Dads and Decades: A Guide to The Films of Paul Thomas Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson’s 8th film comes out on December 25th – Here is why and how to catch up on the other 7

Only with a P. T. Anderson film would a studio slate a release for Christmas day, knowing fully well that their competition will be “Star Wars”. Why? Because the letter’s P, T and A are recognisable watermarks of quality: the signal lights for a cinematic event to be excited for. He started his career in the 90’s and rode that exciting, American, indie wave with Tarantino and now his films not only reach the heights of “best of year” lists but also “best of decade” and “best ever”. Paul Thomas Anderson is so widely acclaimed that citing him as your favourite filmmaker is basically the cliche millennial-movie-lover thing to do at this point, but I think it’s for good reason. Come and hop on the bandwagon, it’s nothing to be ashamed of: his films are magnificent.

The best springboard into the world of PTA is his limelight grabbing “Boogie Nights”. It might not be his most accessible from the seven but it is a great starting point to vibe out that special Anderson quality. And speaking of vibes: you’re in for a treat. 352Set in the Californian porn industry of the late 70’s/early 80’s, the movie burns with a self-referential grooviness and sweats, oozes and exudes character. The costumes and faces are instantly memorable, the soundtrack is killer and the dialogue is the best thing since sliced-bread. Not to mention the acting; if your only experience of Mark Wahlberg thus far is “Ted” and “Transformers”, watch this film and reminisce on what could have been. One thing you’ll notice whilst watching Anderson’s work is that he covers a lot of familiar ground with each film and “Boogie Nights” has a bit of it all: the valley; the paternal figure; the turn of a decade and that inkling, nihilistic dread that it’s all sort of for nothing… Also, if you were turned off by the sense that nothing really happened in the movie, you might just struggle a bit going forward.

If, however, you were head-over-heels charmed by “Boogie Nights” (and rightfully so), “Punch-Drunk Love” should be your next stop.25-dateIt is perhaps Anderson’s easiest film (certainly his shortest) and is often seen as somewhat of an outlier in his work, though it’s no surprise that people feel this way. Following the release of the kaleidoscopic (and next to be mentioned) noise that is “Magnolia”, Anderson blew all and any expectations out of the water and made a 90-minute rom-com starring Adam Sandler. Unlike “Boogie Nights”, the movie doesn’t stick to the aforementioned motifs that PTA usually treads and furthermore, stuff actually happens in it – albeit in it’s own weird way. Probably inspired by the director’s blossoming relationship with other “SNL” star, Maya Rudolph, “Punch-Drunk Love” can best be summarised as Adam Sandler doing an Adam Sandler performance, in a world that doesn’t fit Adam Sandler’s humour. If that sounds like your awkward, neurotic cup-of-tea: you could be into this one – it’s a bit of a dark horse. Though released after “Magnolia”, it’s worth watching beforehand as it provides you with a crucial skill for that film and the others to come. “Punch-Drunk Love” teaches you that if something weird happens in a PTA film, it’s probably best not to ask questions and just see where it leads.

It wouldn’t surprise me if you used the words “love”, “adore” or “favourite” to describe the past two Anderson movies you’ve watched – a lot of people do. Now, with that groundwork of appreciation established, prepare to use “love-hate”, “almost” and “hmm” in association with the next on your list. “Magnolia” is a 3-hour-long, 9 character, dialogue-driven tale of fathers; sons and daughters; love and the serendipity of the universe. And yes, it’s as messy as that sounds.

Don’t be put off however, it has a certain something to it that his other films don’t. Whilst promoting it, Anderson himself said that he’d probably never “write anything like this again” and truly, he hasn’t. It might be his most emotional film and it’s definitely his most personal: inspired by the loss of his father to cancer, it took him years to write and it’s scale stretched way beyond what was initially intended (and budgeted). I personally think the film aims for gold and ultimately trips on it’s own ambition but I love it in it’s own way and think it is worth the watch if only to marvel at the fact that PTA even attempted to do a movie like it and do it the way that he did. Bravery isn’t rewarded enough in film-making nowadays. But if you still need a bit of convincing you can watch how he introduces the characters here, because that alone is up there with some of the smartest 7 minutes in cinematic history. And that thing I mentioned about weird things happening and choosing to just go with it? Yup, you’re going to need that.

You should probably take an intermission after those three. If you fancy, you could watch “Sydney” (also known as “Hard Eight”) in this time: Anderson’s first film about a gambler who takes John C. Reilly under his wing.


It’s PTA’s least impressive film so consider it optional. It’s a bit like “Citizen Kane”: not super enjoyable but kind of cool to see where it all began. Whether you decide to watch it or not, you’ll be needing a breather – partly to process whatever the hell those bits in “Magnolia” were all about, partly to prepare yourself for the second era of the P. T. Anderson catalogue. Like the bible, Anderson’s career can essentially be split into two: everything before “There Will Be Blood” and everything from that film and onward.

The director disappeared for five years after “Punch-Drunk Love” and when he returned he was no longer the hyperactive, cocky kid who would promote his movie by eating pizza and talking about porn for 20 minutes; he was now a very dignified and professional director who, in the next 8 years, would direct three very dignified and professional films. Reading, the birth of a child, turning 30: who knows what brought about this change, some reckon he just got off the coke. Whatever the reason, the new films have an undeniable, literary weight to them and you should view them in order of release. The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin described them as “a loose trilogy about the making of 20th-century America” and each is a heftier watch than the last. 

In retrospect, “There Will Be Blood” is actually one of Anderson’s more straightforward works, probably as good of a place to start as any and also probably where most people will. 52-churchThe reason it’s so late on this list is because of how damn daunting it can appear. If “Magnolia” was a Pollock, then “TWBB” is a Rothko. Rather than a turn of a decade, it observes the turn of a century and Anderson drops the ensemble casts in favour of two towering performances in two bold and complex characters: Eli and Daniel; Religion and Capitalism. It’s the big one – Anderson’s very own “2001” that shot him from “indie darling” to “cinematic mastermind”. Tarantino said that this movie inspired him to “bring up [his] game” and make the hop from films with the tone of “Kill Bill” to films with the tone of “Inglourious Basterds”. The difference here is that when Tarantino released “IB”, people called it his best since “Pulp Fiction”; when PTA released “TWBB”, people called it the best movie since “The Godfather”.  It has one of the greatest performances you’ll ever see and marks the first time Anderson would collaborate with Jonny Greenwood on a haunting, attacking score (PTA also recently did that beautiful video for Radiohead’s “Daydreaming”). Basically: believe the hype and see it already.

This second trilogy of PTA could also be named two-watch-territory, in that to truly grasp everything that is going on in these movies, you’re going to need to watch them at least twice. It’s super boring to watch the same film twice in a row so just let “TWBB” settle for a while but after you’ve done that, watch “The Master”: the film that, for my money, is Anderson’s greatest.


Mark Kermode called it close to “ambient film-making” and seriously, nothing happens in this movie. But if you let it all wash over you and consume you like the oceanic imagery urges, you might just be blown away by this beauty of a film. Set in 1950, “The Master” follows Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie: a crooked, disturbed war veteran who is guided by Lancaster Dodd (Phil Hoffman), the leader of a movement that is controversially similar to Scientology. To it’s roster, PTA’s 6th film has some of the most hypnotic, textural visuals you’ll ever see (shot on 70mm film); a Greenwood score that I personally think outshines his previous; two performances that I also believe outdo the pair in “TWBB” and a touching, homo-erotic love story about the “id” and the “ego” drinking hooch and rolling about on the lawn. Jokes aside, I think this film touches on something very deep within the human psyche. It’s the one that certified Anderson as my favourite film-maker and it is one of Phil Hoffman’s last (and greatest) performances. 

So the last two were tough and you’ve almost caught up, but you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen “Inherent Vice”: Anderson’s most recent and most polarising film.0460We could’ve seen it coming to be honest. After all these years of “nothing really happening” in PTA’s films, he’s only gone and done a 70s, hippy-detective-flick based on a Thomas Pynchon novel where so much happens that you’re not even supposed to follow it. The main character, P. I. Doc Sportello, is pretty much perpetually stoned and rather than writing helpful clues for himself and the audience in his notepad, he writes things such as “paranoia rising” and “not hallucinating”. Now, people really have it out for “Inherent Vice” – even die-hard Anderson fans see it as the ugly-duckling of the bunch – but I think that if you have watched and loved the other 6, and understand the director’s constant “character over plot” mantra: you could have a lot of fun. You really have to submit and let it take you for the ride and let Doc’s opening-scene words of “Ssh, thinking comes later” guide you through. Laugh along with the hilariously realised ensemble cast, feel the same conspiracy-ridden paranoia as the protagonist and then once it’s done, mull all that brilliant subtext over in your head. If you give it a chance, “Inherent Vice” is as fulfilling as the rest.

To me, the films of Paul Thomas Anderson act as the most modern and most enjoyable textbooks on how to enjoy cinema of the highest level and I’ll always feel attached to them because of that. Each film of his you watch teaches and breaks convention and to experience his work is to receive an education of film as a whole. His next will reunite him with Daniel Day-Lewis, is set in the fashion-world of 1950’s England and is currently called “The Phantom Thread”. A horror film in which DDL method acts in front of some spectral embroidery? I don’t know. I don’t care. I can’t wait to watch it.

Written by Caleb Carter


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