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The Masters: 30 Best Paul Thomas Anderson Actors

From ‘Hard Eight’ to ‘Inherent Vice,’ we’ve ranked the MVPs of PTA’s movies

Martin Short and Paul Thomas Anderson

Martin Short and Paul Thomas Anderson on the set of 'Inherent Vice.'


Whether or not you're a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, one thing is certain — the man can direct actors. Over his seven features to date, no other American director (with the possible exception of Robert Altman, his idol) has helped inspire more great performances per capita to film. Sometimes, he's working with actors who are no-brainer choices for roles: think Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, or Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. Other times, these great performances come from the most unlikely places: think of Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love, or Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights. Or, hell, even Tom Cruise in Magnolia.

Anderson's latest — the impossibly dense, surreal, and very funny Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice — continues the trend. Like the book, the film follows the perpetually high hippie-cum-private-eye Larry "Doc" Sportello attempting to uncover a vague conspiracy involving a vanished ex-girlfriend, a kidnapped millionaire, Asian drug runners, evil dentists, powerful land-owners, corrupt cops, surf-musician stoners and a host of other warped Me-Decade denizens. And as with the rest of the writer-director's back catalog, each of the movie's performances feels like a mini tour de force.

As Inherent Vice is scheduled to hit theaters this Friday, we decided to look back over his body of work and select the 30 top performers in his films. Drink somebody else's milkshake, skirt past that plague of frogs and dig in.

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Daniel Day-Lewis

Day-Lewis's Oscar-winning turn as ruthless wildcatter Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Anderson's epic about the oil rush in turn of the century California, has already become iconic, complete with its own catchphrases ("I drink your milkshake!"). It's a remarkably broad performance — animalistic in the film's first act, silver-tongued and scheming in later scenes, and downright monstrous in the shattering finale – that somehow never overwhelms the narrative. But there's subtlety in there, too. This is a man who, for all his cutthroat determination, understands the horrifying cost of doing business. Has he consciously buried his humanity, or did he never actually have any?  Day-Lewis leaves sly little hints of tenderness in there, suggesting that Plainview might be a far more damaged, tragic figure than we could possibly imagine.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman

Hoffman's greatness was never more evident than when he was acting for Anderson; he appeared in five of the director's films, more than any other actor. What's more, his range in these films is astonishing: The cocky good old boy who briefly takes on Philip Baker Hall at the craps table in Hard Eight; the repressed, pathetic sound man in Boogie Nights; the shy, kindhearted nurse in Magnolia; the hair-trigger furniture salesman/pimp/con-man in Punch Drunk Love. But Hoffman's final performance for Anderson was undeniably his greatest: As the vaguely L. Ron Hubbard-like cult leader Lancaster Dodd in The Master, he had to be avuncular, narcissistic, grandiose, paranoid, comforting, and domineering, sometimes all at once. He not only nailed all of these — he gave the character a humanity that tied all these elements together. If The Master is a film about the rootlessness of Homo Americanus after WWII, Hoffman's Dodd represents both the wolf that lays wait for lost souls and a lost soul himself. It's a terribly poignant performance, now made even sadder by the knowledge that this monumental actor will never again get to collaborate with his cinematic soul mate.

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