Some filmmakers are technical masters, able to construct otherworldly settings through clever trickery and precision. Others are masterful at spinning complex narratives and staging elaborate action scenes for maximum suspense. Then there are the filmmakers who specialize in extracting excellent performances from their actors. The “actor’s director,” as they’re sometimes known. Paul Thomas Anderson falls firmly into this camp.
Over the course of nine films, Anderson has helped to create some of the most towering performances in modern cinema. These performances range from sharp and comedic to layered and impossibly tragic, but they retain crucial, intoxicating humanity no matter the tone. There are no caricatures in Anderson’s films, only people coping with the farce of life in their own farcical way. If that means joining a cult, starring in porn, or sucking on frozen bananas, then so be it.
Anderson’s latest, “Licorice Pizza,” is now playing in limited release (going wide tomorrow on Christmas), so we thought it timely to whittle down the performances in his films to the ten best. Given his penchant for working with the same people, though, we felt it best to spread the love and limit the entries to one per actor. Plus, for the purposes of this list, we’re choosing to not include anyone from “Licorice Pizza,” but if we did, Alana Haim would surely get a mention!
10. Amy Adams – “The Master”
In comparison to her colorful performances in “American Hustle” (2013) and “Vice” (2018), Amy Adams’ turn as Peggy Dodd, the stealthy backbone of “The Cause,” may appear unexciting. However, the more one revisits the film, the more purposeful the restraint and precision appear. Adams is simultaneously comforting and terrifying as Peggy, a woman who pushes her brash husband to the forefront while effortlessly pulling his strings behind closed doors.
So many of Anderson’s characters wear their emotions on their sleeve, so the fact that we never get a solid grasp on Peggy’s intentions makes her presence even more tantalizing. With her steely blue eyes cutting through the insecurity of her peers, she remains one of the great ciphers in the Anderson canon.
9. Burt Reynolds – “Boogie Nights”
Burt Reynolds and Anderson had a complicated relationship. They did not get along during the making of “Boogie Nights,” and Reynolds went as far as to fire his agent after the film was completed. There were even rumors that they scrapped on the set of the ’70s porn epic, though both men denied this in later years.
All that said, the tension didn’t inhibit the work, and Reynolds was rightfully nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his turn as porn director Jack Horner. The meta-element of the casting can’t be overlooked, with Reynolds, a real-life ’70s icon, lending credence to the period setting. But the actor transcends this gimmickry with a soulful and effortlessly cool performance – dare we say his best.
8. John C. Reilly – “Magnolia”
John C. Reilly was one of Anderson’s first muses, and it’s easy to see why. The actor had the perfect skill set to bring the tricky, darkly humorous tone of his early films to life, and nowhere is this more evident than with “Magnolia.” Reilly was purposefully cast against type as a police officer and a love interest, and he rises to the challenge with a performance that feels, in many ways, like the emotional core of the story.
The goofy charm that registers so well in broad comedies is used to heartbreaking effect here, as Reilly’s hapless cop tries desperately to connect with the world around him. The scene where he loses his gun and descends into a panic is especially painful to watch, with Anderson taking the intonations we’ve come to associate with comedy and twisting them into a pitiable bottoming-out. Reilly comes through as the director’s secret weapon in a film packed with great performances.
7. Paul Dano – “There Will Be Blood”
Paul Dano is the only actor to handle multiple roles in an Anderson film, as he plays twin brothers Paul and Eli Sunday. The former is seen only briefly, but his assuredness and steadiness clash memorably with the fraught energy of the latter. Eli is a false prophet who values power above all else, much like his professional rival, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). The two men despise each other because they can spot each other’s tricks.
As the less imposing rival, Dano gives a supremely slimy performance. His pitchy voice and lanky build belie a wicked sense of vengeance that manifests in some of the ugliest moments in the film (the baptism, the Sunday family dinner). Dano not only holds his own against Day-Lewis, but he nearly steals the show whenever he’s allowed to dig in and bask in his hypocrisies. It’s a travesty he wasn’t nominated.
6. Julianne Moore – “Boogie Nights”
Julianne Moore was a central cog in the Andersonian acting repertoire of the late ’90s, and her performance in “Boogie Nights” is a perfect example as to why. As Amber Waves, the den mother of porn star misfits, she managed to strike a tricky balance between wisdom and fallibility. She guided her younger counterparts through the industry, even as her personal life fell to shambles behind the scenes.
Take, for example, the scene in which Amber fights for custody over her son. Moore gets quieter the more it becomes apparent that her character is going to lose, and the silence builds to a fever pitch before the hard cut to her sobbing outside the courthouse. Where most of Anderson’s characters resort to impassioned monologues to vent their frustration (something Moore would nail in “Magnolia”), it’s a testament to her talents that she can do the same thing with a few glances.
5. Tom Cruise – “Magnolia”
Tom Cruise has spent so much time as the daredevil mastermind behind the “Mission: Impossible” franchise it can be easy to overlook how compelling he can be when he’s forced to rely on his acting. “Magnolia” is ground zero when it comes to upending the opinion that Cruise isn’t the real deal, as the movie star leans into his manic tendencies and delivers a livewire performance as self-help sex guru Frank T.J. Mackie.
Cruise may only be a part of the “Magnolia” ensemble. Still, his scenes make up most of the film’s iconic moments, from Mackie’s opening seminar to the emotionally devastating reconciliation between him and his father (Jason Robards). It’s here, in a tense, largely unbroken take, that the actor puts down his artifice and lets real pain shine through (the parallels between Cruise’s relationship with his dad and Mackie’s is expertly detailed in Amy Nicholson’s book “Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor”). It’s an unforgettable moment.
4. Vicky Krieps – “Phantom Thread”
Vicky Krieps, like Paul Dano before her, was given the daunting task of sharing nearly all her scenes with Daniel Day-Lewis. One could argue that Krieps’ assignment was even harder, given that she had to anchor the film as its protagonist believably. She aced the assignment and then some. Krieps is an absolute revelation in “Phantom Thread,” dishing out withering insults and perversely romantic compromises that would have failed miserably with a less talented performer.
Krieps’ chemistry with Day-Lewis is rife with tension, but the film’s highlights are undoubtedly hers, with the most notable examples being the birthday dinner and the penultimate scene involving a potent omelet. Her acerbic delivery is matched only by her physicality, which manifests in wonderfully varied instances throughout (the elongated pouring of the water to irk Day-Lewis’ character is one of Anderson’s best sight gags). It’s a performance with layers of delightful eccentricity, and it only gets better with repeat viewings.
3. Philip Seymour Hoffman – “The Master”
Philip Seymour Hoffman will go down as Anderson’s most significant collaborator. They were best friends offscreen, and few directors were able to utilize Hoffman’s onscreen unpredictability as well as the mischievous Anderson. “The Master” wound up being their fifth and final collaboration, and while the circumstances surrounding Hoffman’s death are wholly tragic, they could not have given us a better sendoff.
Hoffman is charisma incarnate as Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a religious group known as “The Cause.” The character is transparently based on Scientologist founder L. Ron Hubbard, but Hoffman modeled his performance on another (self-proclaimed) charlatan, Orson Welles, and the results are magical. Here is a man who’s given himself over to regiment and structure, only to be enamored with the crude freedoms of one of his students. His rendition of “On a Slow Boat to China” is one of the saddest and most heartfelt moments in any Anderson film, especially when you consider what Hoffman meant to the director. It chokes me up every time.
2. Joaquin Phoenix – “The Master”
The winding down of Anderson’s working relationship with Hoffman paralleled the beginning of his relationship with Joaquin Phoenix. The actor was coming off a highly publicized and bizarre period where he “quit” Hollywood to rap (a gag that later provided the basis of the mockumentary “I’m Still Here”), so “The Master” was a comeback opportunity of sorts. It not only landed him an Oscar nomination, but it ranks for many as the definitive Phoenix performance.
Phoenix is absolutely mesmerizing as Freddie Quell, the troubled veteran who looks for meaning in “The Cause.” The actor disappears into the gaunt physicality of Freddie, and the exchanges between him and Lancaster (the processing and prison cell scenes, in particular) crackle with the sort of intense intimacy that most dramas would never even dare attempt. It feels less like a performance and more like a primal force being captured on 70mm film stock.
1. Daniel Day-Lewis – “There Will Be Blood”
Daniel Day-Lewis is often cited as the greatest actor of all time, and his most extraordinary ever performance comes in Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” He swallows up the frame as Daniel Plainview, a turn-of-the-century oilman who has a mean streak to rival that of the devil himself. The transformation of the role is remarkable, from the wide gait of Plainview’s walk to the baritone speaking voice that was modeled on one of Anderson’s directing idols, John Huston.
In terms of character studies, “There Will Be Blood” affords more focus to a single person than any of Anderson’s other films, and Day-Lewis makes the screen time count. It’s impossible to take one’s eyes off him, whether he’s crawling through the California desert with a broken leg or disowning his adopted son because of his disability. A movie monster has rarely been more compelling to watch onscreen.
Have you seen “Licorice Pizza” yet? If so, what did you think? Where would Alana Haim fit in this list for you? What is your favorite performance from a Paul Thomas Anderson film? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Danilo and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @DaniloSCastro