Over nearly 25 years, Paul Thomas Anderson has established himself as one of the great artists of modern American cinema. His earlier works were defined by the style of filmmakers who inspired him, from Martin Scorsese to Robert Altman. As he’s grown, though, it’s become clear that Anderson is also an incredibly skilled director of actors, not just content to populate his films with recognizable faces and sit back to let them do the work. His eight films encompass a deep and rich span of American history, and those films have boasted some powerhouse performances. Here, then, are the 20 best performances in PTA’s films, in ranked order.
20. Alfred Molina, Boogie Nights (1997)
Most of Anderson’s breakout film Boogie Nights (not his debut, to be clear) feels like a heady riff on films like Goodfellas and Nashville, bringing together a vast group of people in the mid-1970s at the forefront of the pornographic film movement in the San Fernando Valley. Though the film gets darker in its second half, you feel like you have a general idea of what’s going on in the rise and fall of young Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg, about whom we’ll talk more soon). And then Dirk and two of his buddies, in the throes of drug addiction, go to some stranger’s house and are nearly all killed. That stranger, Rahad, is played masterfully and creepily by Alfred Molina, in the kind of one-scene cameo that threatens to upend the entire movie. Rahad has a predilection for singing to Rick Springfield songs, letting a buddy throw firecrackers throughout his house, and calling his new friends “puppies.” It’s a strange scene, anchored by Molina’s fearless and utterly unforgettable acting choices.
19. Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice (2014)
Inherent Vice, now just five years old, is perhaps the oddest film in Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography, and that’s saying a lot. Of his eight features, it’s not his only adaptation — he also technically adapted Upton Sinclair’s Oil! for There Will Be Blood. But Inherent Vice, based on the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name, is the most labyrinthine, deliberately daffy, and convoluted film he’s made. Like many of his other projects, it has a killer cast – yet one of the true standouts was one of the less recognizable performers. Katherine Waterston, as Shasta Fay Hepworth, has to recall the femme fatales of old-school film noir while also capturing the blissed-out sensibilities of California circa the end of the 1960s. And she does so capably, as if she walked right out of that time period onto the set of the film. This is a sneakier, more seductive performance than most of what you’ll find in PTA’s filmography, and great breakout work from Waterston.
18. Burt Reynolds, Boogie Nights (1997)
One of the earliest selling points of Boogie Nights wasn’t just that it had a sprawling cast, but that one of its main characters would be played by Burt Reynolds. The legendary star had a rough go of things in the early 1990s, but the role of Jack Horner, famous porn producer and director, felt like the kind of thing to revive his career in the same way that John Travolta’s career was given new life by his work in Pulp Fiction. Though Reynolds’ post-Boogie Nights roles didn’t take off similarly, he’s doing fine work here with a delicate character. Jack somehow never feels predatory thanks to Reynolds’ smooth performance and line deliveries. Just as Dirk is looking for a new family, Jack genuinely seems to strike a paternal figure, even when communicating his anger and frustration at his surrogate son. It’s a deservedly Oscar-nominated performance from a fallen icon.
17. Philip Baker Hall, Hard Eight (1996)
Anderson’s debut film, Hard Eight, might feel at odds with just about everything else he’s made since then. The tightly focused crime drama is decidedly low budget in ways that don’t often become clear in his other films. (Of course, its cast includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. But still.) Hard Eight is anchored by two actors, John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall. The latter, a longtime character actor from the stage, TV, and film, is the lead of Hard Eight, a wise and blunt gambler who mentors a young hustler (Reilly) through some tough times in Las Vegas. There’s more to the story than that, of course, but Hall’s performance is what makes Hard Eight worth discussing after so many years. He would work again in other PTA films, but this is the performance that helped vault him back up to the top of casting directors’ lists to get hired for every possible role of corrupt authority.
16. Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice (2014)
Putting it lightly, there’s a lot going on in Inherent Vice, where the various ways in which characters intersect with each other is as hard to untangle as the core mystery. Yet the other big standout performance comes from someone who’s become very adept at taking his innately gruff exterior and turning it comic. Josh Brolin, as the antagonistic cop Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, is the constant thorn in the side of our hero Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). But Brolin really thrives with all sorts of unexpected visual and verbal gags, heightened because he’s playing them completely straight. Brolin’s only worked with Anderson the one time, but it was a perfect mix of director, actor, and character.
15. Emily Watson, Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Still the strangest and most opaque film of Paul Thomas Anderson’s career, Punch-Drunk Love is also one of his best. The 2002 character study ostensibly achieved two major shifts in the director’s career: he made a relatively short film and worked with a pretty stripped-down cast, led by Adam Sandler at the height of his comedic career. Sandler is playing a darker version of his man-child characters, an emotionally stunted toilet-plunger salesman who connects with an English woman named Lena who seems laser-focused on being in his life. Emily Watson, as Lena, is both alluring and utterly confusing. Unlike Barry Egan, we know little of Lena’s life, why she would be attracted to Barry, and whether she has ulterior motives. But Watson — in a performance that now feels like a preview of the female lead in Phantom Thread — is charming and appropriately mysterious in a role that gets more fascinating with age.
14. Jason Robards, Magnolia (1999)
Of the various epic dramas Paul Thomas Anderson has made, Magnolia is the most personal and ambitious. In between falling frogs, a mid-film sing-along, and other dramatic flourishes, there’s the core character of Earl Partridge. Jason Robards, in his last film role, plays the vaunted TV producer as a scared and confused old man hovering between life and death. Robards never gets out of bed, all while hazily monologuing about his past, about regret, and more. It’s a rough and deeply felt performance, as we get a glimpse into the man Earl Partridge was before he gave up his morals to pursue success, other women, and a life without the family he helped create. Magnolia is bursting with emotional performances, but Robards’ is the key.
13. Julianne Moore, Boogie Nights (1997)
Just as Jack Horner serves as the surrogate father of the strange family unit at the core of Boogie Nights, Amber Waves is the surrogate mother, portrayed tenderly by Julianne Moore. Moore worked with Anderson once more, in a harsher and more brittle character in Magnolia, but her performance in Boogie Nights is truly gutting. Through her subplot, we learn that Amber is an actual mother, but the father of her child has no interest in letting a porn star have any interaction with their son, no matter how much she clearly wants to be in the boy’s life. Moore, more than anyone else in the film, is tapping into a raw nerve as someone who has plenty of love to give but (as another character in PTA’s work says) nowhere to put it.
12. Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood (2007)
As the story goes, Paul Dano wasn’t supposed to play both Eli and Paul Sunday in the 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood. He was originally cast as just Paul, but when the original actor set to play Eli was recast, the decision was made to have him take on both roles. Paul Sunday only appears in one scene, leading the oilman Daniel Plainview to Little Boston and the biggest find of his life, while the young preacher Eli Sunday is at the forefront of the rest of the film. Dano leans very heavily into Eli Sunday being a truly weaselly figure, making him as odious (if not, somehow, more odious) than Plainview himself. Though Eli is a wimpier figure, he’s shrewd and stands toe to toe with Plainview throughout, an accomplishment achieved through Dano’s multi-layered performance.
11. Amy Adams, The Master (2012)
Over time, Amy Adams has proven herself to be one of the great actresses of her generation. The Master, where she plays the Lady Macbeth-like wife of Lancaster Dodd, is one of the films that helped solidify that proof. Adams is unquestionably the third lead of the period drama — Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are the true protagonists — but she makes her presence known often in surprising and fierce ways. It’s not just that we see she’s as passionately involved in proselytizing The Cause, but that her presence to Freddie Quell is simultaneously terrifying and comforting. Adams plays both sides of Peggy Dodd well, in a performance that sneaks up on you.
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