The other day on my personal Facebook feed, I was lucky enough to have pierced through the usual thick fog of banal self-empowerment quotes, pictures of adorable/mischievous children, “throwback” photos to remind me just how old I am, and self-righteous political posturing, to latch onto the kind of time-waster that never fails to keep me amused—ranking Coen Brothers movies!
A friend of mine (the same fellow who, without his knowing, helped me polish up my thoughts on Ninja III: The Domination) had joined a discussion already in progress about the quality of the Coens’ 2008 comedy Burn After Reading—the brothers’ ensemble farce about dim-witted gym employees (Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand) who hatch a scheme to blackmail a CIA agent (John Malkovich) after they come into possession of a data disc full of sensitive government documents.
The movie was generally well-regarded by critics (it has a healthy 78% Tomato rating, for those of you keeping score of such things) and did what we should probably call “not too shabby” business at the box office ($60+ million domestic on a $37m budget); for all that, it didn’t truly seem to “catch fire” among the legions of Coen Brothers fans—who can get vigorous about defending their likes and dislikes of the brothers’ impressive back catalog of eccentric cinema.
The Coen Brothers enjoy a kind of brand loyalty film fans afford to precious few filmmakers, in the sense that, if a fan comes out of the latest Coens picture feeling disappointed (or worse), there’s no way they’re not going to be right back in line as soon as their next film opens. It’s the kind of loyalty that, in the past, has been attached to other distinctive “voices” in film like Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, or Martin Scorsese.
The key difference, as I see it, is that when it comes to directors like Allen or Scorsese, there is a general agreement (not total, but general) about where to rank their “major” successes. Not too many people will expend a lot of energy arguing that Annie Hall and Manhattan are not among Woody Allen’s top five movies; the same goes for Scorsese when it comes to Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
The Coens’ work—and the fans’ estimations of it—are a little different. In my experience, it’s very hard to find a prevailing opinion about which of their films constitute their “best,” their “worst,” or even their “middle-of-the-road.” You can find passionate champions and detractors for nearly every one of their films; those who believe that No Country for Old Men is their greatest film ever will find plenty of competition from others who rank it as a mediocrity compared to Fargo. Just as you will as easily hear from select die-hard Coens fans that Fargo is mezzo-mezzo compared to The Big Lebowski…and yet others will call Lebowski a “half-masterpiece-half disaster” (I believe that was my friend’s quote) and argue instead for the greatness of Miller’s Crossing. And around and around it goes.
Like all Coens fans, I have my own deeply held beliefs about which of their movies are fabulous and which of them are letdowns, and which film in particular is not worth one more view ever, by anybody.
That last part is an exaggeration, of course. As true Coens fans, we’re positively addicted to the pleasures of their unique style, by now recognize that others’ rankings will not perfectly match our own, and wouldn’t dream of denying or attacking other fans for the pleasures they get from their favorites.
That’s the ideal situation, anyway.
Now get ready to nod in agreement, or slap your forehead in exasperation, as you follow along with how I rank the filmography of the Coen Brothers to my own personal taste:
The Coen Brothers: The Masterpieces
Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski
I was a little too young to be all that interested in the Coens’ debut splash, Blood Simple. By the time Raising Arizona came out, however, I was in the perfect position to slide into the groove of their unorthodox approach to cinematic storytelling. Plus, I completely fell for Holly Hunter. In my eyes, Fargo is the perfect blend of their eccentric humor and darkly unsettling drama; it’s well-balanced and mature in a similar way to the manner in which Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors represent Woody Allen juggling laughs and seriousness at his best. Lebowski is their biggest hoot; it remains the most endlessly quotable of all their films, and Jeff Bridges’ “Dude” was (and I think probably still is) the most compelling original character in comedy since Kevin Kline’s Oscar-winning turn as the aggressive, dim (“Don’t call me stupid!”) Otto in A Fish Called Wanda.
The Coen Brothers: Really, Really Good
Barton Fink, O Brother Where Art Thou
These are the two Coens films I think equally well represent the two most dominant traits in their catalog. Barton Fink has humor—some hilarious humor, yes, especially the spot-on, joyfully barbed approach to Michael Lerner’s movie studio boss character (“I want that Barton Fink feeling!”)—but it also goes pitch-black nasty more strongly than all of their other films put together. O Brother is their first (and most flawless) collaboration with George Clooney; while it’s got its own occasional detours into the grim (There’s a Klan scene, after all. Amusing, but still a Klan scene), this is the Coens film I find the easiest to digest when looking for something light and refreshing in their filmography. Maybe it’s the infectious quality of the bluegrass soundtrack–unquestionably one of the finest film “albums” of its type, in any genre.
The Coen Brothers: Like ‘Em OK
No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, True Grit
For No Country and True Grit, this category embodies a feeling of respect more than adoration. I recognize the Coens’ standard high craftsmanship in those films (and certainly the Oscar trophy that went to the former), these just aren’t films I’d find myself wanting to revisit over and over again in the same way as those I’ve ranked higher on the list. Both feature excellent lead performances from Josh Brolin and Jeff Bridges, respectively…these two pictures remind me of how I felt about Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear. Solid, but somehow not as undiluted in their pleasures as the best of the Coens. As for Burn, I find myself without a perfect place to rank this, because it’s been moving its way up. I think many Coens fans, like myself, were initially disappointed when they saw this oddball farce…but on repeated viewings and more careful reflections, it’s one of those “better than you remember it” experiences. Pitt’s enthusiastic idiocy is a joy, and co-star Malkovich’s “league of morons” line is a blissfully sharp insult laugh. I expect in not too much time Burn After Reading might jump up at least one full rank on this list for me.
The Coen Brothers: Which One Was That Again?
Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Intolerable Cruelty, The Man Who Wasn’t There
It’s just that simple. I don’t have so very much to say at all about these four, because I saw them, remember thinking something along the lines of “Well, OK,” and then let memories of them fade into the ether. My strongest memory of any of them was being vaguely disappointed in Miller’s Crossing; though in all fairness to the movie, I was coming from the ultimate high of Raising Arizona and maybe expected something a little too similar. That’s one I’ve been meaning to re-evaluate.
The Coen Brothers: Not So Much
The Hudsucker Proxy, A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis
Hudsucker is probably one of the Coens’ more divisive films; I’m on the side of not being so wild about it. I haven’t revisited it for years, so all I can muster up to say is that I have some feeling that, at least this time out, the Coens’ exuberance simply came across as a little too forced for me. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the cast (the Coens typically attract top-notch talent over and over again). As for their more recent religious/philosophical A Serious Man—I wanted very much to like it more than I did. I thought its trailer was one of the best I’d seen all year. But I found it a little too deadly, and I’d render that verdict even stronger for Inside Llewyn Davis. This folk-music drama, which takes big steps into the metaphysical (as many of their films do), really wore me out with its dire pace and low-energy protagonist. The shooting and editing somehow felt stiffer to me, and more about “coverage” as opposed to their usual unerring, disciplined eye for focused image and pace, than almost any of their other films. Some nice moments and performances, for sure—I was really taken with Justin Timberlake’s contribution and wished I’d had more of Carey Mulligan in the film, and there’s a really atmospheric, ominous nighttime driving scene—it just wasn’t for me.
The Coen Brothers: Never Again
The one, the single, the only Coen Brothers movie I’ve ever come out of and thought, “Well, that was awful.” I’m not sure Tom Hanks was a great match—for the Coens or for the material. I admit to being overly prejudiced in my disapproval of the movie. I left the theater so disgruntled about it I vowed I’d never cue it up again for a second look. This sort of reaction, I think, tends to happen more with the artists you really, really admire; it’s almost an act of protection for yourself, because you want to eliminate anything that could interfere with your reverence of the works you like so much better. At least that’s how I prefer to see it.
As the Raising Arizona line goes: OK then.
Time for you to start ranking the Coen Brothers movies in the comments!