Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Top Ten: Coen Brothers

Haven't done this in a while. An ol' fashioned Top Ten list. The subject this time around? The Coen Brothers. In celebration of the premiere of the teaser trailer for their new film, True Grit. The original John Wayne film from 1969 is one of my least favorite Westerns ever, but I've been slowly talking myself into this one. Especially after getting this (admittedly short) peak, which includes a scruffy Jeff Bridges (some shades of The Dude? We'll hear more about him in a little bit), a shooting Matt Damon, and glimpses of a feisty performance from newcomer Hattie Steinfeld. We've heard that the Joel and Ethan are much more interested in adapting the 1968 Charles Portis novel then remaking the Oscar-winning film - which is hopeful. But enough about True Grit, let's take a look back at the entire Coen Brothers catalogue and countdown their Top Ten films.

10. The Ladykillers (2004)

Most Coen fans consider this comedy caper the worst of their fourteen feature films, but even saying that, there are few who would admit that they are not overcome by the film's infectious absurdity. A remake of the Peter Sellers 1955 comedy of the same name, it follows a zany collection of criminals led by Prof. G.H. Dorr (Tom Hanks), and including a demolition man with irritable bowel syndrome (J.K. Simmons) and a loudmouth petty thief (Marlon Wayans). Posing as a Christian music band, they hide out in the basement of a pious, gregarious woman named Marva (Irma P. Hall). Containing one of Hanks' most delicious comedic performances, The Ladykillers has some of the biggest laughs in the Coens' illustrious comedic history. While the film keeps the silliness of the original, there is still the Coen touch of peculiarity and quirk, leading to a conclusion that is as hysterical as it is anarchistic. Another piece of trivia: this is the only Coen Brothers film where they had nothing to do in the writing of the screenplay.

9. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

This is by far the sweetest Coen brothers film, with many classifying it as a children's film ("You know, for kids!"). When the president of a manufacturing company jumps out the window of the top floor of a forty-five story building, the scheming vice president (Paul Newman) decides to hire a dunce to replace him to drive down the stock so he can it up cheap. He hires the exceptionally idealistic Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) who takes to his job quickly, even with fast-talking undercover reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) out to expose him. With open references to the screwball comedies of Preston Sturgess and Frank Capra, The Hudsucker Proxy is the Coens' most heartfelt love song (they prefer saluting the screwballs and film noirs amongst genre, but Westerns get their fair share as well). It also contains some of the best work from film composer Carter Burwell and cinematographer Roger Deakins. It's probably the similarity to films of long ago that caused Hudsucker to be one of the Coens' biggest box office flops, but it's reputation has grown quite a bit in the decades since.

8. Miller's Crossing (1990)

If Hudsucker was a blown kiss toward 1940's romantic comedy, then Miller's Crossing was one of the least subtle winks to 1940-50's film noir. The plot is a spiraling one, focused on loner gangster Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), whose boss and mentor Leo (Albert Finney) is having trouble keeping piece between mob boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) and the brother (Jon Turturro) of his girlfriend Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). As Tom double-talks and sidesteps through all these characters in hopes to get things to turn out his way, many things go right and many other things go very, very wrong. A straight drama, Miller's Crossing is probably one of the Coens' least distinct films, with very little of their trademark oddities popping up (though their are a few here and there). Instead, they focus solely on catching the suspense and moral ambiguity of classic gangster pictures from long ago. Needless to say, like The Hudsucker Proxy, it also had its initial struggles at the box office, but today its usually held up among some of their more polished work. Also, this is their first of five collaborations with Steve Buscemi (albeit a very short one), and all of those films make the Top Ten (Oh joy!).

7. Burn After Reading (2008)

Only seven months removed from winning three Oscars for No Country For Old Men, the Coens came out with Burn After Reading, one of the funniest, but damning looks at the idiocy of American culture. The film follows an ensemble including two dim-witted gym employees (Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt), their boss (Richard Jenkins), a disgruntled, recently fired CIA man (John Malkovich) and his ornery wife (Tilda Swinton), and a charming, gun-wielding government officer with a penchant for exercise and wood flooring (George Clooney). When the gym employees get a piece of the CIA agent's memoirs, they mistake it for confidential information, and their search for retribution leads to often hilarious, often dangerous results for everyone involved. Funny in a way that's dark and brooding, Burn After Reading is probably the best dissection of Bush America that we'll ever see. It cuts a knife through our superficial values just as sharply as No Country, but it has the gaul to sunny and cheerful about it. By far, the best of the Clooney-Coen collaborations, and has what may be the best performance of Brad Pitt's career.

6. Blood Simple (1984)

As their debut film, Blood Simple really got the word out quickly about how talented these two Midwestern brothers really were. A grizzly Texas crime film, it deals with a bar owner named Marty (Dan Hedaya) whose crazy jealousy over his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) and her lover Ray (John Getz), leads him to contact a sketchy private investigator (M. Emmett Walsh) to put a scare into him. Much like other Coen films, this meticulously plotted plan goes horribly wrong because of circumstances that are far outside of the characters' control. In a lot of ways, this is a much less mature version of their masterpiece Fargo, with the elements of dark crime and bad luck so similar to the 1996 film. As their first film, its particularly impressive, considering it contains some of the most intense scenes they've ever produced. One of those scenes involving one character burying another alive, which is probably the most dastardly act a Coen character has ever perpetrated (with the noted exception of Gaear Grimsrud and his notorious woodchipper). There are lots of things in Blood Simple that seem out of the Coens' style, which is to be expected as they searched to find their voice. That said, it is still one of the best film debuts of all time.

5. Barton Fink (1991)

After Barton Fink swept up at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival (taking Best Actor for Jon Turturro, Best Director for Joel, and the highly-coveted Palme D'or), many finally started taking the Coens seriously. Before Fink, they were only thought of us stylish genre filmmakers with plenty of flash, but barren of heart. Fink was a different direction, much more existential and categorically ambiguous - inspired more by Freud then by Howard Hawks and Preston Sturgess. The follows the titular Barton (Turturro), a writer who's hot off a Broadway success and is asked to come to Los Angeles to draft a boxing picture. He dreams of writing a masterpiece about "the common man", but when he's sent to ominous Hotel Earle he can't focus. He finds all sorts of distractions in the all sorts of things, including his peeling wallpaper, the sexual moans from upstairs, and especially the constant visits from his friendly, but overbearing next door neighbor Charlie (John Goodman). Tackling various subject matter such as the "life of the mind" and poking fun at film studios (Michael Lerner's hilarious performance as studio head Jack Lipnick earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination), Barton Fink was the Coen Brothers' first great film and would set the standard for every film they released after it.

4. A Serious Man (2009)

Released just last year, A Serious Man became only the third Coen film to be nominated for Best Picture (of course, it helped that they expanded the field that year to ten, but still). Described by many as being Joel and Ethan's most personal film, documenting the life of a Jewish man in 1950's American Midwest. Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) is having some problems: his wife has decided to leave him for the family friend Sy (Fred Melamed), his son is a pot-smoking delinquent, and his oafish brother Arthur (Richard Kind) won't get off his couch and find his own apartment. With allusions to the Book of Job, A Serious Man is unlike most Coen Brothers films, since for the first time, they allowed their characters to recruit empathy from the audience. If you could make any argument against their movies, its that their characters silly (sometimes offensive) caricatures of actual people. Not here. They want us to feel bad for Larry Gopnick. But just as they give us a place to filter our emotion, they break them down, sending Larry through a hellish journey throughout the film. It's their most audacious experiment, and was instantly considered one of the best of the Coen pantheon upon release.

3. The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Big Lebowski is certainly their most cherished film, simply because it is their best pure comedy. Following The Dude (Jeff Bridges) and his angry friend Walter (John Goodman), we see a sequence of strange characters and events that lead up to very little that makes sense or forward story progress. Instead, the film prefers to focus on its own meanderings, including an ornery millionaire (David Huddleston), his estranged step-daughter (Julianne Moore), a group techno pop nihilists, and Dude and Walter's innocent bowling partner Donnie (Steve Buscemi). It's certainly the coolest movie to spend such a quantifiable amount of time in a bowling alley, but it's also one of the greatest deconstructions of film noir ever. In a lot of ways, it's an "anti-film noir", containing many of the same plot elements of the Howard Hawks film The Big Sleep. But instead of a grizzled, go-getter protagonist, we're left with The Dude - a man who actively avoids all kinds of conflict. Which is why The Big Lebowski is such an incredible watch: it's a delightfully ridiculous comedy on the surface, while being a stinging comment on cinema below the surface. And let's not forget one of the greatest uses of Kenny Rogers' "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)".

2. No Country For Old Men (2007)

After The Ladykillers was declared by many to be their worst effort, some thought that maybe the Coens' days as the wonderful oddities of cinema were numbered. So, after three years of nothing, they finally came out with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country For Old Men. The story is about Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a streetwise Texas hunter who comes across a maximum drug deal gone wrong. All he sees are dead bodies, mountains of heroin, and a satchel with $2 million, so he takes the money and runs with it. This gets the amoral bounty hunter Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) on his trail. Anton is a killing machine, who works in a very mechanical way and never leaves evidence behind. But Anton does have grizzled, downtrodden Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) following him, hoping to find the two men before a blood path ensues. As a grim metaphor for American society, No Country is scary in its foreboding foresight of an unstoppable evil in our country's future. As a thriller, the film pulsates with suspense, thanks to the brilliant work of the Coens, as well as veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins and career-best work from sound editor Skip Lievsay (neither Lievsay nor Deakins won the Oscar that year, in one of the more egregious look-overs of the ceremony). It is the first Coen Brothers film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and likely to be the only one. Lightning doesn't strike twice.

1. Fargo (1996)

If you're going to be considered a seminal filmmaker, you usually have to have at least two legitimate masterpieces. Scorsese has Taxi Driver and Goodfellas. Woody Allen has Annie Hall and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Billy Wilder has Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment. No Country For Old Men was their second masterpiece cementing them in the pantheon in great American filmmakers. Fargo was their first, and their best. A dark comedy about a deeply indebted car salesman (William H. Macy) who hires two slimy criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, so he can split the hefty ransom money that will come from his well-off father-in-law (Harve Presnell). What they don't expect is the smart eye of Police Chief Marge Gunderson (France McDormand in an Oscar winning performance) who is still the best officer in her district despite being six months pregnant. Part dissection of small town America, part meditation on good vs. evil, Fargo is easily the Coen Brothers greatest film and one of the greatest films of all time. The lovable Marge is easily the best character that the Coens have ever crafted, but its her placement in the world of this film that is fascinating. She represents everything that is good, and the Coens have her face off against the ultimate evil manifested by Buscemi and Stormare. Though Marge wins, the mood at the end is ambiguous. In a lot of ways, in contains some of the same warnings in No Country, but it's less angry and more hopeful. More funny and less downtrodden. It's quietly delightful in its comedy, and brutally shocking with its violence. It's one of the most well-rounded films ever. And it also has Peter Stormare throwing Steve Buscemi in a woodchipper, and who doesn't love that?


LOUIS.C said...

aaah you've reminded me of my overwhelming love for the coen brothers and just when i thought i'd kicked my addiction, time to go on a marathon coen brothers extravaganza
great reviews, great movies
im currently doing a piece on tarantino, original i know, but i've tryed to give it my own spin
check it out and if your feeling generous follow my blog

Simon said...

I will disagree with the Ladykillers until my untimely demise by black hole stimulator.

Hal said...

I'm with Simon. Ladykillers is one of two films I've ever walked out of in theaters.

James Colon said...

Louis - I'll definitely check it out. Love Tarantino!

Simon & Hal - Yeah, I've realized that I'm in a small minority that really digs 'The Ladykillers'. I find Tom Hanks and the film's overall absurdity to be pretty infectious. I do realize that's not the popular opinion though.

There's no Coen Brothers film that I actively dislike, but I've never been able to grasp 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?'. I understand it as a retelling of Homer, but I could never see anything else there.

Thanks for reading!