Posted Monday, Aug. 15, 2011, at 11:30 AM
After my piece on watching every Coen brothers movie was posted last week, my Twitter feed lit up with arguments about what the writer-directors’ best movies really were. One ranking would lead to another and then another, since no one, it seemed, could quite agree. “Ranking the Coen Brothers’ films is, like, a thing,” tweeted Dan Saltzstein, an editor at the New York Times, adding: “Mine go: Fargo, Barton Fink, Lebowski.”
It was fun to watch. I especially enjoyed the back and forth (and back and forth) between New York Times Magazine editor Adam Sternbergh (“Fargo is Death of a Salesman with a woodchipper”) and Slate contributor Dan Kois (“But Raising Arizona is ‘This Land Is Your Land’ with Holly Hunter”). Film critic Matt Singer’s rankings, which he explained in a post on IFC.com, were particularly thoughtful. I even learned what Judd Apatow’s favorite Coens movie is: Miller’s Crossing. (I would have guessed Barton Fink.)
All those tweets foreshadowed the results of last week’s reader poll, in which we asked you to choose the best and worst of the Coen brothers’ films. Online and off, Lebowski is king: Its fans are legion and devoted. Fargo, too, has its devotees (myself included), so no surprise in its second place finish. The poll also displays the persistent popular love for O Brother, Where Art Thou? Critics have never quite agreed, and my sense is that the most diehard Coen fans tend not to rank it near the top. But the music is great and people like George Clooney, I guess. Plus it’s funny and has a happy ending. And Joel and Ethan only pretend to kill off one of the leads.
That last is not true of Burn After Reading, which the poll suggests is fairly reviled by a large number of moviegoers. (My Twitter feed suggested as much as well.) Why did the movie do so poorly? A lot of people have seen it, for starters: Burn After Reading was the first of the Coen brothers’ films to win a box office weekend (True Grit later duplicated that feat, though with a smaller haul), thanks, presumably, to Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and perhaps goodwill for the directors after the Best Picture-winning No Country for Old Men. If equal numbers had made it out to see the baffling (but brilliant, I now think) Barton Fink or the somewhat boring (and yet increasingly compelling: this one is growing on me) The Man Who Wasn’t There, I imagine those films might have given Burn a real race for third-worst.
That’s not a full explanation, though, since Burn did horribly in the “best” poll, too. I suspect the movie’s bleak mood is responsible: As I say in the piece, it might be the Coens’ darkest film. It’s full of awful people doing awful things to each other. And the sweetest, funniest guy (spoiler alert) gets shot in the face. That the movie is also hilarious—and grimly accurate in its portrayal of our times, if you ask me—apparently isn’t enough to overcome all that.
The rest of the results were about what I expected. A Serious Man is still underrated. True Grit, an eminently likable but not tremendously memorable film (at least not by the Coen brothers’ standards), gets a bit more love than I think it should. More people should go back and watch Raising Arizona (which, if I did my rankings over again, might sneak up a spot or two). And we now can rest even more assured: Nobody likes The Ladykillers. Well, except for that one guy in the comments. You’re on your own, buddy.