6. “Boogie Nights” (1997)
“It’s a real film, Jack.”
A dizzying epic of reinvention, Paul Thomas Anderson’s seedy and sensational second film found the 28-year-old directing with the swagger of a young man in possession of a massive amount of natural talent. But it’s not just the mind-boggling confidence behind the camera that makes “Boogie Nights” such an incredible piece of work, it’s also the sheer generosity that Anderson shows towards his characters, even the most pathetic and beautiful among them. Look at how the camera lingers on Jesse St. Vincent (the great Melora Walters) after she’s been stranded at the 1979 New Year’s Eve party, or how Anderson redeems Rollergirl (Heather Graham, in her best role) with a single push-in during the closing minutes. Anderson loves these people. When Amber Waves, played by a peak Julianne Moore as the original MILF, tells Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) that he deserves his brand new 1978 Corvette, she means it from the bottom of her heart.
More than just a breakneck look inside the porn industry as it struggled to get over the hump of home video, “Boogie Nights” is a story about a magical valley of misfit toys — action figures, to be specific. All of these horny weirdos have been cast out from their families, all of them are looking for surrogate relatives, and all of them have followed the American Dream to the same ridiculous place. There’s something very special about the Altman-esque frenzy in which these lost souls become together for having found each other, an ineffable energy that survives the young Anderson’s need to triple-underline every flourish.
This remains one of the most quotable and well-realized things that the director has ever made, even if the darker second half — in which PTA makes his feelings very clear re: the warmth of film vs. the creepiness of video — feels both overlong and undernourished. But who cares? Burt Reynolds sell the hell out of every movie, Wahlberg is operating well beyond the limits of his talent, and the hits just keep on coming as the flaws start to fade away. There’s no use getting bent out of shape about it; there are shadows in life, baby!
5. “Phantom Thread” (2017)
Earlier this year, before we had seen so much as a still photo from Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, it was widely rumored that “Phantom Thread” was an S&M period piece that had more in common with “Fifty Shades of Grey” than it did any of the classic British melodramas that were made around the time this story is set. Alas, the perverse romance that blossoms between a renowned dressmaker (Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock) and a soft-spoken waitress Alma (Vicki Krieps) is a strictly PG affair, one far more interested in adding clothes than taking them off. Be that as it may, elements of dominance and submission persist, and the film’s deceptive chasteness is precisely what allows Anderson to sew such a compelling piece about love and control, threading the needle between haute escapism and something much closer to home.
Speaking after the film’s first New York City screening, Anderson told the crowd that “Phantom Thread” was inspired by a recent bout of the flu. The filmmaker was laid up in bed, feeling like refried death, when he noticed that his wife looking at him with a degree of pity and care that she typically reserves for their young kids. He loved it. You don’t need to be a revered film director or a tyrannical fashion designer to appreciate that powerlessness has its own pleasures, and that surrendering control to the right person can be as satisfying as hoarding it for yourself. There’s probably not a married couple in the world who doesn’t understand that dynamic or recognize the ugly strength they derive from their partner’s weakness.
“Phantom Thread” takes that ugliness and turns it into something beautiful, Anderson riffing on the likes of “Rebecca” (with a whiff of “The War of the Roses” for good measure) to create an immaculately old-fashioned portrait of obsession. Anderson has made a number of spirited duets about two strange people who need each other for balance, but the magic trick that Krieps’ terse performance allows him to do here — slowly allowing Alma to overshadow Reynolds and take control of the wheel, herself — is a new one for him. Beautiful and beguiling in equal measure, this is the most inviting movie that Anderson has made since “Punch-Drunk Love,” and the best proof yet that his collaboration with composer Jonny Greenwood might be the defining element of his recent work.
4. “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002)
Paul Thomas Anderson has been known to say that each of his films is a reaction to the last one, and the fact that he made the tight and constrained “Punch-Drunk Love” on the heels of the sprawling “Magnolia” is enough to prove that he’s not blowing smoke. This is the work of a prodigiously gifted artist who realized his most ambitious idea by the time he turned 30 and found that he still had room to grow — that his movies couldn’t be bigger, but they could be more suffused with feeling. What Anderson learned between “Boogie Nights” in 1998 and “Punch-Drunk Love” in 2002 is that size isn’t everything.
A frantic quasi-musical about violently isolated people who learn that they don’t have to condemn themselves to their sadness, Anderson’s fourth feature distills an epic’s worth of emotion and bottles it up in a cheap blue suit. Adam Sandler is revelatory as Barry Egan, the low-brow comedian repurposing his signature rage into something new just by denying it a place to go. He can’t just win a golf tournament and or retake second grade; he’s got a business to run, a thousand sisters to handle, and a hole in his heart the size of Hawaii. And then there’s Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), who looks at Barry and sees a harmony, her desire setting off a love story where the senses blur together like the whole film has been touched by synesthesia.
“Punch-Drunk Love” is a tiny movie, but Elswit’s camera roves around Barry’s factory with a manic curiosity that borders on Chaplin-esque, resulting in the first PTA film that doesn’t feel like it’s carving out a story so much as building one from the ground up. That spirit of creation is infused into the characters, who discover that opportunity abounds in this world (in pudding and people alike), and that they have the power to get on a plane and chase love down before it gets away. Love is out there, you just have to pick up the phone. If you’re lucky, you might find Lena Leonard in her hotel room. And if you’re really lucky, you might get patched through to Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose heavenly appearance galvanizes this strange concoction with a bunch of spittle and an arsenal of f-bombs. If this isn’t the greatest scene ever committed to celluloid, it’s damn close to it.