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Paul Thomas Anderson’s Best Scenes, Ranked

To celebrate the filmmaker's birthday, we dig through his filmography for the very best moments in a brilliant career.

5. Baptism For Daniel (“There Will Be Blood”)

As brought to life by the ever-reliable Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Plainview is one of the great movie monsters of all time, an oil baron who cares for little beyond a means of forwarding his greedy schemes. But as menacing as Plainview seems for much of the movie, it’s a measure of Anderson’s confidence in the material that he manages to play the character’s desperation for laughs. That’s especially evident in this showdown with giddy preacher Eli (Paul Dano) as he coaches Plainview through a degrading confession that builds to histrionic fervor. Dano holds his own against the veteran actor, as he hurtles overconfident pronouncements at the resentful older man and eventually takes physical control of the situation as well. But it’s Day-Lewis’ shrug of a response to the dramatic final question — “Yes, I do” — that really seals the deal on this dynamic scene by showing just how much Plainview’s willing to endure to get what he wants. It also plants the seeds of a climactic revenge scene for the ages. —EK

4. “I Am a Star” (“Boogie Nights”)

“Boogie Nights” spends over two and a half hours building up expectations around Dirk Diggler’s massive genitalia, but audiences watching it for the first time may spend much of the movie wondering if it’ll be left up to their imaginations. Then Mark Wahlberg steps into his dressing room, unzips his pants and whispers a small prayer for his “big, bright shining star” while that jarring prosthetic hangs there, like a jiggly exclamation point. In a movie dense with sophisticated camera movements, dazzling period details and lively montages, it says something about the filmmaker’s confidence in his material that the big reveal — so to speak — arrives with a stationary camera in an empty room. The image says everything you need to know: that enthusiasm for Dirk Diggler was no joke. —EK

3. “How to Fake Like You Are Nice and Caring” (“Magnolia”)

It’s always a relief when our biggest box office draws and bonafide movie stars are given the opportunity to actually unleash their talents, something Anderson has shown a canny ability to deliver, thanks to turns from the likes of Adam Sandler and Tom Cruise. While “Punch-Drunk Love” still stands as cinema’s best example of “hey, Adam Sandler can really act,” he did something similar (and just as compelling) with its predecessor, “Magnolia.” Casting someone like Cruise (whose entire career hinges on perceptions of “likability” and “marketability” even in the face of bizarre personal gossip and a handful of out of the box career choices) as Frank T.J. Mackey, a real son of a bitch who traffics in essentially MRA double-speak was bold, but it was also hugely inspired. Who else has that sort of presence, personality and charisma?

That Anderson uses the film to routinely cut him down and force him into a life-changing transformation that only works when he’s laid totally bare only adds to that power. Anderson isn’t afraid of mistakes or cracks in the always-near-crumbling facades of his most indelible characters, and even this relatively brief peek inside both Frank’s professional and personal philosophy offers up fissures to spare. He gets going so fast that he mispronounces “heinous,” instantly correcting himself but unnerving himself enough to tumble head-long into his workbook fuck-up, a small misstep that leads directly into the kind of explosion only Cruise can so chillingly deliver. Sparely filmed, trained entirely on a sweating, ranting Cruise set against a cold stage and eerie lightning, Anderson gives the power over to his star, who delivers in ways that still shake. —Kate Erbland

2. “He Needs Me” (“Punch-Drunk Love”)

Nothing in Anderson’s filmography is predictable, but even by those standards, “Punch-Drunk Love” remains the filmmaker’s least traditional work — a playful reinvention of the romcom (and Adam Sander) that finds a rage-filled loner rediscovering himself through the sudden prospects of companionship. The movie veers into some jarring directions, but generates its biggest sparks with this lovely, prolonged sequence in which our wayward anti-hero abruptly buys a ticket to Hawaii to track down a woman (Emily Watson) who may or may not feel the same way about him. Putting Jon Brion’s brilliant score on hold, Anderson sets the scenes to “He Needs Me,” from Robert Altman’s live action 1980 version of “Popeye.” It’s a shrewd means of rescuing one of the least-appreciated works by the late filmmaker (whom Anderson knew well) by reapplying it in a fresh context: By funneling his intense, dangerous energy to satisfy his emotions in a constructive fashion, Sandler’s character discovers happiness for the first time. It’s one of the most romantic moments in film history. —EK

1. “I Drink Your Milkshake” (“There Will Be Blood”)

Drunk, frazzled and surrounded by wealth, Daniel Plainview finally gets the revenge he’s desired for years, relishing the opportunity to demoralize the preacher who humiliated him long ago. The scene unfolds with the gradual accumulation of dread, as Plainview seems at once fully in control of the situation and utterly unhinged, while Eli shrinks in terror, and eventually becomes the ultimate bloody victim of Plainview’s rage. But it’s the climactic line of Plainview’s monologue (“I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE,” in case you missed the best meme the movies ever gave us) that sealed the deal for “There Will Be Blood” as a truly masterful illustration of Anderson’s narrative skills; it’s a ludicrous line that could easily steer the material into camp, and yet the fusion of eerie atmosphere and brilliant performances contextualizes the moment as an extraordinary cinematic statement on the mania of capitalism at its ugliest. It’s the ideal capper for a black comedy in which we’re all complicit, and for Anderson, the very best scene he’s ever staged. —EK

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