Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ranking the Coens

I've had my differences with Joel and Ethan Coen in recent years. First it was not liking No Country for Old Men as much as most people did, then it was despising Burn After Reading, which was a more common sentiment. Plus, I thought they were total twats when they accepted their two Oscars for No Country.

But as I watched A Serious Man on Saturday afternoon, I realized that overall, my affection for them is still quite high. And it's indisputable that I at least have a high interest level in what they're doing. In this post, I discussed my experiment on Flickchart to determine who my favorite director is, but I didn't consider the following very telling question in making my decision: Which director (or in this case, directing team) has made the most movies, all of which I've seen? And as of Saturday, I've seen all 14 movies the Coens have directed, which puts them easily on top of that group.

The last time I realized I'd seen all of a certain type of movie, outside of your Star Warses and Star Treks, was when Pixar reached the round number of ten features last May with the release of Up. Not surprisingly for a guy who likes to rank things, I decided to rank them, in this post. And though I could wait until the Coens' remake of True Grit comes out this Christmas, which would give them a nice round number of 15 films to rank, well ... I thought of the idea now, so I'm doing it now. I'll think of other things to write about at Christmastime.

Without further ado, my rankings of Joel and Ethan Coen's 14 films:

1) Raising Arizona (1987). Easily the Coen film I've seen the most, Raising Arizona is also my favorite, though it's by a very slim margin over #2 on this list. To lend further legitimacy to its #1 ranking, it is also currently my top-ranked film of all time on Flickchart. And while I don't expect that to stand -- it may simply never have dueled the film that will best it -- the current ranking is certainly telling. The Coens' second film is what established the whimsy we associate with them, as an extremely funny Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter steal one of the quintuplet children of a furniture magnate (an also very funny Trey Wilson). But there's also darkness and melancholy in this film -- it's no mere romp involving funny-talking hicks and two-bit criminals. Also, best prologue for a film ever -- the credits don't roll until a good 15 minutes into the film, after we've already gotten one of the most entertaining back stories you've ever seen committed to film. More proof of its greatness: I actually own two DVD copies of it, one of which is a package deal with #2 on this list and The Full Monty.

2) Fargo (1996). It's extremely difficult to choose Fargo as #2 on this list, because it would also be in my top 20 films of all time, though I currently have it ranked #34 on Flickchart. But, as I said, it's hard to pick against Raising Arizona. Another masterful mixing of comedy and dark criminal behavior, Fargo was many critics' choice for the best film of 1996. The film is buoyed by two incredible performances: Frances McDormand (Joel's wife) as Marge Gunderson, the hilariously pregnant cop whose folksy ways disguise her shrewd investigating skills, and William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard, the skittish car salesman who gets in waaaaay over his head on a scheme to blackmail his father-in-law. (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare are also great as yin and yang kidnappers.) Exceptionally quirky and satisfying, Fargo is basically a perfect film.

3) Miller's Crossing (1990). It's a pretty far drop down to #3 on this list from the hallowed heights of the first two, but Miller's Crossing is also vintage Coens Brothers. I've only seen this film once, but I was struck by their vibrant take on the gangster movie, plus the beautiful camerawork. That scene where the floorboards of that house are getting turned into swiss cheese, while Albert Finney makes an improbable escape to the tune of opera music, is indelible. Considering that this is my third favorite Coen movie, I clearly owe it another viewing.

4) Blood Simple (1984). Another Coen classic that I've seen only once. (In fact, I'll save myself some time by simply saying that all the rest of the films on this list are films I've seen only once.) This is the film to which people were comparing No Country for Old Men, and in fact, some of the stuff in that film is so reminiscent of Blood Simple that you could almost call it a ripoff. But Blood Simple was where they did it first, in their first film. And how could we forget that amazing gun fight through the walls of the two adjacent hotel rooms, and M. Emmet Walsh's insanely creepy villain?

5) The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). This is the first highly controversial ranking on this list. For most people, The Hudsucker Proxy is VMC (Very Minor Coen), but I remember finding it oddball and funny. The standout for me is the performance of Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer, the fast-talking newspaper reporter whose firecracker line deliveries are priceless -- especially since I don't usually find her an appealing actor.

6) The Big Lebowski (1998). Okay, time to register your complaints. I have to assume The Big Lebowski is only this low because I've seen it only once, and it was over ten years ago. I remember liking it fine, but thinking it was a bit long, and that ultimately, I was left with the impression that it was only pretty good, rather than great. But considering that The Dude (Jeff Bridges) has become one of cinema's classic cult characters, I definitely have to see this again to make another assessment. I had intended to last fall, renting the movie from the library, but it didn't get watched in the window I had, so I had to return it.

7) A Serious Man (2009). It's worth noting that this is the first film on my list to have been released after the year 2000. Watching this movie was a relief for me, as it showed me the Coens can still do whimsy -- I found there to be nothing whimsical in either No Country for Old Men (there wasn't meant to be) or Burn After Reading (the supposedly whimsical things were mean and stupid). This movie does not conclude in a satisfying way, but before then, it's a bit like Barton Fink in the way Larry Gropnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is beset by both real and imagined enemies, leading to mental dissolution and paranoia. Quite funny in parts, it's the blackest of black comedies.

8) The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). I have to say it's probably all about Roger Deakins' cinematography for me on this one. The black and white is gorgeous, especially all the loving closeups of tonsorial equipment and necks being shaved. If I watched this today I would probably find it quite boring, but I really liked it at the time.

9) Barton Fink (1991). Another controversial ranking. I have to be true to myself and say that I did not like Barton Fink very much at the time I saw it. Looking back now, I realize I was probably not old enough to appreciate it, still just a late teenager. I think I also considered it obtuse and intentionally alienating. But there's no doubt some classic imagery here, especially the raging of John Goodman in the incendiary (quite literally) finale. I definitely have to see this again to see if my own viewpoint would now align with the classic status accorded to this film.

10) Intolerable Cruelty (2003). Controversy again. This is generally considered to be the Coen brothers' worst film, but I don't agree. In fact, in terms of how I actually liked it at the time I saw it, I'd move it a slot higher on this list, but I just couldn't reconcile placing it ahead of Barton Fink. While I think most people thought this was hateful and showcased the worst in human nature -- a charge I think is justified when leveled at Burn After Reading -- I found it sort of charming and funny. Though, I should probably see this again to make sure I wasn't crazy. I loved the multiple layers of deceit practiced on each other by George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who I found to have huge amounts of chemistry.

11) No Country for Old Men (2007). I punish this movie, but the punishment ends here as I finally allow it to be ranked. For me, No Country was all about expectations vs. reality. I had high expectations for this, both before and within the movie, based on the critical buzz I heard beforehand, and the promise of the first and second acts. But I was so disappointed about where No Country went (or didn't go) in the third act that it left me cursing the film on the drive home. People tell me that the weird, unsatisfying resolutions in this film are straight out of Cormac McCarthy's book, but that doesn't really help me. What I saw was the Coens brothers toying with me for their pleasure, which wiped out much of what this film had done right. I give this film a thumbs up, but only barely, which may make this the most controversial ranking on the whole list.

12) O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000). O Brother is another film most people feel more fondly about than I do. I could have slotted it one higher than No Country, but decided to give deference to the best picture winner. For me, it was trying for the easy whimsy of Raising Arizona, but went way over the top in performances that seemed like a mockery of country simpletons, rather than a loving homage to them. George Clooney was the worst offender in this regard. Love the music, love the production design, don't really like the movie as much as I should.

13) The Ladykillers (2004). This had some of the same problems as O Brother, with over-the-top silliness and a lead performance from Tom Hanks that exemplified that trend more than anyone else in the film. I just didn't like the story here, and the humor was puerile, revolving around things like irritable bowel syndrome. Come on, Coens.

14) Burn After Reading (2008). I consider this film hateful, misanthropic (is that the same as hateful?), poorly acted, absurd and pointless. And that's all I want to say about it.

Anyone else seen all 14? If so, come up with some rankings and leave them in my comments section.


Don Handsome said...

Vance, you asked for Coen rankings…so here you go:
1) Miller's Crossing (1990)
2) Fargo (1996)
3) Blood Simple (1984)
4) Barton Fink (1991)

Of these top 4 , I can say that I think so ridiculously highly of them that I have referred to them all as not only my favorite Coen Brothers Film, but also as “One of my all time favorite films” on a near interchangeable basis. I love all these films with a true passion. How can you not like Barton Fink, Vance? I guess you didn’t say you don’t like it…but I think it should be higher for you. Its their most challenging film (although some of the later rankings are far more challenging for me to watch) I think and its got the best John Turturro performance ever (and that includes Millers Crossing AND Do The Right Thing).

5) The Big Lebowski (1998)
6) A Serious Man (2009)
7) Raising Arizona (1987)

These three are wholly enjoyable diversions. I know you think of A Serious Man as very very dark, and I would agree, but is it too dark to be diverting? I think that these three go very well together because unlike the Coen’s Top 4 Masterpieces (according to me) which take you deep into worlds that you probably haven’t been to, I see these three as swirling free-form good-times. You get to know a plethora of odd characters and you don’t feel too exhausted after watching them. They go down easy and taste great. Funny that one of them is so much darker than the other two.

8) No Country for Old Men (2007)

I just felt like I had seen it all before.

9) The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
10) O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)
11) Burn After Reading (2008)

I saw what they were trying to do, but naw…it didn’t work all that well for me.

12) The Ladykillers (2004)
13) Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
14) The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

I hate these films. They are all equally unwatchable. The Man Who Wasn’t There gets my vote as the worst Coen Brothers film because it brought the shocking revelation that everything that put out didn't have merit (the cinematography wasn't all that great). As 2001 stretched to 2004, the bad era continued and I grew more and more scared that I would NEVER like another Coen Brothers film...enter A Serious Man...

Vancetastic said...

Three of the same top four ain't bad. I didn't mean to overstate how dark A Serious Man was ... it's lighter than some of their other movies, especially No Country. I think saying it's the blackest of black comedies means that it's wicked more than that it's dark.

As for Barton Fink, well, I already told you that it was the 19-year-old version of myself who saw it and probably didn't get it. Now the 36-year-old version needs to see it.

Don Handsome said...

by the way, love the new Audient look.

Phil said...

The Big Lebowski needs to be watched multiple times to appreciate it. It works so well on so many levels. Most people don't even realize that it is a parody of Film Noir. Jeff Bridges' acting is a perfect example of comedic understatement. And yes, I didn't like the movie the first time I saw it!

Re-watch No Country For Old Men too. Expectations always get in the way. It is perfectly constructed.

For me, Fargo and Raising Arizona are also up in the top tier of Coen Brother's films.

Anonymous said...

Intolerable Cruelty better than O Bother?! Sweet Lord!

Vancetastic said...




Those two in particular I feel I owe a second viewing.


But isn't that what's so great about loving film? There are so many educational ways to disagree!