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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?

15 Responses

  1. My Coen Bros tastes differ a little I suppose. I’d say my top five are:

    Raising Arizona
    O Brother Where Art Thou?
    The Big Lebowski
    Tie between Hudsucker Proxy and Barton Fink

    • It would seem like I need to rewatch “Hudsucker” and “Barton Fink.” I’ve seen both but neither left as big an impression on me as, say, “No Country” or “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” Although if I do that, I might have to consider the craziness that led me to make this list in the first place….

  2. Nothing could have prepared me for how good No County For Old Men was, it was probably the best movie released that year.

    As for the others, I now feel like I have to go out and rent “Blood Simple”, the list of movies I must see grows longer. Also, have you seen Burn After Reading?

    • “Burn After Reading” is not a favorite of mine. I like it and I own it (it’s one of the movies in the homepage header), but it’s not the best of the Coens.

      You could start with any Coen brothers movie, but “Blood Simple” is a classic. Such dark humor and Dan Hedaya — perfect combo.

  3. I would go with

    Miller’s Crossing
    The Big Lebowski
    Barton Fink
    O Brother Where Art Thou?

    as my top 5 Coen brother movies…in that order of course.

    As for least favorite?

    Burn After Reading
    Intolerable Cruelty
    The Ladykillers

    …also in that order.

    • I definitely agree with the least favorites. I think those are standards among Coen fans (although I know one person who claims to have liked “Intolerable Cruelty”). I enjoyed “Barton Fink” because of Goodman and Turturro, but it didn’t wow me the way the others did. Still, I’d agree with Fandango that picking five is kind of insane. I may be wacky in the head.

  4. A top five (or six, cheat!) Coen Brothers list is impossible. While I don’t disagree with any of your suggestions I couldn’t miss out: O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Hudsucker Proxy Barton Fink and Millers Crossing.

    • What can I say? I’m a cheater. But it was harder for me to come up with a Top 10, or even an ordered list of favorites. If that makes sense. So five it was. Those were five I REALLY loved, and the others sort of trickled in after.

  5. aw man, i love a good top five – nice post M Carter
    in fairness, there arent that many Coen movies, so you guys should have no complaints about getting it down to a top five. while by no means a Coens buff, for the record my pretty predictable top five would probably be:
    1. Lebowski
    2. Raising Arizona
    3. Fargo
    4. Miller’s Crossing
    5. O Brother

  6. I agree with Fandang, M you flake, you can’t have 6 in a top 5!
    Good call on the Burn After Reading exclusion, it sucked. Burn after seeing.

    • A tie is a tie is a tie. Them’s the rules over here. Note: I never said the rules had to be fair.

  7. Blood Simple all the way. What a kickass debut effort. M. Emmet Walsh is the man.


  8. Their latest, A Serious Man, makes a bold case for top-tier status. I’ve only seen it once and I saw it within the last week, but I’m already updating my own top 5 around it. Here’s mine:

    1. NCFOM
    2. Barton Fink
    3. A Serious Man (could be #2 after multiple viewings)
    4. The Big Lebowski
    5. Fargo

    • Haven’t seen “A Serious Man” yet, but I’m hoping it will hit the cheap theater here any day now…

      Very strong list, too, and I like that you included “Barton Fink” — I’m a huge John Turturro fan even though “Barton Fink” wasn’t my favorite Coen movie. “No Country for Old Men” deserves to be high on the Coen totem pole.

      • Barton Fink fascinates me. It’s the most broadly interpretive of the Coens’ work (though A Serious Man, which actually borrow a bit from BF’s feel of an entropic hell, surpasses it in thematic range), and Tuturro and Goodman give their finest performances. It’s the one Coens film I’m afraid to review, because there’s so much going on and so much symbolism that I’m not sure I find solid ground each time I watch it.

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