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The Big 2-9

Aside from the fact that this day sealed my fate as the “Never Gets a ‘Happy Birthday’ from the Teacher or Your Classmates Because School’s Out for Summer Kid,” June 28 never seemed like a terribly interesting day to be born.

Until I realized that’s also the day sublimely talented actors Kathy Bates, John Cusack, the late Gilda Radner and the late Pat “Wax On, Wax Off” Morita headed toward the light of the birth canal. June 28 also gave King Henry VIII to England (bet that’s one pregnant lady the Great Holy Aardvark wishes he could have uninseminated). And June 28 happens to be the only day every year where the month and the day are different perfect numbers*.

But really, the only reason I ever get all jacked up is because the 28th of June is when the World’s Greatest Director — the reason I love movies and the reason I have such a warped, wacko sense of humor — Mel “Lepetomane” Brooks classed up Planet Earth’s population.

This year, though, looks be far more exciting because Andy at Fandango Groovers hatched a brilliant idea: Write a post listing favorite films for every year I’ve been breathing. Later in 2010 Andy’s planning a blog event on this theme, so start thinking about your choices, readers. Without further adieu, here are my favorites from 1981-2010:

Ash will saw off your nose.

1981: “The Evil Dead” — Maybe directors did horror-comedy before Sam Raimi’s cult classic, but those movies did not feature the unstoppable Bruce Campbell as erstwhile hero Ash, who would later go on to coin the phrases “boomstick” and “hail to the king, baby.”

1982: “First Blood” — The first in the Rambo franchise, Sly Stallone’s “First Blood” combines jaw-dropping action, buckets of bloodshed and a surprisingly poignant message about the treatment of Vietnam vets in America.

1983: “The Big Chill” — College pals Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum reunite to mourn a friend’s suicide. This much acting talent on one set is a recipe for goodness.

1984: “Blood Simple” (full review) — The fact that this is Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film is almost as astounding as the film itself. Almost.

1985: “The Breakfast Club” — The late John Hughes showed us, in this poignant ode to real teen issues, that lurking inside everyone there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a basket case and a criminal in search of connection. And a little doobage.

1986: “Aliens” (full review) — Twenty-four years later and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains a female action hero with smarts, guts and muscles. What a novel idea.

1987: “The Untouchables” — Most gangster movies offer plenty of bloody shoot-em-ups, slick double-crosses, dark double-breasted suits and bank accounts stuffed like you wouldn’t believe. Brian De Palma’s “Untouchables” also has something else: a conscience.

Velcome to vaxwork...

1988: “Waxwork” (full review) — There are crappy films, and then there are films that revel and delight in their own crappiness. Guess which kind “Waxwork” is.

1989: “Heathers” (full review) — No matter how cruel the queen bees in your school were, they don’t hold a candle to Idi Amin wannabe Heather Chandler.

1990: “GoodFellas” (full review) — Powered by the performances of Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta, “GoodFellas” set the bar for gangster movies impossibly high.

1991: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” — The follow-up to Cameron’s impressive “Terminator,” the sequel blasted the volume up to 11, boasted some thrilling chase scenes (the semi rundown is iconic) and reached the level of Whoa, I’ve Never Seen That Before! with its ice-cool villain T-1000 (Robert Patrick). 

1992: “Reservoir Dogs” (full review) — Quentin Tarantino gives the Cuisinart treatment to the traditional caper-gone-wrong and ends up making one of the most inventive films of the ’90s.

1993: “Schindler’s List” — Steven Spielberg’s sweeping, horrifying and heartbreaking retelling of the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) mission to rescue Jews during the Holocaust is emotionally punishing, but it’s a film that must be seen. It can change your life if you let it.

1994: “Pulp Fiction” (full review) — It’s got John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hitmen, a booty-shaking soundtrack and scene about Christopher Walken wearing a watch up his ass two years. That’s all you need to know. 

Will the real Keyser Soze please stand up?

1995: “The Usual Suspects” (full review) — Not only does Bryan Singer’s noirish, twisty thriller feature a killer-good ensemble cast (Kevin Spacey AND Gabriel Byrne AND Benicio del Toro AND Chazz Palminteri), “The Usual Suspects” also has the best twist ending. Ever written.

1996: “Fargo” (full review) — Dear Coen brothers: Thank you for showing me that it’s never impossible to take an old formula (best-laid plans gone to hell) and put a devious, violent spin on them. Sincerely, M. Carter @ the Movies

1997: “Chasing Amy” — Too few directors of romantic comedies have no interest in showing relationships as they actually are. Kevin Smith is not one of these directors. His “Chasing Amy” is raw, frank to the point of crudeness and deeply heartfelt, and it examines the problems all lovers — gay and straight — face.

1998: “The Opposite of Sex” — “The Opposite of Sex” is the best black comedy you’ve never seen. Don Roos puts the screws to the traditional narrated film formula with Dee Dee (Christina Ricci), a heroine who may be plucky but isn’t the least bit lovable. She’ll ransom your dead gay lover’s ashes and not think twice about it. 

Move Milton's (Stephen Root) desk to Storage Room B and see where that gets you.

1999: “Office Space” (full review) — Mike Judge takes a maze of cubicles and turns it into a feature-length film that’s the personification of Dante’s limbo, then sets it to a fantastic rap soundtrack. It’s good to be a gangsta.

2000: “Quills” (full review) — No other actors slips so effortlessly into the part of the villain as Geoffrey Rush can, and that mirthful, slightly evil glint in his eyes makes him the perfect (and only acceptable) choice to play the infamous Marquis de Sade.

2001: “The Believer” — Based on the true story of Dan Burros, a Jew who became a Neo-Nazi, Henry Bean’s “The Believer” looks unflinchingly at all aspects of faith and features what may be Ryan Gosling’s most gripping performance. Ever. 

2002: “City of God” — Fernando Meirelles’ crime drama plays out like an elegaic marriage of the best parts of Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”  and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” capturing the bloody, grim realities of a life lived in Brazil’s rough Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela.

2003: “Mystic River” — Author Dennis Lehane understands, deep down in his soul, the rhythms of Boston’s shady, bleak underworld. Director Clint Eastwood understands the people who have fallen through the cracks. Together, “Mystic River,” about three childhood friends dealing with a murder, they make an unbeatable team.

Javier Bardem's performance is anything but bleak.

2004: “Mar adentro” (full review) — Is it possible to make a film about a quadriplegic (Javier Bardem) who wants nothing more than to die and have that film turn out to be an affirmation of life? Look to “Mar adentro” for the answer.

2005: “The Constant Gardener” — Taut political/medical conspiracy thrillers ordinarily don’t offer emotions as complex as the plotlines. But director Fernando Meirelles etches characters (Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes) who matter to each other, and so they matter to us.

2006: “The Lives of Others” (full review) — Movies about Big Brother rarely take the time to humanize the enemy, but director Henckel von Donnersmarck finds humanity even in the most ardent supporter (Ulrich Mühe) of suppressing free will.

2007: “No Country for Old Men” (full review) — Call it the Coens’ Law: Every time you think they’ve made their best movie ever, they top themselves. How they’ll top this gritty, violent and blackly funny caper is something this reviewer has gotta see.

2008: “The Dark Knight” — With “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan single-handedly revived a years-ailing franchise; in the inspired sequel — part Greek tragedy, part action flick, part sweeping character drama — he let Heath Ledger reinvent the iconic Joker in the spirit of creation.

Get in my bell-ay, Jew Hunter!

2009: “Inglourious Basterds” (full review) — In terms of sheer imagination and cojones, almost no director working today can match Quentin Tarantino, who in this misspelled epic rewrites the ending to WWII and gives cinema one of its greatest villains (Christoph Waltz).

2010: So far? “Shutter Island.” The predicted winner? “True Grit.”

*It’s my birthday and I’m giving you a math lesson. Can you say “nerd”?

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

No. 11: “Blood Simple” (1984)

“If you point a gun at someone, you’d better make sure you shoot him, and if you shoot him you’d better make sure he’s dead, because if he isn’t then he’s gonna get up and try to kill you.” ~~Ray

What is it about best-laid plans crumbling to hell that fascinates us so endlessly? Is it the thrill of watching greed and lust pollute the simplest of schemes, careful blueprints drawn up with what seems like attention to detail? Maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe there’s something comforting about maintaining distance, assuming a stance of superiority that allows us to say — and believe — “I’d never let that happen to me.”

The perverse magic of Joel and Ethan Coen’s stylish, enormously disquieting “Blood Simple,” what shakes us to the core, is that the opposite is true: Easy plots like this get dreamed up by normal people, and they unspool in crazy ways that boggle the mind. For every hairline fissure that surfaces, there are hundreds more underneath, slowly working their way to the top. The bitter end, the Coens understand, is always so much closer than we think.

It is the illusion of control that sets in motion the undoing of most every player in “Blood Simple,” which begins with a seemingly simple plan (code for “something’s about to hit a fan”): Slimy bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) suspects his wife Abby (Frances McDormand in her first big-screen role) is having an affair, so he hires Private Detective Loren Visser (a skin-crawlingly good M. Emmet Walsh) to tail her. When Marty discovers Abby is bedding Ray (John Getz), one of his bartenders, he’s glad to pony up dough for a hit. Marty’s out for blood. Problem is, Visser’s out for money — as much as he can get — and he knows the location of his client’s safe. That was Marty’s first mistake.

Since this is film noir, the initial mistake leads to another … which leads to another … which unleashes a slow-building hurricane of potential and totally unforseen complications. Suddenly nobody, not even Abby, so wide-eyed in her protests of “I ain’t done nothin’ funny,” is able to walk away from this mess without making bloody getaway tracks. There are dead bodies and very-nearly-dead bodies and mistaken identities. The whole business might be downright comical if it wasn’t so damn sleazy.

But wait! This is Coen brothers film noir, so comedy abounds. “Blood Simple” is where the Coens introduced their brand of nefarious tomfoolery, so the jokes sneak up on us like Jack the Ripper. Consider Ray’s summary of what happened on a midnight trip: “He was alive when I buried him.” Gulp. Or Visser’s response to Marty, who says the Greeks beheaded bad news carriers: “Gimme a call whenever you wanna cut off my head. I can always crawl around without it.” Yipes. Humor doesn’t get much blacker (note the song that announces the final credits). Barbed observations like these are the kind that clump uncomfortably in the throat, yet they spotlight human folly too good not to laugh at: Every man thinks he’s gripping the reins, and not one of them actually is. The actors time these lines faultlessly, with Walsh, who sweats menace, and Hedaya, perfectly cast as the fiendish Marty, doing heavy lifting. McDormand, all innocence, shows early promise she’s more than made good on. And Getz might have the best job of all: He shows us how easy it is for the straight man to nosedive into depravity.

More brilliance reveals itself as “Blood Simple” rumbles toward the finish. The staggering cinematography, courtesy of Barry Sonnenfield, transforms the dusty Texas landscape into a character with its own motivations, its own agenda. The desert turns an unforgiving eye on these miscreants, offers not a moment of solace. Behind the camera, the Coens do their part to make their film a dark visual masterpiece. They amplify that desolate feeling with artful, pointed shots: a blood drip here, a thumping ceiling fan there, a close-up of dripping sink pipes. Matter of fact, that last shot pins the film’s thesis, squirming, to the wall: If you’re dumb enough to think something’s just what it seems, prepare to suffer the consequences.

10 disturbing movie scenes

There’s a reason I don’t seem many horror movies: I am a wimp.

Now, don’t try to make me feel better. I know the truth, and so does anyone who’s had the misfortune to sit through a scary movie in my presence. I cringe, I cower, I gasp, I glimpse the carnage unfolding onscreen through Vulcan-split hands over my eyes. To this day, I can’t tell you what the characters in “The Ring” looked like. Know why? I took my glasses off 10 minutes in and I never put them back on.

But these sad little details aren’t what form the complete fraidy-cat that is me. It’s the fact that scenes from regular movies — some that don’t fit into the horror genre at all — stick in my brain for all eternity. The bit from “Spun,” with the hooker staying tied up, blindfolded, on a bed for days? Can’t hear heavy metal without flashing back to it. The scene in “Arlington Road” where Joan Cusack says the word “shopping” with all the menace of Jeffrey Dahmer snatching Konerak Sinthasomphone from the cops? Still get the wiggins when I hear that term.

So now, since I’ve gotten myself all worked up and jittery, here’s a list of 10 disquieting, troubling and (in some cases) disgusting scenes that my brain cannot forget:

1. Videotaped family slaughter, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” — No single scene in movie history (and in my short time on Earth) has left me as shaken as the grainy, muffled home video footage of Henry (Michael Rooker) and Otis (Tom Towles) gleefully murdering an entire family during a home invasion. It makes us voyeurs, removes that safe “this is just a movie” barrier and makes us participants. In a word: Yikes.

 

 

2. The opening scene of “Wild at Heart” — Ever seen a moment of violence so brutal, so feral and uncontrolled that it makes you violently ill? I have, and it takes place (literally) at the beginning of David Lynch’s soul-deadening “Wild at Heart,” when Nicholas Cage bashes in — with sickening vigor — the head of a man hired to kill him. 

3. The firecracker/handjob scene in “Mysterious Skin” — Oh, the things kids come up with, how mind-blowingly sick they are. A preteen boy and his gal tagalong get the idea to stuff a firecracker inside the mouth of a shy dweeb and set it ablaze. Afterward, he gives the victim a handjob. Thoughtful … and yet horribly, horribly unsettling.

4. The burial sequence in “Blood Simple” — The fear of being buried alive is old as time, and about that universal, too. Place that fear squarely in the hands of Joel and Ethan Coen and you get a prolonged death scene so upsetting you’ll never, ever look at a shovel the same way again.

 

 

5. The chiropractor joke from “Apartment Zero” — When Larry punches Curly in the nose, you laugh. When a sociopathic serial killer (Hart Bochner) breaks a dead woman’s back to stuff her body in a trunk and slings a wisecrack about missing his calling as a professional back cracker? Well, you laugh then too, mostly because you have no idea what to do. And then comes the cringing. A lifetime of it.  

 

 

6. The torture scene in “Reservoir Dogs” — They say memories have an emotional core. I can’t think of a better case-proving point than the stomach-turning, nerve-jangling torture sequence in Tarantino’s classic “Reservoir Dogs.” To this day, the clip, with Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) brutalizing a bound-and-gagged cop in time to “Stuck in the Middle with You” — and taking pleasure in it — remains the one part of the film I cannot watch.

7. Guy’s revenge in “Swimming with Sharks” — Pushed too far by his screaming movie mogul boss, Guy (Frank Whaley) promptly drops his basket and ends up exacting the kind of physically painful revenge that involves hot sauce, salt and lots and lots of paper cuts. Let your imagination tell you the rest.

 

 

8. The shower scene from “Psycho” — Yes, I realize that this one’s something of a gimme, but facts are facts. There’s a reason this scene is considered a horror classic. Think about it: Where are we at our most vulnerable? That’s the genius of it. Any woman who tells you this scene doesn’t come a’callin’ when she’s showering alone in her apartment is a first-class liar.

 

 

9. The last four minutes of “Requiem for a Dream” — “Requiem for a Dream” qualifies as one of my all-time favorite films, in part, because of the final four minutes, an exercise in dark pessimism that assaults the senses and deadens the soul for weeks — make that years — after the credits roll. Seek not your happy, hopeful ending here, for all you’ll find is a killshot of reality. Gripping stuff.

10. “Chaos” (the whole. blasted. movie) — “There are some things that you see, and you can’t unsee them. Know what I mean?” So said Max California in “8MM,” and if I didn’t know better I’d be convinced his words applied to “Chaos,” a bleak, grim and cheerfully punishing slice of torture porn filled with senseless violence. Things are done that scar the retinas and pervert the mind … things we cannot unsee. And oh, how I wish I could.

What say you, readers? What are your favorite disturbing movie scenes?

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?