Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ranking the Coen Brothers 17 Films

 This last week saw the release of HAIL, CAESAR!, the 17th feature film from brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. For the last 32 years, the Coen brothers have assembled a filmography that includes every type of genre there is. Their output is compelling, creating work that is accessible to the masses while never compromising its quality to do so (save for a film or two). The brothers make movies in and about America. Most share the narrative: the folly of man, particularly in the pursuit of greed. Underneath that narrative simmers humor, tragedy, gripping dialogue and beautiful photography to create an experience unique to the Coen’s.

Ranking their films (not including their wonderful short-film in PARIS JE T’AIME) is a fool's errand. Of their 17 films, 10 can be considered classics or masterpieces (not to use the term lightly), and the rest an assortment of fine filmmaking. Often, mood determines the Coen brothers film I need that day, or maybe that year. The past decade of Coen brother releases still feel fresh. The Coen’s produce work that grows and matures on you. They give you so much to think about that there is no right way of compiling this list (in the pursuit of ranking their films, you’re sure to offend a few). Having seen HAIL, CAESAR! only a day ago, its inclusion is perhaps absurd. But like any good Coen brothers character, I’ll proceed on despite my own absurdity.

This is arguably the easiest of the Coen’s career to rank. Tom Hanks starring as a con man in the Coen’s remake of the classic 1955 film should seem like a surefire win, yet for all it’s good intentions, the movie is a drag. The Coen’s trade in their unique brand of dark comedy for a broader, more boring telling of a group of thieves trying to pull one over on elderly Mrs. Munson. Besides Hanks, the cast is well rounded with J.K. Simmons and Marlon Wayans. But alas, the Coen’s come up empty. You don’t need to have seen the original to know this one is a stinker. The Coen’s have since teamed up with Hanks, though as writers and not directors for Steven Spielberg’s BRIDGE OF SPIES, in which they’ve been nominated for an Academy Award.    

Favorite Quote: You brought your bitch to the Waffle Hut?

The story of Miles Massey (George Clooney) as a divorce lawyer who defends unfaithful husbands in divorce settlements, goes from professionally bored to love struck upon meeting Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones). His pursuit of her, despite knowing that she is strickly a gold digger, is the crux of the film. It’s hard to make heads or tails of INTOLERABLE CRUELTY. Until 2003 the Coen’s had a prestigious record. When CRUELTY hit theaters it felt uniquely different than their previous work, and not in the way you would hope for. The Coens have proven they can go from Oscar winners to goofball comedies in one year’s time (i.e. 2007’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN to 2008’s BURN AFTER READING). But going from 2001’s THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE to CRUELTY felt, well, baffling. Having rewatched it recently, the film provides more laughs than I had originally given it credit for but INTOLERABLE CRUELTY still feels like a minor work stacked up against the rest of their résumé.   

Favorite Quote: Who needs a home when you've got a colostomy bag?

When the head of the Hudsucker Industries commits suicide, the newly hired mailroom clerk, Norville (Tim Robbins), becomes the head of a major corporation in a play by a corrupt board member (played by the great Paul Newman) to purposely hire the most incompetent employee possible. Then Norville presents his invention of the Hula Hoop -- something so stupid, it has to fail. Except, it doesn’t. THE HUDSUCKER PROXY submits a charming story with great performances (Jennifer Jason Leigh is wonderful as the aggressive journalist covering the newly hired Norville). Like all Coen films, it looks and sounds great, but unlike the rest of the brothers catalogue, it is flat. There is little substance and sooner than later, HUDSUCKER fails to keep the audience engaged.

Favorite Quote: Attention all Hudsucker employees. We regretfully announce that at thirty seconds after the hour of noon, Hudsucker time, Waring Hudsucker, Founder, President, and Chairman of the Board of Hudsucker Industries, merged with the infinite. To mark this occasion of corporate loss, we ask that all employees observe a moment of silent contemplation. Thank you for your kind attention. This moment has been duly-noted on your time cards and will be deducted from your pay. That is all.

#14 BLOOD SIMPLE (1984)
The Coen’s first feature film, BLOOD SIMPLE, set the stage for their long successful career and where it might lead. The film noir tells the story of a man who pays a private investigator to kill his cheating wife and the man she is with, but as with most Coen flicks, the plan backfires. From the start, the Coen’s seemed to conclude that believing that life goes according to any plan is, at best, misguided. BLOOD SIMPLE is a fine film, others regard it as one of their best. I believe that, with a few exceptions, the Coen’s developed into better filmmakers post BLOOD SIMPLE. It’s also worth noting that the Coen’s went with a young unknown actress named Frances McDormand to play the cheating wife Abby. McDormand has not only been a part of 8 Coen films, but would also go on to marry Joel Coen.

Favorite Quote: Gimme a call whenever you wanna cut off my head. I can always crawl around without it.

In the prohibition era film MILLER’S CROSSING, keeping peace between the Irish and Italian mob is tricky business for Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) -- he is valuable to both, but it is his burden to bear. After making RAISING ARIZONA three years earlier, the Coens set the precedent for their common shift from one genre to the next. MILLER’S CROSSING is a cooly paced mob flick with a thin plot but it still rewards the audience with visuals, solid performances and one of the Coen’s finest scores. The movie tackles loyalty in many forms, including a test of human bonds in the face of death. It’s most engrossing when Reagan and associate Bernie Bernbaum (someday, I would also like to rank the best Coen character names), played by the incredible John Turturro go head to head. Turturro injects life into the film. Albert Finney (as Irish mob boss Leo) and Jon Polito (as Italian mob boss Johnny Casper) both do a fine job anchoring the movie.    

Favorite Quote: Don't smart me! See I wanna watch you squirm; I wanna see you sweat a little, and when you smart me, it ruins it.

#12 HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)
A sane and moral person trapped in an insane and immoral business, such is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Eddie is an executive at Capitol Studios (the same studio in BARTON FINK) in charge of keeping the train on the tracks (in every possible way). The Coens love showcasing chaos were normalcy is the perception, and how good people deal with that chaos. Many have compared it to BURN AFTER READING, but CAESAR is a much lighter picture with a sunnier disposition. Some have drawn comparisons to THE BIG LEBOWSKI, as they share a comedic kidnapping plot. True, but the comparisons don’t go much further. For me, O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? seems a closer companion. Not nearly as cohesive of a picture, but CAESAR’s fun rests in the random stories that occur around the larger plot and the unique characters that we meet along the way. The silly adventure matters more than the purpose or plot of the film. That being the case, it’s easy to see how people could feel conflicted leaving CAESAR. Like most Coen films, it demands more than one viewing. There is so much to feast on, so many things to enjoy, however, it could be easy to write it off as an aimless mess. It isn’t. The Coen’s don’t mind ending a film with a shrug (just ask NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, A SERIOUS MAN and BURN AFTER READING). This isn’t messiness or laziness, sometimes stories are fun to tell, but like in life, there isn’t necessarily a philosophical point to be made. Sometimes movies that don’t declare a specific purpose are categorized as less entertaining. On the contrary, the Coen’s prove randomness and pointlessness can be every bit as entertaining!

Favorite Quote: Would that it t’were so simple.

BURN AFTER READING is about dumb and misguided people doing dumb and misguided things in our nation's capital. The story revolves around the discovery of a CD at a fitness gym in Washington D.C. Dim-witted gym instructors (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) believe they’ve discovered government secrets and seek to bribe the discs owner, played by the delightfully angry John Malkovich. The disc simply turns out to be Malkovich’s useless memoir. What unfolds is pure stupidity, start to finish. It’s dejected by many as a slight Coen film but it’s actually quite funny, dark and successfully brainless. BURN AFTER READING gives you no one to cheer for (except Richard Jenkin’s soft-hearted gym manager) which makes it much easier to sit back and laugh at the idiocy. BURN also introduces a Brad Pitt we’ve never seen before as Chad Feldheimer, who is spectacularly vapid. The film ends with CIA agents pondering what the lesson of the story was -- in Coen fashion, it’s nothing.  

Favorite Quote: Appearances can be... deceptive.

#10 TRUE GRIT (2010)
When I heard the Coen brothers were remaking John Wayne’s 1969 TRUE GRIT, I was puzzled. Sure, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN felt like it navigated the Western genre a bit but Rooster Cogburn was the Duke’s character -- not the Dude’s. After the failed remake of  THE LADYKILLERS, TRUE GRIT seemed like an unwelcome detour after 2009’s A SERIOUS MAN. I was so wrong. A gentle but spirited picture, the Coen’s TRUE GRIT dials down on the testosterone of the original and feels like a worthy retelling. It’s a casually paced revenge story of a crude old bounty hunter (Jeff Bridges), Texas ranger (Matt Damon) and a young girl (Hailee Steinfeld) seeking vengeance after her father’s murder at the hands of brutish Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). TRUE GRIT is slow but steady and rewards its viewer for their patience. It’s beautifully shot by Roger Deakins, one of the best living cinematographers and the Coen’s go-to guy. TRUE GRIT proved the brothers could adopt material and make it uniquely their own.    

Favorite Quote: If you would like to sleep in a coffin, it would be alright.

Ex-con H.I. (Nick Cage) and ex-cop Ed (Holly Hunter) want to start a family but are unable to have a child of their own. When a family in town has quintuplets, H.I. and Ed hatch a plan to steal one the babies and raise the child as their own. But, of course, it becomes more complicated than that. The kidnapping comedy is the Coen’s domain (FARGO, LEBOWSKI, HAIL, CAESAR!). RAISING ARIZONA marked the Coen’s first attempt at comedy and they more than proved that their comedic voices were worth hearing. ARIZONA is one of their zaniest films, but there is a true heart to the film. The film also provides one of the funniest robbery scenes in recent memory.

Favorite Quote: Sometimes it’s a hard world for small things.

Set in New York City’s 1960’s folk scene, the titular Llewyn Davis is a respected local songwriter who simply hasn’t caught a break (in any aspect of life). Davis seeks success, but his animosity towards nearly everyone and everything around him makes his road a tough one to travel. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is a glimpse of life, leisurely telling its singular story of the folk singer. Where O BROTHER and HAIL, CAESAR! rapidly introduce characters and events along a journey, DAVIS bleakly strolls through encounters -- each feels worthwhile even if they never alter the trajectory of Davis’ career. John Goodman, Carey Mulligan, Adam Driver and Justin Timberlake all help round out a terrific cast led by the bruting and super talented Oscar Isaac. The film is propped up around several terrific musical numbers (the music of T Bone Burnett).  

Favorite Quote: George Washington Bridge? You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge, traditionally. George Washington Bridge, who does that?

The Coens tackle Homer’s Odyssey through three escaped convicts (George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson) in depression-era deep South. Their journey for freedom and wealth is musical, farcical and fascinating. O BROTHER is hyper-focused filmmaking, every small detail has meaning and purpose to the larger story. O BROTHER has held up as a film worth repeated viewings. Like SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, it’s on TV a lot, and like SHAWSHANK, it sucks me in every time.  
Favorite Quote: I was not hit by a train. Damnit, I am the paterfamilias!... I am the only daddy you got! I'm the damn paterfamilias!

THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE is perhaps the most forgotten film in the Coen brothers career, which is a real shame. Shot in black and white, it tells the story of Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber who is interested in the newly developed dry cleaning industry. Crane  also might be the dullest character in cinematic history. That’ll get you excited right? It should. THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE is a complex and beautiful piece of filmmaking, shot impeccably by the trusty Roger Deakins. Crane drifts through life as more of an observer than an active participant. Things get complicated though when Ed discovers his wife is cheating on him with her boss. Devoid of discernible emotion, Ed sees the opportunity to make a little money through blackmail, but  like most ordinary people who don’t live in the movies, blackmail is a trickier business than most of us can handle. THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE boasts lovely performances from Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson, Richard Jenkins and Tony Shalhoub, as well as a score that’s as haunting as the film it supports. It’s hard to say whether it has missed its window for a cult following, I sure hope not though.   

Favorite Quote: The more you look, the less you really know. It's a fact, a true fact. In a way, it's the only fact there is.

#5 BARTON FINK (1991)
Barton Fink, a pretentious playwright in 1941 New York City, is offered a job in Hollywood to write on big motion pictures. Fink envisions an artist's expedition, but is met with the reality of show business. He is assigned to write a wrestling picture and in a hurry. While in Hollywood Fink meets a jaded idol and a peculiar neighbor at his rundown hotel. Both John Turturro (as Fink) and John Goodman (as Charlie Meadows) give career performances. Goodman plays a down to Earth salesman who is in the room next door to Barton. Turturro and Goodman play the ultimate odd couple and their moments together are such a pleasure to watch. BARTON FINK sports some of the Coen’s finest dialogue. Nearly every scene is conversational in nature, and not one bores. Each scene builds to what is ultimately one of the Coen’s loudest and strangest crescendos. Over the years the Coen’s have dropped hints at making a sequel to FINK (possibly called “Old Fink”). It’s an intriguing proposal. One wonders what’s happening ‘in the life of the mind.’  

Favorite Quote: I could tell you stories to curl your hair, but it looks like you've already heard 'em.

The Coen's sole victory for best picture at the Academy Awards comes in the form of the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel. A story of a man who discovers a brief case of money only to realize that the man who seeks it is a hired killer in the form of the psycho Anton Chigurh, played hauntingly by Javier Bardem. The movie is a simple yarn told in perfect fashion. Bardem, Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones all give memorable performances. A movie that is basically the story of one man hunting down the other finds ways to reflect on the nature of violence, fate and greed throughout the movie, usually through the lens of Tommy Lee Jone's character, Sheriff Bell. NO COUNTRY also boasts one of the best cinematic scenes of the last decade, taking place in a rural gas station, Chigurh faces down an elderly gas station owner whose fate relies upon a coin flip.

Favorite Quote: I always liked to hear about the oldtimers. Never missed a chance to do so. You can't help but compare yourself against the oldtimers. Can't help but wonder how they would have operated these times. There was this boy I sent to the electric chair at Huntsville Hill here a while back. My arrest and my testimony. He killed a fourteen-year-old girl. Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn't any passion to it. Told me that he'd been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he'd do it again. Said he knew he was going to hell. "Be there in about fifteen minutes". I don't know what to make of that. I sure don't. The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, "O.K., I'll be part of this world.”

The Coen brothers’ most quotable film is also its most beloved by fans (it has its own annual festival). Initially rejected by critics and audiences who thought the brothers had regressed following 1996’s FARGO, the film seemed to gain traction each passing year. Jeff Bridges brings the Dude to life as the ultimate stoner who loves bowling, drinking White Russians and his living room rug -- but hates The Eagles. Assigned to help find a millionaire's kidnapped wife, who shares the same name of Jeffrey Lebowski, the Dude’s adventures are outlandish and hilarious. The supporting cast is chock full of characters worthy of their own film adaptations, from John Goodman’s disgruntled war veteran Walter Sobchak, Steve Buscemi’s nervous Donny, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s uptight Brandt, to John Turturro’s perverted Jesus. LEBOWSKI is the funniest film the Coen’s have made. Every lined uttered by Goodman is hilarious. Time has not only treated it well, but established it as a true classic. LEBOWSKI is easily the most difficult film to chose just one favorite quote, but here it goes...  

Favorite Quote: Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

#2 A SERIOUS MAN (2009)
Aside from my favorite movie of all time, AMERICAN MOVIE, A SERIOUS MAN may be the most played DVD on my shelf. Each viewing provides new insights, laughter and tragedy. A SERIOUS MAN is the story of Jewish college professor, Larry Gopnik, who is trying to manage the many unfortunate events in his life. Gopnik faces bribery by a disgruntled student, impending divorce from a wife who’s left him for his colleague Sy Ableman, his brother Arthur who is suffering a mental breakdown (played by the perfectly cast Richard Kind), two teenagers absorbed in their own lives, an anti-semitic neighbor, death, nightmares and a pesky salesman from the Columbia Record Club who wants to be paid for a record Larry has never ordered. Gopnik is played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who gives a gentle but memorising performance. Stuhlbarg’s Gopnik is not resentful or angry. He is searching for solutions and taking life in stride, as most people would. A SERIOUS MAN feels both wildly realistic and cinematic at the same time. The movie received critical praise during its release, though it never seem to catch on with audiences the way O BROTHER, NO COUNTRY or FARGO had. Almost by design, A SERIOUS MAN alienates its audience from the start. The movie begins with a European prologue that seems to have taken place centuries ago. A Jewish couple are trying to decide if the old man in their home is alive or a dybbuck (an evil spirit). Then the movie starts, and if you believe the Coen brothers, the prologue has no relation to the rest of the film -- they just thought it would be fun. Many audiences may never recover from why a movie would do that. Some will pull their hair out over its meaning or if they missed something. But if A SERIOUS MAN is to teach us anything, it’s that trying to uncomplicate the mess around us simply isn’t possible sometimes, no matter how many rabbi’s we consult.  

Favorite Quote: Things aren't so bad. Look at the parking lot, Larry… Just look at that parking lot.

#1 FARGO (1996)
Man needs money. Hires men to kidnap his wife. Asks for ransom from his rich father-in-law. Everything goes wrong. FARGO represents the Coen’s boldest and funniest statement on greed. Movies love to show corporate greed and criminal greed. Greed in the big cities and greed with big time players. But what about the car salesman in the Midwest who just needs cash to get out of debt? Lucky for us, the Coen’s are willing to make that movie. A film that takes everything and nothing seriously at once. The moment the movie starts, you hear the unforgettable score with the car driving in the snowy white landscape and you know that you’re in the hands of masters. FARGO displays a perfect mix of Coen skepticism and optimism. That the same film gives us both the character of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) and Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is a marvel. In the sincerest way, FARGO shows what formulates the best and worst in all of us. FARGO will endure as the Coen brothers purest and smartest film.  

Favorite Quote: And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day.

What’s your favorite Coen movie and quote?

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