6. The Player (1992)
“I’ve stolen from Bob as well as I can. When I first began to really digest movies as something I wanted to try — the work that spoke to me the most was his. If people want to call me Little Bobbie Altman, then I have no problem with that at all.”
Treading the narrow line between revamped homages and modern pastiches of his work — most evidently in sprawling ensemble pieces like Magnolia and Boogie Nights — one thing’s for certain: there’d be no Paul Thomas Anderson without Robert Altman. Take any signature trait from PTA — the rambling dialogue, idiosyncratic characters, intersecting storylines, even actor-collaborator Philip Baker Hall — and you’d be able to trace them all back to his artistic hero and mentor.
If there’s a word that could describe Altman was uncompromising — a maverick storyteller who refused to cater to anybody’s tastes and always managed to subvert film conventions and audiences’ expectations. No movie infused Anderson with more creative inspiration than Nashville and its staggering collage of characters, but as far as thrillers go, it’s Altman’s The Player that takes the cake.
The movie follows a big-time producer who is haunted by death threats from a screenwriter he recently rejected. Right from its obnoxious protagonist, razor-sharp commentary and subtle references, every aspect of this unapologetic satire is deliberately planted to poke fun at Hollywood and challenge our perception on the very principles on which the entertainment industry stands.
7. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
As a teenager, he wrote his first short. At 22, he got one screened at the Sundance Festival. At 27, he directed a generational classic like Boogie Nights. And yet, arguably the most impressive aspect of PTA’s remarkable rise to stardom remains that every technical and creative knowledge he possessed was self-taught. “Film school is a complete con”, a dogma that Anderson has adamantly stood by through all of his career. One thing is for certain, whatever he may lack in formal education he more than made up for in a fervid interest in the history of the medium.
“My filmmaking education consisted of finding out what filmmakers I liked were watching, then seeing those films. I learned the technical stuff from books and magazines, because the information is there if you want it”. And as such, Anderson kept on discovering new films, absorbing each one of them and taking cues from every director he fancied.
One of the things he’s more grateful about is how easy it is nowadays to watch movies accompanied by audio commentary from the director, something that proved to come in handy when studying the masters that came before him. “You can learn more from John Sturges’ audio track on the ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ laserdisc than you can in 20 years of film school.”
8. City of God (2002)
Robert Altman’s movies served as foundational experiences for a young Paul Thomas Anderson still working out his signature style. However, we still haven’t covered another of his biggest influences, at least at a technical level — Martin Scorsese. An energetic movie like Boogie Nights owes a debt to Nashville as much as it owes to big epics like Goodfellas and Raging Bull. Take for starters the long tracking shot that sets up the film — undoubtedly reminiscent of the one following Henry Hill at the Copacabana club — or the ending scene which directly mirrors Raging Bull’s.
With that established, we have now a movie that — far from being a Scorsese production — is bursting with his narrative DNA. City of God is a sweeping gangster story spawning several decades, chronicling the rise and fall of a group of power-hungry young hoodlums who get sucked into a world of crime, corruption and violence. The favelas of Rio are nothing but ruthless jungles driven by survival of the fittest, and revenge an inherent part of the hoodlum’s life. These two dogmas are followed religiously in this film, and the vicious cycle of hate lives on, dragging countless lives in the process.
9. Wild at Heart (1990)
It says a lot about David Lynch that a movie prominently featuring Wizard of Oz references, a toothless, off-the-rails Willem Dafoe and a snakeskin jacket-clad Nic Cage doing karate chops is probably his most accessible and straightforward to date.
At the height of his powers, right after Twin Peaks became a sensation and revolutionized serialized television forever, the director decided to tell the intoxicating story of two young lovers — Lula and Sailor — who go on a run to free themselves from the claws of Lula’s tyrannical mother. Far removed from the nauseating sadism of Blue Velvet or the dizzying impressionism of Inland Empire, Wild at Heart certainly feels like Lynch’s more grounded film yet.
For all their passionate bond, Lula and Sailor’s love story feels like a ticking time-bomb doomed to fail — almost as if the universe was hell-bent on bringing them apart. When it comes to ill-equipped and unconventional relationships, especially between quirky, unorthodox characters like these two, it’s impossible not to draw parallels with Anderson’s own work. From socially awkward businessmen, neurotic dressmakers, compulsive gamblers or drug-fueled detectives — there’s no shortage of weirdos finding love in PTA’s movies. And far from being reduced to cartoonish caricatures, both Lynch and Anderson managed to make them fully fleshed-out characters you can relate to or, at the barest level, sympathize for despite their inherent flaws.
10. House of Games (1987)
At the end of the day, when all is set and done, Paul Thomas Anderson will be remembered above all by his screenplays and dialogue. Not that he isn’t one of the greatest visual storytellers of his era, but in a career already boasting a richly diverse set of films, the closest thing that threads them all together is PTA’s kinetic characterization — realistic and snappy yet not hyper self-aware as many of his contemporaries.
Bookending this list, we turn the clock back to Anderson’s early formative years to one of the films he idolized and modelled his scripts after. “When I was eighteen, just starting as a writer, my mission was to rip off David Mamet, because I foolishly believed Mamet’s dialogue was how people talked.” PTA claims it took him a while until he realized that Mamet had developed “a wonderfully stylized way of highlighting the way humans speak”, one that can be easily appreciated in House of Games.
With quick-witted dialogue, misdirection and deadpan deliveries as his biggest allies, Mamet weaves through the wretched community of con men and hustlers through the fresh eyes of a cynical psychiatrist. Praising Mamet’s solid writing, Anderson highlighted this movie as an example of how to masterfully set up a story: “House of Games is one of the best scripts ever written, and it’s the story structure that makes it so brilliant”.