It's his love affair with the camera that firmly sets film fanatics in the work of Paul Thomas Anderson. The boy genius from Los Angeles, through his constant partnership with cinematographer Robert Elswit, has created some of the finest cinematic moments in history. Stealing moves and tricks from Scorsese, ensemble direction from Altman, and possessing some of the sensibilities of the oddballs of his youth, like Corman and Downey, Sr., he has created some of the most effortlessly enjoyable films of all-time. In embracing a darker side, he as also crafted two of the most densely tragic character studies in film history as well.
His use of music is a wonder. He has a long-standing relationship with three of the most unique film composers in modern cinema. Michael Penn and Jon Brion in his earlier years. Then, in the last half of his career, a collaboration with modernist Radiohead rocker-turned-film scorer Jonny Greenwood literally blew minds. Then, of course, there's Aimee Mann's glorious chick rock littering the entire soundtrack of his magnum opus.
And. also in the vein of Scorsese, there is his ability to put together a needle drop soundtrack of our innermost memories in rapid succession underneath, over-the-top, and everywhere, sometimes without us even noticing.
Among the looks and sounds of the films of P.T. Anderson are stories of men. Men lost in gigantic worlds beyond their grasps. Men who idealize the world and mimic success and desire something, sometimes everything. Men who don't usually get what it was they were looking for.
I used the word usually in my previous sentence, because I want to start my list with a film that I refuse to rank with the other films of Paul Thomas Anderson. It is too unique and too perfect and too unlike the others to allow it to play against them. I'm not saying it's any better or worse than the others. And I don't want to. I just want it made clear that I love it.
Punch-Drunk Love came out in 2002, Anderson's fourth feature and a huge departure from his previous film, the epic drama Magnolia. It is short, odd, colorful and supremely satisfying. Instead of his usual smoothly designed camera movements, this one treats each frame as a canvas for shifting light and color. More Godard and Truffaut as opposed to Altman and Scorsese. Though, of course, it directly references Robert Altman's Popeye (1980) in its use of a certain song (see below).
It features a performance from Adam Sandler that uses his persona to the effect an "Adam Sandler movie" has never been able to match. It is full of moments that confuse and frighten, then ones that enlighten and fulfill. It is Anderson's first love story, his romantic comedy.
See what I mean?
Shelley Duvall sings "He Needs Me" - remixed by Jon Brion
Shot on 70mm film and released in 2012, The Master remains the one Anderson film that I just didn't get on first watch and have yet been able to revisit. At its center is the darkness of a troubled wanderer, a WWII vet played, in a brilliant turn, by Joaquin Phoenix, who stumbles, literally, into the world of an up-and-coming cult leader played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (equally brilliant). It is striking in its imagery but a bit too heavy in elements that just don't come together into making much sense. I'm quite sure it's a masterpiece though. Click here for my Missed Masterpieces review.
I don't even know how to articulate the perfection in this shot.
Ella Fitzgerald's "Get Thee Behind Me Satan"
Maybe the most divisive film in Anderson's filmography (or maybe everybody but a few hate it, I'm not sure), Paul Thomas Anderson made a fully faithful adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel. It will never be done this perfectly again. Clocking in at just under two-and-a-half hours, it is, above all, a beautiful statement about a political shift in America's history, one in which the free-loving fun of the 1960s was replaced by the hard, drug-fueled paranoia of the 1970s. At the same time, it is, at once, a love story and a detective story. I adore this movie, wrote a review you can read here, and named it the best film of 2014.
A soon-to-be iconic shot of sex and love and drugs.
Neil Young's "Journey through the Past"
His debut film, Hard Eight flowed through Anderson. It was a story he "needed to tell." Alas, the studio screwed him on the title, which was originally to be Sydney, and he got his first taste of the big time. Luckily, the film itself it intact and plays pretty much as Anderson originally envisioned. It is an incredibly astute, effortlessly entertaining character piece about an old gambler with at least a little bit left to give.
The first shot of his first film. Composed like a pro.
The opening scene featuring a piece of music I can't find for the life of me. Help!
A departure in tone and featuring a toned-down but tuned-up visual style, There Will Be Blood was one of the most talked about movies of 2007, a year that also brought The Coen Brothers saga of violence, No Country for Old Men, and Andrew Dominik's lovely portrait of the relationship that killed Jesse James, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Led by Daniel Day-Lewis in an Oscar winning takedown of all things since macho, this film oozes power. It is a stunning piece of cinema.
In your face with symbolism, angry and hard.
Brahms' Violin Concerto in D Major -- "I'm finished."
His sophomore effort, Boogie Nights is the kind of epic filmmaking reserved for those who've been in the game for at least a decade. It was my first experience with Anderson as a director, a film I had to sneak and watch because my mom actually thought it was porn. It's really not. It's about a big dreamer named Eddie Adams, later Dirk Diggler, who finds, more than anything else, a family in the San Fernando Valley of California in the late 1970s. It is an absolute masterclass in style with camera movements so kinetic and brilliant that it actually changed my life. It was the first time I noticed style. And it really boils down to that one scene...
That hold on Mark Wahlberg's face is everything.
Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl"
Anderson's third film, his one true personal magnum opus, a film he is quoted as saying shouldn't be as long as it is, Magnolia is a drama of connection and coincidence like none other. Its cast is as epic as its scope, a mishmash of Anderson regulars (John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Philip Baker Hall, William H. Macy, Melora Walters) and intensely powerful turns from Tom Cruise and Jason Robards as a son and his dying, estranged father brought together one last time. From Ricky Jay's narration of the opening scene, a short film in and of itself, to Aimee Mann's catchy chick rock cuts and all the brilliant long takes in between, this is above them all. Magnolia is my favorite. It took the life-changing aspects of Boogie Nights and raised them an entire other movie.
Oh, the details...
Aimee Mann's "Save Me" -- That riff at the cut though.