This article originally ran in 2014 and has been updated.
Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of the man who gave us a sobbing Philip Seymour Hoffman.
In many ways, Paul Thomas Anderson is our 21st century Stanley Kubrick. You always get the sense that every single shot in his films have been carefully constructed. From the portrait of a man sitting down in an empty warehouse to a long shot following our lead through a porn party, the attention to detail is so great all we can do is just sit back and admire the man’s vision.
For that reason alone, it wasn’t easy ranking Anderson’s filmography, and once we started to dissect each film, we agreed that, while some movies may fare better than others, he hasn’t had a misstep yet.
— Justin Gerber
09. Hard Eight (1996)
Runtime: 1 hr. 41 min.
Press Release: Sydney, an aging gambler, takes fuck-up John under his wing, showing the boy how to hustle in the casinos of Reno, Nevada. Just as everything seems to jell, however, a slimy opportunist with knowledge of Sydney’s past misdeeds comes calling.
Cast: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Soundtrack: Chiming bells — the kind that underscore Boogie Nights’ most dire moments — ring beneath the opening credits, the first of several signs that Hard Eight is a funereal affair. Composers Jon Brion and Michael Penn — both of whom would have a hand in Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love — eschew recognizable pop (likely due to budget constraints) for boozy lounge music of the Angelo Badalamenti variety. It’s tonally consistent, if somewhat of a non-entity. Unlike those that followed, there’s no “Jessie’s Girl,” no “Save Me,” no “He Needs Me”; in other words, there’s no moment of musical catharsis.
Best Breakdown: It’s not a PTA joint if someone’s not yanking themselves from the hinges of their own sanity, and Hard Eight’s no exception. Though we see Sydney and Paltrow’s Clementine in various states of distress, Reilly takes the cake with a breakdown fueled by equal parts passion and desperation. After taking a bullish john hostage, John attempts to justify his actions to Sydney, anchoring his explanation on the love he feels for Clementine. Sadly, his cries of “I fucking love her!” ring hollow, as if he’s trying to not just convince himself that his violent actions were justified, but also that his feelings for Clementine are genuine.
Long Shot: This being the young director’s first feature, Anderson doesn’t overdo it when it comes to his notoriously difficult long shots. Though there are a few expertly choreographed pans at various points in the movie, the shot that best foreshadows Anderson’s talents comes as Sydney navigates a seedy Reno casino. The opposite of glamorous (and a far cry from the dizzying glitz of Boogie Nights’ opening), Sydney’s sad trek takes him past rundown denizens in flannel and baseball caps, sickly neon, and sleepy games of blackjack, craps, and poker. The MGM Grand this ain’t.
Gotta Start Somewhere: The dialogue in Anderson’s early scripts is sometimes the only indicator that the man behind these brilliant films is still a child himself. His later films, too, I suppose; Hoffman’s cry of “pig fuck!” in The Master felt supremely out of place in an otherwise elegant script. In Hard Eight, brilliant actors like Hall and Jackson can’t make a phrase like “big balls bet” work, let alone questions like, “You know the first thing they should’ve taught you at hooker school?” Anderson’s dialogue has always been best when it feels semi-improvised, as it does in some of Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love’s best scenes. Unfortunately, there are no such moments here.
Attention to Detail: Like Wong Kar-Wai and Stanley Kubrick, Anderson’s attention to detail is borderline OCD. Cigarettes, lighters, ashtrays, keychains, and other insignificant tokens are given significance by Anderson, who uses them to add dimension to both character and place. You can almost feel the squeak of the laminated plastic booths in the diner where Sydney and John first meet.
PTA vs. Producers: No one can say Anderson never took his lumps. The young director was fired from Hard Eight after multiple clashes with producer Robert Jones, who demanded sizable cuts and the title Hard Eight, as he felt the original title, Sydney, would make people think the film was about Australia. Anderson admits some of the producers’ notes were sound and that his own ego got in the way, but he also says that the battle to get his movie back from Jones and the other producers taught him to always fight for what he thinks is best for a film.
Analysis: Due to the director’s youth and the many compromises he had to make, Hard Eight feels somewhat thin and, as a piece of storytelling, a bit sloppy. Still, Anderson’s talent and vision shines through. Every shot feels painstakingly choreographed, and his camera moves with purpose through every tableau, with zooms and pulls seeming to climb and recede from the character’s minds. What’s also clear is his empathy for society’s castaways, as well as the presence of surrogate fathers and families that populate so many of his films. Though bold, ballsy, and confident, Anderson’s debut still couldn’t predict the masterpieces that would come in its wake.
— Randall Colburn
08. Magnolia (1999)
Runtime: 3 hrs. 9 min.
Cast: Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy
Press Release: A vast ensemble of interconnected characters collide in San Fernando Valley.
Soundtrack: Magnolia’s original score was composed by multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion, who also worked on the scores to the Anderson films Hard Eight and Punch-Drunk Love, and others such as Synecdoche, New York and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In addition, the soundtrack includes songs from the bands Supertramp, Gabrielle, and musician Aimee Mann, who wrote a couple of tracks expressly for the film, “You Do” and “Save Me.”
Best Breakdown: Tom Cruise sobbing uncontrollably at his estranged father’s bedside remains his finest work as an actor to date, searing the screen with raw truth, anger, sadness, resentment, and regret. This scene is made even more heartbreaking by the fact that Jason Robards, who plays a man dying of lung cancer onscreen, died of lung cancer in real life shortly after Magnolia was released.
Long Shot: A two-minute extended take through a TV network’s hallways, introducing multiple characters through creative, choreographed blocking and made even more impressive by its extensive dialogue, changes in lighting and set pieces, and lyrical, tracking camerawork.
Recurring Motifs: Exodus 8:2, which reads, “And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs,” is alluded to over a hundred times throughout the film. One more subtle reference is just before the attempted suicide of Sydney Barringer, when the wire below his feet is coiled up to form the number 8:2. Also, almost every location has a picture or painting of a magnolia flower hanging on the wall.
Hey, I Know You: Cameos include a nearly unrecognizable Thomas Jane as the young Jimmy Gator, Mary Lynn Rajskub as the voice of Frank T.J Mackey’s secretary, and Fiona Apple, also the artist behind many of the film’s flower paintings, as the voice of the wrong number that Phil Parma calls. Anderson also can be seen wresting an “Exodus 8:2” sign from an audience member after the start of the show “What Do Kids Know?”
Holy Snakes! Anderson wrote the bulk of the script over two weeks spent at William H. Macy’s Vermont cabin, afraid to go outside because he had seen a snake.
Analysis: Magnolia is a sprawling and ambitious film: often tedious, occasionally brilliant, frequently beautiful. Anderson is stretching his limits here, and although not every storyline, character, and connection is consistent or even credible, the big emotional hits do resonate. With his more abstruse follow-up to the breakout Boogie Nights, PTA proved that he could earn his keep, that he was still the same boundary-pushing filmmaker building on his own unique voice and vision, and that Magnolia — an opus that no other director could deliver as consummately, if it all — holds a message about love, loss, and loneliness that is worth imparting.
— Leah Pickett
07. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Runtime: 1 hr. 35 min.
Press Release: Barry Egan is a socially awkward, depressed salesman whose joy of finally falling in love is hampered by seven overbearing sisters and harassment from phone-sex employees. This is a real movie.
Cast: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Luis Guzmán, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Soundtrack: Newbies to the PTA canon are familiar with the great scores Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood has created for the director. However, before Greenwood there was music producer Jon Brion, who is best known for his work with Fiona Apple and Kanye West. His score here provides the soundtrack to poor Barry’s head — alternating between sweeping, romantic strings and the sounds one might hear working a night shift at Hell, Inc. In addition to the eclectic score, the use of “He Needs Me” from Robert Altman’s Popeye perfectly accentuates the innocent love that blossoms between Barry and Lena.
Best Breakdown: I mentioned in the press release that Barry suffers from depression, but this leads to bottled-up rage that explodes from time to time throughout the film. The most shocking, and hilarious, moment of sudden aggression comes at a party hosted by one of his awful sisters. Everyone is about to sit down for dinner when Barry smashes the sliding glass doors with a hammer, leading to everyone shouting at him while he just stands there and takes it. The breaking and the belittling are so expected in his sad life that they’ve all become a part of his rhythm.
Long Shot: A number of great examples here, especially the opening with Barry in a blue suit blending into the blue-painted walls, but the most telling shot of the whole film arrives when Barry decides to place a phone call to a sex-line. The camera follows a nervous Barry as he walks around his apartment giving out personal information to the operator before he sits down to wait for a call back. The camera slowly pans to the left to show an empty chair beside him just before the phone rings. He is alone, and it hurts.
All Those Wonderful Colors: Anderson forgoes traditional opening credits in favor of abstract, color-morphing projections that appear as color bars, stars in the sky, etc. all while Brion’s dizzying score plays in the background. Maybe those aren’t stars in the sky but part of a Rorschach test for the audience … I digress. They appear to represent Barry’s moods at any given point, and the man responsible for the art is Jeremy Blake, who sadly passed away in 2007.
When the Payphone Booth Light Comes On…: Did your heart explode? Mine did. Barry travels all the way to Hawaii to meet up with and surprise Lena. He calls his awful sister (I’m not being repetitive or cruel when I describe them as such, for they are awful) to find out where Lena is staying, calls the hotel only to be connected to the wrong room. He tries again and finally reaches Lena and … oomph. A perfect moment in a film full of them.
Is Your Love Strong Enough?: We could make a whole other feature full of the great quotes from the film (“Barry, I’m a dentist.” “My sister’s a liar. I have to go to the bathroom.” “Are you threatening me, dick?”), but I’ll just leave this here: “I didn’t do anything. I’m a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me ‘that’s that’ before I beat the hell from you. I have so much strength in me you have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine. I would say, ‘That’s that,’ Mattress Man.”
Analysis: Some devotees may scoff that Punch-Drunk is too far down on this list, but that’s only a testament to the strength of PTA’s career. The movie is short, its love story is incredibly sweet without ever being nauseating, and how did I make it to the end without highlighting the fact that the director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia decided to make a movie starring Adam Sandler? Anderson laughed in the face of skeptics, and it paid off better than cashing in pudding purchases for airline miles ever could.
06. Licorice Pizza (2021)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 13 mins.
Press Release: Amid the shambolic, slightly chaotic dreamland of the San Fernando Valley in 1974, two young people drift in and out of each other’s orbit. There’s teenage Gary Valentine, who’s quickly realizing his days as a child star are numbered, moving on to one cockamamie scheme after another. And there’s twentysomething Alana Kane, as headstrong as she is disaffected. Together, they’ll start a waterbed store, have a run-in with Jon Peters, and maybe (just maybe) fall in love.
Cast: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Tom Waits
Soundtrack: Licorice Pizza takes its name from the now-defunct SoCal record store chain of the same name, and it’s got the ‘70s playlist to match. Granted, PTA stalwart Johnny Greenwood returns to score, and he fills the non-sourced moments nicely with a sweeping kind of sweetness that reminds you of Jon Brion’s score for Punch-Drunk Love. But LP is all about the needle-drops, from The Doors’ “Peace Frog” to Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Let Me Roll It” to David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?,” which also features in the trailer.
Best Breakdown: There are plenty of frayed nerves among the tensed-up residents of the Valley, but this title clearly belongs to Bradley Cooper’s sustained nuclear fission as Barbra Streisand’s volatile boyfriend (and future movie producer) Jon Peters. Decked in an all-white getup and stalking his prey looking like a disco T-1000, Cooper lets loose a barely-contained explosion of a performance in his short segment, looping our heroes into a botched waterbed installation that turns into a nail-biting chase down the steep hills of the Valley backwards in a moving truck with no gas.
Long Shot: Licorice Pizza is full of sneaky long shots that feel more like subtle texture than attempts to show off. But the form is best used in Gary and Alana’s introduction, as the two walk through the halls of Gary’s school on picture day. Alana is all steely avoidance, walking deliberately as Gary dances and grins around her, pestering and charming with his smooth-talking wiles. He presses, she pushes back, but a curl of her lips says an impression has been made. It’s a lovely microcosm for the push-and-pull dynamic they’ll have the rest of the movie.
About that Age Gap…: While Licorice Pizza’s aim is to be sweet and avuncular, many have expressed some (understandable) trepidation about PTA’s decision to pen a romance between a 16-year-old boy and a 25-year-old woman. That said, the film’s all too aware of their age difference. After all, Alana’s immaturity, and her struggle to grow up, is a load-bearing element of her character’s journey; she’s a woman desperate to stay a girl, which endears her to Gary’s blinkered, puffed-up overconfidence. There’s an essentially platonic sweetness to their dynamic that elides much of those concerns; it’s about as racy as the kiss in Rushmore.
Turning Japanese: What should probably turn heads, though, are the two brief, uncomfortable scenes featuring John Michael Higgins as the blustering white owner of an Asian restaurant, who speaks to his demure Japanese wife (he has a different one in each scene) with a cartoonish accent. On the one hand, it’s a tongue-in-cheek indictment of racist white men who fetishize and infantilize Japanese women, especially in the brusquer ‘70s. On the other, it’s wildly jarring to hear it on a movie screen in 2021, and probably none too welcome for AAPI folks watching.
The Mattress Prince: Licorice PIzza is Cooper Hoffman’s (son of Philip Seymour) first film role, and it’s astounding how much he’s both the spitting image of, and wholly unique from, his dad. With his bright eyes and slightly crooked teeth, there’s something unformed about him, as if he’s still cooking. But it’s a delight to watch him bounce from scene to scene with all the energy of his pop, and he anchors a PTA film about as well. There’s one moment where he lifts his finger to shush someone while on the phone that will take you right back to Punch-Drunk Love.
Analysis: While PTA’s output has hardly been a laugh riot (There Will Be Blood and The Master are still basically interpersonal horror films), it’s not hard to see something as light and airy as Licorice PIzza coming. It’s got the sweet, slightly-wrong love story of Punch-Drunk Love, the ‘70s cultural touchstones of Inherent Vice and Boogie Nights, and the controlled-explosive supporting performances of Magnolia. What’s more, it focuses on two exceedingly winsome leads in Hoffman and Haim, who somersault toward the material with a childlike glee – even as their back-and-forth turns decidedly acidic. It’s a love song to the ‘70s and a pointed acknowledgment of its flaws, as the world around Gary and Alana hurdles headlong into modernity without the wisdom to handle it wisely. It’s only this low on the list because Anderson’s films are just that much better.
— Clint Worthington