There Will Be Blood (2007)
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Ciarán Hinds, Kevin J. O’Connor, Dillon Freasier, David Willis, David Warshofsky
Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Why it made the list: This list obviously stalled out in recent months, in part because I have less time to write in my shrinking free time, in part because I simply grew tired of writing about the best things of the last decade with every post (which I suppose is what I get for being so ambitious). But perhaps the biggest reason is that I’ve hit a stretch in the list of undeniably great films for which I have nothing original to write about. These are films that are probably in every best of decade list I read, that aren’t quite personal favourites of mine, thus there’s nothing new to write about their greatness nor do I have a personal reason for including them. Obviously, I do enjoy these films (which includes #14, this film, and #12), otherwise I wouldn’t have listed them. In fact, I’ve owned all three on two formats now (DVD and Blu-ray).
But for whatever reason, these films hold me at arm’s length. Perhaps it’s because as limited release indies released at the end of their respective years, each were already critically claimed and hyped months before I had a chance to see them. When I first saw There Will Be Blood, I remember feeling slightly let down, in part because by the time it reached my city, I was expecting the greatest movie of all time from the way critics were fawning over it. Of course, there are some that might argue that it is, in fact, the greatest movie of all time, or at least close to it. And with each subsequent viewing, I start to understand why they feel that way.
Seriously, this is a pristine film that I know I’d be ranking too low if objective quality were the only criteria for the list (if such a thing as objective quality exists). Every time I watch it, I’m blown away by Paul Thomas Anderson’s mastery of each shot, Robert Elswit’s stunning cinematography, Johnny Greenwood’s haunting score, and, of course, Daniel Day-Lewis’ superlative performance (easily one of the best of the decade). It was Day-Lewis’ bravura performance that initially overshadowed the rest of the movie for me the first time I saw it, which I imagine is a typical reaction (the other typical reaction is that the movie is boring, thankfully an opinion I’ve never shared). Subsequent viewings don’t diminish the power of his performance (and in fact bring to light some of the subtleties one might miss the first time around), but they do manage to highlight the power of the Anderson’s direction. When I watch the film now, I’m left in awe with the absolute control he exhibits throughout. Each shot is composed to achieve maximum effect, giving the film the feel of an epic while telling a focused allegory of one man’s pursuit of wealth at all costs.
Spoiler Specifics: Without a doubt, Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview is one of the most indelible cinematic characters of the decade. Of course, when most people think of him, they’re thinking of the end of the film version, who chews up all the scenery first in his confrontation with his son HW (“You’re a bastard from a basket!”), then most famously in the bowling alley with Eli. But there’s more to Day-Lewis’ performance than the “I drink your milkshake” bombast of the conclusion. He comes perilously close to overacting in those moments, but they’re the necessary exclamation point at the end of Plainview’s descent.
For the rest of the film, there’s a lot more variety and subtlety to Day-Lewis’ performance than is typically mentioned. He exhibits a snake-charmer’s charisma not only when he’s giving his rehearsed plainspoken speeches in his John Huston-esque voice, but also in private moments when he is decidedly more taciturn. There are large sections of the film that Day-Lewis carries without saying anything at all. It says something that the descent of a man who is unsympathetic from the moment we meet him is still so fascinating, and that’s because of Day-Lewis’ phenomenal performance. Yes, he can go big and operatic when the film needs him to, but he can also go small without relaxing the grip he has over the audience.
Significant scene: The most famous scene is, of course, the final scene, which is as fun to impersonate as any this decade. But the best example of what I’ve been writing about here, be it the range of Day-Lewis’ performance or the mastery of P.T. Anderson’s direction comes from the opening scenes. The largely dialogue-free introduction tells us all we need to know about this world, this time-period, and this man Daniel Plainview. He is a man driven by ambition, and won’t let anything get in the way of his pursuit of wealth, no matter how reckless that pursuit may be. We also see that he’s a man of incredible will; a man who will drag himself through miles of empty desert on a broken leg in order to make a profit.
Anderson perfectly complements the action with Greenwood’s buzzing, eerie score that fills the wordless scenes with a sense of almost oppressive foreboding. The opening is absolutely gripping even with Day-Lewis reduced to the odd grunt or mumble. The combination of score and visual composition is so precise that I’m convinced Anderson could have produced a satisfying silent film had he wanted to (which, of course, would’ve robbed us of much of what made Day-Lewis and co-star Paul Dano’s work so compelling, so I’m glad he didn’t). By revealing his mastery of the basic elements of film craft early, Anderson earns that right to go as big as he wants to by the time he’s finished.
25. Up (2009)
24. The Hurt Locker (2009)
23. Lost in Translation (2003)
22. The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
21. The Bourne Identity (2002)
20. Serenity (2005)
19. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
18. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
17. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
16. Hot Fuzz (2007)
15. Munich (2005)
14. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)