Friday, December 6, 2013

Ranking the Coen Brothers

I was surprised to look back and see that I never did do a ranking of the Coen Brothers films until now. If I had to, they’d probably get my vote for best filmmakers in the world right now (not best living – that would be Scorsese, but for the filmmakers doing the best, most consistent work right now, it’s between the Coens, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher and Michael Haneke, with the Coens having the slight edge). Anyway, Inside Lleweyn Davis is coming out soon – in New York & LA this week, although I apparently have to wait another two weeks, so I thought I’d look back at their 15 features to this point. They are not all masterpieces by any means, but it’s a remarkable consistent filmography – with only 3 films I wouldn’t gladly watch again right now.

15. Raising Arizona (1987)
I know ranking Raising Arizona as the Coen’s worst film will be controversial to some – it has some big supporters – but to me, the film just never comes together. I normally like the Coen’s when they go absurd, but try as I might (I have seen the film multiple times); I just don’t think the movie ever really finds its wavelength. There are good moments in the film to be sure – the best being the old man in the bank questioning the robbers contradictory orders to “Freeze! Get down on the floor!”, but overall this story of a sad sack criminal (Nicolas Cage) and his former cop wife (Holly Hunter) who kidnap a baby from a rich man (they had quintuplets, so they figure they won’t miss one) is just so relentlessly quirky, and tries so hard to be clever, that I didn’t really laugh during the movie. This was the Coen’s first true comedy, and they got better, but unlike many, I don’t think they succeeded right out of the gate.

14. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
The Coens brief foray into mainstream studio comedies in the early 2000s inspired two of their weakest efforts – including Intolerable Cruelty. But just because Intolerable Cruelty is weaker than most Coen brothers movies, does that mean that it is joyless? Not at all. Inspired by the screwball comedies of the 1930s, the film perfectly casts George Clooney as a brilliant divorce lawyer, and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a woman marries rich men, than divorces them for their money. Of course Clooney falls for her. The two leads are so perfect together, and the Coen’s provide them with such wonderful comic dialogue, that it is possible to overlook the rest of the movie – which doesn’t really work (except for the guy with asthma). With Clooney and Zeta-Jones the Coens were half way to a great screwball comedy before they began – sadly, they don’t get all that much further. An enjoyable film to see once, but that’s about all.

13. The Ladykillers (2004)
The Coen’s follow-up to Intolerable Cruelty was another more mainstream comedy for them and once again, the movie has two leads that redeem the movie. Tom Hanks is miles away from Alec Guinness in the original (although if he was going to play the role the same way, than why the hell make the movie). His wildly over the top performance is matched by his wildly over the top dress – he looks like a young Colonel Sanders – and even his wildly over the top name – Goldthwait Higgison Dorr. He is a con man and a criminal, who along with his associates rents a room from an old lady, so they can tunnel into the nearby casino. It is the old lady – played brilliantly by Irma P. Hall – that steals the movie. She is wonderful in every scene – yes, she’s played a comic caricature, but one that is well-drawn, hilarious and recognizable. Like Intolerable Cruelty, everything surrounding the two leads doesn’t really work all that well – the movie tries too hard to be funny. But when Hall is onscreen, there is still something to like about The Ladykillers. Like Intolerable Cruelty, not as bad as you may have been led to believe – but also a film that is enjoyable to watch just once.

12. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
I’m not sure if it’s a sign that The Hudsucker Proxy should be higher on this list or lower, but my wife, who normally hates the Coen’s comedies, loves this movie. “You know, for kids” has become an inside joke between us, that never fails to get us laughing. This is another throwback to the films of yesteryear – a comic version of a Frank Capra movie, where a seemingly innocent buffoon seems to be taken advantage of by knowing Big City types, when really they may be the smartest one in the movie. Tim Robbins is perfectly cast as the Coen’s version of Longfellow Deeds – a man who starts working in the mailroom of a huge corporation, but has dreams of making the hoola hoop (the drawing of it inspired the line that keeps me and wife in hysterics). He becomes the CEO of the company, because the head of the Board of Directors – played wonderfully by Paul Newman – wants to make the company stock plummet so he can buy it on the cheap – and thinks this moron will all but destroy the company. Then there is the wonderful Jennifer Jason Leigh as a tough, cynical reporter – doing a wonderful Katherine Hepburn (or Rosalind Russell) – who, of course is gradually won over by Robbins’ innocence. I understand the criticism that the movie is all style and no substance – but it’s a grand style, the performances are top notch, and the movie is one of the funniest the Coen’s have made. I wouldn’t get away with calling many Coen brothers movies underrated – but this one is.

11. Burn After Reading (2008)
The year after the Coens made their Oscar winning No Country for Old Men, which is a timeless movie (it could really be set at any time after the end of WWII without changing much, and it would still have resonance), they made Burn After Reading – which is a film very much of its time and place. Will the film age badly? Perhaps – but Burn After Reading was perhaps ahead of the curve in some regards (we’ve seen numerous films this year about Idiot Culture in America – the Coens did it five years ago). Burn After Reading is an extremely cynical, and extremely funny, movie in which all but one character is a complete and utter idiot – and of course, he’s the one who suffers the most. He’s played by John Malkovich,  who plays a recently fired CIA agent because of his alcoholism – but he’s an alcoholic because he’s frustrated that everyone else in an idiot. And the movie proves his point when one of his disks, with apparently secret information, falls into the hands of two gym trainers – Frances McDormand, desperate for plastic surgery, and Brad Pitt, who is relentlessly cheerful, because he’s too dumb to be anything else. There’s more of course – I haven’t even gotten to George Clooney yet, a doofus of a federal agent, building a strange contraption in his basement for the wife who has already left him. In terms of pure laugh out loud moments, Burn After Reading is one of the Coen’s funniest films. I don’t know if it will stand the test of time – but it’s stood up for five years now, and everyone else is just catching up.

10. True Grit (2010)
Even if John Wayne never made a version of Charles Potter’s novel – that won him an Oscar – the novel itself lends itself perfectly to the Coens. It is an a comic novel, with dark undertones, and while the earlier film played it more or less straight, the Coens get back to what made the novel so good in the first place. I’m not a huge fan of the original film – but I love this one. Jeff Bridges’ performance is better than Wayne’s – and more original as well. We’re used to our Western heroes to be just that – heroic, steadfast and unshakeable. Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn is violent, drunken and not very nice – I’m reminded of what Quentin Tarantino told Robert DeNiro to do in his role in Jackie Brown – play him like a pile of dirty clothes. That’s pretty much Bridges in this movie – and it works brilliantly. Matt Damon is also excellent – a more typical lawman, or at least what seems like a more typical lawman on the surface. But they both take a backseat to the remarkable performance by Hailee Steinfeld, only 13 when she made the film, but brilliant in every scene. Perhaps not the Coen’s most personal work – it’s still one of the best Westerns in recent years – and one that is still undeniably theirs. 

9. Blood Simple (1984)
The Coen’s debut film was acclaimed as soon as it opened – Pauline Kael even referenced Orson Welles’ debut film when talking about how good a debut the Coen’s made. That may be overpraising Blood Simple a little bit – but it does deserve a lot of praise. The first film the brothers made is a nasty, bloody, brilliant little thriller – with Frances McDormand as the cheating wife of a rich husband (Dan Hedaya), John Getz as her lover, and M. Emmett Walsh (in a wonderful performance) as the man sent to kill the lovers. The film is a thriller, and it is at times almost unbearably intense (like when a body needs to be disposed of), but it is also  darkly funny all the way through. The performances are excellent, and from the start the Coen’s established themselves as masterful stylists. They have surpassed their debut film multiple times over the years, but it is still worthy of attention.

8. Barton Fink (1991)
Barton Fink stars John Turturro as a New York playwright, who considers himself to be a “poet of the working man”, and even though he has come to Hollywood during the Depression to sell-out, he still thinks he can be a great writer – even if his first assignment is to write a wrestling movie for Wallace Beery. There are only three problems – one, he’s not a good writer, two, he has writer’s block and three, even when presented with a real live working man – John Goodman’s travelling salesman who lives in the same hotel – he doesn’t listen to him, or what he wants, he just tells him what he thinks he wants. Barton Fink is a strange, knowing Hollywood comedy – perfectly cast from Turturro’s bumbling idiot, to Goodman’s fake goodness, to Michael Lerner as an over the top studio boss, to John Mahoney as a drunken Faulkner clone to Judy Davis as his “secretary”, the Coens perfectly cast their absurd comedy, that somehow gets funnier and darker as it goes along, leading to a wholly unexpected conclusion. There are deeper undercurrents to the movie if one wants to look for them – about how ineffectual this “intellectual” is in the face of horror, but Barton Fink is still an absurd, comic movie. While the Coens have made other, better films, Barton Fink is still not to be missed.

7. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
By this point in the list, it should be apparent that the Coens are lovers of old movies. We’ve already covered their trip back to 1930s Hollywood, some screwball comedies, a Western and their take on Capra – and we have their film noir and Preston Sturges movies to come. Miller’s Crossing is their gangster movie. Set in 1929, the film stars Gabriel Bryne as a gangster, who works for Albert Finney – the king of the city’s underworld, who doesn’t know if his younger wife – Marcia Gay Harden, a perfect gangster’s moll, truly loves him. We know she doesn’t, but because he loves her, Finney makes mistakes – and Bryne has to clean them up. The best performance in the movie may just be John Turturro as Harden’s weak, sniveling brother who causes all the problems – and the scene in the forest remains one of the best set pieces in the Coen’s careers. The film is high style – great cinematography, sets and costumes, but there’s more to it than that. The dialogue is perfect, and the performances capture the right feel. You can say for filmmakers as skilled as the Coen’s, this is just a genre exercise – but what an exercise it is.

6. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Watching The Man Who Wasn’t There, you wonder why the Coens never made a film in black and white before – and why they haven’t since, since they are so comfortable there. The film is their take on film noir – with Billy Bob Thornton’s barber narrating his story that will involve more than one murder. Like many film noir heroes, he cannot understand how he got himself into the situation he’s in, but we know – we see all his mistakes. Thornton plays him as a nearly silent man, always smoking, always watching, but never quite sure of what to do next. The cast that surrounds him are all more forceful than he is – from his nagging wife (Frances McDormand), her boss (the late, great James Gandolfini), a slimy defense lawyer (Tony Shaloub), another slimy character (Jon Polito), and the teenage girl who somehow becomes infatuated with him (Scarlett Johansson). The Coen’s are comfortable in this world – they take their time moving the plot forward – they savor the small details and craft a stellar film noir. A little long? Perhaps, but the film always gives you something to admire.

5. O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)
Fans of the great Preston Sturges know that in his 1941 classic Sullivan’s Travels, the filmmaker Joel McCrea hit the road to live life as a tramp as a way to research his next movie – which he said was going to be titled O Brother, Where Art Thou. Sturges never made that film within the film, so the Coen’s went ahead and did it for him. This is one of the Coen’s craziest, most absurd comedies, and also one of their funniest. George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson play prisoners on a Depression-era chain gang who expect together, and go on an Odyssey reminiscent on Homer (the film was actually nominated for an Adapted Screenplay Oscar – with Homer being the author adapted). Now, you don’t need to know Sturges or Homer to like O Brother Where Art Thou – but it helps. The movie is full of bizarre comic set pieces – a man who sold his soul to Devil to learn to play the guitar, a trio of Sirens in a river, John Goodman as a Cyclops, a Klan rally – and through it all it is buoyed by music supervised by T-Bone Burnett. Once again, the Coen’s style is on full display – you could make the argument that out of all of their films, none have better cinematography than this one (and that’s saying something). One of their most enjoyable films.

4. The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Coens will probably never make a funnier movie than The Big Lebowski. The film takes two stereotypical characters from the 1970s – the pot smoking, relaxed hippie and the crazed Vietnam vet – places them in 1990s L.A., and gives them a strange detective plot that would have Raymond Chandler confused. They also have a bowler named Jesus, a rich, handicapped man, his “artist” daughter, a strange narrator, nihilists, the most awkward scattering of ashes ever caught on film and a hatred of The Eagles. The Coens have often been accused of hating, or at least mocking, their characters – a complaint I don’t agree with, but at least understand in some cases. But not in The Big Lebowski. They love The Dude, and his crazy friend Walter (not to mention poor, poor Donnie) – and as played by Jeff Bridges and John Goodman they are one of the best comedy duos in movie history. I doubt anyone knew just the sort of life this movie would take on over the years – but there is a reason it has a huge cult following – it’s brilliant and hilarious.

3. A Serious Man (2009)
Poor, poor Larry Goptnik. He’s a physics professor in 1960s Minnesota, whose life is falling apart one piece at a time – and worse still, he has no idea why. A Serious Man is the Coens retelling of the Book of Job, with Michael Stuhlberg’s Larry as their Job – a man who may be cursed because a distant, long dead relative once let a Dyybuk into their home. Whatever the reason, Larry is doomed, and everyone around him seems to sense it. As the humiliations pile up and up and up, poor Larry tries hard to stay good – a series of visits to various Rabbis does him no good (“Just look at the parking lot”). But Larry is almost able to make it through to the end without doing anything wrong – but when he does, he may just bring on another Apocalypse. A Serious Man is a funny movie – not laugh out loud like The Big Lebowski, but much more subtle – but I’ve never understood the complaint that the movie is looking down on poor Larry – he is perhaps the most sympathetic character they have ever created, and he is brilliantly play by Stuhlberg. This is the type of movie you get to make when you have won an Oscar (I got that from Ebert, who got that from someone else – but it’s true). An absolutely brilliant comedy.

2. No Country for Old Men (2007)
No Country for Old Men is the darkest film the Coen’s have ever made – there are only a few moments where their comedic side comes out at all. Still, it is every bit a Coen brothers film – and the Cormac McCarthy novel they adapted for the movie seems to have been written with them in mind. The film is the story of one man (played brilliantly by Josh Brolin) who happens upon a massacre, and steals the money he finds there – setting into motion a chase as a ruthless, contract killer (Javier Bardem) tracks him down, another killer (Woody Harrelson) on his trail, and small time Sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) trying to stop the impending murders, but powerless to do so. The film is brilliantly written and directed by the Coens, and features some of the best performances they have ever gotten from actors – Bardem deservingly won an Oscar for his Anton Chigruh, and Tommy Lee Jones is perhaps even better. The film is timeless – and by that I mean it would be relevant in any post WWII period in American history – it’s about human weakness and frailty – and ends on a somber note (which annoys many) as Jones simply decides he cannot do it anymore – he no longer understands people and why they do the things they do. No Country for Old Men is a perfect crime thriller – and like the best of the genre, has relevance beyond its genre trappings.

1. Fargo (1996) 
Fargo in the Coen’s best film because it is the film that combines everything they do better than anyone else into one perfect film. The Coen’s have made several crime films throughout their years, and Fargo is the best – because it keeps the crime at a human level. There are no mastermind criminals here – just somewhat naïve people thinking they can get away with things that they cannot. The film is also full of the Coen’s unique, absurd humor (there is a great conversation between two minor characters – a cop and a bystander who has placed a call to them about something he has seen that is as brilliantly written, directed and acted as anything scene I have ever seen, even if it is a throwaway scene). Fargo should have also been the film that forever dispels the notion that the Coen’s don’t like or mock their characters. Yes, the movie has fun with the character’s accents, but the movie also creates sympathetic characters out of everyone in the movie (okay, perhaps not Peter Stomare – but they also don’t mock him). The film is perfectly realized on every level – and contains perhaps the two greatest performances, and characters, ever in a Coen Brothers movie – William H. Macy’s sad Jerry Lundegaard, just trying to get ahead, and completely screwing everything up, and especially Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson, a pregnant cop, who is kind, sweet, smart and hilarious. McDormand justly one an Oscar for her role (Macy should have) – and the Coen’s won an Original Screenplay Oscar. They should have one more. Fargo is a masterpiece – pure and simple. The best film the Coens have ever made, and one of the all-time greatest films.

No comments:

Post a Comment