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Anderson's characters tend to be lost souls who come together and form a family unit. Way back in his debut feature Hard Eight, mysterious old gambler Philip Baker Hall teaches lonely, boyish John C. Reilly how to be a gambler — and, in the process, essentially adopts him. That's a relationship mirrored by Burt Reynolds' porn director and Mark Wahlberg's burgeoning star in Boogie Nights, and seen again in There Will Be Blood when Daniel Day-Lewis's oilman Daniel Plainview adopts the orphan H.W. as his son (and business partner).
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Extreme Personalities, Desperately Seeking Someone
The makeshift families are a by-product of a deeper motif in Anderson's work — a fascination with characters whose personalities have made basic human connection almost impossible. In Punch-Drunk Love, Adam Sandler plays a character named Barry who barely seems capable of carrying on a conversation — even his attempt to use a phone-sex line goes awry — but that just makes his need for connection all the more necessary. Barry's struggles are similar to the array of grasping lost souls in Magnolia and to Joaquin Phoenix's wandering loner in The Master.
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Even More Extreme Personalities, Seeking Nobody
On the other, far more cynical end of the spectrum, you find characters like Daniel Plainview, who gradually becomes proud of his incapability to establish a human connection. ''I have a competition in me,'' he says at one point. ''I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.'' (This line clashes nicely alongside an earlier line, when Plainview pays lip service to the ideal of fellowship: ''One man doesn't prospect from the ground; it takes a whole community of good people.'') The original screenplay for Blood made Plainview's hermetically-sealed existence even more explicit by indicating that he was sexually impotent. There are echoes of Plainview-ism in Tom Cruise's character in Magnolia, who teaches a course called ''Seduce and Destroy'' — a name which eerily implies a violent perversion of romance.
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The Corrosiveness of Success
Boogie Nights features a relatively straightforward rise-and-fall American tale, with Wahlberg playing porn star Dirk Diggler as an average guy who becomes successful beyond his wildest dreams and then loses everything. A far more eerie vision of American success is suggested in the closing scenes of There Will Be Blood when Daniel Plainview achieves wealth beyond his wildest dreams and becomes a near-demonic figure. But Anderson's oeuvre is filled with wealthy men whose riches seem inextricably linked to their immorality: the porn kings in Boogie Nights or the various rich old men riddled with cancer and estranged from their children in Magnolia.
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A Sprawling Ensemble Cast
In the late '90s, Anderson was most often compared to Robert Altman because both Boogie Nights and Magnolia featured a huge group of characters, their various subplots spreading throughout the San Fernando Valley.
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...Or Maybe a Small, Intimate Cast
Maybe Anderson was bored of big casts? Maybe it was impossible to have a bigger cast than Magnolia? Regardless, Anderson's last few movies have tended to focus in on a few key characters. Punch-Drunk Love's Barry has seven sisters, but they fade away as the movie focuses more on Barry's pursuit of Lena (Emily Watson.) And There Will Be Blood was practically an outdoor chamber drama with Day-Lewis in essentially every scene.
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Star Personalities Deconstructed
A student of film history, Anderson has a Tarantino-esque knack for casting recognizable stars in roles that explicitly play with (and deconstruct) their specific iconography. That was true of Burt Reynolds' '70s Alpha Male in Boogie Nights and Tom Cruise's hyper-masculine charisma assault in Magnolia, but nowhere was this more evident than in Punch-Drunk Love, a film made as a loving (and shockingly erudite) homage to the whole career and genre that is Adam Sandler.
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Cinematography by Robert Elswit
Elswit has photographed every one of Anderson's movies until The Master. Still, he won an Oscar last time around for There Will Be Blood. Not too shabby.
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Children from Emotionally Distant Households
Did your mommy and daddy not hug you enough? Then you can probably relate to basically every single character in Anderson's filmography, which is riddled with children from broken homes (or worse). Reaching a crescendo in Magnolia, the magnum opus where essentially every character was magnificently damaged by their parents — unless said character was in fact a parent in the process of damaging their children.
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Violence as a Cleansing Ritual
Violence is not necessarily a bad thing in the moral atmosphere of Anderson's films. If anything, violence is a cleansing act, bringing the protagonists to a higher state of being. The murder which ends Hard Eight brings peace to some (if not all) of the film's characters. Boogie Nights' climactic gunfight precipitates reconciliation; Magnolia's apocalyptic frog-rain serves as a kind of penance-by-proxy for a city full of sinners, and Punch-Drunk Love ends with the main character learning to control (but not necessarily eradicate) his violent outbursts. Of course, there's also There Will Be Blood, which finally lives up to its title with a stunningly unexpected conclusion.
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A Rockin' Soundtrack
Anderson likes to collaborate with established musicians. He worked with Jon Brion on Hard Eight, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love, and in the process essentially kickstarted Brion's second career as a soundtrack composer. (So we can indirectly thank Anderson for Brion's work on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.) Magnolia was written to incorporate several songs by Aimee Mann (pictured), and eventually earned Mann an Oscar nom for her original song, ''Save Me.'' Lately, Anderson has been working with Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, who produced the distinctive music for There Will Be Blood and The Master.
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Attention to Detail
Hard Eight begins with an extended sequence showing Philip Baker Hall's old gambler explain to his protégé (and, by extension, to the audience) how gamblers can look like they're spending money without actually losing anything. Anderson's characters tend to have unique jobs, but Anderson is fascinated with the banal nitty-gritty of those jobs. One of the most memorable scenes in Boogie Nights shows the graphic detail of filming a porn scene — not just the sex but also the camera, which always seems to be running out of film. And There Will Be Blood is filled with montages showing men digging into the earth, searching for oil.
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The Presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman
Hoffman was in every Anderson feature except There Will Be Blood and Inherent Vice. Turns out, he was kind of talented.