Focus Features

Phantom Urges: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Films Ranked
Phantom Urges: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Films Ranked


Inherent Vice (2014)

The ’70-set Los Angeles of Anderson’s Inherent Vice toes a fine, very Andersonian line between fantasy and reality, between the L.A. of many noirs and the one pockmarked by hopelessness, poverty, racism, and alienation. Despite the film’s finely honed sense of casualness, Anderson has a lot on his plate here, as he’s competing with multiple legends: Thomas Pynchon, who wrote the source novel; Robert Altman, who directed the seminal counterculture noir, The Long Goodbye; and Stanley Kubrick, whose chilly, specific, yet modernist approach to period settings is a clear and under-acknowledged influence on Anderson’s work. Reverence inevitably bogs Anderson down, and Joaquin Phoenix, as a heartbroken, perpetually stoned P.I., crawls a mite too far up his own ass, essentially doing a one-man routine off in the figurative corner of the room. (By contrast, Elliott Gould proffered a weirdly entrancing, oxymoronic form of connected alienation in The Long Goodbye.) Yet, Anderson viscerally captures Pynchon’s notion of a past that never existed—a viscous illusion that pollutes the sensibility of a counterculture that’s scattered among the streets, undiscernible from the advertisements and graffiti. The supporting cast is flawless, the erotically despairing atmosphere is terrifying and hilarious, and a brilliant sex scene centers on a woman who wields power by feigning powerlessness, which is conjured from her own very real past of violation.

Phantom Urges: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Films Ranked


Phantom Thread (2017)

In The Master and Phantom Thread, there’s an exhilarating sense of completion—of Anderson finding and honing the personal poetry for which he was clearly searching in Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood. Descriptions of shot selections, line readings, and musical cues cannot convey the elusive, primordial power of The Master and Phantom Thread, which exude a masculine urge to bear something of the soul. The protagonists of these films are burdened with bitterness and neuroses that they cannot define, looking to other men and women to inform their un-channeled emotional energy with purpose. In Phantom Thread, Anderson suggests that there’s a way out for the fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), as he finds a companion in manipulation who can play him as well as he’s played most other conquests, including muses and patrons alike. Inherent Vice ended on a similar note of qualified hope, and so these films cumulatively suggest that The Master’s sense of damnation is reversible. This rediscovered optimism may signal Anderson’s awareness of his own artistic coming of age.

Phantom Urges: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Films Ranked


The Master (2012)

Not long after meeting WWII veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a drifter and alcoholic who’s suffering from what’s now called PTSD, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) invites the troubled man to his daughter’s wedding, proclaiming that “your memories aren’t invited.” If Anderson’s cinema could be reduced to a single line of dialogue, these four words might be most fitting, alluding to the past that looms over every Anderson protagonist and implicitly referencing the limitations of the American idea of reinvention. In The Master, Anderson conveys a sense of apartness from society that’s almost unparalleled in American cinema. Tracking shots, once so ostentatious in Anderson’s cinema, sveltely glide over miniature communities that beckon to Freddie from a distance, such as the party first engulfing Lancaster’s boat, which is lit up among the night, glittering with a lonely poetry that’s worthy of the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald. More evocative yet is a long shot in a department store where Freddie briefly works as a photographer, as he watches a woman model a dress, strolling the aisles to entice customers into buying her garment.

Freddie and this woman are joined by emotional entrapment, by a sense that they’re to serve and witness the American dream of actualization while never knowing it. This disappointment is a homegrown product of the fantasies engulfing this country, which are expressed and deflated in every Anderson film, as characters search for success and family as ways of sorting out their place. Freddie, the ultimate Anderson protagonist—played by Phoenix with an iconic mixture of control, spontaneity, and seriocomic fearlessness—is that thing which America pretends to celebrate: the nonconformist. Following Freddie beyond the brink of total estrangement, breaking his film down into hallucinatory fragments, Anderson faces his most galvanizing nightmare: of discovering that one’s true place is no place.