We start the Top 7. You finish the Top 10.
This week, The Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan) will release their 15th film as writer/director/producers, True Grit. It looks really promising and I hope to see it on Christmas Day. In its honor, I undertook the challenge of picking the TOP 7 Coen Brothers movies and ranking them. Beware, if you haven't seen the film below yet, there are some spoilers ahead.
7. No Country For Old Men (2007)
Recap: Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) comes upon a large sum of money (and some dead bodies) out in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately for him, a hit man (Javier Bardem) comes looking for the money and is more than willing to take down anyone who stands in his way. Further complicating matters is Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a lawman taxed with trying to make sense of the increasing pile of dead bodies in his town. Reason: A dark thriller about the side effects of drug deals, No Country is the Coens' first and only film to win a Best Picture Academy Award. It introduced one of the most unapologetically evil characters in film, Anton Chigurh whose preferred method of dispatch is a captive bolt pistol, a method normally used on farm animals. The film features the typical rich characters that populate the Coens' films, but lacks a good guy you can root for. Jones' Sheriff is the most honorably character, but he's also the least suited for these dealings that lack any sort of code, even among thieves. It's a beautiful film but one so dark that it doesn't open itself to many repeat viewings.
6. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Recap: Jeff Lebowski aka The Dude (Jeff Bridges) enjoys bowling, White Russians and pot. His centered existence is interrupted one day by the arrival of two thugs who mistake him for another man with his name, and destroy his rug in the process. When The Dude seeks compensation for his ruined rug from a multi-millionaire, the titular "Big" Lebowski, he becomes embroiled in the other man's affairs. Reason: When I first saw the film in the theater, I remember the confused response of the audience afterwards. The Coens' previous film, Fargo, had swept the Oscars. As a follow-up, this film was unusual to say the least. But The Big Lebowski isn't about plot, it's about the individual pieces of the film, The Dude's bathrobe, John Turturro's wonderful performance as Jesus Quintana, and the way the White Russians gleam on screen. It's a very rewatchable film.
5. Blood Simple (1984)
Recap: The Coens' first feature film is a neo-noir about a bar owner (Dan Hedeya) who suspects his much younger wife (Frances McDormand) of having an affair with a bartender. This creates a chain of blackmail and murder involving love, lust and money. Reason: In this film, the Coens' really developed their style for the first time. Though heavily influenced by the film noirs of the '40s and '50s, there are enough unique and interesting moments that hold up even now. One memorable scene involves a sweeping pan along the bar to the opening strains of Patsy Cline's "Sweet Dreams". It's so memorable that I can't hear the song without thinking of that moment in the film.
4. Barton Fink (1991)
Recap: Screenwriter Barton Fink (John Turturro) is suffering from a terrible case of writer's block. While staying in a run down hotel, he meets Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) a jovial insurance salesman. While searching for inspiration, Fink starts a romance with the secretary of a colleague who winds up dead in his bed. Then things really unravel. Reason: On it's initial release, Barton Fink was well received critically even if it didn't do great financially. This film was the first Coen Brothers' film I really connected with emotionally. I had seen Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy and liked them alright, but this one blew me away. Mainly by how it completely subverted my expectations. I was watching away, when suddenly Goodman's setting the hotel on fire and gone completely nuts. I spent a while thinking about the movie after I saw it, though I'm not sure that I get the same things out of it that the filmmakers meant to impart. I'm OK with my interpretation.
3. A Serious Man (2009)
Recap: Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlberg) teaches physics at a University where he's trying to get tenure. Back at home, his wife wants a divorce, his brother is crashing on the couch and his kids don't respect him. In an effort to make sense of his life, Larry turns to the local rabbis, though he can't seem to get in to see the head rabbi, who's never available. In a nutshell, things are going badly. In the final scenes, things start looking up. Tenure looks like it will happen, his wife comes back (after the man she left him for dies) and his son has a bar mitzvah. That is, until the final moments of the film, when Larry hears that he needs to have more medical tests done, followed by a shot of a tornado bearing down on his son in front of his school. Reason: A Serious Man tells the story of a guy whose life is falling apart. It's always walking the line between farce and tragedy, and never quite commits to either, until the end. I loved this movie because I felt compelled to figure it out. Even now I can't say I understand what the Coen brothers meant to say with this film, but I have a better idea of what I think of it. What struck me the most was how the final moments just blow away everything that came before. All of Larry's trials were really just... minor. They were real, but the sorts of things that are part of life. The final moments are a whole other type of trial, the kind that can lead to death. Plus the final shot of the tornado bearing down is just horrifying. It's rare that a film leaves you at it's most intense moments, it's even rarer that it works.
2. Fargo (1996)
Recap: Pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) investigates the deaths of a trooper and a couple killed along a desolate road. Her investigation leads to Minneapolis where a car salesman (William H. Macy) with a rich father-in-law had his wife kidnapped for money and ended up involved with some scary people. Reason: It blends the dark with the light in a story of murder, greed, and goodness. Marge is a fascinating character, a whip-smart detective who talks with a thick accent that gives the opposite impression. She's not only more clever than those she's looking for, but she's also just a good person. Part of what makes the film so great is the juxtaposition of Marge's unflappable police persona with her home life, where she's the loving wife to a very kind husband. In this otherwise dark story, their relationship adds hope.
1. O Brother Where Art Thou (2000)
Recap: Three men escape from a chain gang in order to find $1.2 in treasure one claims to have stolen. However, that prisoner, Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) has an ulterior motive, to stop his wife (Holly Hunter) from marrying another man. Apparently, the fact that she is already married is not enough. On this trip, they run into a serious of curious characters reminiscent of those in Homer's The Odyssey. They also record a song that becomes a hit on the radio. Reason: I don't know that this is the best film the Coen Brothers have done, but it's definitely the most enjoyable. I'm not sure how many times I've seen it but it's wonderful each time. It's meant to be based jointly on The Odyssey and the films of Preston Sturges, specifically Sullivan's Travels which is another of my favorite films. Clooney gives his best performance as a scallywag with a prodigious vocabulary who loves his wife though he may not be the best husband. Best of all, it's a musical with great songs produced by T-Bone Burnett. The soundtrack was incredibly successful and makes a great companion piece to the film.