Paul Thomas Anderson Meta-Analysis

When Soggy Bottom is released sometime later this year, it will be Paul Thomas Anderson’s ninth film in twenty-five years. Anderson, like another smart set favorite in Quentin Tarantino, is feted for a small filmic oeuvre indeed. If you want to replace Tarantino with David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, or even older directors like David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, that still works. Total movies in a director’s filmography are like pitcher wins in that we’ll never see the kind of numbers that people used to put up 75-100 years ago. These small oeuvres are essential to that kind of popularity, I think; it’s easier to digest a director with eight narratives to their credit than twenty-five, and easier still if you haven’t seen a couple of them. (This is part of the reason why I think it’s hard to get a grip on Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, even for your average critic. So often Scorsese is reduced to his crime movies, a decision which elides the depth of his religious movies or character studies. With Spielberg you find people separating him up in order to understand him better, chunking him into decades or genres or something without trying to get the full measure of him as a filmmaker.) Is Paul Thomas Anderson the finest American director we have? The best director of the past twenty-five years? The greatest of his generation? It’s certainly easier to say so when you only have eight movies to go on and everyone ignores the first one anyway.

This is just for comparison, but here are some other directing luminaries and the number of narrative features they’ve done since 1996, when Anderson got his start. No special point being made, just the results of a personal IMDb binge:

  • Wong Kar-wai – 5
  • Robert Altman – 7
  • Abbas Kiarostami – 7
  • Guillermo del Toro – 9
  • Claire Denis – 9
  • Michael Haneke – 9
  • Martin Scorsese – 10
  • Olivier Assayas – 13
  • Spike Lee – 15
  • Steven Spielberg – 17

In many ways, Tarantino feels like an appropriate comparison for Anderson. Both are writer-directors, and even more than Tarantino, Anderson appears to have gone out of his way to produce his own pictures. Both men got their start with low-budget, low-grossing crime movies (Hard Eight, Reservoir Dogs) before bursting out of the gate with lurid Los Angeles sophomore features (Boogie Nights, Pulp Fiction). While neither one is necessarily known best for his work with actors, both of them seem to have a knack with performers which might actually outshine their writing. There’s potentially career-best work from Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights and Tom Cruise in Magnolia just as there’s potentially career-best work from John Travolta in Pulp Fiction or Robert Forster in Jackie Brown, to say nothing of common collaborators. Philip Seymour Hoffman was to Paul Thomas Anderson what Samuel L. Jackson is to Quentin Tarantino, and Philip Baker Hall matches up nicely with Michael Madsen. The Anderson-Elswit connection is about as sacrosanct as the Tarantino-Richardson team-up. While there’s certainly a competition for who the best needledrop/soundtrack auteur is in Hollywood, a common survey would almost certainly include both Tarantino and Anderson in a top 10. While both men have certainly directed movies which are primarily about women (and here, Tarantino more or less laps Anderson, whose most gynocentric movie is probably Phantom Thread), their best work and most potent characters are men. The largely male fanbases follow apace. And, if I can editorialize a little bit, I think both are going to be remembered for their consensus best pictures in ways that obscure the rest of their filmographies. Pulp Fiction was lightning in a bottle that Tarantino has never really come close to capturing again. While I don’t know that I agree with the critical firmament that There Will Be Blood is Anderson’s best movie, it certainly is taking its place as one of the ten best-reviewed movies of the millennium so far. They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? tracks it at fifth. In 2016, a BBC critics’ poll placed in third among 21st Century movies, trailing only Mulholland Drive and In the Mood for Love. The Guardian, in their 2019 list top 100 movies of the 21st Century, ranked it first. In any case, it seems that Anderson, still fairly early in his career, made the movie that would make his name. Not quite as early as Tarantino, but early enough. There are two differences that are worth emphasizing. The first is visual style, which speaks for itself. The second is profitability. Quentin Tarantino’s movies make money, and at this point it sure seems like putting Tarantino’s name on it means a nine-figure box office just as a matter of course. Paul Thomas Anderson’s name has never been good for that.

After damning with insinuation, it’s worth noting that I personally believe about 85% of the Paul Thomas Anderson hype. He’s made one of the ten best movies of the ’00s and then made one of the ten best movies of the ’10s. There are not many filmmakers who you can even make a case for having done the same thing. After Lucrecia Martel, Cristian Mungiu, and Michael Haneke, I think you have to strain to even come up with other people for whom that’s a possibility. (The Coens? Mike Leigh? Scorsese? It gets tough!) He’s mastered a dry, distant humor that is almost impossible to get right. Daniel Day-Lewis and Philip Seymour Hoffman have arguably never been better than they were in his movies. On difficult topics like sex, capitalism, and faith, there are few voices in American movies who are more reliably interesting or thoughtful. And the movies look terrific.

The process for Paul Thomas Anderson is the same as it was for the MCU, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Pixar, and Wes Anderson.

1) Search for any and all lists I could find which rate Paul Thomas Anderson’s films from Hard Eight to Phantom Thread. Some people take it upon themselves to rank Junun or his other music-related projects, which are not going concerns here, and so this keeps to his eight narrative features.

2) I found a combination of lists from sources which, I’ll grant, are not all the gold standard in criticism, but generally speaking I wanted something a little better than “just someone’s blog.” If a list is taken from someone’s personal rankings on Letterboxd, I’ll note it here. Same goes for Twitter, which all of a sudden became a veritable bonanza of lists from critics and filmmakers as I was drafting this. The list of sources, in all: Erik Anderson (Twitter), Cinemablend, Erik Childress (Letterboxd), Collider, Bryan Cogman (Twitter), Coming Soon, Consequence of Sound, Cody Dericks (Letterboxd), Far Out Magazine, Michael D. Fuller (Twitter), Zach Gilbert (Letterboxd), Gold Derby, BenDavid Grabinski (Twitter), High on Films, Hollywood Insider, Indiewire, Paul Klein (Twitter), Jim Laczkowski (Letterboxd), Josh Larsen (Letterboxd), Lost in Film (Twitter), Metacritic, Moviefone, M.C. Myers (Twitter), Next Best Picture, Matt Neglia (Letterboxd), Sean O’Connor (Twitter), Josh Parham (Letterboxd), Reel Rundown, Rotten Tomatoes, Slant, Riley Stearns (Twitter), Studiobinder, Taste of Cinema, They Shoot Pictures Don’t They?, What Culture, WhatNerd, and The Wrap. In other words, some of these are aggregators, some of these are individual outlets, some of these are very respectable and others just vaguely so…it is a ragtag little group, but it’s the one I’ve got.

3) The ranking system is very simple: write down the place the movie holds on each list, get an average over the 37 (which is, funnily enough, the same number of lists I ended up getting for the other Anderson), and the low number wins.

Because I’m going to be fairly partisan about what people have to say in reference to Anderson, here’s my own PTA ranking, with links if I’ve written about the movie:

  1. The Master
  2. There Will Be Blood
  3. Boogie Nights
  4. Phantom Thread
  5. Inherent Vice
  6. Punch-Drunk Love
  7. Hard Eight
  8. Magnolia

Tier 4: No One Likes PTA’s Neo-Noir

8) Hard Eight / Average score: 7.189

7) Inherent Vice / Average score: 6.595

As I keep doing these compilations, what I’ve learned is that while it can be tough to get everyone to agree on what the best movie is, it is surprisingly easy to get everyone to agree on what the worst movie is. Every list but four has one of these two movies eighth. (You can find Punch-Drunk Love, The Master, and Magnolia twice filling those other last-place slots.) In other words, I think people appreciate a certain translucence from Anderson, but transparency or opacity tended to turn off my sample group at large. Hard Eight, which is the only one of his movies which kind of feels like an old story, is easily imbibed. Inherent Vice, on the other hand, proudly refuses to reveal itself; it’s a film which looks at The Big Sleep and blows a raspberry at how straightforward it is in comparison. Maybe it’s the inner centrist in critics, or maybe it’s the proof that some critics are just fans buying more expensive popcorn. Or, just maybe, as someone who doesn’t have either film in the top half of his own Anderson rankings, I should shut up.

Hard Eight, which is a very decent neo-noir, does not create a web of mystery or dangle half-truths at arm’s length. It has two twisty little reveals. The first, which is Clementine’s deal gone wrong, is remarkable. Anderson hits a bull’s eye: just unexpected enough to shock us, just seedy enough to seem feasible, just implacable enough to make us smell the doom in the air regarding a young, foolish couple. The second, regarding Sydney’s history with John’s father, is less effective, and that’s where the movie fails to maintain its inertia and starts to feel a little stale. This makes two more reveals than we get in Inherent Vice, which is not to say that we don’t learn stuff in that movie. We sure as heck do learn stuff, and most of it is a repudiation of that old saw that God does not throw dice. God appears to be throwing dice left and right in Inherent Vice and knocking people down throughout the Valley with prejudice. The ideas are more interesting than the execution for me in Inherent Vice, and those ideas speak in dry, sardonic laughter meant to needle the architecturally beautiful pleasure domes of other private investigator stories. If I’d been raised on Dashiell Hammett instead of the Old Testament, this might even rank higher for me. Finding this film in the top half, as you can in Consequence of Sound’s and Slant’s rankings, is a sort of pleasure. They emphasize the surprising historical accuracy of Inherent Vice, recognizing the counterculture of late ’60s, early ’70s Los Angeles not as the star of the town but as something stapled on awkwardly; in the former, Dominick Suzanne-Meyer notes that Inherent Vice succeeds where other movies with similar settings fail because it acknowledges “the ugliness of the era” frequently elided by “countercultural nostalgia.” Suzanne-Meyer (and Jim Lanczkowski, the only first-place vote for Inherent Vice) are outnumbered by people like the folks at Studiobinder, who land more squarely on “narratively obtuse.”

Tier 3: PTA (Personal Taste Anderson)

6) Punch-Drunk Love / Average score: 4.568

5) The Master / Average score: 4.243

4) Magnolia / Average score: 4.189

By far the tightest tier between the low scorer and the high scorer. Anderson’s oeuvre gets interpreted in a bunch of different ways depending on the listmaker, and the ranges for each movie were serious. Phantom Thread and Hard Eight were the only movies not to get a first-place vote; no one put Phantom Thread, Boogie Nights, or There Will Be Blood last. So with apologies to Inherent Vice, which also fits this criteria, all three of these films wound up with first-place consideration and last-place consideration. I was curious to see what the breakdowns for each movie looked like by vote—it all definitely blurs together during the stenographic portion of this stuff—and here’s how it looks:

Punch-Drunk Love, which finished sixth, got more first-place votes than any other film under consideration besides There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights. I’m pretty happy about that (and sort of tickled that I’ve got it in the consensus spot), because Punch-Drunk Love makes me laugh harder than any other PTA movie. In my review of the film, I compared Adam Sandler’s affect to Peter Sellers, and without patting myself on the back too much I think that holds up. Barry is alienated, not necessarily in an abrupt or miserable way, but he is alienated nonetheless in much the same way that Chance from Being There is alienated; he just seems like he’s living a different world than everyone else. The difference is that Barry’s alienation makes people look at him like he’s out of his mind and Chance’s alienation is what helps him to breach high society. In any event, Punch-Drunk Love seems to be a favorite of some of the professional Hollywood people I’ve included. BenDavid Grabinski and Riley Stearns both have it first, and while people like Sean O’Connor or Bryan Cogman have it lower, I am not surprised to see it placed high by industry people. It does so many of the little things right in production and costume design, balancing awkward laughter and honest romance and even a revenge plot with some aplomb.

It’s not lost on me that my top PTA and my low PTA are back to back, and not in that order. (Even I”m not arrogant enough to add my own rankings to this stuff, although if I did The Master would be the fourth-place movie by a very slim margin.) The Master and Magnolia both held the 4-spot for long stretches, and in the end I think it was that Twitter bombardment that gave Magnolia the push. It is, for whatever this is worth, a far easier movie to get into than The Master. Claudia Puig, writing for The Wrap, is one of its three first-place votes. (The other two are from screenwriter Sean O’Connor and Awards Watch’s Erik Anderson.) Puig praises the various actors in the piece, especially Tom Cruise and Jason Robards; she finds the easy comparison to Robert Altman. This is generally the blueprint for Magnolia praise, the most daddy issues movie in eight movies brimming over with daddy issues. Having come to movies after the height of Tom Cruise’s stardom, I’m impressed with his performance in this movie but not awed by it; with that said, it’s an injustice that he lost that Oscar for Supporting Actor to Michael Caine in The Cider House Rules. To me, the best performance in this movie by a country mile belongs to Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing an endlessly faithful nurse who grounds a fantastical story with some much needed human empathy. As for the Altman comparison, maybe “blasphemous” is the wrong word, but not by much. I struggle to think of anything Magnolia does better than Short Cuts, down to the bitter reunion between an absent father and his semi-famous son. Regardless of what I think, Magnolia tends to work for this crowd. It has more second-place votes than any movie besides Phantom Thread or There Will Be Blood; it has more third-place votes than any movie besides Boogie Nights. Above all, it seems to appeal to people for whom the depiction of pain at an operatic level is important: Puig, Bidita Zaman at High on Films, David Ehrlich at IndieWire.

Someday I’ll write up a thesis (or more likely, talk it out on Sub Titles) about what makes The Master Anderson’s best. (A taster: that sequence where Freddie walks from wall to window and back again is a sublime comment on religious faith. That’s where The Master takes its place alongside other remarkable movies about the struggle to find God in a situation where God feels endlessly distant: Dreyer’s Ordet, Malick’s The Tree of Life, Scorsese’s Silence, Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, or Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly.) Until then, it’s back to Slant, which has a completely different take on the film than I do. Over there, Chuck Bowen is most taken by the depiction of rootlessness and disappointment, all the while filmed with long take panache. At Cinemablend, Rich Knight is taken by the complexity of the film and how difficult it is to pin down. Then again, this is a movie which appears not to have much savor for the Hollywood crew in the sample group. Maybe all the fourth-place votes here—eleven of them, a pretty sizable crop—are a statement of some ambivalence about The Master, a great big “we’ll watch this again later and see what we come up with.”

Tier 2: The Top-Shelf Anderson Comedies

3) Phantom Thread / Average score: 3.811

2) Boogie Nights / Average score: 3.297

These have to be the two most fun Paul Thomas Anderson movies, right? While I’m on the record thinking that Barry clapping his Clapper off with accidental grandeur is probably the funniest thing in a PTA movie thus far, I imagine that there are votes for the halfway British understatement of Phantom Thread or the dizzying over-the-top goofiness of Boogie Nights. (Personally I am very sympathetic to any argument which leads with Luis Guzman seeing a ‘Q’ in neon lights instead of a ‘G’ and despairing.) While I think both are great movies, I am willing to bet that no small reason they’re both as high as they are is because they are both traditionally rewatchable pictures. Boogie Nights has a cast where everyone is identifiable, which flits from player to player with a genuinely admirable ease, which is about porn, for God’s sake. On top of that it has one of the greatest soundtracks in recent memory. (The soundtrack thing is a compliment, but I’ve grown kind of cynical about soundtrack discourse given who it centers on.) Phantom Thread is an honest-to-goodness Oscar movie. It was one of the surprises of the 2017 field given its late release and somewhat muted initial reception, but it also picked up six Oscar nominations; not even five years later, I don’t think it’s controversial to say even in a movie discourse broader than Film Twitter that it would have been a better ceremony if they plopped the statuettes won by The Shape of Water, Three Billboards, and Darkest Hour in front of Phantom Thread, Get Out, and Lady Bird instead.

Seeing the high placements for these two films—especially for Boogie Nights, which is fairly distant from any other movie that’s not There Will Be Blood—makes it clear how much his reputation has been defined by There Will Be Blood. Look at these descriptions of Anderson, and what stands out is the ambition, the risk-taking, the boldness, the social critique. Words like “comic” or “funny” or “satirical” are totally missing, and while I find his work as ambitious and brash as the next guy, I wonder at the way that Anderson’s greatness appears to be at odds with the films that people tend to find greatest. Maybe the great accomplishment of Boogie Nights is in Burt Reynolds’ performance or the Alfred Molina scene or the dive into a swimming pool scored to “Spill the Wine” or, if you ask me, putting “Joy” behind a circling shot of a teenage boy’s bedroom shrine. But isn’t the basically humorous character of Boogie Nights worth placing at the top of that film’s importance in much the same way that the literally sick humor of Phantom Thread is essential to it? I think there’s a very good case to be made that Anderson is a more important figure in American film comedy than, I dunno, any of the people from SNL who are making movies right now.

Just a final prediction to squeeze in at the end of this section: Phantom Thread is probably a little underserved, and with some more time I expect that film starts to bridge the gap between There Will Be Blood and the field. There are a number of lists from 2017 or 2018 here which are a little shy about putting it too high, I think. In the intervening years, Phantom Thread was a major end-of-decade favorite: twentieth from Indiewire, eleventh from Rolling Stone, ninth from the AV Club, eighth from Film Comment, fifth from the group, fourth from Little White Lies, third from Time Out New York. That one’s on the rise.

Tier 1: A Runaway Favorite

1) There Will Be Blood / Average score: 2.081

It’s not quite Pulp Fiction in terms of the critical firmament deciding it’s a director’s best movie, but it’s relatively close. There Will Be Blood is the kind of movie where if you don’t have it first among Anderson’s films, you feel like you have to explain yourself; the only outlet which has it lower than third, as opposed to a personal Letterboxd or Twitter list, is Slant. It is still in the top half of every list except Jim Laczkowski’s, who has it seventh. It gets those sweet first-place votes from individuals making lists, aggregators, and movie websites alike. If you’re reading this, I doubt very much that you need someone to make the case for this movie for you, nor would I imagine you’re surprised at this placement. If anything, I’m a little surprised that it doesn’t have an average under 2.

2 thoughts on “Paul Thomas Anderson Meta-Analysis

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