On Thursday, the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica announced that Paul Thomas Anderson would be introducing its previously scheduled screening of Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, his Talking Heads concert film. Anderson is one of my favorite working filmmakers, so I snatched a ticket just before they were all gobbled up. During his exuberant introduction (he even brought newspaper clippings from the movie’s original release), Anderson mentioned that Demme is his favorite filmmaker. This weekend I’ve included some Demme, a smidgen of Anderson, and a dollop of Robert Altman (Anderson dedicated There Will Be Blood to him).
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Music is an essential part of any Demme film, and that care translates into Stop Making Sense, the best concert film ever made. Filmed over three days at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre in 1983, the movie documents Talking Heads at the height of their popularity. They’d moved on from arty quasi-punks to a bonafide pop band (although they were still just as weird). David Byrne’s bug-eyed stare and monumental suit are constant reminders of the sense of menace and anxiety hiding in so many of their songs. Demme, a lover of faces, avoids the usual phallic shots of hands stroking guitars, instead focusing on the visible passion of the performers. Watch this on as big a screen as you can find, as loud as you can stand. Stream on Fandor, Sundance Now, and Vudu (free with ads). Rent on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.
Something Wild (1986)
What if Bring Up Baby transformed into Badlands halfway through? That’s basically Something Wild. Melanie Griffith plays the wild woman who lures a boring and staid Jeff Daniels into a life of adventure. But she already has a husband, played by a truly menacing Ray Liotta. When he shows up, everything goes south. The blueprint for early Quentin Tarantino films. It’s only available to rent on Vudu.
Paul Thomas Anderson
Boogie Nights (1997)
There’s something exhilarating about Boogie Nights, about seeing how someone can make art about anything, even a bunch of people who make porn films. Anderson had made a fine first feature, but it was with this, his sophomore film, that he truly came into his own. Mark Wahlberg is the best he’s ever been as a teenager with little to look forward to and almost nothing to his name. The only thing he really has is a monster cock, but it’s enough to make him a star of sorts. Burt Reynolds revitalized his career (if only for a short time) as the porn impresario who discovers him and renames him “Dirk Diggler.” Boogie Nights is ensemble filmmaking at its best, with support from Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, and a hilarious John C. Reilly. With its lush poolside photography, it’s a perfect summer movie. Stream on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Rent on iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play.
The Master (2012)
It’s hard to say what film is Anderson’s masterpiece (depending on the day, There Will Be Blood or Magnolia could look like perfectly good choices), but The Master usually gets my vote. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a veteran of the Second World War. He had few roots in the world when he left for war, and when he returns he’s completely unmoored. His only talents seem to be taking pictures and making strange, possibly toxic cocktails from ingredients like rocket fuel and developing chemicals. He meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) during a drunken episode. Dodd runs a cult modeled after Scientology. He demands loyalty from Quell, but the two are locked in a toxic battle of wills.
The Master is a display of the best acting of the past decade in its lead parts. It also reaches a new level of beauty for Anderson that few filmmakers have ever matched. He shot the movie on 65mm film, a large stock traditionally used for epics. The sheer power of the images and colors can bring tears to the eyes. Stream it on Netflix and Vudu (free with ads). Rent on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.
The ensembles of Paul Thomas Anderson’s early films couldn’t exist without Robert Altman. It started with M*A*S*H in 1969, where the large cast spoke in overlapping dialogue that replicates the way we speak in real life. Nashville is the most elegant version of Altman’s ensemble casting, which effortlessly switches between characters and storylines. It’s also one of the great music films, as most of the characters have descended on Nashville in hopes of country stardom (although you can still appreciate the film even if you hate country music). Altman’s Nashville was a microcosm of the country as a whole—reactionary conservative politics interact with radicalism and anarchy in a toxic stew just as everyone is preparing for the Bicentennial celebration. Altman made many great films, but Nashville stands atop them all. You can find it on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play. Criterion also has an excellent Blu-ray/DVD version.