Friday, May 16, 2014

The Films of the Coen Brothers: Conclusion and Updated Ranking

2014 marks the 29th Anniversary of the Coen Brothers first film, Blood Simple. In that time, they have made 16 features, and none of them are completely without value, even if a few of them I don’t like very much. They are perhaps the most consistently excellent filmmakers of their generation – they hop from genre to genre, but make each genre their own. The Coens are cynical, some may even say nihilistic at times, but I’ve never bought the argument that they are all style and no substance or that the Coens hate and mock their characters– as I hope these 16 reviews over the past 8 weeks have made clear. They are both approaching 60 now – but unlike many directors their age, I think they’re more relevant now than they’ve ever been – and are riding a hot streak that stretches back to 2007’s No Country for Old Men. While some will complain that they “make the same film over and over again” – true, to a certain extent, their films are variation on a theme to be sure – they find new, distinct ground each time out. This is why I think they’re the best filmmakers in the world at this moment – and hope they remain so for a while longer anyway.

I said at the beginning I would do an updated ranking of the 16 films at the end, so here it is. The number in brackets is where I had the films (minus Inside Llewyn Davis, which I had not seen at the time) last time to show you the movement (and there was some movement) since I started this re-watch. The Coens filmography, more than most, is one that doesn’t always lend itself to consensus – ask five different Coen fans for a list of their top five films, and you’re likely to see every film they’ve ever made (minus Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty) show up on someone’s.

16. (15) Raising Arizona (1987) – Still the film of The Coens I just don’t like – it’s a comedy where the Coens try to add in some serious elements, and it doesn’t work. Whenever one looks to take over, and a scene develop in a logical fashion, the other comes in and ruins it. I’ve seen it 4 or 5 times now – and I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll never like  a film that many think is among their best.

15. (13) The Ladykillers (2004) – A goofy lark of a film, with two great performances by Tom Hanks and Irma P. Hall, and not a whole lot else. It was fun the first time through, less so the second.

14. (14) Intolerable Cruelty (2003) – This actually improved a little on second viewing – it still seems like the Coens cruising, but it was a lot of fun.

13. (12) The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) – The charges of this being all style and little substance are true – but what wonderful style!

12. (11) Burn After Reading (2008) – An underrated, hilarious, extremely cynical farce. Would be a triumph for most filmmakers, but is minor only when compared to the Coen’s masterpieces.

11. (7) Miller's Crossing  (1990)   - A stylistic masterwork, that left me a little cold on this most recent viewing. John Turturro is still great though, and that coldness is deliberate.

10. (10) True Grit (2010) – Perhaps the least personal of all Coen films, but still an exciting Western, and a necessary corrective to the John Wayne film. Most filmmakers couldn’t do this at all, so while it isn’t as “Coen-esque” as most of their work, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

9. (9) Blood Simple (1984) – A brilliant debut – a stylistic tour-de-force that announced a major new voice in American film, and still works as a film unto itself.

8. (5) O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) - A hilarious, stylistic masterwork, taking a cue from Preston Sturges, another from Homer, and delivering something wholly unique – and consistently entertaining.

7. (4) The Big Lebowski (1998) – The funniest film the Coens have ever made – and one of the funniest anyone has – an endless rewatchable film that is almost all diversions, subplots and out of left field plot twists, that somehow works amazingly well – and gave us The Dude.

6. (6) The Man Who Wasn`t There (2001) – Outwardly, a typical film noir, whose detours that many disliked are actually what make it a much better, much deeper film that it gets credit for.

5. (3) A Serious Man (2009) – The book of Job is 1967 Minnesota, with poor Larry Gopnik cannot catch a break, and ends up destroying us all.

4. (8) Barton Fink (1991) – The film most “improved” on a second viewing for me – a Hollywood horror story, a surrealistic nightmare – and the only film of the Coens that I hope the Coens make a sequel to (there has been talk).

3. (2) No Country for Old Men (2007)  - A perfect film that seems like a crime thriller, but is really so much more than that – a wonderful combination of the work of Cormac McCarthy and the Coens.

2. (-) Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) – The Coens saddest, most deeply felt film. I may well end up moving this even further up the list in the years to come.

1. (1) Fargo (1996) – My first Coen film is also my favorite. One of the reasons I fell in love with movies in the first place, and a movie that works as well on the 20th viewing as it did on the first.

So that’s it. I hope you enjoyed reading this series of reviews on the Cones as much as I enjoyed watching their movies and writing about them. I hope to start another series, on another director, shortly.

1 comment:

  1. Fun retrospective! I've seen a lot of these Coen Brother rankings, and theres 2 things I've noticed: No two Coen Brothers rankings are ever alike, and Fargo is never NOT in the top 3. I have it below No Country and Miller's Crossing myself, but its a great movie regardless.

    I share your dislike of Raising Arizona. IDK, maybe its an accountant thing, but I just don't get it. Another beloved Coen film I don't like? The Big Lebowski. I've had people tell me watch it again, its funnier the second time once you know all the lines, here's what the movie REALLY means, etc. Just don't get it.