing. The character actor would resurface with memorable results in “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” but nothing he has done in the last 20 years can top this nuanced performance, in which his calm demeanor belies competitive instincts to take control of every situation he’s in. That includes this lively, involving showdown with another PTA regular, Philip Seymour Hoffman, as he eggs on Sydney in round after round of craps only to find that the soft-spoken “old timer” is savvier than he lets on. Hoffman’s exuberance is an ideal juxtaposition to Hall’s muted expression, and the synthesis of their two energy levels is a perfect distillation of Anderson’s ability to generate so much engagement around the simplicity of two actors operating at the peak of their abilities. Which leads to our next selection… —Eric Kohn
8. “No Blinking” (“The Master”)
Shot/reverse shot is used so often in movies that it takes a great filmmaker to make you realize what a valuable cinematic tool it can be when used with real dramatic purpose. Jonathan Demme was one of those directors, and so too is one of his biggest fans: Paul Thomas Anderson. One of the centerpiece scenes of Anderson’s “The Master” is a lengthy question-and-answer session between the characters played by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It utilizes a basic shot reverse shot editing rhythm, but Anderson makes sure every cut matters. Which face Anderson decides to hold on during each question creates a palpable dramatic tension between the master and his student. As Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is forced to come to terms with his self-destruction, Anderson doesn’t move the camera. He locks in on what has to be one of the most fragile close-ups of his career and lets Quell’s breaking facade absolutely tear the viewer apart. It’s these kind of meticulous choices that make Anderson a master filmmaker. —Zack Sharf
7. Pool Party (“Boogie Nights”)
This unforgettably stylish pool party scene is shot in one long take, the camera floating seamlessly between snippets of conversation, lines of coke, and underwater pool tricks. Though it’s choreographed to a fault, the movement feels as loose and natural as a daytime buzz. It also includes a choice exchange between Betty and Buck about his bright red cowboy shirt (“You have to get a new look”), Maurice begging Amber to talk to Jack about him, and Reed falling flat on his back in an attempt to show off in front of Eddie are two textural pieces that subtly tease later conflicts. The colors are vibrant, the music is groovy, and the vibe is pure Anderson. —Jude Dry
6. “Bigfoot Eats Weed” (“Inherent Vice”)
Anderson’s discursive adaptation of late period Thomas Pynchon is in tune with the author’s intentionally confusing narrative style, which is a good fit for this shaggy dog detective story in which Phoenix plays perennially stoned private investigator Doc Sportello. Rather than erupting into pure psychedelic weirdness, “Inherent Vice” rolls along with the slow, hazy quality of its stoned protagonist’s mindset; the labyrinthine plot wanders to a series of dead ends, and ultimately matters less than Doc’s befuddled reactions to a world much more complicated than he’s willing to process. But Anderson saves the best illustration of that motif for the end, when Doc’s confronted by the stone-faced detective known as Bigfoot (Josh Brolin) in a hallucinogenic showdown in which Bigfoot smokes Doc’s weed and speaks in synch with the confounded Doc as they simultaneously apologize to each other. It’s a strange and beautiful cartoon illustration of two men from opposing sides of an ideological spectrum in the thick of ‘60s counterculture finding common ground, and one of the best examples of the edict that truly anything can happen in a PTA movie. —EK
On the next page: A hilarious baptism scene, an encounter with a mirror, and PTA’s very best scene.