All 9 Paul Thomas Anderson Movies, Ranked
We're ranking the director's movies from good to great, because the guy hasn't made a stinker yet.
There is nothing quite like the anticipation of a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie. In recent years, the director has kept his new projects close to the vest until they are ready for release, so audiences only get a vague sense of what his next film will be about before they sit down in theaters. For a long time, his latest was tentatively titled Soggy Bottom, a phrase which is actually related to the plot in which two young San Fernando Valley dwellers try to sell waterbeds in the 1970s. But as things firmed up, it turned into the equally obtusely named Licorice Pizza, which in itself is a nod to Anderson's own childhood, sharing the name of a beloved record store. It's an indication of how his latest is a swing back into the personal for Anderson after his excursion into 1950s London with Phantom Thread.
To honor the return of PTA to theaters, we embarked on the remarkably difficult task of ranking his movies. Unlike other beloved directors, Anderson has no movie that is commonly regarded as a stinker. All of his projects sit somewhere on the spectrum of good to great, and which ones you like better can be simply boiled down to a matter of taste. So despite the Sisyphean nature of this task, we made our best effort to rank 25 years' worth of Paul Thomas Anderson's movies.
9. Hard Eight (1996)
The only reason Anderson's first feature, Hard Eight lands at the bottom of this list is because it's shaggier than his other work. Released when he was just 26, Hard Eight finds Anderson experimenting with his powers as a filmmaker. You can easily see the raw talent—his knack for capturing underworlds, the faces of his characters glistening in casino lighting, his ability to draw great performances out of excellent actors—it's just a little underdeveloped compared to what would follow. Philip Baker Hall, who Anderson would use again and again, is Sydney, a gambler who takes John (John C. Reilly) under his wing. Sydney's exact motives are always elusive, making the entire project feel like it exists in a sort of purgatory. It's a shaky debut, but a stunning one nonetheless. —Esther Zuckerman
8. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
It's a shame to put Punch-Drunk Love so low on this list, but that's the problem with Paul Thomas Anderson: He doesn't actually make bad movies (or at least not yet). Rearrange this list on another day and Punch-Drunk could have been near the top. At least one of the Thrillist Entertainment writers argued for it to be way higher, yet consensus won out. Outside of his debut Hard Eight, Punch-Drunk Love is perhaps the least ambitious—at least in terms of story—of all of Anderson's movies. Adam Sandler's Barry Egan is a lowly schmuck who falls in love with his sister's colleague all why being harassed by a bunch of goons after calling a phone sex hotline. It's a strange movie that is fueled by the anger in Sandler's performance, harnessed by Anderson into something almost otherworldly. —EZ
7. Licorice Pizza (2021)
Many of Anderson's films are set in SoCal, but none of them are as much of a love letter to the sunny, scuzzy paradise, where Hollywood is always in the rearview, as Licorice Pizza. Putting his trust in two first-time actors, his longtime collaborator Alana Haim of HAIM and Cooper Hoffman (son of Philip Seymour Hoffman), the filmmaker revisits the Valley, circa '73, where an encounter at school picture day between a charismatic, business-minded 15-year-old and an aimless 20-something photo assistant leads to an unlikely relationship and adventures born out of boredom and the youthful desire to impress and nurture a new, hopeless love. It allows for scene-stealing cameos (ie. Tom Waits, Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, Harriet Sansom Harris, etc.) as the film meanders, weaving in and out of LA traffic to document teen entrepreneur Gary Valentine's waterbed business against the oil shortage and his business partner's quarter-life crisis. Inspired by stories from Anderson's friend and producer Gary Goetzman's life, and driven by his own fond reflection of his childhood, it plays like a memory where everything is warm and anything feels possible—making it his sweetest and most low-stakes, fun film to date. —Sadie Bell
6. The Master (2012)
Structured like a sex comedy about a really odd guy, Joaquin Phoenix's drifter Freddie Quell, looking to fight or fuck everyone he meets, The Master might be the most inscrutable movie in Anderson's filmography. The presence of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, an L. Ron Hubbard-like figure blending science-fiction and therapy, suggested the movie might perhaps be another tale of faith and damnation in the vein of There Will Be Blood. And it's not that The Master isn't that. But it's also so many other things, changing shape with each impeccably staged sequence and burrowing deep into its character's neurosis. There are images in this movie, like Quell laying on the beach or Dodd racing on a motorcycle, that are unshakable, like Anderson plucked them out of the pages of history. At almost every turn, The Master resists turning into a strict parable, a buttoned-up biopic, or a heated diatribe. That elusiveness can make it frustrating to some, but, if you're in the right mood, it can also be the most rewarding Anderson movie to return to. —Dan Jackson
5. Inherent Vice (2014)
Only a director with Anderson's particularly sly sense of humor and freewheeling storytelling style could adapt a tale as weird and darkly whimsical as Thomas Pynchon's 1970s-set neo-noir, following the exploits of drug-addled hippie P.I. Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) while he investigates a trio of cases in the Los Angeles underworld all somehow involved with the disappearance of his girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston). Helped along by his unlikely ability to disguise himself in any social situation and his dogged determination to score a hit wherever he can, Doc embarks on an odyssey of grunge, visiting hippie communes, detox sanatoriums, suspicious housing developments, and playing cat-and-mouse with his police officer frenemy "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) while he strains his weed-fogged brain to piece together the crime of the century. Narrated by Joanna Newsom and starring a murderers' row of capital-G Great actors, from Hong Chau to Benicio del Toro to Reese Witherspoon to Owen Wilson, Inherent Vice is a paranoid, hazy, sexy, hilarious masterwork. You won't look at chocolate-covered frozen bananas the same way ever again. —Emma Stefansky
4. Magnolia (1999)
In recent years, this sprawling look at cancer, death, loneliness, and frogs appears to have fallen out of favor with tastemakers who perhaps associate its "everything is connected" narrative with the many awful movies (Crash) and treacly shows (This Is Us) that have circled the same themes in a less dynamic manner. Of all the Anderson movies, particularly the early Altman-indebted ones, it's the easiest to mock. But the unrelenting "too muchness" of Magnolia, an emotionally needy three-hour epic penned in the aftermath of the success of Boogie Nights, is inherently part of its big-hearted appeal. Though certain sections, like the quiz show set-piece and the storyline involving William H. Macy's quest for braces, feel slack or overtly precious when compared to the other movies on this list, the best parts of Magnolia (basically anything involving Tom Cruise's sex-pest guru, Phillip Seymour Hoffman's sensitive nurse, John C. Reilly's bumbling cop, Melora Walters's struggling addict, Jason Robards's dying television executive, and, yes, Julianne Moore as a drug-seeking wife telling everyone, "You must really shut the fuck up!") still hold up. Obsessed with the concept of genius and committed to virtuosity at all costs, Magnolia is the skeleton key to Anderson's entire career. —DJ
3. Boogie Nights (1997)
Few filmmakers hit bona fide masterpiece status as early as Anderson did with Boogie Nights, his epic (in length and scope) deep dive into the 1970s porn industry in the San Fernando Valley. (How many innuendos can I fit into a sentence?) Even all these years later, Boogie Nights still holds up as one of Anderson's best films. It starts out as the best party you've ever been to and descends into a deeply uncomfortable portrait of broken dreams. You know the basic plot: Mark Wahlberg, in what is still his best-ever performance, plays Dirk Diggler, the well-endowed young man who is welcomed into the family of porn stars lorded over by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, in PTA's coup of casting). All the performances remain perfectly calibrated—from Heather Graham's wide-eyed Roller Girl to the breathy matriarchy of Julianne Moore's Amber Waves. Anderson manages to relish in the fun of it all while drawing the audience deeper into the underbelly he's trying to represent. —EZ
2. Phantom Thread (2017)
In the lead up to Phantom Thread's debut, there was much chatter about just what the mysterious second PTA-Daniel Day-Lewis collaboration was actually about. There were rumors it was a biopic of dressmaker Charles James, but James turned out only to be the loose inspiration for the fastidious and hungry Reynolds Woodcock. (Yes, the name is certainly cheeky.) But the mystery as to just what Anderson is going for here continues long into the film's running time, even after you've been seduced by the gorgeous Mark Bridges' gowns and Jonny Greenwood's best score to date. Is this a parable about a Great Man? Or is there something more to the relationship between Reynolds and his waitress-turned-muse Alma (Vicky Krieps, in the performance that made her a star). It's not until those final beats that Anderson drops the other shoe and reveals the full scope of this brilliantly fucked-up love story, the ultimate example of his sick sense of humor aligning with his detailed eye. —EZ
1. There Will Be Blood (2007)
With its symphonic ambitions, stabbing strings from Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, and its stark themes of capitalism run amok, There Will Be Blood now serves as the great dividing line in Anderson's career, marking the transition from an Altman- and Scorsese-worshipping wunderkind to a more restrained crafter of Big Idea epics of American hollowness. At least, that's what this movie is in theory. Watching Daniel Day-Lewis play Daniel Plainview, an eccentric misanthrope with an unquenchable desire for wealth and a thirst for oil, remains a much stranger, funnier experience than the movie's Oscar-winning reputation might suggest. Though the storytelling is almost Biblical, filled with false prophets and scheming brothers, the script, loosely adapted from Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, returns to that core Anderson concept of the troubled, haunted father figure. "I've abandoned my child!" shouts Plainview as Paul Dano's preacher Eli Sunday hectors him in front of a crowded mass of churchgoers. Parental neglect is often the original sin in Anderson's world of porn stars, dressmakers, gurus, addicts, and gamblers. With There Will Be Blood, he tapped the source of all those anxieties with unparalleled skill, studied formal control, and an absolutely essential sense of mischief. —DJ