Monday, February 8, 2016

Updated Coen Brothers Ranking

In early 2014, I went back and watched all of the Coen brothers movie, and did a re-ranking of them. No, two years later, their latest film, Hail, Caesar! opens, and I need to re-rank everything again. I always bounce around on the Coen’s depending on my mood, and so this is probably not the same as the last ranking I did, nor will it be the same as my next ranking. I always love reading Coen rankings, because no two are remotely the same – there’s always a film or two on every list that I think is shockingly low, and another film or two that are shockingly high.

17. The Ladykillers (2004) – I remember thinking this movie wasn’t so bad when I watched it back in 2004 – and when I re-watched it, I still don’t think it’s horrible. But other than the minor joy of seeing Tom Hanks play against type, and the major joy of Irma P. Hall doing everything, there just isn’t much here – and the film is more mean spirited than I recall. I cannot think of a reason I’d ever re-watch it again  that - is until the next time I decide to go through the Coens films one at a time.

16. Raising Arizona (1987) – Everybody’s Coen brothers list has to have an outlier – either the film that is largely dismissed that ranks in your top 5, or the supposed masterpiece near the bottom. Many think Raising Arizona is a masterpiece – and I just don’t get it. Normally, the Coen’s in silly mode makes me laugh (and there are funny moments here to be sure), and normally, I find their blending of comedy and drama effortless. Here though, it mostly just hits the wrong notes, and I just don’t think it works. I’ll probably keep re-watching this film – I’ve seen it at least 4 or 5 times now – and hope to change my mind. But so far, no dice.

15. Intolerable Cruelty (2003) – This film probably feels less Coen brother-y than any of their other films. Yet, when I re-watched it two years ago, I was surprised by how utterly delightful it was. No, it’s nowhere near the brothers best work, but damn it all if it isn’t a hell of a lot fun.

14. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) – Out of all of the Coens films, The Hudsucker Proxy is probably where I get closest to the Brothers detractors – and will admit that yes, in this case, it is all style over substance. The more times I watch the film, the less the plot or characters or themes affect me – but the more I marvel at the amazing style in which they pull it all off. It’s fun, and brilliant to look at. That isn’t too bad, is it?

13. Miller’s Crossing (1990) – I know a lot of people will scream at me for having this so low. So be it. Miller’s Crossing is a brilliant looking film – a blending of the Coen style with 1930s gangster movies, and it looks amazing. It is also, without a doubt for me, the coldest film of the Coen’s career – deliberately so to be sure, but still, perhaps too icy for me to really get into. I still quite like it – love it in some ways – but it’s nowhere near the brothers best for me.

12. Burn After Reading (2008) – I know I like Burn After Reading more than most people do – to me, it was pretty much hilarious from start to finish, with a brilliant ensemble cast, playing a bunch of idiots who crash into each other for two years, ending with a great final scene of a minor character wishing he knew “just what the fuck we’ve done here”. Take it as a surface level comedy, and it’s hilarious. But I think there’s something deeper – and angrier – here as well. Not much deeper, perhaps, but much angrier – a movie of its moments and the culture of idiots that surrounded it.

11. True Grit (2010) – The Coen Brothers remaking an Oscar winning, John Wayne classic probably doesn’t sound like a good idea – that is, unless you’ve read the book, in which you know it was already half-way to a Coen movie anyway. This Western is a lot of things – starting off being extremely funny and entertaining – with Jeff Bridges playing the John Wayne part basically as The Dude, and young Hailee Steinfeld killing it as the young girl at the center of the movie. Then, gradually, the film becomes richer and darker as it goes along – and ends up being surprisingly moving. If you’re only going to see one version of True Grit – this is the one to see.

10. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) – The Coens series of comic misadventures, inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey, make this film more episodic than most – although it’s as funny as anything they have ever done. The film, brilliantly shot by Roger Deakins, is a depression era, musical comedy with George Clooney (starting his fruitful collaboration with the Coens), John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as a trio of convicts escaping from the chain gang going on the run. The film is frequently hilarious, and if it’s hard to see a larger point to it all that hardly matters because of just how much fun it is.

9. Hail, Caesar! (2016) – I can see this either moving up or down a couple of spots on subsequent viewings (and there will be many) – but on first blush, right at the half way mark seems the perfect spot for their latest – a goofy comedy of the studio era, with many great comic set pieces, and a Christ storyline that makes the whole thing deeper. I loved the film the first time through – and hope to love it again later.

8. Blood Simple (1984) – The Coens debut film was this brilliant, modern day noir – with a cheating wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz) trying to stay ahead of her rich husband (Dan Hedaya) and the P.I./killer (M. Emmett Walsh) he has hired to catch them. It’s amazing how complete the Coens’ worldview was right from the start of their career – how pitch black the comedy is here, how great performances and cinematography. Blood Simple is often on lists for the best debut films of all times – and it deserves that spot.

7. The Big Lebowski (1998) – An endlessly re-watchable, “Stoner Noir” – that would make a great triple feature alongside Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Anderson’s Inherent Vice – The Big Lebowski is the Coen’s at their goofiest, as The Dude – Jeff Bridges in his best, most iconic performance – wanders into a kidnapping plot, and has no clue what the hell he’s doing. The film has one great character and scene after another, all coming together in one of the overall most entertaining and funny packages of the Coen’s career. Not as deep as some, but never less than exuberantly entertaining.

6. Barton Fink (1991) – Barton Fink is a film that gets better every time I see it – I started off mystified, and then as time moved on, I loved it more and more. John Turturro’s title character – a mostly talentless playwright turned Hollywood screenwriter, slowly going insane in the hotel, is a masterwork of production design, and cinematography – and it’s funny as hell, and disturbing, as it almost literally descends into hell in the final reel. John Goodman has done any number of great performances for the Coens over the years – but this is his is best, easily. This is a film that I still don’t think I got a complete handle on – in fact, I think I’m going to watch it again soon.

5. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) – This is a personal favorite of mine, for some complicated personal reasons. I know it’s probably not as deep as Barton Fink, nor as endlessly re-watchable as The Big Lebowski, but it’s a Coen film that moves me immeasurably every time I see it – much more than most, it seems, who have largely dismissed or forgotten the film as minor – despite great black and white cinematography (so great in fact, I wish the Coens would do another black and white film). This is great film noir, centered on a man so quiet and calm, that people barely realize he’s there – who finally tries to assert himself, with disastrous results. A brilliant examination of the type of character we hardly ever see in movies.

4. A Serious Man (2009) – It shouldn’t surprise anyone that if the Coens were going to turn any book of the bible into a movie, it would be the Book of Job – they no doubt enjoy how God basically torments Job for the sake of tormenting him. A Serious Man takes place in the suburban Minnesota of the 1960s that the Coens grew up in – and follows a physics professor (played, brilliantly, by Michael Stuhlbarg), whose entire life is falling apart, and he has no idea why. For the entire movie, he resists temptation, until the final moment – in which he may just unleash the apocalypse. And, it’s a comedy – not a goofy Coen comedy, but something deeper and richer. Like Barton Fink, this is one of those films that just gets deeper every damn time I watch it.

3. No Country for Old Men (2007) – Not many people have had success adapting Cormac McCarthy – but with No Country for Old Men the master novelist seemed to meet the brothers half way – writing a book that was perfect for them, and they were smart enough to realize it, and turn it into if not their best movie, then their most perfect one. The movie runs like a Swiss watch, and doesn’t hit a false note from the moment it begins, right to the final shot of Tommy Lee Jones at his kitchen table. One of those rare films that is perfect – and a perfect blend of multiple brilliant artists – McCarthy and the Coens, and their sensibilities.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) – My favorite film of the decade so far, is masterwork from the brothers, about a 1960s folk singer who has talent – just not quite enough to make it. It is a quiet, devastating film about giving up and giving in. In the lead role, Oscar Isaac delivers perhaps the best single performance in a Coen movie ever. The film didn’t make much money when it released – although it was hugely critically acclaimed – but I think it’s still finding its audience. Don’t be surprised if one day, this moves up to the top spot on my list – I’m just not quite ready to do that yet.

1. Fargo (1996) – I have seen Fargo more times than any other Coen brother movie – and perhaps more than any movie period – it is one of the few films I would describe as perfect. The film is a crime thriller – and a violent one, but also a hilarious comedy, and even a quietly touching look at marriage. It is endlessly quotable – features two of the best performances of all time by Frances McDormand and William H. Macy (not to mention to Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, and hell, everyone else). I will never get tired of watching this film.

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