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Gratuitous Coen Brothers Argument Starter

In honor of the Brothers C's first-ever number-one opening at the box office I thought I'd offer my own idiosyncratic list of their oeuvre, from best to worst:

1. No Country for Old Men

2. Miller's Crossing

3. Raising Arizona

4. Fargo

5. The Big Lebowski

6. Burn After Reading

7. Blood Simple

8. Barton Fink

9. O Brother, Where Art Thou?

10. The Man Who Wasn't There

11. Intolerable Cruelty

12. The Hudsucker Proxy

13. The Ladykillers

A few quick notes:

I've still only seen Burn After Reading once, and it was unexpected enough that I need to see it again. When I do, it could easily move up or down on the list.

For me the crucial gap is between the top seven, all of which I think fundamentally work, and the bottom six, all of which I think fundamentally don't (though many have strong elements). On any given day (or hour) I might arrange the movies differently within each category, but the top seven would very likely still be the top seven (in some order) and the bottom six would stay the bottom six. (The other significant gap, I suppose, is between The Ladykillers and everything else they've ever done. The only reasonable response to that embarrassment was to follow it up with their best film, which they did.)

And yes, yes, yes, I know: I rated Lebowski twenty spots too low. My failure to appreciate its genius calls into question my judgment on the Coens, on cinema, and on life generally. You will not be the first person to tell me this, nor the twenty-first. In defense of such indefensible heresy, I can only say that while there is a lot I love in Lebowski--starting with Walter Sobchak, one of the best characters to appear onscreen in the last 30 years--I nonetheless find its randomness disappointing. The nihilists, the dream sequences, the cowboy narrator, Julianne Moore's performance-art heiress eager to be impregnated by a layabout--though the elements are individually clever, there's little or no logic to them; they fit together mostly just because the Coens tell us they do. (And, yes, I understand this is a satire of a sprawling, unruly, Chandlerian plot.) Call it the "Family Guy" conundrum: When writers give themselves license to go anywhere for a joke, regardless of context or consistency, I tend to find the resulting jokes less funny. In any case, I do love Lebowski (which I just watched again recently) even if I don't love it as much as I ought to. Shomer fucking shabbos.

Update: Thanks for the many sharp comments. (Not you, 'yard; back of the bus.) A couple of brief responses:

To the (many) partisans of The Man Who Wasn't There: Despite the low ranking, I rather like this film, and on another day it would probably be at the top of my list of Coens films that don't quite work. (I put it behind O Brother largely because of the latter's music and the revelation of Clooney's aptitude for screwball, and behind Barton Fink because, flawed as it was, it was a more ambitious film; I think, taken strictly on the merits, TMWWT is probably a better film than either of those.) Why don't I rate TMWWT still higher? In part, because the Coens have made a lot of really good films. In part because it has a certain disappointing (to me) Lebowskiesque looseness to it. (The whole Scarlett Johansson storyline--and especially its sordid conclusion--seems a bit shoehorned in, for instance.) And in part because the remote affectlessness of the film, while obviously intentional (it's right there in the title) makes any real emotional investment in the proceedings near impossible. That said, there's a lot I like in this movie, including Thornton's performance and, especially, Shaloub's brilliant turn as Freddy Riedenschneider.

To the (not quite so many) partisans of Hudsucker Proxy: Of all the Coens brothers movies this is the one (apart from Burn After Reading) I probably most need to see again. But that's part of my problem with the movie: I've seen it at least three times (possibly more) and it never stays with me. It's less that there's anything much I actively dislike (though I think Jennifer Jason Leigh is pretty badly miscast), than that there's just not that much to love--apart, of course, from the bravura hula hoop set piece, which is marvelous, the best example to date of the Coens' ongoing obsession with Things That Roll (the fedora in Miller's Crossing, the hub cap in TMWWT, the tumbleweed and bowling balls in Lebowski, etc.).

To the (I lost track how many) partisans of Blood Simple: I'm actually a very big fan of this film--which, among other things, played a very significant role in the neo-noir movement and the indie movement generally--and on another day it could easily have been in the top few. Again, any movie in the top seven is, in my book, an awfully good film (though, as noted I need to see Burn After Reading again before I can confirm it really belongs in that lofty company). But, yes, number 7 seems way too low for Blood Simple; but it seems too low for all the movies in that top category.

--Christopher Orr