The works of Paul Thomas Anderson are unquestionably incredible, but what specific qualities define their greatness? For one thing, the filmmaker hops around so many eras of American history while chronicling a variety of distinct occupations and economic classes with a wide range of filmmaking techniques. The result is an artist who never repeats himself. His features also tend to have great soundtracks, particularly his modern works with unforgettable scores composed by Jonny Greenwood.
However, if there is one uniting ingredient across his filmography, it’s that this man’s works constantly feature great performances. The casts of Anderson’s feature don’t just capture your attention, they rivet your imagination and redefine what you think certain actors are capable of. Some of the biggest names in the business have appeared in this man’s works and have managed to shed their star personas entirely to craft idiosyncratic fictional characters we’ll never forget.
Distilling down the seven best performances across Anderson’s filmography doesn’t just make one appreciate the glorious talents of some of the best actors of the last 25 years. They also make it a bit easier to process the exact qualities that make Paul Thomas Anderson one of the greatest directors working today.
Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood
Turning in a quotable performance isn’t the only way to define a great piece of acting. But it certainly doesn’t hurt. In the case of Daniel Day-Lewis, his work as Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood is something most can instantly recognize thanks to his character’s climactic lines “I drink your milkshake!” It’s a hoot to imitate the booming delivery of such an unorthodox line and Day-Lewis’s accompanying slurping noises, but this man’s work in There Will be Blood is not simply memorable from this one oft-quoted sequence.
Throughout There Will be Blood, Day-Lewis excels at depicting Plainview as the result of living exclusively by the tenets of American capitalism, where human beings are secondary to personal gain. The result is someone horrifying in how casually he exhibits cruel and even violent behavior. The chilling nonchalant qualities Day-Lewis brings to the role make Plainview unnerving even when he’s just sitting around a roaring fire. But the further nuances he brings to the role, like how Plainview does seem compelling as a salesman or moments where he exhibits some fondness for his son, help further flesh this man out to become a fully formed human being. With such richly detailed work on display, it’s apparent that Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood is an incredible feat of acting even when’s he not downing somebody’s milkshake.
Phillip Baker Hall in Hard Eight
For his first feature-length directorial effort, Paul Thomas Anderson hit the ground running with Hard Eight, a tale of poker, deceit, and double-crosses that just oozes with confidence. Much of that confidence comes from Phillip Baker Hall as the film’s protagonist, Sydney. Right when we first meet this character, Hall is instantly remarkable in how he uses the character’s gait and posture to convey that Sydney has seen it all. There are decades of experience informing this man’s worldview and Hall’s performance taps into that in the subtlest and most intriguing of ways.
From here, Hall continues to emanate a quietly compelling aura, one that leans heavily on ambiguity as to who Sidney’s allegiances belong to and what his agenda really is. He’s also great in his dialogue deliveries, with Hall regularly conjuring up equal parts weariness and confidence. These qualities are especially apparent in a monologue that kicks off with the phrase “I have the money to give you right now…” It’s a collection of lines that Hall, all while sitting down and keeping his body language restrained, makes immensely captivating. With this lead performance, Hard Eight established the trend of Paul Thomas Anderson movies containing performances you can’t get out of your brain.
John C. Reilly in Magnolia
Most ensemble movies, no matter how sprawling, do need an anchor of some kind in their casts, a character the audience can turn to no matter how dense the story gets. For Magnolia, that anchor is John C. Reilly as Officer Jim Kurring. Not only does Reilly provide a person audiences can rely on as a fixture throughout Magnolia’s interweb of plotlines, but he’s also a decent soul contained within a story of self-serving and even outright evil human beings. Magnolia doesn’t flinch in depicting the depravity people are capable of, but Kurring is around to remind us of the good humans are capable of as well.
Reilly’s performance goes a long way to solidifying this narrative purpose for Kurring since he’s so genuine and endearing in his acting. There’s not a trace of cynicism in Reilly’s on-screen aura, he makes for the perfect contrast to the rest of the characters he encounters, especially William H. Macy’s Donnie Smith. Throughout his career, Reilly has shown a deftness for turning supporting players into unforgettable scene-stealers, but rarely has that gift been put to better use than in the dense but beautiful work that is Magnolia.
Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights
It’s hard to pick just one standout performance in Boogie Nights. The whole cast is just impeccable. Everyone from Burt Reynolds to an unforgettable one-scene appearance from Alfred Molina manages to embody broad personalities that could only exist in the 1970s while tapping into something unmistakably human. But perhaps the cream of the crop here is Julianne Moore as Maggie/Amber Waves.
On the one hand, Moore’s work in Boogie Nights is already plenty memorable thanks to how much this performer nails the specific style of stilted acting found in 1970s pornographic films. Capturing that level of detail takes a commitment that Moore delivers and then some. But juggling that feat with a quiet sense of tragedy, namely through her depictions of Maggie wanting to see her son again, that’s what makes Moore’s work in Boogie Nights something incredible. A custody battle scene involving her character will shatter your heart because of how much Moore digs into and depicts the sorrow defining Maggie’s life. The cast of Boogie Nights is stacked with impressive performance, but Moore’s may just stand out above all the rest.
Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love
By 2002, the beats of a typical Adam Sandler comedy had become quite familiar to moviegoers everywhere, including Paul Thomas Anderson. With that familiarity came the opportunity to deliver a twist on these tropes, which was seized upon with Punch-Drunk Love. This directorial effort from Anderson features Sandler inhabiting a character who could’ve leaped right out of a typical Happy Madison comedy. However, the emphasis on realism makes the protagonist of Love someone that’s unnerving to watch rather than a wish-fulfillment fantasy character.
It’s an enormous credit to Sandler’s chops as a performer that he’s able to inhabit the skeleton of someone that could’ve shown up in a Grown Ups installment while making his performance unique and captivating. Sandler perfectly rises to the challenge of rooting his acting in something more emotionally tangible, Punch-Drunk Love couldn’t excel as a realistic take on a familiar comedy movie mold without Sandler delivering as he does. Even in a feature containing Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a foul-mouth mattress store salesman, Sandler emerges as the most memorable performance in Punch-Drunk Love.
Lesley Manville in Phantom Thread
Watching Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread, you get the feeling that this is a man so set in his ways, so snippy, so cutting, surely nobody could put him in his place. But Anderson molds one person in this movie’s world who can do just that in the form of this man’s sister, Cyril Woodcock, played by Lesley Manville. Going toe-to-toe with Day Lewis’s performance with ease, Manville commands a quiet but powerful sense of authority and delivers some of the juiciest pieces of dialogue in the whole movie.
Manifesting a personality worlds away from the demeanor she performed in projects like Another Year, Manville effortlessly embodies Cyril’s ability to make her brother look like a push-over just from the way she walks into a room. As the icing on top of an already exceptional performance, Manville’s also got a compelling rapport with Vicky Krieps in their scenes together. It’s an impressive feat to stand out in a movie anchored by a tremendous Daniel Day-Lewis performance, but Lesley Manville in Phantom Thread manages to do just that and then some!
Phillip Seymour Hoffman in The Master
In its initial theatrical release, critics were preoccupied with figuring out what The Master was about. There’s nothing wrong with probing the underlying meaning of the movie, but all the debate over the intent of The Master as a whole could overshadow the finer intricacies of the film’s layered performances, namely Phillip Seymour Hoffman as cult leader Lancaster Dodd. Hoffman was a regular in Anderson’s work and often stole the show from bigger-name performers in projects like Boogie Nights. But playing Dodd unleashed a performance unlike any other Hoffman delivered, in an Anderson film or otherwise.
What’s especially interesting about Hoffman’s portrayal of Dodd is how he lets vulnerability seep through a man who wants to put on the air of knowing anything and everything. As Dodd promotes the concept of traveling back to past lives as a way of curing diseases (among other feats), Hoffman carefully balances portraying the confidence Dodd would need to earn up followers while also showing how this guy is mortal. At the same time, he will crack when the core ideas of his movement are threatened. Hoffman portrays Dodd as simultaneously the sheep and the shepherd, a deft feat that not just anyone could pull off.
An already mesmerizing performance takes on new layers in the wake of Hoffman’s tragic passing in February 2014, just 17 months after The Master hit theaters. Specifically, a final scene between Dodd and the film’s protagonist, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), where they say goodbye and ruminate on “the next life” takes on a whole new weight. Hoffman’s soft singing of “I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China” was always moving, but now it comes off as Anderson’s 2012 directorial effort unintentionally crafting a cinematic way of saying goodbye to an acting legend.