A Lars List

The Coen Brothers at their Best

Let’s get this out of the way up top. I’m not now, nor have I ever been a huge fan of The Big Lebowski. Said it. Ownin’ it. Go on and hate on me if you must. But hear me out, cuz we’re moving on.

Now that the True Grit trailer has rolled out, and yes! it looks like yet another sublime cinematic gift from the brothers Coen, Joel and Ethan, it is time to compile in order of subjective superiority (whatever that means) their top 10 films.

Fargo   Sure, Minnesotans bristled at the accents and were appalled by the violence, but the fun that the Coens (natives of St. Louis Park, MN) had with the disarming notion of what is known as “Minnesota nice” was too good for words. A near perfect film that clocks in at a brisk 98 minutes, Fargo (1996) delivers a shrewd examination of pent up Nordic hostility set against Courtyard Marriott lobby music and butt ass cold zipped-up parkas and Gopher hockey. When Frances McDormand’s Oscar winning ‘Marge Gunderson’ glances at the bad guy in the back of her ‘prowler’ in the final moments of the film and wonders aloud “All for a little bit of money,” it wasn’t only Minnesota moviegoers who politely nodded at the absurdity of it all. Fargo won the Oscar for Best Picture.

No Country For Old Men   I can just hear the Coens saying to each other “If they thought Fargo was violent!” Yes, No Country For Old Men (2007) is extremely violent…but that’s what the film is about. How extremely random violence can be. Oscar winner Javier Bardem’s ‘Anton Chigurh’ personifies random violence without an ounce of conscience. To really appreciate and track the film you have to listen closely to the wonderful Tommy Lee Jones narration that sets the table for the story. Lifted from Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant novel, the film unfolds in unorthodox fashion, keeping the audience guessing as to not only where it’s going but who they’re supposed to be following. Kind of random. Kind of brilliant. Another Oscar, friendo.

Barton Fink   A sentimental favorite because Barton Fink (1991) was the first Coen Bros film that made me feel like I was in on the joke – like it was made for me and me alone. Like only I got the film! When the wave crashes on the sunny Southern California beach and we see poor Barton (John Turturro) – the noble playwright who was seduced to wicked, wretched Hollywood – at the end of his dark and twisted journey, we realize we have merely been privy to the insanity and madness (“I’ll show you a life of the mind!!!!”) of writer’s block. It’s eureka moments of clarity like that that keep me fired up about movies. John Goodman’s gregarious (but troubled?) travelling salesman is off the hook, John Mahoney’s ‘W.P. Mayhew’ is a spot-on William Faulkner and a stitch, as is Michael Lerner’s diabolically flip studio head, ‘Jack Lipnick.’ But Turturro as the tortured Clifford Odets inspired ‘Barton Fink’ is the glue. “A writer writes from his gut,” says Barton. “His gut tells him what’s good.” Pardon my French, but…”You’re a sick fuck, Fink.”

Miller’s Crossing   This movie gets better and better and better the more times you see it. Always a good litmus test. Possibly the Coens most unique film. The razor sharp dialogue from snappy thespians (Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, J.E. Freeman), the melodramatic plot points, the noir gangster milieu…Albert freakin’ Finney. And don’t get me started on John Turturro’s death march – “I can’t die…out here in the woods…like a dumb animal!” Vintage Coen Bros, amusingly gutwrenchingly poignant. When Jon Polito’s ‘Johnny Caspar’ smacks his lips and opens the film with “I’m talkin’ about ethics,” you know you are about to be served some unethical succotash by master chefs. Afterall, “…if you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust?”

The Man Who Wasn’t There     Would have loved to hear the pitch on this one. “It’s about a softspoken barber who invests all his money in dry cleaning and ends up in the electric chair.” Oh. Ok. But throw Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito and James Gandolfini into the mix with a dash of Scarlett Johansson and a subdued Billy Bob Thornton and you’ve got yet another serving of Coen Bros comfort food.  Shot by brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins in dreamy black and white, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) is an underappreciated gem of a film, a rich 1950s period piece inspired by the Coens’ love of the novels of James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity).

Raising Arizona     Probably the Coen Bros’ funniest film. Granted, it shoots for the most gags, but with Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter at their amped up and goofiest it hits plenty of targets. The lasting image for most is Cage’s ‘H.I.’ fleeing the police, running down the middle of the steet clutching his jumbo pack of Huggies diapers. But there are dozens of juicy zingers in Raising Arizona (1987) from the likes of John Goodman (a Coen staple), William Forsythe, Sam (“Mind yourself, Mordecai!”) McMurray, and boxing tomato can Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb. 

Blood Simple    Blood Simple (1984) was the Coen Bros first film. It got mixed, but overall solid reviews and immediately drew phone calls from Steven Spielberg and…Hugh Hefner. Hmmm. It is a slow-moving film with unspectacular performances (save for maybe Dan Hedaya), but what it did for the directors was establish a tone and pace that was unlike other movies of its era. “You can’t get anymore independent than Blood Simple,” says Joel. “We did it entirely outside Hollywood.” Well, they have since entered into Hollywood, sometimes not for the better (Intolerable Cruelty, Ladykillers, Burn After Reading) – but this inaugural picture still serves as an appropriate calling card for these storytellers.

The Big Lebowski   Ok, so my take on The Big Lebowski (1998) is that it is half of a great (ok, maybe not ‘great,’ but fun!) movie. The setup is brilliant, ‘The Dude’ (Jeff Bridges) is hysterically numb, and his cronies (John Goodman & Steve Buscemi) are even funnier. But from the Julianne Moore rubber clad high wire performance art scene on the film stalls and ‘The Dude’s’ act wears thin. Hemp thin. Even if because he’s ‘The Dude’ means ‘The Dude’ can’t grow or learn or evolve into anything other than…’The Dude’…Bridges’ character still doesn’t offer anything surprising or evolved in the film’s third act. So this film is basically just an homage to stoners and their inherent lack of growth/evolution? Half a movie. Although, John Turturro’s ‘Jesus Quintana’ bowling tango is epic, as is the botched money drop by John Goodman and Steve Buscemi.

The Hudsucker Proxy   Great clothes, great cars, and great sets with impeccable art department work (Dennis Gassner, Leslie McDonald, Nancy Haigh). There’s also Paul Newman to enjoy. A Coen Bros casting coup. My favorite scenes in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) are the newsroom scenes where Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bruce Campbell go all His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940). But they miscast the lead (Tim Robbins), proving my theory that not every actor can make the Coens’ dialogue sing, just as Shakespeare aint for everyone, and David Mamet just doesn’t sound authentic coming from the wrong mouth. There is a reason the Coen Bros turn to John Goodman, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Jon Polito, Michael Badalucco, and Frances McDormand time and time again. They get each other. Nicolas Cage went way over the top and pulled it off, Jeff Bridges went comatose and pulled it off, Gabriel Byrne was handed an exquisitely written character, but Tim Robbins and George Clooney play the glib rather than own the intentions and heightened desperation that are core to the conflicts. So there.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?   Had to throw a bone to the style, the Homer-esque thematic bravado, and, of course, the music. Clooney’s Clark Gable impersonation wore thin and became nails down a chalkboard for this writer, but there were magical – and inspired – elements to this film. Tim Blake Nelson stood out and matched the period beautifully. Goodman and Turturro not so much. The lasting image of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) for me will always be the ‘Blind Seer’ (Lee Weaver) hand pedaling his train dolly down the track – symbolism at its most heavy-handed, but nonetheless, a tasty lit bit of Coen Bros imagery. But the real achievement was the soundtrack produced by T-Bone Burnett, a rousing combination of American bluegrass, gospel, country and blues.

True Grit is scheduled for a Christmas day release – thank you, Paramount! Here’s to hoping it can not only make the Lars List, but crack the top five! Stiff competition, but my gut tells me…it’s gonna be good.

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