essential scenes

The 15 Best Paul Thomas Anderson Movie Scenes

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Ranking artists can be a tricky exercise, given the byzantine difficulties that come with trying to define greatness. But there’s a strong argument to be made that Paul Thomas Anderson is the finest living American director. He’s made a string of movies that range from the monumental to the obscure, from sprawling ensemble pieces to off-beat romantic comedies, and is as capable as any director of summoning that easy-to-point-to but hard-to-describe cinematic feeling we associate with masterpieces.

One of the primary things that makes Anderson so extraordinary is his facility with such a wide variety of elements of the moviemaking form. He’s a fantastic screenwriter, both in terms of his dialogue and the construction of his stories, and has written all of his own movies. He couples this with a striking visual and technical filmmaking ability that allows him to imbue virtually any sequence with the sense that it’s depicting something vital, something that resonates more deeply than normal life. And perhaps most importantly, he’s a genius at helping actors craft stunning performances – in the course of nine feature films, actors working with him have received eight Academy Award nominations.

Anderson’s breakout came with his second film, Boogie Nights, which premiered on October 10, 1997. To celebrate that 25th anniversary, we’re revisiting fourteen iconic scenes from Anderson’s career that highlight his ability to summon epic cavalcades of emotion, as well as the technical subtlety and dexterity that make him such a great director.

Boogie Nights (1997)

Opening Shot

One of the things Anderson is known for is his use of the Steadicam to create long, complicated shots. Although he dabbled with this in his first film, Hard Eight (1996), it was the first moments of Boogie Nights that really announced his ability in this regard. The film tells the story of a troupe of porn performers in the San Fernando valley at the end of the 1970s, and it served as the immediate announcement of a new film prodigy, a declaration that is precisely articulated in the long take that opens the action. It’s ostentatious, yes. The camera begins mounted on a crane, showing the title of the film, which is displayed on a movie theater marquee; it then tilts over and up to catch the name of the theater, before tilting back down and beginning to move. The crane lowers and crosses the street, where the cameraperson dismounts and moves into a club, swirling through the people dancing and drinking there. And it’s all set, in classic Anderson fashion, to a perfect song: the Emotions’ “Best of My Love.” But it’s also vital to note that this shot is not simply empty dynamics. It gives us an introduction to almost every one of the characters who will play a part in the upcoming film, as well as perfectly establishing the tone of what’s to come. In the first shot of his second film, Anderson is already doing something wonderful: combining technical wizardry and visual bombast in a way that furthers pure storytelling ends.

“I’m a F*cking Idiot”

Anderson’s visual fireworks carry meaning in large part because of his ability to write scenes that lay bare the inner workings of his characters’ psyches, paired with his ability to work with actors to bring those things to the screen. Philip Seymour Hoffman had been in other films before Boogie Nights – including a brief, memorable appearance in Hard Eight – but it was his performance as Scotty J. in this movie that marked his real breakout. And there’s one moment in particular that any Hoffman fan – or fan of Boogie Nights – will point to in this regard. In the scene, filmed almost entirely in one long take, Scotty has developed a terrible crush on Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), the porn star who is the film’s protagonist, and has gone so far as to buy a cheap red sports car in imitation of Diggler’s Corvette. He brings Diggler out to see his car, awkwardly tries to kiss him, and then berates himself for his stupidity when Diggler leaves. What results is a scene in which Anderson’s writing and Hoffman’s acting capture a moment of brief human agony. We understand so perfectly what Scotty is feeling that it pierces us – as it does him – to the core.

Attempted Drug Heist

Anderson’s sterling technical abilities allow him to create scenes full of a highly-controlled frenetic energy, which he frequently bends to the purposes of amassing tension. There are examples of this throughout Boogie Nights, but perhaps the most memorable is when fading porn stars Diggler and Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), along with their new buddy Todd (Thomas Jane) decide to rip off a coke dealer (Alfred Molina) to feed their drug habit. The three would-be desperados are already strung-out and anxious, and when they walk into the drug dealer’s house, Anderson uses everything at his disposal to amp up their – and our – anxiety. The dealer’s bodyguard is carrying a huge pistol, and the dealer himself is a louche maniac who freebases coke and dances around to Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” and Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.” He also has a weird friend who spends his time lighting off fireworks in the room, creating banging sounds that sound unnervingly like gunshots. It’s a madhouse, the exact kind of place you don’t want to walk into if you’re three pretend swindlers with a stupid plan. Anderson lets it build and build, until it reaches a climax: Todd pulls out a gun and starts blasting away. Things turn to precisely-directed chaos, and all of Diggler and Rothchild’s desperate bravado is reduced to terror and despair.

Magnolia (1999)

Opening Sequence

Anderson is fantastic at beginning movies. Again and again, he opens the action in a way that not only creates the feeling that you’re about to watch something grand, but also immediately articulates the entire sensibility of what’s to come. One of the best of these comes at the start of Magnolia, his follow-up to the smash success of Boogie Nights and a three-hour ensemble-driven spectacle that marks the high-water mark of his “bigger is better” sensibility. The film begins with a narrator (Ricky Jay, who also has a small role) telling three stories about terrible coincidences while we watch scenes from them. The first involves three murderers whose last names create a portmanteau of the street on which their victim lives; the second involves a wildlife firefighter who has an argument with a craps dealer (Patton Oswalt) in Reno and then later accidentally ends up killing him in a bizarre way; the third involves a teenager who loads a gun that his parents threaten each other with when they fight, then jumps off the roof of his building to commit suicide, only to be shot by his mother as he falls, as she has accidentally discharged the gun during a fight with his father. The whole sequence is cryptic in an extraordinarily suggestive way – “This was not just a matter of chance,” intones the narrator, “No. These strange things happen all the time” – that instills a sense that what you are about to witness is something akin to the cosmos reaching down to wrap its fingers in human affairs.

Linda Partridge and the Pharmacists

As he did with Hoffman, Anderson worked several times with Julianne Moore to create indelible performances (she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Boogie Nights). Her role in Magnolia is a precisely-observed exploration of terrible human heartache. Her character, Linda Partridge, married a much older, wealthy man for his money and was unfaithful to him; now, he’s bedridden with terminal cancer, and she realizes that she has begun to love him dearly. In this scene, she goes to the pharmacist to pick up prescriptions for herself and her husband and encounters a nosy junior pharmacist and his boss. The dialogue is immaculately crafted such that the young pharmacist’s questions set off a volcanic eruption in Moore’s character, in which her fury at them only barely covers her fury at herself and the position she has found herself in. To watch Moore’s face here is to watch her silent, mounting inability to control an outburst of rage at the way the world is. When that outburst comes, it is so intense that it renders her only barely sensible – she berates the older pharmacist for calling her “lady” – but that lack of articulation is exactly what lets us understand the force of the emotions that are overwhelming her.

Frank T.J. Mackey Interview

Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia is one for the ages. Frank T.J. Mackey is a motivational speaker who has made his fortune by convincing men that if they enroll in his course, called “Seduce and Destroy,” they will be empowered by learning how to trick women into having meaningless sex with them. His devotees are portrayed as a crowd of losers who are also terrifying in their neediness and misogyny, and Mackey himself is thoroughly dislikeable. And yet, through the course of the film, Anderson and Cruise cut him open to show what’s lurking inside: a man who refuses to come to terms with the things that happened to him as a child. Cruise has a number of big scenes in the film – from his bombastic on-stage exhortations of seduction to the moment when he finally confronts the dying father he has pretended doesn’t exist – but the heart of the performance comes in an interview he gives with a journalist (a remarkable April Grace), in which she pushes him to admit that he has been lying about his youth. It’s the key that unlocks his entire character for the viewer, but what makes the sequence so impactful is that Anderson and Cruise understand, and play against, the very thing on which the actor’s career is founded: his almost impossibly powerful charisma. For one of the only times in his career, Cruise disavows this trait and retreats inwards rather than exploding outwards. We watch as, moment after moment, the interviewer undermines his magnetism, until at the end he’s reduced to sitting silently and staring at her, only able to mutter that he is “quietly judging” her. It’s perhaps the most subtly accomplished moment of acting in Cruise’s career.

Punch Drunk Love (2002)

Barry and His Sisters

After Magnolia, Anderson made a sharp pivot that nobody saw coming, to an off-beat romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler, of all people. Punch Drunk Love tells the story of Barry Egan (Sandler), who is lonely, neurotic, and has not one, not two, but seven overbearing sisters. He meets Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) and, after some travails involving trips to Hawaii and a confrontation with a gang of Utah-based phone-sex workers, the two fall in love. As is his wont, Anderson helped Sandler give a fantastic, strange performance, and maybe the most memorable moment in the film comes when Barry goes to a party at one of his sister’s houses, where he’s expecting to see Lena. His sisters immediately start teasing him, and then he finds out that Lena’s not going to be there.Either because of the teasing, or because of his disappointment, or perhaps because of the pure frustration of his life, he smashes several plate-glass windows at the house. The scene ends with Barry apologizing to his brother-in-law and asking whether, because his brother-in-law is a doctor (he’s a dentist) he can help Barry with the fact that “he doesn’t like himself very much.” Sandler is amazing in the scene, handling the emotional shifts beautifully. Beyond this, though, with its wild tone swings and continually perfect camera work and framing, the scene shows off one of Anderson’s best and most underrated qualities: the ability to combine devastating emotion and dry comedy to incredible effect.

Barry and Lena Reunited

Punch Drunk Love ends, as nearly all romantic comedies must, with the two main characters rescuing their relationship after we think it’s over. Anderson puts this sequence together with his typical brio. Set in Hawaii, with the song “He Needs Me,” from Robert Altman’s 1980 film Popeye playing in the background, it begins with a loveably awkward phone call from Barry to Lena, after which he rushes to her hotel. There, with a marvelous economy, Anderson brings their relationship to its conclusion: Barry approaches with his hand held out to shake, Lena jumps into his arms instead, and they kiss, framed by a doorway full of passing tourists and backlit by the light coming in off the ocean. It’s perhaps the most directly romantic moment in Anderson’s oeuvre, and it shows how gentle his touch with his technical chops can be. He loves these characters, and it comes through clearly.

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Opening Sequence

With 2007’s There Will Be Blood, Anderson pivoted again. He stripped away the luxuriant gloss that attends his earlier films to give us a primal story about a strange, epic, long-running battle of wills. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, a silver-prospector-turned-oil-baron who batters his way through life behind a ferocious, unstoppable greed. Opposite him is Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, who also plays Eli’s twin, Paul) a young preacher who matches Plainview’s avarice with his own fervent, and perhaps calculating, faith. Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his performance – long-time Anderson cinematographer Robert Elswit won one as well, and it’s worth noting here how much Anderson’s visual wizardry relies on close partnerships with his camera teams – and Plainview’s unyielding ferocity is the spine around which that story is wrapped. This is established in the first moments of the film, in another of Anderson’s unparalleled openings. The sequence shows Plainview at the beginning of his career, working in a mineshaft he’s dug in the New Mexico desert. The rung of a ladder gives way, and he falls, breaking his leg. And then, lying at the bottom of the shaft, in excruciating pain, he realizes that he has indeed found some valuable ore. So he tucks it in his shirt and drags himself through the desert back to town, where he lies supine on the floor until the ore has been assayed. It’s an almost dialogue-free sequence, much of it shot in full sunlight on location in Texas, giving it a washed-out, bleak look that was entirely new for Anderson. From first shot to last, it establishes what this film will explore: the desolate life of a man who will stop at nothing to find wealth, regardless of the cost.

“I Drink Your Milkshake!”

There Will Be Blood culminates in a fateful encounter between Plainview and Sunday, many years after the events that bring them together at the beginning of the film. It takes place in the bowling alley of the opulent Los Angeles mansion that Plainview now inhabits, alone except for his servants. Sunday, in search of money because he has gone bankrupt in the stock market crash of 1929, appears to ask Plainview if he wants to invest in an oilfield he was never able to acquire when he was younger. Plainview agrees, on the condition that Sunday declare that he’s a false profit and that God is a superstition. It’s only after Sunday has done this that Plainview tells him that the oil is already gone, because he tapped it from one of own adjacent fields in the same way he would use a long straw to drink someone else’s milkshake. In the confrontation that ensues, Plainview kills Sunday with a bowling pin. The phrase “I drink your milkshake!” has become a part of the Anderson pantheon, and it caps off one of the film’s greatest dialogue sequences. With the help of a pair of phenomenal performances – Day-Lewis sulfuric and Dano pathetic ­– Anderson mercilessly rounds out these men’s stories and sums up their characters. Sunday begins as supercilious, is then abjectly humiliated, and is finally murdered, all of his religious belief and personal dreams smashed to pieces by Plainview’s adamantine refusal to admit of anything other than his own victory.

The Master (2012)


In The Master – Anderson’s favorite of his own works, and arguably his finest accomplishment as a filmmaker – he returned again to the theme of a battle of wills. This time, the story pits a cult leader named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, against a moonshine-brewing, demented, lascivious ex-Navy sailor named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Hoffman and Phoenix both received Academy Award nominations for their performances (as did Amy Adams), and the film revolves around their complicated relationship. Quell is attracted to Dodd’s teachings, but has an unshakeable independence buried somewhere down in his dysfunction that prevents him from ever fully giving in to Dodd; this, in turn, makes him a source of supreme, almost existential frustration for Dodd, the man to whom everyone must submit. Again and again throughout the film, Anderson pits the two against each other, and the actors rise to the challenge: there’s a tremendous scene in a jail when they spend minutes cursing each other, and a remarkable ending in which Dodd sings “On a Slow Boat to China” to Quell, in a final attempt to prevent him from breaking off their relationship. But the most intense of these interactions comes when Dodd performs a Scientology-style “processing” on Quell. The construction of the sequence is simple – it’s composed almost entirely of all over-the-shoulder shots of the actors sitting across from each other at a desk – but the dialogue is some of the best Anderson has ever written. We see the full extent of Dodd’s manipulative genius as he breaks Quell down, forcing him to reveal the intimacies that will give Dodd power over him. We also see the child-like guilt and fear that live at Quell’s core and which make him vulnerable. And yet, at the same time, we see that Quell is possessed of a cagey, almost primitive skepticism, which is the precise thing that will eventually save him from Dodd’s clutches. Here is the entire movie, in a single scene.

Dodd Sings “The Maid of Amsterdam”

One of the traits that gives Anderson’s films their feeling of magnificence is his willingness to engage with the indeterminate. In his early films, this takes the form of a foregrounding of coincidence through almost cosmic strokes of fate that bring people together or tear them apart, and in the process put pressure on our comfortable notion that everything in a story happens for a reason. As he’s gotten older, this idea has increasingly taken the form of an exploration of the possibility that our endless search for answers – about why things happen or why people do what they do – may only ever result in more questions. And when he touches on this, Anderson is extraordinarily good at finding a visual way to capture it. Maybe the single best example is a scene in The Master when Dodd sings “The Maid of Amsterdam” to his followers. In one shot, Dodd is singing while his followers laugh and cheer him on. We then cut to Quell, listening from another room, and when we cut back to Dodd, all of the women present are in the exact same places, and doing the exact same things, except that they’re naked. It’s a challenging moment. Has Dodd convinced them to disrobe? Is Quell imagining the women without clothes? Is the film, or filmmaker, making a visual comment on the extent, and nature, of Dodd’s power? It’s never explained. But the effect is wonderful. The sequence elevates the feeling of the film, giving it a mythic tinge, and at the same time suggests specific things about his characters and story: Dodd’s power, Quell’s forlorn and pathetic loneliness, a sense of slight narrative remove from the events. So while it resists reductive interpretation, it exemplifies filmmaking at its best: the ability to put images onto the screen that do not provide easy answers, but deepen our understanding of the possibilities of the world around us.

Inherent Vice (2014)

Bigfoot Eats the Pot

There are few American novels that would seem to be more difficult to make into films than those of Thomas Pynchon. In part, this is because of the madcap complexity of his plots, but it’s also because of the incomparable sensibility of his writing, which sets lovingly-rendered wackos into the middle of world-historical events and depicts it all with a mix of the deeply humane and the wildly absurd. In 2014, Anderson took on this challenge with Inherent Vice – from a 2009 Pynchon novel of the same name – which tells the shaggiest of shaggy dog stories about a stoned-out private detective named “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) navigating his way through a hilariously convoluted mystery involving dope smuggling, Aryan gangs, pornography, cults, loan sharks, a strange boat named the Golden Fang, and more. It’s Anderson’s most comedically extravagant film, and there are tons of glorious moments, particularly revolving around the outsized secondary characters played by everyone from Benicio del Toro to Reese Witherspoon to Martin Short. But it’s Josh Brolin’s hardass cop, Lieutenant “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, who steals the show. Near the end of the film, after the mystery has been solved, Bjornsen pays a visit to Sportello. He kicks down the detective’s door, apologizes for the violent events at the end of the tale at exactly the same time – and using the exactly the same words – as Sportello makes the same apology, berates Sportello for smoking illegal pot, takes his joint, smokes it, eats it, eats all of Sportello’s pot and a few rolling papers, and then stomps out. Brolin absolutely kills the scene, and the moment is hilarious, bonkers, and also oddly touching – based as it is in the antagonized and yet endearing kinship the men have developed – just like the entire film.

Phantom Thread (2017)

Poison Mushrooms

Phantom Thread was Anderson’s second collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis (and again earned Lewis an Oscar nomination), and it’s a difficult film to pin down. Is it a character study? A historical drama? A romance? A pitch-black comedy? Maybe a bit of all of them? It tells the story of Reynolds Woodcock (Lewis) a famous and wealthy fashion designer in 1950s London who engages in a love affair with a waitress named Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps). He’s domineering and obsessive, and she exerts herself against this, or perhaps retaliates against him, by feeding him poisonous mushrooms that make him deathly ill. Near the end of the film, she does it again, but this time he knows what’s happening…and eats the food anyway. After he does, Elson tells him that she wants him “flat on his back” and helpless, he smiles and tells her to kiss him before he gets sick, they embrace, and Jonny Greenwood’s score rises to wash romantically over them. It’s a strange, magnificent moment, full of emotional overtones and undertones, and it provides a fitting capstone to a film about a relationship in which power, vulnerability, and damage are equally admixed. Like so much of Anderson’s work, it combines technical filmmaking mastery with performances of remarkable emotional depth, and manages to both knock us back in our seats and draw us into ruminations on the human condition.

Licorice Pizza (2021)

The Truck Sequence

With Licorice Pizza, Anderson returned to familiar territory. The director grew up in the San Fernando valley, and several of his early films – Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch Drunk Love – were set there. Licorice Pizza (named after a string of record stores in the area) tells the story of an unlikely romance between a 15-year-old high school student and successful child actor named Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and a 25-year-old photographer’s assistant named Alana Kane (Alana Haim). It’s a gently meandering, episodic film that moves between the characters’ encounters with each other and their brushes with the Hollywood industry figures that saturate the terrain. Chock-full of the heightened romantic sensibility that attended Anderson’s early films, it tries to recapture the feeling of growing up in the Valley in the 1970s and the aura of youthful escapades more generally. The moment that epitomizes this best comes when Valentine starts a company selling waterbeds. He, Kane, and several other teens deliver one to a Hollywood lothario named Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), famous in his own head for dating Barbara Streisand. Incensed by Peters’ lousy behavior, the kids leave a hose running in his house while they’re filling up his bed and then try to make a getaway in their delivery truck, with Kane driving. But Peters runs out of gas on his way to a date with Streisand, and forces the kids to pick him up; after taking him to a gas station they drive away again, stranding him, only to run out of gas themselves. Things reach their climax when Kane has to steer the rolling truck backwards down a series of hills to get it to a gas station. It’s a joyous sequence in which Anderson uses many of his best-loved approaches – coincidence, great dialogue, comedically-laden tension, and loaded interactions between characters who are struggling to understand what they feel – to remind us of that glowing feeling of youthful adventure.

The 15 Best Paul Thomas Anderson Movie Scenes