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Paul Thomas Anderson has ascended to the ranks as one of our finest filmmakers. Anderson has been impressing audiences and critics with his unique creative voice since the mid-90s, where he made his auspicious debut with the indie Hard Eight, an underrated gem of lost fathers and sons, set in the harsh lights of Reno, Nevada. With his latest movie, the 70s-era ensemble piece Inherent Vice, expanding into wide release, I look back at my top three favorites by the talented writer/director.
3. There Will Be Blood (2007)
We begin my countdown with There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s character study on family, religion, hatred, oil and madness, focusing on a turn-of-the-century prospector (Daniel Day-Lewis) in the early days of the business. Based on the novel by Upton Sinclair, Anderson creates a sprawling, powerful, and effective movie on the american dream and the cost to obtain it. Paul Dano, in one of his best performances, plays a local preacher who is at odds with Day-Lewis. Their tug-of-war is symbolic to the struggles of business and class in America. Anderson creates scenes that illustrate the beauty and brutality of this time period, which are poetically realized in Robert Elswit’s stunning Oscar-winning cinematography. Anderson also creates one of the cinema’s most memorable monsters in Daniel Plainview, giving Day-Lewis an opportunity to give one his finest and most terrifying screen creations, which rightfully earned him an Oscar for Best Actor. The scene in which Plainview and the preacher have their final confrontation in a bowling alley is one for the time-capsule. You will never hear the word “milkshake” the same way again. Through the preacher and Daniel Plainview, Anderson forces us to see ourselves, America, the values of money and power and confront the ramifications of obtaining those things. An unforgettable and masterful movie.
2. Boogie Nights (1997)
We move on to the movie that put Paul Thomas Anderson on the map as a major creative force in Hollywood. With only one movie under his belt (Hard Eight), which received some glowing critical acclaim, people knew Anderson was equipped with stories of character studies, but Boogie Nights proved that Anderson could work on a larger and more sprawling scale. The movie is about a young man’s adventures in the San Fernando Valley porn industry in California, during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The young man at the center is Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg, in a breakthrough performance) who is discovered by a local director (Burt Reynolds, excellent in an Oscar-nominated role) and made into a star, thanks to his unique libido. Anderson creates a rich tapestry of damaged characters who form a dysfunctional family. This movie was Anderson’s first foray in an ensemble piece, which featured an all-star cast in memorable performances, like Don Cheadle, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, John C. Riley, Heather Graham (in a breakthrough role as “Roller Girl”), and Julianne Moore, in an Oscar-nominated role and one of her finest performances, as the maternal figure among the porn actors. Anderson’s attention to period detail is impressive and captures the partying highs of the 70s, thanks to his swooping camerawork and his quick editing. He then transitions into the harsh realities of the 80s, when the party ended and the ramifications started to settle in. Anderson was in full control of his storytelling skills and handled his cast like a master, all while accompanied with a great soundtrack of music from that era. All of these elements added to a movie that was entertaining, funny, heartbreaking, brutally honest, and exhilarating to watch. The movie was a signal that a new cinematic voice had arrived, which is why it ranks as one of his best and most originally memorable efforts.
1. Magnolia (1999)
We finally land on the movie that I feel is the finest effort that Anderson has given us to-date. Magnolia is not only one of the best movies of the 90s, it’s simply one of the most original and daring movies ever made. It reminded me at the possibilities of where movies can take an audience and not know that we needed to go there. Coming off of the success of Boogie Nights, Anderson once again gathered an impressive cast to create an epic mosaic of interrelated characters in search of love, forgiveness, and meaning in the San Fernando Valley. His skills with working with a large ensemble is in full display in getting strong and moving performances from Jason Robards, John C. Riley, Melora Walters, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Phillip Baker Hall, Julianne Moore (proving she is one of our finest actresses), and most memorably Tom Cruise, who gives a revelatory Oscar-nominated performance, as a misogynistic guru, who can’t face the demons that made him that way. It’s one of the best performances of his career and one of the most powerful. Anderson’s command of story, character, pacing, visuals, and music has never been as expertly orchestrated as this. He rightfully earned his second (after Boogie Nights) Oscar nomination for his beautifully honest and original script. The themes explored are of fractured families and the remorse from damaging actions. The lives of these characters intersect in a surprising and moving fashion, leading up to one of the most bizarre and creative climaxes I’ve ever seen in a movie. The narrative of the movie is given a great soundtrack, propelled by original music by talented singer-songwriter Aimee Mann (Oscar-nominated for her song “Save Me”). A sing-along sequence to Mann’s “Wise Up” is one of the most moving and surprising moments and belongs in a time-capsule for sheer originality. Anderson created one of the most daring movies I’ve ever seen and encompasses the rebel spirit he has as a filmmaker. This is why Magnolia is a masterpiece and Anderson’s best movie. Any movie Anderson puts out is an event for cinephiles and I look forward to his latest project.