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10 best (original) Coen characters

Go ahead and cut off Loren's head -- see if he can't crawl around your nightmares without it.

Someone — I’m not going to stoop to naming names, you understand — once told me it was impossible to create a list of the best Coen brothers films. That was the day, I believe, that some vandal ripped the “I” section from my Merriam-Webster because I didn’t know the meaning of the word impossible.*

And yet here I am four months and a Merriam-Webster Online bookmark later whipping up another “best of” Coens list. Is this ambitious, hornery, maddeningly persistent or simply a clear sign that I am squirrelbait? Take a gander at this list and you be the judges…

1. Loren Visser — Villainy, thy name is Loren. There’s no arguing that the Coens are dark, but they plumbed new psyche depths to dream up with a bad guy as slithery and skin-crawlingly creepy as Loren Visser, the “Blood Simple” gumshoe/gunman-for-hire. The never-better M. Emmet Walsh hits us with a scary truth: Spend all your time worrying about the immoral villains and the amoral ones will get you every time. 

2. Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski — Does it get more original than a stoner bowler (Jeff Bridges) who sucks down White Russians like oxygen, knows a guy who can get you a toe (don’t ask how), indulges his acid flashbacks for fun and waxes poetic about the harmonizing powers of his living room rug? Actually, maybe it does. See No. 4.

You betcha I'll catch the funny-lookin' one...

3. Marge Gunderson — Just call her the Columbo of Brainerd, Minnesota. Sure, those “dern tootin'” remarks or that friendly, warm-as-pie Minnesota accent might lead you to believe Marge Gunderson’s a bricks short of a load, but don’t be fooled; the way the divine Frances McDormand plays her, she’s smart as a whip, persistent to a fault and keenly observant. She gets her man, alright, and she’ll do it without getting a drop of sweat on her Arby’s roast beef-n-cheese.

4. Jesus the Bowler — The key to a bang-on cameo is picking an actor who can create an entire character out of little more than thin air. This, I’m convinced, is why John Turturro was put on this Earth: to play The Dude’s arch nemesis Jesus the Bowler, a legend in his own hairnet whose signature line — hell, his only line — boldly and creatively pairs the words “fuck” and “Jesus” in the same sentence. Mark it, dudes, as one of the best cameos. Ever.

Be nice to Chad. He has seen your secret CIA sh*t.

5. Chad Feldheimer — For all its faults, “Burn After Reading” did one thing very, very right: It introduced to the world to Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a frosted tips-sporting, gum-popping buffoon with a passion for physical fitness and not one thought — deep or otherwise — in his puny little pea brain. Pitt dives head-long into Chad’s cheerful idiocy, and the end result is a character as unforgettable as he is funny.   

6. Ed Crane — It’s an unspoken rule of film (and of life, really): The quiet ones are far more interesting than the ones who never stop flapping their gums. Nowhere is this more crystal clear than the Coens’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” narrated by unwitting barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton). Ed’s taciturn as hell, a self-described ghost in his own life, but Thornton lends him enough laconic humor to make him a sympathetic Everyman.

7. H.I. McDunnough — Joel and Ethan, they have a way of writing characters who look and seem simple-minded, maybe even dumb. Then they open their mouths, and out flow rivers of shocking wisdom and insights. And sprung criminal H.I. McDunnough, trying to make a new life with his wife (Holly Hunter), is nothing if not insightful. It’s observations like “sometimes it’s a hard world for small things” make “Raising Arizona” as much a character study as it is a riotously funny screwball comedy.

What does this mean? That's a trick! Facts have no meaning!

What does this mean? That's a trick! Facts have no meaning!

8. Freddy Reidenschneider — If there’s one thing Joel and Ethan know, it’s that names make or break a character. Why else would they have decided to take a boastful, self-important lawyer (the superb Tony Shaloub) and give him a name like “Freddy Reidenschneider”? Hardly rolls of the tongue very sweetly, does it? Instead it suggests an air of blustering confidence, the kind only a character who’s decided to cultivate a personality more outrageous than his last name can have. And in Shaloub’s capable hands, Mr. Reidenschneider is quite a character, indeed. 

9. Jerry Lundergaard — For every foolproof plan there’s a fool behind it believing he’s 17 times smarter and cooler than he actually is. In “Fargo,” Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy) is a schemer so comically and tragically inept at scheming that he can’t call the perps to end his swirling-down-the-john plan because he doesn’t have their phone number. Yikes. Then he thinks he can finesse his way out of an interrogation by the untrickable Marge Gunderson. What theheckya thinkin’ there, Jer?

10. Tom Reagan — In every Coen brothers film there’s a character who’s hard as nails, who has cold, steely eyes sharp enough to cut you right in two and not enough humanity to stitch you back together. In “Miller’s Crossing,” a Prohibition-era mob thriller, that man is Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne). He has made being “a son of a bitch a point of pride,” someone notes, and that makes him one tough guy. Then there’s the fact that Gabriel Byrne plays him. And everyone knows that Gabriel Byrne? Yeah, he’s just plain cool.

 
(Suddenly it occurs to me there’s one thing the Coens don’t do all that well: Write really cool/insane/outrageous female characters. Let’s get a jump on that, fellows.)
*Shameless “Zoolander” reference

10 books that would make great movies

(Popular response to this post pushed me to add more books to the list. Stopping at 10 was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do … aside from surviving that “Lord of the Rings” marathon, that is.)

No doubt you’ve been to the movies to see something based on a book — since the 1990s, Dennis Lehane has held that market at gunpoint — and walked out only to hear your moviegoing companion emit a deflated sigh followed by: “The book is always better than the movie.”

Despite bails of annoyingly nitpicky English major-type training, I am not that person.

Films based on books, when done right, can be works of art in their own right. Consider “In Cold Blood,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the more recent “Mystic River” or “Gone with the Wind.” In some cases, movies — dare I say it? — can improve mediocre works (re: “In Her Shoes”) or bring new life to off-puttingly weird characters (think “Harold and Maude”). Though bad film translations abound, there are too many really good ones to discount them out-of-hand.

So instead of lambasting this unenviable task of turning books into movies, how’s about we celebrate it? I’ll go first and present my list of five books that would make great movies:

1. Wally Lamb’s “She’s Come Undone” — It’s been said that men simply can’t think like women. Wally Lamb, apparently, is the exception that gives that statement a violent shove into the realm of truth. “She’s Come Undone,” which follows Dolores Price from childhood through her overweight, miserable teen years and troubled adulthood, is purely astonishing in the way it captures (near perfectly) the very real growing pains that come with womanhood. His heroine is as complex, mouthy and layered as they come. What actress wouldn’t jump at this role?  Casting suggestions: Kylie Sparks as teen Dolores; let’s stick with make-up to age her (she’s so good she deserves her own movie). Kim Basinger — she’s looking pretty wounded these days, and that’s right for the part — as Dolores’ mom. 

2. Connie Willis’ “Dooms Day Book” — “Touching” and “science fiction” are not words one would normally find in the same sentence, but in the futuristic “Doomsday Book” Willis manages to marry a killer sci-fi story — time travel makes it possible for medieval history Oxford student Kivrin to travel back to 14th-century England, then finds she’s been transported into the Black Death era — with the very real, inescapable tragedy of widespread illness and death. This is the kind of epic tale that’s made for Hollywood. Casting suggestions: The main character here is Kivrin, and I see no one but Ellen Page playing her. Yeah, she’s mostly done comedy to this point, but she’s got an air of sadness about her I think she could tap into for this movie. Philip Seymour Hoffman would make a great match for her mentor/professor.

3. Elizabeth McCracken’s “The Giant’s House” — McCracken specializes in love stories that gleefully and willfully buck type. And so “The Giant’s House,” which focuses on the delightfully odd but touching affair between a spinster-ish librarian and the world’s tallest boy, would make for the most intriguing and heart-breaking taboo love story since, well, “Harold and Maude” or “Benny and Joon.”  Casting suggestions: Emily Blunt (plained up but no less bitterly funny) as librarian Peggy Cort and Haley Joel Osment (have to fudge the height thing, though) as the constantly-growing James.

4. Shawn Decker’s “My Pet Virus” — Most memoirs written about living with hemophilia or HIV/AIDS have a tendency to paint the people in them as, well, long-suffering martyrs. Not so with Decker’s blackly comic take on the incurable virus — which he calls, as you guessed, his “pet virus” — and the blood disorder that shaped his life immeasurably. He’s got a mouth fresh enough to match his attitude (yippee!), and so his irreverence deserves a big-screen translation. Casting suggestions: For adult Sean, the choice is clear: a slightly chubbier Paul Schneider (glasses included). Gwenn will be a brunette Elizabeth Banks (her comic timing IS impeccable), while Sean’s unstoppable mother must be the equally unstoppable Kathy Bates.

5. Nick Hornby’s “A Long Way Down” — It’s true that a Nick Hornby novel gets made into a movie every five minutes, but there’s a reason: His books are so vivid, sharp, witty and peculiarly attuned to the quirks of human nature that they practically scream “I want to be a movie!” And “A Long Way Down,” with its unique concept — a TV anchor derailed by a statutory rape rap, a self-absorbed goth, a washed-up rock star and a listless mom caring for her comatose son meet on the London-top roof they all plan to leap off of — deserves the full Hollywood treatment. Casting suggestions: Dermot Mulrooney as the anchorman; Aubrey Plaza as the depressed teen; Bill Nighy (who else?) plays the rocker; and Meryl Streep rounds it out as the martyr mom.

(Note: “A Long Way Down” is listed as “in production” on IMDb.com, and one blog commenter mentioned that Johnny Depp is attached to the project. This makes me wary, since Mr. Depp has a tendency to take normal things to weird places.) 

6. Joyce Carol Oates’ “Zombie” — There’s nothing like a book written from the perspective of a serial killer to jangle the nerves and unsettle the stomach, and that’s just what Oates’ slender but enormously unsettling novel “Zombie” does. Movies like this have been made before, but the key difference? None have followed this book’s formula, which Oates has down to perfection. This would make one REM sleep-killer of a thriller. Casting suggestion: My absolute first-round draft pick would be Jason Butler Harner (so scary-good as the killer in “Changeling”), but if directors want to go older, how about Patrick Wilson (grubbed up) or Jackie Earle Haley (neatened up for maximum creep factor)?

7. Connie Willis’ “Passage” — Much like Dennis Lehane, Willis has a peculiar ability to write books that naturally translate themselves into great fodder for films. With “Passage” she dials down the emphasis on science fiction, focusing instead on the mysteries of the afterlife as Joanna and her partner Richard investigate Near Death Experiences (or NDEs). What begins as scientific exploration turns into Joanna’s own very personal and tragic journey, culminating in an ending that is unmistakably unnerving. Casting suggestions: Cynthia Richardson (criminally undervalued as an actress, no?) or Laura Linney as Joanna; both actresses do subtle character transformation very well. Tom Wilkinson would make for a fantastic Richardson, as would (if directors want to go younger) Mark Ruffalo. The only director who can make this movie right is Peter Jackson.

8. James Jeffrey Paul’s “Nothing Is Strange with You: The Life and Times of Gordon Stewart Northcott” — The real meat here lies not necessarily in the non-fiction book (well-written though it is) but in the subject matter. Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling” gave us a tantalizing glimpse into the strange world of Gordon Stewart Northcott, tried and ultimately hung for California’s infamous “Chicken Coop Murders.” Given his boastful tendencies, little is known about Northcott, and that could equal a fascinating character study. Casting suggestions: There’s not much Ryan Gosling or Joseph Gordon-Levitt can’t do, so it’s not hard to imagine either playing Northcott’s creepiness to the hilt. (Bonus: Gosling played in an excellent killer in “Murder by Numbers.”)

9. Veronica Buckley’s “Christina, Queen of Sweden” — Sometimes reality is better than anything an author could dream up, and such is the case with Buckley’s humorous but thorough examination of the life of Sweden’s eccentric, outspoken and strong-willed queen, who comes across as one of the kind of woman who’d prefer “First Blood” to “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” Casting suggestion: Cate Blanchett comes to mind, partly because she’s got a regal air about her that simply can’t be faked (I think Natalie Portman taught us that). But could she do quirk? Not so sure. Rachel Weisz, on the other hand? Now we’re talking.

10. Dave Barry’s “Dave Barry in Cyberspace” — Before you proclaim me a lunatic, hear me out: This will not be a movie about the book itself (though hilarious, it’s too episodic to be a movie) but the creation of a movie from a sub-story Barry creates about a bored wife who discovers AOL and starts an affair with an English teacher. Yes, the love story of MsPtato and RayAdverb has the potential to be “Unfaithful,” but with more humor, less drama and people who look like, you know, real people. Casting suggestions: I envision Frances McDormand or Holly Hunter as the perfect MsPtato, while I’d say Ron Livingston would strike the right look and tone for RayAdverb.

Let’s hear your suggestions, readers…