Set in 1973 and named for a beloved SoCal record chain, “Licorice Pizza” brings writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson nearly full circle back to the neighborhoods where he grew up — back to the disco-colored Wonderland where “Boogie Nights” took place and the decade when the indie auteur was born.
Fans of Anderson’s filmography shouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised to see him once again finding colorful characters in the outer folds of Los Angeles’ satellite suburbs: He did it before with “Punch-Drunk Love” (giving Adam Sandler his juiciest role to date) and “Magnolia” (where the same went for Tom Cruise), always returning to the question of “What Do Kids Know?” — as the imaginary quiz show in that film was called.
“Licorice Pizza” is one of the rare Anderson movies to be missing a father figure — the director’s own was an Ohio TV host who went on to become the voice of ABC once he relocated to California, and dads (or parental proxies) have played an important role in every one of his movies till now. With every film, Anderson elevates prodigal sons and monster patriarchs to mythic status, whether it’s an endearingly naive porn performer like Dirk Diggler (“Boogie Nights”) or a self-made oil tycoon such as Daniel Plainview (“There Will Be Blood”). And every time, he surrounds them with surrogate families, lifting from his idol Robert Altman the idea that no character in an ensemble is minor, no matter how brief the appearance.
Altman’s influence can be felt in nearly all Anderson’s films, though the younger helmer brings to that equation a technical virtuosity and near-Kubrickian discipline that set his work apart, rewarding multiple viewings and all but demanding debate when the lights come up. Not all the movies are masterpieces (impressive though it may be, “The Master” has more than its share of flaws, for example), and good luck finding two people who agree on their favorite. So read on for Variety chief film critic Peter Debruge’s personal ranking of Anderson’s oeuvre. You might be surprised by the one he holds head and shoulders above the rest.