Magnolia makes it three-for-three for writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson, 29, who follows Hard Eight and Boogie Nights with his most ardent and ambitious movie yet. Anderson keeps a tight lid on his work so that audiences can approach his character-based dramas with a sense of discovery. Fair enough. Since Magnolia is just beginning to open around the country I'll stick to the basics and offer a more detailed review at a later date. But be assured: Magnolia is one of the best movies of the year — startling, innovative, hugely funny and powerfully, courageously moving. Set in California's San Fernando Valley, Magnolia tells the stories of eleven principal characters whose lives intersect over the course of one day. Two Robert Altman films, Nashville and Short Cuts, are the models, The actors are perfection, starting with the underrated John C. Reilly as a cop in love with a junkie (Melora Walters) whose father (Philip Baker Hall) is a dying game show host with a wife (Melinda Dillon) who turns a blind eye to his abuses. The game show features a boy genius (Jeremy Blackman) with a pushy father (Michael Bowen) and a yen to push back before he ends up like an ex-boy genius (William H. Macy) who can't live down his former fame. In another part of town, another dying father (Jason Robards) is bedridden, cared for by a young wife (Julianne Moore) and a male nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in the process of trying to locate the man's estranged son (Tom Cruise), a sleazy motivational speaker who runs "Seduce and Destroy" seminars for women-hating men. Got that? No matter. Some coincidences can't be explained, as Anderson relates in a witty only seemingly irrelevant prologue. Reilly is the heart of the film; you don't just feel him ache to make a human connection, you ache with him. And Moore, flawless as usual, inhabits her role with a fevered urgency that explodes during a drugstore breakdown scene. in a blazing performance, Cruise is a revelation, fully deserving of the shower of superlatives coming his way. Whether he's teaching his audience to "respect the cock" or freezing out an interviewer on live television ("I'm sitting here silently judging you"), Cruise seethes with the chaotic energy of a wounded animal — he's devastating. Anderson has made a movie of constant astonishments, including a cast sing-along to a ballad by Aimee Mann and a rain of frogs (check your Bible, Exodus 8:8) that serves as a millennial wake-up call. Even if all his bold strokes don't pay off, Anderson takes risks that make you hopeful about the future of movies. His Mognolia is a near miracle.