When you look at Paul Thomas Anderson, you look at a director who has made eight of the most stunningly brilliant films of the past 25 years, who uses all the tools of cinema, sound, camera movement, lighting, editing, and acting in order to create films that are more perfect and beautiful than any other director out there. He is completely in control of his films, evoking great emotion in every scene, telling stories which succinctly capture the entirety of the human experience, leaving a lasting mark on the audience.
His ability to work with actors is most evident, with some of the greatest film performances ever coming in his films. From Daniel Day-Lewis’ multiple iconic performances in There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread, to Joaquin Phoenix’s roles in The Master and Inherent Vice (both of which I think are far beyond his performance in Joker), to Phillip Seymour-Hoffman and William H. Macy’s absolutely stunning and heart-breaking roles in films like Magnolia and Boogie Nights, his ability to get performances which convey so much humanity and emotion is incredible.
One can’t talk about Anderson movies, or film scores in the past 15 years, without touching on Jonny Greenwood. Radiohead’s lead guitarist (among other things), Greenwood’s scores are magical in their effect on the audience. The haunting strings setting you right on edge in Phantom Thread, the jazz and lounge pop-influenced sound of Inherent Vice dropping you right into the 70s, Anderson uses Greenwood’s scores with the deftest touch to really strike at the emotion of the audience. Despite having one of the great film composers of the 21st century, one of the most notable aspects of Anderson’s filmmaking is when he drops the score entirely and he relies just on the diegetic sound, perhaps most brilliantly used in There Will Be Blood as Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview slobbers and stumbles his way around the bowling alley, screaming with all his might, with absolutely no score, just allowing the action on screen to horrify you by itself.
But Anderson doesn’t use his vast arsenal to tell just stories, entirely focused on plot for plot’s sake. His films are about mood, emotion, style, how the plot affects the characters, putting the human side at the very forefront and creating films that truly affect you at the deepest level, in a way that very few directors do. Even now, I can think of the ways Anderson’s films have changed and affected me as a person, films that made me sit down and reflect on life and humanity instead of just walking off and doing the next thing.
Paul Thomas Anderson shows people what film can be, how the slightest movements in frame or the subtlest sounds can create pure emotions pouring out on screen. Every Paul Thomas Anderson film is entirely different yet equally amazing. That’s why no one can decide on a clear ‘best’. It’s Punch-Drunk Love though. Or Magnolia. Or There Will Be Blood. Or any of the others. I’m not sure.