The Best Paul Thomas Anderson Movies, Ranked

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Below I’ve created a complete and ranked list of the best Paul Thomas Anderson movies including famous quotes from each movie.

But first, let’s give a quick introduction to PTA.

Who is Paul Thomas Anderson?

Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) is an American film director, producer, screenwriter, and cinematographer who defines the modern generation of filmmaking.

He is known for character-driven psychological dramas based on dysfunction, isolation, and redeeming qualities of human nature.

Like directors Martin Scorsese or Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson works with specific actors across multiple films. Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Melora Walters, John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, and Daniel Day-Lewis appear in more than one film.

Other frequent collaborators in production include Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Seller, casting with Cassandra Kulukundis, costume design by Mark Bridges, with soundtracks composed by Jon Brion or Radiohead lead guitarist and film composer Jonny Greenwood.

Anderson’s latest film, Licorice Pizza, joins the roster of films with ensemble casts, compelling characters, and stories of flawed and dysfunctional relationships between lovers and friends. 

Visually, his films each hold their distinct style based on setting, commonly appearing in San Fernando Valley and shot on film by cinematographer Robert Elswit. 

His films garnered critical attention for their screenplays, cinematography, costumes, actors, and more.

9. Inherent Vice (2014)

“Like Godzilla says to Mothra man, let’s go eat some place.” – Denis

Genre: Period Neo-Noir Crime

Cinematographer: Robert Elswit

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Martin Short, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom

Description: In the heart of the 1970s, Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), an incompetent but noble hippie and private investigator from Gordita Beach, becomes mixed in the Los Angeles criminal underworld. His life goes from worse to weird. A case involving his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) and new lover, Micky Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a wealthy real estate mogul, bring Doc face to face with deadly criminals, crooked police detectives, drug dealers, and a circus of characters whom all belong in an insane asylum.

Inherent Vice is based on the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name. It’s the first Pynchon novel adapted for the silver screen, and there’s an apparent reason behind it. 

Pynchon’s postmodernist writing style is complex and abstract. The film is a brilliant homage to the writer’s craft but not a great entry point for someone watching a P.T. Anderson film for the first time.

Watch it now on Amazon Prime.

8. The Master (2012)

“If you leave me now, in the next life you will be my sworn enemy. And I will show you no mercy.” – Lancaster Dodd

Genre: Psychological Drama

Cinematographer: Mihai Mălaimare Jr.

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adam, Laura Dern, Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek

Description: Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled World War II navy veteran, meets Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a religious society known as “The Cause.” Dodd brings Quell into the religious movement, and together with his Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams), their family travel and spreads the word of his teachings.

The Master is loosely based on the L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology and other real-life accounts of Anderson associates. 

Regarding its acting, Phoenix and Hoffman deliver award-winning performances of two contrasting characters’ survival based on the dependency of the other’s troubled nature. 

It’s a triumphant display of Anderson’s storytelling ability, but the weak story relies heavily on the characters and the delivery of the actors involved.

Watch it now on Amazon Prime.

7. Hard Eight (1996)

“Never ignore a man’s courtesy.” – Sydney

Genre: Crime

Cinematographer: Robert Elswit

Starring: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Ridgely, Melora Walters

Description:  Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) is well dressed senior gambler who forms a friendship with John (John C. Riley), a homeless man in a Nevada diner. John explains he needs $6,000 for his mother’s funeral, and Sydney agrees to help him win it in Las Vegas. The pair developed a father-son relationship turned upside down when John’s new friend Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) and his cocktail waitress crush Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) enter the picture.

Hard Eight is the least popular Paul Thomas Anderson film since it’s his first feature. 

The feature film is based on Anderson’s 1993 short film Cigarettes & Coffee. The film is limited in the well-known PTA thematic structure based on its small budget but is a powerful depiction of PTA’s characters through Hall’s incredible cast leadership.

Watch it now on Amazon.

6. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

“I laugh. I laugh and laugh, even when I’m alone.” – Barry Egan

Genre: Romantic Comedy Drama

Cinematographer: Robert Elswit

Starring: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Luis Guzmán, Robert Smigel

Description: Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is a bachelor who owns a toilet plunger and novelty shops battles emotional breakdowns, social anxiety, and his seven overbearing sisters. When he finds an abandoned harmonium on the street, he meets Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), his sister Elizabeth’s (Mary Lynn Rajskub) co-worker, and a woman deadset on changing everything about Barry’s dysfunctional bachelor lifestyle.

Punch-Drunk Love is one of the shortest P.T. Anderson films finishing 93 minutes. 

It’s a brief glimpse into delicate attention Anderson attributes to his character development and their unhinged nature. 

Anderson takes the comedic actor Adam Sandler to a new depth as a precursor to his notable performance in Uncut Gems

Watch it now on Amazon Prime.

5. Phantom Thread (2017)

A house that doesn’t change is a dead house. – Reynolds Woodcock

Genre: Historical Drama

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps, Camilla Rutherford, Gina McKee, George Glasgow, Brian Gleeson, Harriet Sansom Harris

Description: Haute couture dressmaker for the high society, Reynold Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) takes in Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a foreign waitress, as his muse for future creations. His fascination for Alma and conflicted past stand in the way of his future, and only his stern sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) can keep him on track.

Phantom Thread is the final film for Daniel Day-Lewis and is the first P.T. Anderson movie to be filmed outside of the United States. 

The film is a love letter to classic cinema utilizing 35mm film and a hazy effect to emulate a dated look to the imagery. Lewis’ method acting ability is second-to-none.

In preparation for the film, he studied under a New York City ballet costume designer to the point he was able to recreate an iconic dress from Cristóbal Balenciaga, Anderson’s inspiration for the film. 

Watch it now on Amazon Prime.

4. Licorice Pizza (2021)

“Is this lines, or is this real?” Alana

Genre: Coming-of-age Comedy

Cinematographers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Bauman

Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, Skyler Gisondo

Description: In 1973 San Fernando Valley, teenage child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) falls for 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a photographer’s assistant. They become friends and start a successful waterbed company despite Alana rejecting any romantic relationship. In their friendship, they run into a host of notable Los Angeles figures, including film producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), Mikado founder Jerry Frick (John Michael Peters), and others based on real-life entertainment professionals.

Licorice Pizza is a film inspired by Gary Goetzman’s life and Anderson’s work with the HAIM, a band featuring actress Alana Haim and her two sisters. Featuring the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as the leading role, it’s a feel-good movie focused on the lives of the youth versus previous Anderson films, which rely heavily on adult narratives. 

It’s a modern-day Harold and Maude with a P.T. Anderson twist. Additionally, it features Anderson’s partner Maya Rudolph, their four children, and their friends. 

Watch it now on Amazon Prime.

3. There Will Be Blood (2017)

“I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!” – Daniel Plainview

Genre: Epic Period Drama

Cinematographer: Robert Elswit

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O’Connor, Ciarán Hinds, Dillon Freasier, Russell Harvard, Paul F. Tompkins, Jim Downey

Description: A ruthless silver miner, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), becomes an oil prospector searching for wealth during the Southern California oil boom. To win over the hearts and property of the local landowners, he masquerades his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) to appear as a hardworking family man. He manages to hide his intentions from most except for the treacherous preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano).

There Will Be Blood is a cinematic masterpiece with beautiful cinematography, precise direction, a solid screenplay, and one of the best performances from one of the most celebrated actors in Hollywood, Daniel Day-Lewis. Both Lewis and cinematographer Robert Elswit won Academy Awards for their contributions to the film. 

There Will Be Blood is considered Paul Thomas Anderson’s greatest film, earning nominations and winning from almost every major film accolade.

Watch it now on Amazon Prime.

2. Magnolia (1999)

“What am I doing? I’m quietly judging you.” Frank T.J. Mackey

Genre: Epic Psychological Drama

Cinematographer: Robert Elswit

Starring: Jeremy Blackman, Tom Cruise, Melinda Dillon, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Jay, William H. Macy, Alfred Molina, Julianne Moore, Michael Murphy, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, Melora Walters 

Description:  On one single day in San Fernando Valley, an aloof police officer (John C. Reilly), his crush, the estranged daughter (Melora Walters) of a game show host (Philip Baker Hall), a kid-genius contestant (Jeremy Blackman), a former kid-genius (William H. Macy), a dying man (Jason Robards), his famous long lost son (Tom Cruise), and a dozen other characters each play a part in the entangled web of eccentric plots following a single theme.

Magnolia is a modern epic following the lives of different characters intertwined by a common theme of forgiveness and longing for happiness across the San Fernando Valley.

It’s a film celebrated for its direction, screenplay, storytelling, and especially the acting of Tom Cruise and the ensemble cast. 

The film marks the real beginning of the slight eccentricity found at the center of Anderson’s films, a balance of reality and the absurd.

Watch it now on Amazon Prime.

1. Boogie Nights (1997)

“Heaven sent you here to this place, Dirk Diggler. You’ve been blessed.” – Jack Horner

Genre: Period Comedy Drama

Cinematographer: Robert Elswit

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Heather Graham, Nicole Ari Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzmán, Philip Baker Hall, Thomas Jane, Robert Ridgely, Robert Downey Sr.

Description: In the 1970s San Fernando Valley, Golden Age porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) discovers a high-school dropout busboy Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) is and reinvents him into the pornographic superstar Dirk Diggler. Fellow porn actors support Dirk’s rise to fame, including the motherly Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), the confident Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), Dirk’s best buddy Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), the spunky Rollergirl (Heather Graham). Together they navigate their careers battling drugs, their egos, and the changing times of the decades.

P.T. Anderson’s second feature film is based on a mockumentary he directed in high school called The Dirk Diggler Story. The short is based on the 1981 documentary Exhausted: John C. Holmes, The Real Story about the life of a famous porn actor, which served as the inspiration for Dirk Diggler. 

Despite Anderson’s development hell, the critically acclaimed was nominated for multiple major awards and helped launch the career of Mark Walhberg beyond Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. 

If you’re starting with Paul Thomas Anderson films, this film should be your entry point.

Watch it now on Amazon Prime.

Chronological List of all Paul Thomas Anderson Movies

How many feature films did Paul Thomas Anderson make, and in what order did they premiere?

1996HARD EIGHT
1997BOOGIE NIGHTS
1999MAGNOLIA
2002PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE
2007THERE WILL BE BLOOD
2012THE MASTER
2014INHERENT VICE
2017PHANTOM THREAD
2021LICORICE PIZZA

 

Do you agree with the list?

What do you think is the best Paul Thomas Anderson movie? What do you like most about his style and storytelling?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.


Myke Thompson is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and humorist based out of Los Angeles. When he’s not working on his own projects, he supports other artists as a creative manager in music, art, film, and television.

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