Some thoughts on watching the Coens

I keep feeling like it’s been a long time since the Coens had a run of really great films. In my head I go, oh, Inside Llewyn Davis was so refreshingly good, and it had been ages. And yet Davis was four years after A Serious Man – and with True Grit in between, which wasn’t a bad film (and I liked it even more second time round). But then again, I don’t much care for Burn After Reading or Intolerable Cruelty, and I forget that No Country for Old Men is a Coen film, even though it’s really good. This means that for me, Peak Coen ran from 1994 (Hudsucker, before I really started watching them) to 2001 (The Man Who Wasn’t There).

What do I love about them? I love the fact that they’re not neat and tidy films, that you can enjoy them and still have to think about them to work out what might be going on. I like that while they have a story and characters and a focus, there’s still that weird unknowableness about what is going on that you get in life, and that everyone reads a Coen film slightly differently and takes something a little different away from it. I like their dialogue. I like that they like words and know the power they have – and when not to use them. I like that they somehow manage to get at the bleakness and ridiculousness of a lot of life, and yet also hang on to a little bit of hope in the possibility of good people making their little bits of the film better. I like that their female characters generally feel like real people with actual characters and lives within the story. I like that even when they fail they tend to fail interestingly. I may not love Burn After Reading, but I would rather watch it than 90% of the comedies released between then and now.

So, let’s rank some films:

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

This feels somewhat, if not wholly, arbitrary. There are three rough groupings: 1-6. 7-13, 14-15. And then 16 which I haven’t watched and won’t watch. Within each the first two groups, I’m effectively working with personal taste and mood. I know that Miller’s Crossing is Number One, and i know that Barton Fink is Number 13. At the moment Inside Llewyn Davis is above a Serious Man because I find it more regularly watchable and I have a crush on Oscar Isaac, especially when he sings folk. Hudsucker Proxy is below them because although I probably enjoy watching it more than A Serious Man, I don’t think it’s as good – but it’s above Fargo because I like it more. By some as-yet-un-described objective aesthetic approach I think that Fargo and No Country for Old Men might be the Coens’ two best films, but i don’t like them as much as others. Tomorrow I’ll probably want to switch Raising Arizona and O Brother Where Art Thou around. Next week I’ll feel bad for The Man Who Wasn’t There, because it really is a Coen film in a way that No Country for Old Men isn’t, even if I think No Country is a better film.

Basically, what i’m saying is that ranking Coen films is a wholly pointless exercise, most entertainingly done in the company of other nerds over beverages. Come at me.

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