3. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Arguably Anderson’s most well-known film, There Will Be Blood was universally acclaimed upon release. Daniel Day-Lewis picked up his second Oscar as Daniel Plainview, a role that immediately became iconic to the history of film, akin to Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone or Heath Ledger’s Joker.
There Will Be Blood tells the story of an obsessive oil tycoon and his fierce rivalry with a local preacher. Anderson explores the limits of man’s desperation when consumed by greed and vengeance. Any praise for this film will likely sound tired by now, but that’s just a testament to how seminal Anderson’s work is. Yes, Day-Lewis is terrific. Yes, Jonny Greenwood’s score should have been nominated for an Oscar. And yes, Daniel Plainview can and will drink your milkshake. All these remarks sound cliched by now, but only because they’re true.
There Will Be Blood has some of the most striking visuals put to screen, from Plainview silhouetted by vengeful flames to him kneeling to his enemy in the church – there’s a biblical quality to the visual storytelling which makes this relatively smaller tale feel so timeless – and Robert Elswit was rightly acknowledged for his contribution with an Oscar.
In any other filmography, There Will Be Blood would be a worthy contender for the filmmaker’s best and most established work.
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2. The Master (2012)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s personal favourite movie The Master benefits greatly from numerous rewatches. It is rich with dense ideas and heavyweight performances that viewers may initially find overwhelming. But, like a lot of Anderson’s films, once it has had time to resonate it becomes something truly special.
After WWII, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) drifts between jobs unable to adjust to normal life outside of the navy. One chance encounter with the enigmatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) changes everything. Freddie finds himself accepted by a religious movement known as The Cause, led by Dodd (also known as The Master). Freddie becomes more involved with The Cause, and his increasingly close proximity to Dodd allows Anderson to explore their strange spiritual connection.
Phoenix and Hoffman are scarily good, each giving their best performances in careers filled with legendary roles. The dialogue repeatedly compares men to animals, which is reflected in the central pair’s acting. Phoenix carries himself like an ape through his stiff movements – primal and hunched. Hoffman meanwhile holds the presence of a lion – regal and calculating, but with a sharp fury hidden deep within.
Visually the film is Paul Thomas Anderson’s best, and the first film shot in 65mm since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet some sixteen years earlier (1996). Mihai Mălaimare Jr. infuses each frame with radiance that fittingly becomes hypnotic; the shots aren’t afraid to linger to the point of them being haunting.
Much like The Master’s teachings, there is something off about the look of the film. People look too clean, locations look too simple. It’s a great attention to detail that really gives The Master an uncanniness that resonates long after the credits roll.
1. Phantom Thread (2017)
A period drama about a dressmaker and his muse might not initially spark as much interest in people as the 70s porn industry or religious cults, but few films feel this intricately constructed. There is an elegance that permeates Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2017 film Phantom Thread which matches the beauty of the dresses at the film’s forefront.
Like Punch-Drunk Love, Phantom Thread is a very different kind of love story. Daniel Day-Lewis returns for his second outing with Anderson as esteemed dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock. He meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young waitress, and takes a liking to her. Alma becomes Reynolds’ muse as their romance blossoms. Phantom Thread develops into a tumultuous battle of wits between two dominant personalities, and seemingly insignificant events like eating breakfast become some of the most toe-curlingly intense scenes of the last decade.
Day-Lewis is unstoppable yet again, disappearing into what he insists is his final role. Krieps is a revelation, holding her own against the three-time Oscar winner. Those unfortunate enough to have experienced fractured love will see it perfectly captured on screen. It’s clearly wrong for these people to be together, yet there is a realisation that their twisted relationship is what makes them thrive.
On a technical level, Phantom Thread is spectacular. For the first time, Anderson is his own cinematographer due to Elswit being unavailable. His mastery of lighting and attention to detail make each scene feel authentic and rich, the weaving of the camera through the busy House of Woodcock cleverly mimics that of a needle, sewing the scenery together. In a similar way, the music ties scenes together, frequent collaborator Greenwood returning with an enchanting score that provides an almost constant undercurrent that gives the film a fairy tale feel.
Phantom Thread is that rare film in which all elements come together perfectly. The acting, the score, the camerawork – there is no weak link. Anderson reverently directs with such precision that pays off in unimaginable ways. Phantom Thread is absolutely Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film.
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With an oeuvre as rich with life-changing films as Paul Thomas Anderson’s, and with theoretically decades of work to come, the legacy of this contemporary great of American cinema will no doubt only increase in importance as time goes on.
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