My Top Five Favorite Movies By Paul Thomas Anderson

Image Credits: Myke Simon

I don’t remember exactly what was the first Paul Thomas Anderson film I ever watched because it has been a few years but I’m pretty sure it was Magnolia; considered to be one of the first films that introduced the director to a wide audience, I watched Magnolia one afternoon about ten years ago and it made a huge impression on me. I was eighteen at the time, and although it was a complex and very long film (more than three hours), I remember it as something unique, something quite different from most of the films I had seen up to that time. 

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to see all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films and have noticed that they always have one or more factors in common with each other, including autobiographical elements. 

Anderson’s themes concern celebrity culture, media, patriarchy, and commodities in the postmodern America of the late 20th century, with a focus on the preponderant media culture in our lives, to the point that reality and media are inevitably interconnected. A cinephile from childhood, growing up in the San Fernando Valley (born in Studio City, the heart of the Hollywood film industry) and the son of a well-known television personality (Ernie Anderson, voice of the ABC channel), Paul Thomas Anderson experienced firsthand the rise of dominant masculinity in the Reagan 1980s, and many of the male characters in his films seek to reinvent themselves while simultaneously trying to outgrow their past. As with many of the films released in the postmodern media culture of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, Anderson’s films often revolve around the relationship between father and son, which is often difficult and troubled. Moreover, as author Jason Sperb points out in his book Blossoms & Blood: Postmodern Media Culture and the Films of Paul Thomas Anderson, “many Anderson characters ambivalently engage in endless cycles of consumption while the physical act of labor – of actually producing a material good with use value – seems nonexistent.” In Anderson’s films, many of the characters work as salesmen and represent the center of transactions that are part of everyday life, as well as having both dissatisfaction with and dependence on material wealth. 

Sperb writes: “His films explicitly posit characters’ drive for financial success, as well as their conspicuos consumption, as an emotionally unsatisfying journey, filled with moments of excess, egomania, and greed. These same people are often situated as socially marginalized. […] Anderson’s early films, set in the media-saturated commodity culture of upper-middle-class Southern California, also suggest that no other meaningful options exist. They often end on a cautious note of reconciliation that implies patriarchal capitalism is the solution to the same problems it created.” 

I have enjoyed many of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, both for the structure and unfolding of the plot and for how they address the themes expressed. Here below are five of his movies I have loved the most, in no particular order: 

Image Credits: New Line Cinema

1) Magnolia (1999): although not considered by critics to be the director’s most successful movie (he was only 28 years old at the time of its release), I believe there is something incredibly magnetic and captivating about Magnolia, Anderson’s third movie, which remains one of the landmark movies of independent cinema at the dawn of the 21st century. Magnolia features a series of intertwining plots and characters, with a cast full of established and audience-pleasing actors, like Tom Cruise as Mackey, a ruthless motivational guru who profits from dispensing secrets to middle-aged men about how to “seduce and destroy women” and who to this day remains one of Anderson’s most iconic characters. The central themes of the film are the disintegration of the white middle-class family, the ephemeral satisfaction provided by success and commodities, and the deconstruction of masculinity. Magnolia is an epic story set in the San Fernando Valley which depicts in an almost apocalyptic way the inadequacy of the characters in outgrowing their past; the stories of these characters intersect during one day, with a great importance given to random fate, while also touching on themes of guilt and redemption. It is thus a movie that strikes more of an emotional resonance than a linear plot in itself, and I think viewers who enjoyed the movie as I did happened to identify themselves with what one or more of the characters were feeling. It is perhaps the director’s most autobiographical film, and although he later pointed out some of the film’s flaws (such as its excessive length), he also said, “I consider Magnolia a kind of beautiful accident. It gets me. I put my heart-every embarrassing thing that I wanted to say-in Magnolia.” The movie is a tribute to Robert Altman, Anderson’s mentor; it is a profound story about childhood, love and illness in the world of Southern California television celebrities. Magnolia is not for everyone, but there is no denying that it has something incredibly lyrical and meaningful about it.

Image Credits: Paramount / Ghoulardi Film Company

2) There Will Be Blood (2007): one of the two Paul Thomas Anderson movies starring Daniel Day-Lewis, I only got to watch it eight years ago because I was still in middle school when the movie was released. I think it is undeniable that There Will Be Blood is one of Anderson’s masterpieces; it was an incredible success with audiences and critics, winning Oscars for Best Picture and Best Lead Actor, and is considered one of the best American movies of the decade. The  plot emphasizes how chasing perfection is dangerous and virtually impossible, and this is especially evident in the destructive journey of Daniel Plainview’s character (played by Daniel Day-Lewis), which is also a critique of ruthless capitalism, intersected with the religious theme as well. Indeed, one Hollywood critic said that There Will Be Blood, filmed near Marfa, Texas, “tackles all the big themes about America: blood, oil, religion.” It is the story of a silver miner in the early 20th century who makes the pursuit of oil the center of his life; in the process, he buys all the land he can by destroying the competition in what is an unscrupulous quest to gain absolute power over everything around him (the character was inspired by oilman Edward Doheny). As highlighted by Sperb in Blossoms & Blood, Plainview’s character also embodies the figure of the salesman because he cons people into selling their land. Another of the themes taken from Anderson’s earlier movies is the figure of the surrogate father, as well as the father-son relationship (after one of his employees is killed in an accident, Plainview decides to raise his orphaned son). Unlike some of his previous movies, there is neither love nor redemption in There Will Be Blood. I think it is wonderful both visually and in terms of plot; the long narrative sequences of isolation, interrupted by sudden bursts of violence, were influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s style (especially from The Shining), as well as the film’s dialogue-free opening sequence, which is very reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. A reminder of the industrial origins of the state of California (well before the advent of the entertainment industry), There Will Be Blood is a film that stays with viewers even after its ending, both because of Day-Lewis’s masterful performance, which finds humanity in a character with monstrous traits, and Anderson’s skills as a screenwriter, which as Sperb states: “The strength of Anderson’s writing abilities is that he never loses sympathy for his characters-he never loses sight of how they see the world, even if he doesn’t expect audiences to empathize with them at their worst.”

Image Credits: Focus Features

3) Phantom Thread (2017): once again starring Daniel Day-Lewis (in the role that marked his retirement from the stage, which really saddened me because I think he is one of the most extraordinary actors ever), Phantom Thread remains my favorite Paul Thomas Anderson movie. I saw it on home video a few months after its release and found it incredible in every way, including the original score by Jonny Greenwood (who had already collaborated with Anderson on other works by the director, including There Will Be Blood) and the costumes by Mark Bridges, who also won an Oscar for this movie. Phantom Thread fully expresses how Anderson’s work encompasses different themes; it is set in the glamorous scene of 1950s London and focuses on the man/woman relationship with all the psychological nuances and difficulties involved. Renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock and his sister Cyril run one of London’s most prestigious fashion ateliers, making clothes for movie stars, members of the Royal Family and other affluent people of the time. Woodcock’s life changes upon meeting Alma, a young woman who becomes his muse and wife, profoundly affecting the life of the workaholic and quite cynical protagonist, who is portrayed as totally devoted to his craft and self-subjugated to a precise daily routine. More than simply a love story, the relationship between Woodcock and Alma is also a kind of challenge as to which of the two will push the other to make the changes necessary in order for their relationship to work. Many critics have pointed out how the director uses the theme of fashion as a medium that creates a comparison between the mysteries of the couple’s love relationship to those of artistic creation, and all of this is told with masterful brilliance. Since I work in the fashion industry, I found it very interesting how the world of haute couture became part of Paul Thomas Anderson’s universe; the movie is visually stunning and it never gets boring. The characters are complex and at the same time incredibly realistic. The classical music of the score by composer Greenwood is something unforgettable and fits perfectly with the film and its mood (I found myself listening to it often afterwards, even playing it as background music during working hours). Phantom Thread is a slow-burn drama that is elegantly crafted in all its different aspects by Paul Thomas Anderson and his collaborators, including the cast and crew. There is something sublime about the beauty of this movie and it is probably the one I recommend the most.

Image Credits: New Line Cinema

4) Boogie Nights (1997): It has been many years since I bought a DVD copy of Boogie Nights, probably almost a decade; in fact, I cannot remember whether I saw Magnolia or this movie first because I saw them almost at the same time and enjoyed them both. Paul Thomas Anderson’s second movie incredibly showcased the director’s talent; shot and set in the San Fernando Valley, his homeland, it is to this day one of the cult movies released in the late 20th century. With its colorful cinematography, from a structural plot point of view the film can easily be divided into two parts; as Sperb explains, the first half is characterized by the light and celebratory mood of the 1970s, in which the story begins, with economic prosperity, retro-flavored soundtrack, and excesses without initial consequences. The Reagan culture of the 1980s kicks off the second half of the film, which includes shocking moments of violence and a general decline of the characters, also accompanied by a darker musical score, as the film ends in melancholy tones. Boogie Nights begins and ends with the theme of pornography, treated by Anderson in a sort of nostalgic way because adult film production was “part of the landscape” of the San Fernando Valley during those years. In Boogie Nights, Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a well-known adult film producer, meets Eddie Adams (played by Mark Wahlberg) a young busboy in a restaurant who, under the alias Dirk Diggler, makes a rise in the industry winning numerous awards over the years, with subsequent decline due to drugs and other excesses that characterized the 1970s and ‘80s. 

In Blossoms & Blood, Sperb states, “To understand Boogie Nights, one must appreciate how the film works through a deeply affective logic that reflects Anderson’s own experience of the nostalgic impulses generated by his cinephiliac childhood. […] Boogie Nights is not simply autobiographical-its emphasis on the politics of the personal reveals larger questions about the decade in which it was made.” Although not a huge success upon its theatrical release, it became a cult movie in the world of home video, initially thanks to VHS and Laser-Disc formats and later thanks to the popularity of DVD as the primary means of film consumption. The rise of the soundtrack movie as the successor to the modern Hollywood musical of the 1950s and ‘60s also contributed to its popularity, thanks to the nostalgic pop songs of the 1970s and ‘80s that became huge hits again in the fall of ’97. 

Boogie Nights is one of the cult movies of the ‘90s whose main themes are guilt, redemption and forgiveness and is also particularly fascinating because of the way the characters interact with each other. This movie may not be for everyone as well, but many cinephiles are sure to find it absolutely riveting. 

Image Credits: Ghoulardi Film Company

5) Licorice Pizza (2021): I recently saw Licorice Pizza and found it very sweet and introspective. It also shares some themes with other previous Paul Thomas Anderson movies (besides being set in his beloved San Fernando Valley). Family is a constant theme in his movies, especially dysfunctional ones, which therefore often leads the characters to seek surrogate familial relationships and desire to create their own family. Central to the plot of this coming-of-age movie is an unconventional love story between the two main characters Gary and Alana; the fact that he is under age and she is about ten years older might initially create a sense of uneasiness. Gary is a precocious boy who is moving away from his childhood acting career; Alana is about 25 years old with no proper career path and it also feels like she is going through some kind of quarter-life crisis. He persists in her pursuit despite the fact that initially she’s not interested in him; however, both characters share a yearning for something different than what they’re going through, despite the age difference. This is explained very well by YouTube channel TheTake in a video about the theme of love in the works of Paul Thomas Anderson; it might not always be easy to separate love from the messy person that comes with it, but Gary and Alana seem to function in their own, weird way. As TheTake states, “[Paul Thomas Anderson’s] films can be uncomfortably truthful and non-judgmental about falling in love. […] Anyway, they don’t advocate for toxicity in relationships and it’s not about condoning a certain negative behavior; they also have happy and hopeful endings”, and it is the same for Licorice Pizza, which has a very cinematic and quite moving ending. It is a film that shows the various facets of love; the characters understand each other in the relationship, accept each other’s flaws, and also deal with self-improvement because, like TheTake explains, “We do not change for the people we love, but that change has to come from within. It’s sort of a mutual change.” The willingness to connect with another person is essential.  “Real connections are not easy to find or create so they need to be cherished. Licorice Pizza shows how love takes work and it requires trust and sacrifice; it’s always evolving and nothing is guaranteed.” As in all of Anderson’s movies, dream-like elements are present in Licorice Pizza as well, and I believe it to be a movie that will appeal to all of the director’s fans.

Additional notes:

Reading the volume “Blossoms & Blood: Postmodern Media Culture and the Movies of Paul Thomas Anderson” by Jason Sperb was very helpful in writing this article, despite the fact that it was published in 2013 and thus is not up to date with the director’s latest work. I still plan to purchase a few more up-to-date volumes on Anderson’s work. 

Some of the quotes in the Licorice Pizza’s analysis come from the video essay: “Love, Paul Thomas Anderson-Style” by YouTube channel TheTake (which I recommend to all the movie buffs out there).

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