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The most puzzling filmmakers of them all.

The most puzzling filmmakers of them all. (photo)

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In preparation for the Oscars, Slate‘s Juliet Lapidos takes one more look at “A Serious Man,” which she deems “the most puzzling of the best-picture nominees.” We’ve been down this road with the Coens before, where the film’s inscrutability rebuts any efforts to pin it down — take “Barton Fink,” whose novella-length Wikipedia entry reads like the boiled-down essence of a thousand graduate theses.

To the extent that the Coens absolutely refuse to discuss whatever any of their movies might “mean,” they’re like David Lynch, though their work isn’t nearly as obtuse. All of their films have strange, willfully monolithic elements — look at it from the right angle and “The Big Lebowski” is more philosophical discourse than slacker comedy. (In general, few filmmakers have so consistently peppered their work with philosophical references — on “The Man Who Wasn’t There”‘s commentary track, the brothers get a big kick out of the fact that Tony Shalhoub’s speech about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is just wrong.)

Personally, “Barton Fink” or “A Serious Man” seem fairly straightforward to me. “Barton Fink” is about the arrogance of a man who thinks he’s speaking on behalf of the working people until it becomes very clear that he isn’t and everything burns down; “A Serious Man” is a long joke about how asking the question of whether seemingly meaningless bad events have meaning is, in and of itself, meaningless.

03022010_magnolia.jpgThe thing about the Coens’ proposed inscrutability, though, is that they’re very good at giving you just enough allusive possibilities to hang yourself with your own interpretive rope. Compare that to Lynch’s work: after years of arguments and group efforts, there are now mostly standard, accepted interpretations of how “Mulholland Drive” and “Inland Empire” work. His films are all id, but they’re not freighted with the weight of too many things to sort out.

I swear that the most underappreciatedly inscrutable film of recent years is “There Will Be Blood.” You want to talk puzzling? Let’s talk about a movie that gives every outward indication that it’s an allegory for something, with morality play names (Daniel Plainview, the Sunday family of Eli — both Paul and Abel), overarching historical framework and religion vs. business framework. But if you try to add up the pieces, you just can’t.

“Magnolia,” P.T. Anderson’s earlier, similarly elegant but maddening exercise, starts with the promise “This will all make sense” and never delivers. Instead, we get a scientifically explained rain of frogs. Truly, Anderson should be hailed as the most overtly brain-testing director working — one who promises something he has no interest in delivering.

[Photos: “A Serious Man,” Focus Features, 2009; “Magnolia,” New Line Cinema, 1999]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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