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Ranking the Coen Brothers’ movies is fun (and kind of impossible)

Ranking the Coen Brothers’ movies is fun (and kind of impossible) (photo)

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The best movie article I’ve read online today is David Haglund’s “I Watched Every Coen Brothers Movie” from Slate. I’m not entirely sure why the article was timed to come out today since it’s been over six months since Joel and Ethan Coen‘s last film, “True Grit,” and the brothers don’t have a new work bowing on the immediate horizon. If the motivation is mysterious, though, that makes it all the more appropriate for an in-depth examination of the career of two filmmakers who, to my mind, are clearly amongst the greatest of their generation but who defy easy categorization and obvious critical analysis at every turn. They like to keep their motivations mysterious, too. Theirs is the cinema of obfuscation.

It’s something Haglund himself addresses in describing the Coens’ work. Citing a particular scene from “A Serious Man” as perhaps the key to understanding their whole approach to storytelling, he outlines the form of their films:

“The Coens, who edit and produce as well as write and direct all of their movies, take a supremely God-like approach to filmmaking. All artists are creators, of course, and thus deities of a sort, but you can present stories on film in ways that subvert or undermine that divine position. You can draw on obviously personal and autobiographical material (like Woody Allen, for instance), emphasizing your own role as an imperfect, self-centered observer of what transpires. You can stick to camera angles that imply the sight lines of your characters, as though we’re seeing the world through their eyes–or take a casual-seeming, handheld approach to the camerawork, to make clear we’re not seeing everything.

The Coens don’t do any of these things. They do the opposite of them. Their shots are precisely, even ostentatiously composed (they “storyboard everything”), and often employ superhuman perspectives (moving through a drainpipe, say, to take one notorious example). Their stories are not, in any straightforward way, autobiographical; even ‘A Serious Man,’ set in the time and place where they grew up, has no obvious stand-ins for Joel and Ethan (the teenage son is a dopey cartoon, and there’s only one of him). And yet despite all this meticulous, everywhere-evident directorial control, their movies do not always make plain narrative sense. What can such a movie mean? If you ask them, the Coens (as anyone who has read their interviews can tell you) will probably say something like, “First I should tell you, then I should …”

Watching the work of the Coens Brothers in bulk is not like watching the work of Alfred Hitchcock in bulk, where you see a few obvious variations on a handful of important themes, all rendered basically in the same style and genre. Their work doesn’t always accommodate easy auteurist interpretations. The Coens make all kinds of movies — Westerns, film noir, spy stories, screwball comedies — in all kinds of tones; one movie might be light as a feather, the next can be as dark as an eclipse. Watching them together can produce interesting results, as the ideas buried within the films begin to cross-pollenate, but the exact combination of films you watch can affect the themes you see. Earlier this year, when we devoted an episode of the old podcast to the Coens, I rewatched more than half a dozen of their films and noticed how often infidelity plays a crucial role in the narratives of their films, from “Blood Simple” through “A Serious Man.” Haglund outlines all sorts of motifs in Coens movies, and doesn’t even mention that one.

For this very reason, their movies reward repeat viewings more than any other working filmmakers. How many of us saw “The Big Lebowski” for the first time in 1998 and were utterly confounded by it? At the time, immediately following their “masterpiece” “Fargo,” it felt like a step backward. Now, of course, we see it differently. “Fargo” is still regarded as a great work, but “Lebowski” has become the film that the Coens are synonymous with. This month marks the tenth anniversary of Lebowskifest, a milestone that will be celebrated by a sold-out cast reunion screening featuring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, and Steve Buscemi. To my knowledge, there has never been a Fargofest.

So our opinions of Coen Brothers movies can change radically. When I first saw “The Hudsucker Proxy” for the first time, also in the wake of “Fargo,” I didn’t think much of it. When I watched it again in preparation for that podcast, I found myself delighted by it, and decided it may be the Coen’s most underrated film (if that title doesn’t belong to “Hudsucker,” it goes to “The Man Who Wasn’t There”). This all makes listmaking and ranking of their work nearly impossible; every new viewing brings new ideas and new opinions. As Haglund puts it “There’s something very satisfying about making such lists, and yet it’s almost impossible to stay satisfied with one.”

After comparing and averaging the lists of a variety of other outlets, Haglund did decide upon his own ranking, which he loosely grouped into categories like “Great Oddities,” “Superb Entertainments,” and “Interesting Misfires.” He has a trinity of best films: “Fargo,” “Lebowski,” and “No Country For Old Men,” which may be my personal favorite. And he has a single “Unwatchable” title — “The Ladykillers” — which I’m apt to agree with since it’s the only Coen Brothers film I’ve never been able to watch in its entirety.

You can read Haglund entire list, as well as that aggregated list, on Slate, but just to wrap up a post that’s already gone on far longer than I expected it to, here’s my own Coen Brothers’ ranking, as of August 10, 2011. Which means in six months time, the order could completely change.

1. “No Country for Old Men”
2. “The Big Lebowski”
3. “Fargo”
4. “Barton Fink”
5. “Raising Arizona”
6. “Blood Simple”
7. “The Hudsucker Proxy”
8. “Miller’s Crossing”
9. “The Man Who Wasn’t There”
10. “A Serious Man”
11. “True Grit”
12. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
13. “Burn After Reading”
14. “Intolerable Cruelty”
15. “The Ladykillers”

What is your favorite Coen Brothers movie? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.