The List: Paul Thomas Anderson movies ranked from worst to best

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

With Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice” finally hitting Columbus theaters this week, I’m ranking the films of one of my favorite working directors from “worst” to best — even though they’re all great.

“Hard Eight” (1996)

Anderson’s feature debut (originally titled “Sydney”) was a hell of a character study for a first-timer and a hint of much of what was to come. He also landed a great cast, including Gwyneth Paltrow (a bigger deal at the time), Samuel L. Jackson and a couple of actors PTA would go on to work with in other movies, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

“The Master” (2012)

A great movie that was misunderstood in part because of what it was not. The charismatic leader of a pseudo-religion that bore uncanny similarities with Scientology was played by a stellar Philip Seymour Hoffman, but the movie wasn’t the exposé some were expecting. Instead the central character was Joaquin Phoenix’s powder keg who faced Hoffman in a battle of wills.

“There Will Be Blood” (2007)

Anderson loves his actors (listen to him gush on the “Boogie Nights” DVD commentary track). He’s an actor’s director. So it comes as little surprise that he got perhaps the greatest performance yet from one of the greatest living actors. Daniel Day Lewis’ brutally ambitious oilman Daniel Plainview is one of the most indelible characters in the Anderson world.

“Punch-Drunk Love” (2002)

Speaking of career-best performances, let’s talk about what Anderson did for Adam Sandler. Sandler’s Barry Egan was a mouse that roared and half of a lovely love story with a superb Emily Watson. It was enough to make you think Sandler’s career would go serious, a la Robin Williams. Alas, we get “Grown Ups 2” instead. Also featured: a seriously scene-stealing Philip Seymour Hoffman. Again.

“Boogie Nights” (1997)

Anderson’s breakout was the story of the rise and fall of the California porn industry through the eyes of a wide-eyed, well-endowed kid named Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg in what’s still his best performance). Anderson got all the tones right, from the party of the late ’70s to the abrupt crash and coke-fueled madness that followed. It was like the wildest episode of “Behind the Music” ever.

“Inherent Vice” (2014)

It took me a while to get into in on my first viewing. I’m on my fourth already, and I’m kind of in love. It’s based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel, but it’s unmistakably Anderson. Through the stoner haze of a detective story, he captains another stellar cast with Joaquin Phoenix as his star again. It has some of the most memorable scenes of Anderson’s catalog (that’s saying a lot). It’s almost more like an album you could put on repeat all day.

“Magnolia” (1999)

The ambitions of Anderson’s follow-up to “Boogie Nights” were huge. It’s a three-hour movie that interweaves the stories of a disparate group of Los Angeles residents. Is it uneven? Sure. Anything that big is bound to be. But it’s also heartbreaking and moving and funny and manages to land a bizarre ending. That singalong to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” gets me every damn time.