28 December 2010

The Coen Brothers

There aren't many directors working today who get me rushing to the theater to see their movies.  Now that I think of it, the Coen Brothers are the only directors who qualify.  True Grit was this year's traditional Christmas Day movie for the Roberts clan, and it was quite an improvement over last year's debacle, Sherlock Holmes.  Immediately after seeing it, I had to rank my Coen Brothers movies.  Here's how I see it:

1) The Big Lebowski
There is little question about what movie takes the top spot.  I first saw Lebowski at a theater in Oxford, Ohio in the spring of 1998. I wasn't a huge Coen fan at that point, but I loved Fargo, and Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy amused me.  Little did I know I would be starting an obsession.  I saw it again a few weeks later when it finally made it to Grinnell, Iowa. It was one of my first DVDs, and I'm pretty sure former roommate Mark and I watched it 5 times the summer after we graduated. The wonderful Screenland Theater here in Kansas City plays it the last Friday of every month, and I've seen it there 5 or 6 times, Caucasian in hand. No matter how many times I see it, Lebowski has me howling from start to finish.  My favorite character?  Probably John Turturro as Jesus Quintana, but that changes with each viewing.

2) O Brother, Where Art Thou
Second on the list is another easy one. Only Lebowski makes me laugh harder among the Coen movies.  While the soundtrack is one of the all-time greats, the dialogue and the cast really make this movie.  Supporting actors tend to get noticed by the Oscars, but only one lead actress/actor has ever received a nomination in a Coen Brothers film: Frances McDormand in Fargo.  I'll never understand how George Clooney couldn't even get a nomination for O Brother. Maybe he was too close to his days playing Doug Ross in ER.  Regardless, this is my favorite Clooney performance in a long line of great roles. "Damn! We're in a tight spot!"

3) The Man Who Wasn't There
This movie never got the recognition it deserved.  Thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins, Coen Brothers movies always look great, but this may be my favorite visually to go along with another flawless score from Carter Burwell.  In a twist from his normal work, Billy Bob Thornton is at his most restrained here.  If it were up to me, this would have made two years in a row that a Coen leading man would have won the Best Actor Oscar.  Denzel's lifetime achievement award was a makeup from him getting ripped off in 1992.

4) Fargo
Helloooooooo, woodchipper!  If that's a spoiler, get Fargo on Netflix immediately.  Frances McDormand rightly won Best Actress in what should have been an impossible role.  Fargo maintains such a dark tone, yet somehow manages big laughs that never distract.  It's one of my favorite performances in any movie.  Repeated viewings only make Fargo funnier.

5) No Country for Old Men
The first 20-25 pages of this Cormac McCarthy novel had me afraid Anton Chigurh was going to hunt me down, and the rest of the novel kept up the tension.  It's my favorite McCarthy book.  Somehow, the movie equaled the book.  Being There is the only other movie I can think of that pulled off the double so well.

6) Blood Simple
I really liked this movie when I saw it as a freshman in high school.  I loved it when I saw it again in college.  Now it's one of my favorites.

7) True Grit
Having rewatched the original recently, there is little comparison between the two movies.  Hailee Steinfeld steals this movie from a phenomenal cast.  Jeff Bridges is one of my favorite actors, and he is hilarious here, but he takes a backseat to Ms. Steinfeld, Matt Damon, and the tremendous Barry Pepper.  I saw an interview where Damon said he modeled his performance after Tommy Lee Jones.  He nailed it, though it doesn't feel derivative in any way.  Pepper fills the Robert Duvall role from the original and somehow left a lasting impression in less than five minutes of screen time.  A nearly flawless movie.  If Toy Story 3 hadn't come out this year, it would be my Best Picture choice right now.

8) Miller's Crossing
While it may be the only Irish gangster movie I've seen, the next one has a lot to live up to.  

9) Intolerable Cruelty
Another one that doesn't get as much credit as it deserves.  The dialogue and Clooney's performance had me cracking up from start to finish.

10) Raising Arizona
The last time I saw this movie was 18 years ago when I was 14, so another viewing would probably elevate its ranking.  14-year old me found it funny, but I'm sure a lot of it went over my head.

11) Burn After Reading
Not my favorite, but the two J.K. Simmons scenes are among the funniest in any Coen Brothers movie.  I love the cast, but Brad Pitt's performance didn't match the tone.  Then again, Clooney, McDormand, and especially Richard Jenkins nailed it.

12) The Hudsucker Proxy
Another one i haven't seen since i was a kid, but I laughed quite a bit.  Probably time for another viewing.

13) Barton Fink
The first one I didn't really like.  It has its moments, as well as a great cast.

14) The Ladykillers
A big misfire.  The Coens normally do screwball better than anyone, but there wasn't much I liked about The Ladykillers.  I didn't even like J.K. Simmons much.

15) A Serious Man
Oh boy.  Maybe I didn't understand A Serious Man because I don't understand Jewish culture, but nothing about this movie made sense.  The less said, the better.

Let me know what you think.


  1. Each year there is an amazing amount of great new and terrible stuff to watch and listen too - with what seems like less and less time to find and then watch and listen to it. Which both makes this blog that much cooler - as well as further emphasize how awesome The Big Lebowski really is. In case you run short on inspiration - I selfishly recommend you sharing a list of things that still gets better with each viewing/listen.

  2. I love this idea. I'll start working on a list, though it's one I want to put some time into. May be a while.

  3. While we're suggesting topics and while I have both Matty and Nate in the room, I propose a post outlining all the ways in which I was right and M&N were wrong about the Community vs. Modern Family debate of 2010.

    As the second seasons of each series have clearly demonstrated, Community is (by far?) the better show. I maintain it was the best new series last year and I think you both now must admit its the best comedy on television this year. Or at least that it's better than Modern Family. While MF has shown its age with an over-reliance on the same tropes from its (admittedly excellent) first season, Community has largely abandoned its season one narrative to become an original, inventive and honest embrace of parody, slapstick, impression, pop-culture, drama and sentiment. Put simply, it is best in-class writing brought to life by the best comedic ensemble on the small screen.

    And if you're still not convinced, go watch the paintball episode again.

    "Hey Abed, your girlfriend will meet you at the flagpole in ten minutes."

    I rest my case.

  4. good to see a regular home for this forum, and a good topic to start with. i will quibble with "a serious man", though. of course, i married into a jewish family and live in crown heights, so while not thick in the yahWAY, there was enough in there to make me laugh. and setting it in MN helps a lot.

    i have a lot of coen re-watching to do.

    i have not watched community, but i will dog modern family at any opportunity. watched most of season one now, and it's just not a good show.

  5. Community is now my favorite comedy on TV, but I had issues with it in the first half of season one. By the time the paintball episode aired in the spring, I was in love. Troy may be my favorite character on television. It's a must-watch, Dave.

    As for Modern Family, it hasn't been as strong since the first half of season one, but the cast is brilliant every week. Yes, it's more generic than Community, but Ty Burrell, Eric Stonestreet, Julie Bowen, & company will keep me watching.

  6. counsel, the defense rests.

    While Modern Family is still better than most, and will remain on the DVR list, Community is the clear winner.

    Over the weekend Fargo was on Network TV. I was almost going to wait just to see the woodchipper scene, but after a few terrible dubbed in replacements of Buscemi dropping the F-bomb, with words that dont even make sense - I gave up. Watered down Coen Brothers just ain't right. It's like drinking chocolate milk instead of a having a White Russian.

  7. Boys, boys, you're *all* right. Community had a hit-or-miss first season that solidified by the second half, while Modern Family came charging right out the gates. But ultimately, Community is the smarter of the two, and Modern Family--though cliched at times--also remains eminently watchable.

  8. Great list, however, I think True Grit is way better than O Brother and No Country For Old Men. May be better than Fargo (been awhile since I have seen it). I have not seen #3 or #6 on the list.

  9. First of all, I grew up in Brainerd and have a small town chip on my shoulder, so I will never give Fargo its due. I will say, though, that the scene with Marge at the lunch buffet is spot on. I've seen my dad butter his hotdish. I thought True Grit was a masterpiece, but I love retribution movies. I will probably see it again in the theater and I don't know when that last happened. And the Nathan Arizona/Huffheinz interrogation scene is one of my favorite scenes of all time. I sit there mesmerized, rewinding and watching, rewinding and watching. I prefer Modern Family to Community. Maybe it's Julie Bowen. Maybe Annie is too prudish too much. Maybe there are better barometers of a show's worth.