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Before hitting the big time with his second film Boogie Nights, young filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson impressed critics with this deftly conceived, low-budget film noir chamber piece. With its minimalist plot, deliberate pacing, and brief, but shocking bursts of violence, Hard Eight won't please everyone, but Anderson and his first-rate cast were clearly working on the same authentic wavelength. It's a mystery at first why a solemn professional gambler (Philip Baker Hall in a captivating performance) cares for a down-and-out loser (John C. Reilly) and a dimwit, Reno cocktail waitress (Gwyneth Paltrow). But his motivations become clear--and the movie packs a quietly effective punch--when the gambler faces blackmail by a small-time crook (Samuel L. Jackson). This unheralded film seemed like a closely kept secret itself, until it showed up on the 1997 top-10 lists of several prominent critics. In tandem with Boogie Nights, it marked the arrival of a new filmmaker whose talent is as impressive as that of that other '90s hotshot, Quentin Tarantino. --Jeff Shannon
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