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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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

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

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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