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Top five Coen movies

Take it from Javier -- Walmart haircuts can make the sanest man homicidal.

Take it from Javier -- Walmart haircuts can make the sanest man homicidal.

Coen brothers fans are a bit like Browncoats or Trekkies in that they are devoted beyond reason and they have definite opinions (more deeply held beliefs, if we’re splitting hairs) about which movies deserve the coveted top spots on a “Best of the Coens” list. Throwing one’s proverbial hat into that ring is a bit tricky, not to mention dangerous, especially considering the fact that the Coens have given us fans so many creative, gruesome and dementedly gleeful ways to dispatch human life.

Still, there comes a time in every Coen fan’s life when the list has to be made. It’s like fate, or Anton Chigurh – we have to stare down that cattle gun at some point. For me, that day is today. It’s not a happy day, you understand, because I have spent over an hour creating and revising this list. My choices may haunt me in my sleep tonight because that’s how deep my insanity – um, I mean my devotion to the Coen brothers’ films – is. I am a fangirl to the nth degree.

Sheesh, enough with the lip flapping. The Coens never use five words when two will do, so here’s my Top Five Best Coen Films:

  1. “No Country for Old Men” (2007) – The beauty of the Coens is that just when you think they can’t top themselves, they do, and then they make you feel like damn fool for doubting they could do it in the first place. “No Country for Old Men” managed to be a smart, taut thriller, a caper-gone-wrong, an epic tragedy, a pitch-black comedy, a work of bitter irony and grandiose themes, an examination of pure evil and bad haircuts and a beautiful showcase for the acting talents of Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones and, most important, Javier Bardem. Until “No Country,” I didn’t believe a movie could be flawless. But I have drunk the Kool-Aid, and now I believe.
  2. “Blood Simple” (1984) – For most directors, the first movie is a test-the-waters affair, a risk that produces a finished product no one quite wants to remember. Not so with Joel and Ethan, who created their second-best film the first time out. “Blood Simple” is a fine work of film noir, but it also serves as a perfect introduction into the ideas and devices that became Coen trademarks: unexpected violence; darkly comic foreshadowing; themes of good versus evil, the inevitability of fate, revenge and the perils of greed and stupidity. As a bonus, it gave us cinema history’s most horrifically funny line: “He was alive when I buried him.” After 25 years, few movies retain their capacity to elicit sheer terror. “Blood Simple” is one of them.
  3. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001) – In 2001, the Coen brothers and cinematographer Roger Deakins gave us this gorgeously lensed bit of film noir that stands as one of the most visually stunning of the genre. Then they went and cherry-picked a beast of a cast to surround a listless barber hero, played to sardonic perfection by Billy Bob Thornton – a lineup that includes Frances McDormand in a Coen-best performance, and a great cameo by Tony Shaloub. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is one of those rare films that manages to be as aesthetically pleasing as it is wonderfully acted. At the very least, it’ll put you off dry cleaning for life.
  4. TIE: “Raising Arizona” (1987)/“The Big Lebowski” (1998) – My trousers would catch alight if I said I could name one of these as my favorite comedies and ignore the other. The choice is too difficult, so I took the cheater’s way out (I’m a cheater with flaming pants) and picked ’em both. “Raising Arizona” was the Coens’ first screwball comedy with all kinds of randomly hilarious touches (the Biker of the Apocalypse; John Goodman’s, uh, crappy prison escape), and so it deserves proper respect. But “The Big Lebowski” gave us The Dude, a rug that magically harmonizes any room, the now-infamous severed toe and Jesus the Bowler. This one’s too close to call, so I declare it a tie.
  5. “Fargo” (1995) – There’s a rule I hold dear: When William H. Macy or Steve Buscemi show up in a movie, any movie, I watch it. But when both actors show up in a film about a botched kidnapping? And that film is directed by none other than Joel and Ethan Coen? Then I break my own neck – and perhaps the necks of anyone standing in my path – to get to the nearest multiplex. “Fargo” takes the classic caper and injects a little local dialogue (that would be North Dakota, dontchaknow) humor, a few twists, a whole mess of violence, Frances McDormand at her funniest and, of course, a body disposal scene involving a wood chipper that’s as disgusting and disturbing as it is funny. This is why they make movies.

Here are my honorable mentions, also known as the “So Close, Yet So Far Away” set:

  1. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Only the Coens would think to retool “The Odyssey” into a story about a smooth-talking escaped con (George Clooney) who drags his two buddies (Tim Blake Nelson and Jon Turturro) along on a trip to get back to his wife (Holly Hunter).
  2. “Miller’s Crossing”(1990) – Gabriel Byrne’s a pretty great choice to star in anything, but casting him in a ’30s film noir/gangster movie with Steve Buscemi and Marcia Gay Harden just plain genius. “Miller’s Crossing” is one hell of a period piece, and the spiraling plot twists make in an exercise in vigilance.
  3. “Bad Santa” (2003) – Billy Bob Thornton is a last-stage alcoholic who works as a department store Santa that pummels Christmas scenery and spends his breaks diddling women in the plus-size dressing. What’s not to love?