DID YOU READ

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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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.