There’s a moment in Magnolia when Whiz Kid Donnie Smith is at a bar and trying to get the attention of Brad the bartender, a not too intelligent man that escapes through life because of his good looks.  Donnie, a man with awkward glasses and a cheap ten-dollar haircut, knows he has nothing whatsoever to offer Brad and instead unleashes on everyone in the bar by letting them know he’s still a man of substance despite his failures and he “has a lot of love to give.”

This is where I find my headspace in attempting to fill in the blank to the Wheel of Fortune phrase The Best Paul Thomas Anderson Film Is ... My mind is a mess hall of the worst order, a literal representation of the phrase complete with scattered paper blowing about in consequence to an open window and me in the foetal position in the back corner, shaking.  Who am I to determine what Anderson’s best film is?  What makes one better than the other and does that make it right?

An easy way to do this would be to dismiss Sydney (or Hard Eight as it’s renamed due to studio demands) from contention completely and then spend a thousand words talking about the merits of widely acclaimed There Will Be Blood or perhaps Magnolia.  But then that’s forgetting the excellent Punch Drunk Love; the first time Adam Sandler has displayed how good of a dramatic actor he really is.  But we can’t forget Boogie Nights either, that little insight into the porn industry of the 70s and the god-awful rise of gonzo in the 80s.  You’d be a fool to discredit this one too.

I’ve been a long time fan of Anderson’s ever since I studied Magnolia during my attendance at the University of Technology, Sydney.  It was an insight into a filmic mind that I had not seen the likes of before and, to an extent, haven’t seen bettered since.  My speech on a subject matter that I can’t recall was the result of a night-before toil, running empty on V and Red Bull and delivered with the kind of spray an exhausted student knows all too well, was met with confused glances by the more attractive classmates who gave me the looks I’d seen many a time before, “What the hell is this jewfro’d idiot going on about?”  The teacher agreed with them and I got sixty percent.  But I didn’t care.  My life was forever changed and with the pending release of The Master, I feel I have to find out what the blank is.

1. You Gotta Start Somewhere

“I’m a guy that’s offering to give you a cigarette.” – Sydney.

For all its faults, Sydney (1997) is a solid film.  It has the hallmarks of what we understand Anderson’s style to be – claustrophobic framing, loud musical score, rapid camera movements and long takes.  The script, especially when considering it’s a debut feature, is fucking fantastic with solid lines – “I killed his father.  I can tell you what it was – this is not an excuse.  I’m not begging for clemency!”

But when you look past all of that the film certainly lacks a certain charisma that Anderson has developed since.  Absent are the awkward characters that he’s renowned for.  This is his most straightforward film and that’s really saying something when you remember Punch Drunk Love was his first film post-Magnolia.  History acknowledges stunted debuts with kindness – especially when their director has gone onto much bigger and greater things – and every filmmaker worth watching generally begins with a flawed film.  But (and there’s always a but) the acting is lacking heavily, especially in the heavier scenes that require a powerhouse performance and end up dragging the film by its shoes.  This isn’t a note against the talents of Phillip Baker Hall or John C. Reilly, both of whom are fantastic actors in their own right.  Anderson was just learning the ropes here and it’s noticeable immediately in the opening scene with Reilly playing the currently homeless John, sleeping outside Vegas and trying to save six thousand so he can bury his mother.  The exchange outside Jack’s Coffee Shop between John and Sydney is framed fantastically but acted poorly, as if Reilly only received the script moments earlier and there was enough time for one take.  Similarly the following conversation inside the Coffee Shop when John’s supposed to have his guard up, accusing Sydney of expecting him to “suck dick” after he’s been offered a ride to Vegas and fifty bucks.  What we’re presented with however are two tired actors that are on autopilot, especially Reilly.  On the plus side though Samuel L. Jackson is entertaining as always, even if he’s in a typical Jackson role and Phillip Seymour Hoffman appears for one scene as a hilariously nauseating gambler out to scare Sydney.  “Shakalaka doo bee doo!”

Such things are fairly common though for first time directors.  The Coen Brothers suffered a similar fate (though theirs was arguably much better) with Blood Simple, a solid film occasionally hampered by its low budget.  Kevin Smith’s Clerks is the very definition of low budget and first time directing but this has since morphed into the very reason why it is so popular.  Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge is one of the few that have (mostly) escaped the aforementioned hallmarks and has stood solid for years since its release, even if a lot of people still don’t know about it.

2. Fuck The Critics, Figuratively Speaking

“I have a love in my life.  It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.” – Barry Egan

Punch Drunk Love is where he got it all right.  Released in 2002, when the world first new about it we all thought Anderson was taking the piss.  Who goes from releasing Magnolia, a sprawling epic, to a film starring Billy fucking Madison?  It’s a film that went over the heads of a lot of people (or at least my housemates when he asked for a film to watch that I deemed hilarious) and it’s a pity because this is easily up there as one of the best of the last decade and won Anderson the Palm d’Or for Best Director.  Think of all the great moments such as when Barry Egan tears up the restaurant bathroom, or when he professes his love to Lena over the phone after having followed her to Hawaii, or when he trashes his sister’s house when he’s over for dinner after copping a wallowing of abuse for being a “pussy”.  This is without a doubt Sandler’s best role and he’s in outstanding dramatic form, tearing apart each scene with subtle aggression.

It’s also a great example of awkward comedy, one of the few times an American has got it wholly right.  This should have been Sandler’s swansong, or at least the start of a foray into dramatic acting that if anything would have meant that Funny People would have never existed.  Egan, and I say this with a completely straight face, is on par with Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood in terms of great spectacle characters and performances.  The sex phone line scene alone is a faultless example of this – the hesitation in his voice and the judgmental tone of the credit card man, shrouded in a dull, poorly lit plain blue hue.  It’s a tender, quiet moment with an underlying current of horror and desperation – Egan, a man capable of snapping at any moment goes to sleep alone with a clapper light.  The lengths he goes to for the woman he loves (the mattress man!) is stuff of legend and always a recommendation when you’re up for a romantic comedy that isn’t a complete turd.

3. Remember Those Multi-Character Films?

“My fucking wife has an ass in her cock!” – Little Bill

He became the filmmaker we all fell in love with in Boogie Nights.  The tale of Dirk Diggler (played by a surprisingly great Mark Wahlberg) and the fantasyland of 70’s pornography, it was a breakout hit that launched his career.  And for good reason.  For the first time we had ourselves a great film that covered the industry without descending into smut – a difficult balance to achieve for obvious reasons – and it looked good.  Damn good.  So damn good that it was light and shades away from Sydney, almost as if different people made them.  Imagine Led Zeppelin’s 4 being their second album instead, that’s how far he’d matured.  Back on board are Reilly, Hall and Hoffman, all in much better form.  Especially Hoffman as closeted homosexual Scotty J, another very minor role that is unusual for him these days.

This is where his inner Robert Altman came out to breathe.  There’s a reason why he was the standby director for A Prairie Home CompanionBoogie Nights and subsequently Magnolia has the depth of Altman’s groundbreaking The Player all over it.  Here is where the camera begins to breathe.  The opening tracking shot scaling the Reseda building with the film’s title listed as ‘now showing’ then hovering down to the green Cadillac containing Jack Horner and his wife Amber Waves who arrive at Hot Traxx nightclub and are greeted by their long time friend and club owner Maurice t.t. Rodriguez who greets Amber as “the sexiest bitch” he knows.  Once inside they disappear to their seat and we follow Maurice who greets his friends, including the proud Buck Swope who is showing off his new look – cowboy – and Maurice poorly feigns approval of his friends poor fashion sense.  It continues back to Jack and Amber’s table where they order drinks and Rollergirl makes her first appearance, offering a shy hello to their table and skates away because she’s gotta pee.  It doesn’t stop until we meet Dirk Diggler himself.  At this early stage of the film he’s still plain old Eddie Adams, a waiter with big ambitions that don’t necessarily include the size of his penis.  He’s something of a hooker, offering people a look at his dick for five bucks and if they want to watch him jerk off, it’s ten, all very reminiscent of the opening tracking shot in The Player where it arches across a studio lot, introducing the major characters one by one.

“Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing me again?” – Claudia Wilson Gator

Magnolia does it a little differently, even if there’s more shared between it and Boogie Nights apart from the recurring actors.  The camera moves in a very similar fashion and where Boogie Nights covered the lives of all those working with and under Jack Horner, Magnolia documents just as many people but they’re all disjointed from one another, the connection not becoming clear until the very end.  (Plus did anyone else recognise the block that Hot Traxx was on was the same one that houses Donnie Smith’s workplace?  Or am I dreaming?)  The opening is a series of quick edits that introduce all the major characters, following the short film that introduces the question of coincidence or fate preceding the rest of the film.  It’s Anderson’s skill that we know exactly who each person is within the fifteen seconds allocated to them – Mackey is a creepy pickup artist; former quiz kid Donnie Smith is now an awkward adult; Rose is depressed and addicted to cocaine; Jimmy Gator is a veteran quiz host now operating by the numbers; Earl has lung cancer.  The list goes on.  What they all share is every single one of them is searching for something to save them from the life they know, to get rid of the past that still haunts them much like Buck’s failed attempts to get a loan at the bank because of his porn actor CV.

I’d long considered Magnolia to be his best effort out of the two – the raining toads scene! – but after re-watching them it’s too close a fight.  Boogie Nights was worlds away from his debut and they’re both set in the San Fernando Valley.  Even Anderson himself thought he’d made the film of his life when he completed the editing on Magnolia.  But where Magnolia ventures into bizarre territory Boogie Nights holds true to itself and never strays from the beaten path and this may very well be what brings it out on top.  The climax is flawless – Diggler is beaten up for doing what he used to charge ten bucks for by a group of fag-bashers and Rollergirl is nearly raped by an old school acquaintance in a porn experiment gone horribly wrong, all set to the dark, heavy theme that Anderson re-used from his debut.  It’s a depressing, terrifying moment that puts the characters at their darkest moment (for Diggler it almost gets worse later on considering the failed robbery) and it’s all executed to perfection.  We’re suitably shocked that this is happening to the people we’ve come to love and (maybe) befriend and it echoes Donnie Smith’s line “we may be through with the past but the past ain’t through with us” before we’ve even heard him say it.

But, fuck, the raining toads!

4. It’s A Masterpiece, That Much Is Certain

“If I travel all the way there and find out that you're a liar, I'll find you and take more than my money back, is that alright with you?” – Daniel Plainview

His most recent contribution to celluloid, There Will Be Blood (until the release of The Master at least) is the stuff of cinematic masterpieces.  That’s not to discredit his other works but once again he’s reinvented his approach to cinema.  The billowing crescendo that introduces the dead landscape in the opening frame shortly after the titles sends chills down ones spine.  We meet the man in question – Daniel Plainview – shortly after, lonely chipping away at the rock deep underground.  It’s at the turn of the twentieth century and we’re about to play witness to the mining boom that will change the lives of millions of small-town Americans.  Or more specifically, Plainview’s role in this boom and his ruthless intent on destroying anyone that dares get in his way.  No one says a word for a good fifteen minutes but it doesn’t matter, we’ve already had a good glimpse into the hardened mind of a man sipping water in the windy night, focused solely on what his hard work will reward him with soon enough.  Even at the cost of human lives.

Like Punch-Drunk Love before it, There Will Be Blood centres around one particular individual and how that life impacts on those who exist around it.  Here it is Plainview and his adopted son HW that take on the world but it is by name alone.  He uses HW as merely a bargaining tool to earn the trust of the towns he purchases and profits from when drilling for their rich supply of black gold.  Although there are moments of a father-son bond, they are brief and very limited and are far outweighed by the hateful rage he regularly throws at him, culminating in the sheer apathy offered in reply to a grown-up HW’s announcement he is leaving to never return.  He’s one of the best characters in the Anderson universe and is fully realised over the twenty-odd year span the film takes on.

5. An Argument of Sorts (For A Conclusion)

Reading all of this back and trying to think of a conclusion, a summation of what I’ve just discussed, I’ve realised I still can’t answer the question.  His worst?  Sydney, easily, but that’s not to write it off completely.  Magnolia and Boogie Nights are amazing pieces of celluloid but could it be said Magnolia tries a little too hard to venture into the bizarre in the sake of good storytelling?  I certainly don’t think so, and if you’ve come this far into the article I imagine neither do you but when you’re comparing them side by side it may be a passing thought.  Punch-Drunk Love offers a refreshed Anderson that has gone amiss due to the intense awkwardness of the protagonist.  There Will Be Blood is a spectacle, no one can doubt that, but does that make it any better than the other four?

I’m asking more questions than I can answer, I know, I’m just hoping The Master can answer them for me.  What I do know is he’s bequeathed upon us a wonderful state of cinema that I hope you revisit or enter into for the first time.  As Barry Egan himself said with eloquent understated genius, “You can go to places in the world with pudding.  That’s funny.”