Director Paul Thomas Anderson hit pay dirt last year with his critically lauded epic, There Will Be Blood. It featured a towering performance by Daniel Day Lewis (for which he won a richly deserved Academy Award) and some truly wonderful visuals. In short, it deserved it’s acclaim. But it’s another of Anderson’s films that I always include of my list of top ten favorites. That film, epic in it’s own way, is Boogie Nights.

For the uninitiated, Boogie Nights tells the story of a a group of porno film makers in the late 70’s and early 80’s. It’s content is startling, to say the least, because of it’s subject. But the affection that Anderson shows for this group of “losers” let’s us see them in sort of a neutral way, making us more witnesses than judges. This serves the characters well, as most of them are truly memorable despite what they do for a living, not because of it.

Mark Wahlberg portrays Eddie Adams, a simple teenager from a dysfunctional family. When he (and his “special talent” – think bulging trousers) are spotted by porno film maker Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), his life is instantly transformed into something most teenage boys surely dream of: becoming the top dog of the porno acting world. Horner has an already-established stable of actors as his surrogate family. These include Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Buck Swope (the ever-wonderful Don Cheadle), Rollergirl (Heather Graham, always on roller skates) and Reed Rothchild (the hilarious John C. Reilly). Soon Eddie has given himself an appropriate porno moniker, Dirk Diggler, and he and the “family” are making very successful porn movies. He and Reed Rothchild hit it off immediately and become best pals with a friendship based on bragging and bullshit. Amber Waves is immediately attracted to Eddie/Dirk, but also feels the need to be a mother figure to him. There is a reason for this: she and her ex-husband are in the midst of a custody battle and he is using her profession as a reason to have her declared an unfit mother. She has already become a mother figure to Rollergirl, who has her own issues regarding her chosen career path.

In fact, all of the characters are dealing with revelatory, life-changing moments. Jack Horner is fighting off the advances of the video age. He insists on making real “movies” using film. His money man, “Colonel” James, backs him up, but he has his own demons which will eventually consume and destroy him. Meanwhile, Buck Swope wants to go legitimate and open his own stereo store, but it’s hard to secure a bank loan when your application asks for your source of employment and you have to list the porno industry. Buck is looking for a break. When he finally gets it, it is one of the most chilling/crazy/funny moments in recent memory.

Eddie/Dirk rapidly ascends up the porno acting ladder, becoming an award-winning, top-grossing star. We see his rise as a wide-eyed boy and witness the crash as he descends into a hellish, cocaine-fueled nightmare. Eddie’s drug habits have a direct effect on his film/sex performances and he spins into a paranoid abyss. When Reed’s friend Todd (a virtually unrecognizable Thomas Jane in a stellar performance) enters the picture, things go from bad to dangerous.

Throughout all of this, Anderson wonderfully captures the essence of the era through music, dialogue and visual touches. The soundtrack is wondrous, a virtual audio tour through the 70’s/80’s Being from that time frame myself, it really touches a chord and sends me back in time each and every time I watch the movie.

The treasures of this film are many. There are scenes so funny your sides will split (particularly Eddie and Reed’s foray into the music business), while others are so intense (think Alfred Molina, firecrackers and “Jessie’s Girl’) that you will be beside yourself with angst as the film plays out. There are a ton of great performances here, from the aforementioned to Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, William H. Macy as a director with a nagging problem and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the lovelorn sound man. It all adds up to a rich tapestry that I think is every bit the equal of Tarantino’s classic Pulp Fiction. Watching these flawed, real characters try to make something of themselves in an unseemly world is in turns chilling, funny and horrifying. This film is not to be missed.