Friday, October 2, 2009

TOP 10: Coen Brothers

The Coen brothers' new film, A Serious Man, opens today. The Coens have made a career out of quirky, but beneath every odd story is (usually) a strong message and (always) an impeccably-made film. Here are their ten best, in my opinion.

10. The Big Lebowski

I personally tend to gravitate to the Coens' more serious work, but I can still appreciate their uniqueness of vision and their wicked sense of humor. Jeff Bridges as The Dude is easily the brothers' most iconic character to date. The Big Lebowski mixes elements of Leninist philosophy with mistaken identity, a kidnapping plot, a love of bowling, and a stained rug. Only in a Coen film could all those pieces come together to form one of the most beloved films in the Coen cannon.

9. Burn After Reading

A screwball comedy with zany characters, a dizzying plot, and of course, perfect dialogue and great acting. It's funny, sometimes delightful, sometimes a little sad, with dialogue that sounds perfectly logical until you listen a little more carefully and realize all of these people are crazy. A classified CD lost by a disgraced CIA spook and found by two simple gym employees sets off an outlandish series of events that could only be at home in a Coen feature. It's simply - amazingly - a collection of brilliant caricature studies interwoven by veracious, Coenesque, social interactions.

8. Raising Arizona

This is Nicolas Cage at his finest and a Coen comedy classic. Raising Arizona is the hilarious tale of ex-con H.I. and his straight shooting ex-cop wife Ed - their infertility issues lead them to kidnap one of the Arizona Quints. What follows is a strangely dark and comic series of events. This film did not initially do well in the theatres, dealing with a lot of dark humor and general strangeness that may have been ahead of its time. Yet this film has become a huge cult classic, and has gained a strong following.

7. Miller's Crossing

Miller's Crossing is a crime drama set in the prohibition era, with more double and triple crossings than a season of Survivor. The Coens display a love of classic gangster movies with their snappy dialogue, corrupt cops, shifting loyalties, and smoking Tommy guns. Gabriel Byrne plays Tom Regan, the right-hand man of Leo, an Irish gangster. An Italian crime lord calls for the life of a dirty bookie, but Leo is involved with the bookie's sister, Verne, who wants him protected. Sound complicated? That's only the beginning. The Coens weave a complex but hugely entertaining tribute to mob movies, with some classic characters, scenes, and as usual, a gruesome death or two.

6. Barton Fink

This 1991 genre-defying movie won so many awards at the Cannes Film Festival that officials changed the rules. Now each film screened at Cannes can only walk away with two. Barton Fink took the Palme d'Or, Best Director, and Best Actor for John Turturro, who plays an acclaimed playwright who moves to Hollywood and gets a severe case of writer's block. He claims to be a poet of the common man, but when his neighbor, Charlie, says he has some stories to tell, Barton proves uninterested, and thus is oblivious to Charlie's monstrous secrets. It's an assured and political piece of comic filmmaking about Hollywood and hell. Sometimes they're one and the same.

5. O Brother Where Art Thou?

O Brother Where Art Thou? is one of those movies that people either love or hate. I happen to love it. Three prisoners on a 1930s Mississippi chain gang (George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) escape and attempt to find a buried fortune with a relentless lawman on their trail. The journey is amazing and hilarious. This is a clever movie with sharp witty dialogue, the perfect three personalities among the convicts to clash with one another, and one of Clooney's greatest performances. The film has an outstanding, Grammy-winning soundtrack and was instantly popular among the mainstream. With a little help from the Soggy Bottom Boys, the Coen brothers finally proved that they could translate to a large audience.

4. No Country For Old Men

The Coens finally nabbed the golden boys for Best Director in 2007 with this grab bag of their favorites: grim humor, botched crimes, bizarre and bloody deaths, and the use of landscape as character. No Country For Old Men is the story of a mad killer on the trail of a Texas resident who happens across 2 million dollars and decides to keep it for himself. Brilliant performances from all involved - especially Javier Bardem as evil personified and sporting a bowlcut - and primal, unsettling storytelling upended the thriller genre and earned the Coens a slew of well-deserved kudos.

3. Blood Simple

Blood Simple was our first introduction to the Coen brothers - and they didn’t disappoint. This thriller set the stage for many amazing Coen collaborations to come. A rich saloon owner hires a shifty private detective (perfectly portrayed by M. Emmet Walsh) to kill his cheating wife and her lover, but the detective has ideas of his own. The Coens' film debut is considered one of the finest first films in cinema history - and oh how deliciously the double-crossings go down. As TIME's Richard Corliss said: "Who could tell from this debut feature that Joel and brother Ethan would become the most distinctive and unpredictable American filmmakers of their time?Everybody who saw it."

2. A Serious Man

Cited as the Coens' most personal film to date, A Serious Man is set in 1967, and centers on Larry Gopnick, a midwestern professor who is faced with divorce, and all the consequences it may bring to his Jewish family. The Coens' latest film has virtually no movie stars, but it doesn't need them. It's a compelling drama (with a lot of funny moments) that explores an everyman's faith and family. It's one of the best films of the year.

1. Fargo

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert attended the same screening of Fargo when it premiered back in 1996. Siskel couldn't contain his enthusiasm for the duration of the film. He famously left his seat in the middle of the screening, found Ebert, and said, "This is why I go to the movies." I don't believe there's a better way to put it. Fargo is, without a doubt, the Coen brothers' best film to date. The Coens lovingly poke fun at their homestate of Minnesota and its residents with a darkly humorous tale of a kidnapping plot gone awry. The desperate, pathetic schemer, Jerry Lundegaard, is played by William H. Macy, and the hilariously inept kidnappers are Steve Buscemi (a weasly neurotic) and Peter Stormare (a brooding sociopath). But the movie really belongs to Coens regular Frances McDormand, who plays the thick-accented and very pregnant policewoman Marge Gunderson. The characters, comedy, and violence come together to form the quintessential Coens masterpiece.

What do you think, folks? The Coens' mother must be an awfully proud woman, right? What are your favorite Coen films? And what did you think of A Serious Man?


Danny King said...

Great list. I really can't wait to see A Serious Man. I think Burn After Reading is perhaps an overlooked film maybe because it was their follow up to No Country For Old Men, but I really thought it was excellent -- should have gotten an original screenplay nom in my opinion.

Ellen said...

I'd have to put No Country For Old Men before Blood Simple, which quite frankly was a little slow getting going for me.

Post a Comment