In the middle of the 90’s, he burst into the scene as the new poster boy for American cinema. Critics and fans have long tried to categorize him and put a label on his work, but he’s shown as a filmmaker not to be bound to any genre, only to the expectations of greatness attached to his name and every project that bears it.
To talk about Paul Thomas Anderson is to talk about an auteur in the truest form of the word — a do-it-all genius that writes his own scripts, enjoys final cut privileges and even shot his last film as director of photography. In just eight features, he’s amassed a chameleonic body of work that seems to forego any kind of conventional career trajectory — mastering comedy, drama, romance and thriller all the same.
One could say PTA’s biggest virtue lies in his range — a director equally capable of making a three-hour-long epic on the 70’s porn industry as he is of crafting a layered, slow-burn romance between a British dressmaker and his muse. Others would point at his consistency — dropping era-defining masterpieces left and right, from his San Fernando Valley trifecta (Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love) to an eclectic string of films product of a more seasoned director (There Will Be Blood, The Master and Phantom Thread).
Anderson thrives by operating through that sweet spot between creative integrity and financial freedom — free of the constraints of commercial filmmaking but high-profile enough that each one of his movies are seismic events. With his ninth feature — Licorice Pizza — right around the corner, there’s no better timing than now to go through ten of his favorite thrillers ever as we anxiously await its release this winter.
1. Blue Velvet (1986)
If there’s a frequent motif in Anderson’s work is that of characters burdened with repressed trauma and grief. Many times, these broken souls are the direct aftermath of years of abusive relationships, neglectful parents or dysfunctional households, where they have no option but to seek shelter elsewhere — be it an adult film studio, shiny Vegas casinos or a shady sect. These surrogate families often serve as an emotional buffer to their inner turmoil as they battle with the lingering effects of their residual trauma.
One director who knows a thing or two about all of these themes is David Lynch, who thoroughly explored them through hauntingly surreal films with an almost hypnotic pull — foregoing conventional storytelling to draw you in at an intuitive and subconscious level. It comes as no surprise then that PTA picked Blue Velvet — arguably Lynch’s most provocative and morbidly captivating work — as a personal favorite from the auteur.
It would be shortsighted to reduce Blue Velvet to one sole theme — it’s equal parts an allegory of the loss of innocence in suburban America and an indictment of a generation forever desensitized to extreme violence and sex. But at its heart, the movie explores the spiritual endeavors of a nightclub singer caught in between macabre blackmailing and a sadistic relationship — ultimately finding solace in the naive kindness of Jeffrey Beaumont, a college student too curious for his own good.
2. Jackie Brown (1997)
As two generational talents who took the film industry by storm almost simultaneously, Anderson and Tarantino are often pitched against each other. Despite being close friends in real life, it’s hard not to draw parallels — snappy dialogue, killer soundtracks, ensemble casts and an irreverent style drenched in postmodern comedy — it’s not a stretch to say they operate on the same wavelength.
Among all of Tarantino’s films, if there’s one that could easily pass as an early-career PTA production, it’s Jackie Brown. Equal parts a pulpy neo-noir and a breezy hangout movie, the film follows a flight attendant and a bail bondsman who get acquainted after a smuggling cash operation goes awry.
It’s safe to say Anderson is a devoted fan, praising the movie as a watermark on how to shoot a scene with delicacy and grace. “That initial cutting shouldn’t work, but it does”. He also commented how cool it is to have such a sweet movie about middle-aged people who feel the clock ticking. “It makes me want to cry, it’s beautiful. It’s so simple, there’s nothing going on. It’s an apartment in a breakfast nook, what more do you need?”.
3. Stray Dog (1949)
“This is what I call a ‘pop song’ movie. It’s so simple. You can say it in one sentence: a rookie cop loses his gun. It’s unbelievable. And this movie opens with a bang, which I love. The first shot is a close-up of a guy saying, ‘I lost my gun’”.
As reductionist as it may be, Anderson’s synopsis of Akira Kurosawa’s noir is not a shabby one. After all, what kickstarts Stray Dog’s plot is, indeed, a careless young cop losing his gun and fighting desperately for its recovery before getting sacked. PTA acolytes might recognize this premise as it served as inspiration for what ended up being John C. Reilly’s storyline in Magnolia. In both cases, the gun is an extension of oneself — and without one our characters are stripped naked, unmanned and suddenly with their livelihood at stake.
In the case of Stray Dog, Kurosawa perfectly rendered the social turmoil that pestered postwar Japan — a country still recovering from fresh wounds and crippled by an identity crisis as they slowly embraced western values. As young Toshiro Mifune goes undercover through the seedy underworld of Tokyo, he sees firsthand the harsh realities burrowed deep in society’s underbelly — the desolating poverty, prostitution and criminality that pushed countless of lives to despair — including the very same man he’s looking for.
“It’s funny: Truffaut’s in France, ripping off American gangster movies, Kurosawa’s over in Japan doing the same. They sit there going, ‘We Love Howard Hawks, we love Raoul Walsh,’ and then take them home, mix it up and take it to another level.”
4. The Big Sleep (1946)
If Kurosawa revolutionized the noir genre with Stray Dog, Howard Hawks should be credited for completely turning it on its head with this unapologetic classic. Wrapped in a deliberately knotty and meandering plot, The Big Sleep follows Humphrey Bogart as a wisecracking private eye hired to piece together a labyrinthine mystery. The longstanding influence of Raymond Chandler’s novel adaptation can still be seen in the works of high-profile auteurs like Robert Altman, the Coen Brothers or more recently, Paul Thomas Anderson — all of which modelled their own subversive neo-noirs after Hawks’.
From The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski and Anderson’s Inherent Vice, the plot takes a backseat to the real show stealers — their offbeat but infinitely charming protagonists. Long gone is the stoic and flawless detective who always saved the day in pulpy noirs of old. Quick-witted, sarcastic, endlessly flirty and boasting a surprising laid-back demeanor — Bogart’s suave character broke all molds.
“The Big Sleep is impossible to follow, but it doesn’t matter. You just want to keep watching it, living in it, seeing where it goes. That’s what we wanted from Inherent Vice.’”, claimed Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s safe to say he carried through.
5. Get Out (2017)
For the most part, even the greatest directors had to endure some growing pains during the early stages of their careers before finding their mojo. Malick, Lynch, Welles and Tarkovsky headline a very exclusive list of those who managed to come out of the gates with a bonafide classic. Anderson could also be considered as a precocious talent who by the age of 29 had directed modern masterpieces like Boogie Nights and Magnolia.
Arguably, there hasn’t been a filmmaker since PTA himself who’s garnered as much attention and appraisal within his first two directorial efforts than Jordan Peele. Peele — an incredible comedian turned director — experienced a meteoric rise after releasing his debut, a thought-provoking and iconoclastic thriller that ended up being nominated for Best Picture.
Paul Thomas Anderson was going through some hardships during Phantom Thread’s shooting in London when he watched Get Out. “I was cold, homesick and I didn’t think we were doing well. I really needed a lifeline and something to inspire me”, Anderson recalls. Stranded on the other side of the Atlantic, he found in the movie a “peculiar connection back to my country” that inspired him “deeply and hugely” and provided him with a much-needed creative spark to finish his own.