The Drive-In Theater: Trying to Rank the Films of Paul Thomas Anderson

This is the hardest thing to do.
By    June 6, 2016

Art by Craig Duffy

Will Schube knows there’s not a better insult than “pig fuck.” 

There’s plenty of good Drive-In stuff planned for the weeks ahead, but this week we’re going to do something silly and pointless. We’re going rogue and I’m going to objectively tell you the order in which Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies are ranked, from least best movie ever to best best movie ever because choosing your favorite PTA movie is like having to choose which of your seven puppies you rescue from a burning building and which get scorched.

So here’s what we’re gonna do. Change that seven puppy analogy to six because PTA’s first feature, Hard Eight, doesn’t count (Junun doesn’t count either). It’s a fine movie—good, even—but putting it in the same league as his next six features is like trying to convince someone that Quentin Tarantino is the best director alive. It’s outlandish and stupid. Tarantino, I’m coming after you. If you thought that zinger was intense, just wait.

If you’re a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, this list will probably piss you off. Not because it’s ordered incorrectly, but because you realized that I’m so right and it bothers you that someone can be this right about one thing. So let’s get after it.

6. Punch-Drunk Love

You make one of the best romantic comedies of all-time; you elicit a genuine and moving performance from eternal schmuck Adam Sandler; and you manage to capture the San Fernando Valley in as unique a way as you had twice prior. This sounds like your best movie, right? Wrong! Because all of your movies are even greater, this is your worst movie. Which is such a perverse, disgusting thing to say about my sweet baby, Punch-Drunk Love, but here we are.

It’s weird seeing Adam Sandler being a genuine actor, but it would have been even weirder to see bullshit Adam Sandler being a bullshit actor in a PTA movie. This movie is really great and joyous and features a wonderfully angry Philip Seymour Hoffman cameo. But the stakes aren’t nearly as high in Punch Drunk as they are in any of the five movies that precede it on this list. I guess all of his films could be painted as love stories in one way or another, it’s just that Punch Drunk is the quickest to admit it.

5. There Will Be Blood

Alright. I guess this is where I lose most of you. This thing is an American epic and a filmic event of the highest order. It’s perhaps the best film of the 21st century. Yeah, it’s all of those things, but the reason why I love Paul Thomas Anderson’s work is because of the heart he pours into it. I’m a cheesy asshole, I know. But his movies are so humanely sympathetic, so understanding of the world his characters live in. There Will Be Blood lacks this.

This movie is technically perfect. Daniel Day-Lewis was in character for five years or something. They lit an oil rig on fire. There Will Be Blood is an IMPORTANT MOVIE. But this is PTA’s clearest attempt at trying to make such a masturbatory masterpiece. This is his insertion into film history and it just rings a bit hollow. Quote the milkshake line all you want, but Dirk Diggler would never kill anybody in a bowling alley.

4. The Master

This is when the list turns from a fun little exercise into an excruciatingly hard nightmare. The tears are flowing as I begin to differentiate PTA’s fourth most perfect movie from his first. The Master, in a way, is There Will Be Blood‘s better half. It’s formally brilliant—featuring great acting, a great screenplay, and perfect cinematography (the movie was shot on 65 mm film stock, which doesn’t happen anymore). It’s also one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last great roles.

This movie is so brilliant, PSH isn’t even the best actor in it. If There Will Be Blood is a film showcasing Daniel Day-Lewis’ flawless dramatic technique, The Master is Joaquin Phoenix’s stage to show how flawed he is, and how much that escalates his character, Freddie Quell. And he’s brilliant. His standing crotch and belly high pants are iconic. His mumbles are incoherent yet entirely relatable.

This is my fourth favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film, which says way more about his filmography than this movie. The Master is infinitely re-watchable. It drags at times, but these lulls are plot engines, serving to push the thing into full throttle during a later moment. If you can find a better one two punch than Joaquin and PSH, write me a letter with a return address so I can show up on your stoop and laugh in front of your face.

3. Boogie Nights

Boogie Nights at three???? This is the most fun movie of all time. For all of you lamenting getting so far down a list you so clearly disagree with, I’ll give you this: Boogie Nights is certainly PTA’s most iconic film. Its quotable moments are endless. Let’s just get a quick list within the list going because I know y’all need more:

  1. Dirk and Reed talk about how much they can bench.
  2. Dirk and Reed record an album.
  3. Dirk and Reed make a side project as porno ninjas.
  4. Robert Downey Sr. shows up.
  5. Dirk, Reed, and Todd try to sell Alfred Molina coke; this scene is accompanied by “Sister Christian” and “Jessie’s Girl.”
  6. COSMO!!
  7. Don Cheadle in the donut shop.
  8. Don Cheadle’s costume changes.
  9. Dirk jerking off (for money) then getting beat up in the parking lot.
  10. Roller Girl stomping that dude’s face in.
  11. Philip Baker Hall talking about lollipops in his mouth and butter in his ass.
  12. Roller Girl and Amber during that heartbreaking cocaine-infused “can you be my mom scene.”
  13. Little Bill at New Years!!
  14. Amber getting her heart torn out in divorce proceedings.
  15. PSH trying to kiss Dirk during New Years! He bought a new car to impress him!
  16. The last scene with Dirk’s penis. Shhhhhhh. Don’t ruin it.

Those are sixteen scenes right off the top of my head. There are so many more. It seems like every one of these film synopses should end with, “This says more about PTA’s filmography than it does the film, because this thing is nearly perfect,” but it’s happening again. Boogie Nights is two and a half hours of pure joy and heartbreak and every other emotion; it’s also the best PTA-curated soundtrack. But guess what, Boogie Nights?? There are two better than you.

2. Inherent Vice

If I had any courage Inherent Vice would be number one. It’s impossible to make a film both this intricately detailed and freewheeling. These two traits shouldn’t—don’t—work together. You’re either Todd Haynes or Jean-Luc Godard. One has to sacrifice the other. But Inherent Vice features PTA’s subtly silliest moments—the gags, the falls, the mumbles, the drugs—and his most rigorously intense narrative. IV takes on a million different plotlines and PTA shows deference to each. It makes the story impossible to follow until you’ve seen this thing five times and you realize the plot doesn’t matter a single bit.

A guy loves a girl and this movie is a roundabout way of reminding said guy of that. Throw Martin Short, Owen Wilson, and Benicio in there for fun, sure, but Inherent Vice is about Doc and his ex-old Shasta. It’s a PTA masterpiece because we’ve all been there. We’ve all been Joaquin Phoenix sitting on a couch smoking pot, thinking about what was. We’ve all been Katherine Waterston, just about ready to move on but unable to fully let go. It’s heartbreakingly real.

The beauty of Inherent Vice, though, is that its entire plot can’t wholly make sense until you relinquish yourself to its batshit confusion. I’ve seen it eleven times and I still have questions. But more importantly, I find myself rewinding every time I watch, noticing a new little tic Doc performs that I didn’t notice the last time. Inherent Vice is infinitely unraveling, its plots stacked atop each other until they form a tower you can never reach. But that unreachable tower is precisely the point. This thing is so goddamn funny, so heartbreaking and silly, that the scenes on the screen are secondary to the way it makes you feel. And for a movie to be able to pull that off?? I turn your attention to the opening sentence of the above film: Fuuuuuuuuuckkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk. 


Speaking of emotions! Holy shit. This movie, man. I feel like a jerk claiming some of my relationship to it has to do with growing up in the San Fernando Valley, but when a movie is based and centered around a street two blocks from where you grew up, that’s got to mean something, right?

When you get down to the question of what makes Magnolia great, the answer reveals itself in the film’s absolute lack of concern with flaws and blemishes. Paul Thomas Anderson has always been a director wholly uninterested with the commercial return aspect of filmmaking, but Magnolia defies its investors and producers with three hours of heart ripped from inside your chest moments. This is a movie for him, that’s somehow also for everyone, too; that’s impossible to do. And yet, he did it.

The famous frog scene is perhaps the place to start, because it lends the movie both its heart and its total lack of believability. But where this idea comes from is perhaps more important than the scene itself. In an interview with Marc Maron, PTA talks about how weird it was to watch his father die. How watching the man that raised him lose his life while Paul sat and watched was less believable than frogs falling from the sky. Young Stanley Spector puts it most succinctly in Magnolia, as frogs do fall from the sky, and John C. Reilly crashes his police car and William H. Macy falls from an elevated ladder: “This is something that happens.”

While Magnolia uses many intertwining narratives to shape a story that seemingly coheres around family, love, guilt, and trust, it’s deceptively (and knowing PTA, unsurprisingly) the film’s opening scene that spells out its thesis. You forget about Jason Robards’ heartbreaking monologue on his death bed and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cinematic attempt to save him. Tom Cruise’s heartbreaking meltdown no longer matters, nor does Julianne Moore’s suicide attempt. It’s all in the beginning. As Green, Berry, and Hill are hanged in Greenberry Hill; as Delmer Darion gets caught in a tree; and as Sydney Barringer is shot through a window by his mother as he jumps off a building attempting to commit suicide. These “coincidences” all become clear thanks to Magnolia narrator/full-time magician Ricky Jay: “This is not just something that happens. This can not be one of those things. This, please, can not be that.” And for just a little while you suspend your belief in atheism and an eternity of nothingness, and maybe, just maybe, these things happen for a reason.

In all my doubt about where we’ll go next, I rest easy after watching a Paul Thomas Anderson film. Because this can not be one of those things. This, please, can not be that. 

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