For 25 years writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has established himself as perhaps the top filmmaker of his generation - with an impressive eight film resume that includes "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," "There Will Be Blood" and "Phantom Thread."

His ninth film "Licorice Pizza" only enhances that resume. It's an endearing slice of first love from Anderson featuring two star making performances from its fresh faced leads. This is one of Anderson's best films to date and the best film of 2021.

Like "Boogie Nights," Anderson takes his audience back to the 1970s in "Licorice Pizza" - specifically the San Fernando Valley in 1973. "Pizza" follows Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman), a 15-year-old child actor who meets 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and instantly falls in love.

While Gary sees their relationship as something more, Alana is sees it as a friendship that is strictly platonic. "Pizza" follows the pair over a series of adventures - ranging from Gary starting his own waterbed company to interactions with an actor named Jack Holden (Sean Penn) and Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), who in real life was dating Barbara Streisand at the time.

Anderson's script is loosely based on stories from producer and former child actor Gary Goetzman, with the inclusion of real life characters like Peters and other characters loosely based on real life people (Holden is basically a fictionalized version of William Holden.

These re-enactments feel a lot like what Quentin Tarantino did with "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," with Anderson both paying homage to the era and recruiting it with the same precision he did in "Boogie Nights."

The nostalgia element of "Licorice Pizza" is delightful, but what really takes the film to another level is the sweet love story at the center of the film. Yes, the age difference is something that would raise an eyebrow in most films - especially if the roles are reversed - but Anderson manages to approach it with such a tender eye that the relationship between Gary and Alana feels natural and quite innocent.

It helps to have two leads that are so locked in it makes it easy for the audience to care for them. Hoffman has the same onscreen charisma as his late father, portraying Gary as someone wise beyond his years.

Haim, one member of the pop group Haim, is even better as Alana. It's a role that signals her arrival as an actress, a performance that captures this young lady at a time in her life when she's not sure what direction her life is going to take.

"Pizza" proves to be as much of a coming of age story for Alana as it does Gary, an added emotional element that isn't always present in this genre.

Anderson captures their story with the same sweet approach he did with his previous dip into romantic comedies "Punch Drunk Love." "Pizza" is the kind of film where it is easy to get lost in this world and one that audiences will surely want to revisit again and again.

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