Coen Brothers and the Stupidity of Film Rankings

Coen BrothersIs it okay to tell Erik Loomis to shut up? I mean, he’s a brilliant guy. I love his political analysis and his discussions of labor history. But does that mean that I have to sit by and just accept it when he writes, The Coen Brothers Films, Ranked. Look, I get it. I’ve done it myself — sort of — in Rotten Tomatoes for Orson Welles. But in general, I hate rankings just as I hate stars or anything else that tries to quantify the quality of art.

It reminds me of those lists of the most expensive paintings. But I don’t think anyone ever takes those rankings to mean that these are the best. All they show is what kind of people the super rich are. It shows an extremely limited set of tastes and a huge reliance on what conventional wisdom thinks of as “nice” art. It’s not that I dislike it. In fact, the top ten include paintings by Cézanne and Modigliani, who I am very fond of (although not so much the particular paintings). I suppose this ranking of Coen Brothers films tell us something about Erik Loomis too. And it isn’t good.

Erik Loomis is responding to an even more disastrous ranking by Bilge Ebiri, Every Coen Brothers Movie, Ranked From Worst to Best. That’s the problem with people who are supposed to know about film: they insist upon being difficult. For example, he ranks Raising Arizona as the best Coen Brothers film. It isn’t just that I have long felt that to be by far their most overrated film, it is the obvious “people who aren’t that into the Coens like it” double-bluff. Give it a rest!

At least Erik Loomis has the advantage of making a top pick that I know is what he really thinks: The Big Lebowski. Then he (and Ebiri) fall into mostly a lot of conventional wisdom (although Ebiri, to his credit, ranks the difficult masterpiece The Man Who Wasn’t There highly). They both hate The Ladykillers. And they are lukewarm on The Hudsucker Proxy. Now that’s really interesting, in that the two films are going for the same kind of comedy. Just the same, they both love Fargo and No Country for Old Men. Again: similar in type. So isn’t it more correct that these guys are just telling us what they want the Coen Brothers to do and nothing at all about what the Coen Brothers are actually trying to do?

Comparing Coen Brothers’ Diverse Style

How do you compare The Hudsucker Proxy to Blood Simple? Really! It’s like trying to compare Nu Couché au coussin Bleu with Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Different films are doing different things.

I always hate it when people say, “That film wasn’t funny!” Really?! It’s much more likely that the problem was the viewer and not the film. I thought that Dumb and Dumber was stupid and I shut it off after about five minutes. But loads of other people thought it was hilarious. The film is what it is, and apparently works brilliantly on its own terms. It’s not my kind of film — at least not when I tried to watch it. When InSession Film asked what “my” favorite Coen Brothers film was, I said it was hard to say. I think Barton Fink is a perfect film, but that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the one I enjoy watching the most.

Neither of our rankers think much Barton or O Brother. And neither of them really have a reason for it. It really just comes down to what they like and then filling in the details as to why — or, in many cases, not. I could write several thousand words on why No Country for Old Men is not the masterpiece that people claim. Much of the plot makes little sense. It’s more or less The Terminator set in west Texas. But the fact is that the film is everything that it tries to be. That’s true of most Coen Brothers films. It’s a whole lot better to spend an article talking about why you like Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski than it is to put together a list that probably changes from year to year anyway.

Afterword: Coen Brothers

For the record, I admire the Coen Brothers, but I’m not a fanatic. I haven’t seen all their films. Pretty much, True Grit broke me. After that, it seemed clear that the boys were really not that interested in making innovative films anymore. I’m probably wrong. But I’ve never made a fetish of the Coen Brothers. They are damned fine filmmakers. And every one of their films I’ve seen was at least a worthy effort.

7 thoughts on “Coen Brothers and the Stupidity of Film Rankings

  1. I loved No Country For Old Men! And no, it didn’t make any sense but it felt amazing watching it.

    Now I need to ask my cat why she is acting weirder than normal.

    • Are those two thoughts connected?

      I did think that Kelly Macdonald did a damned good American accent! And Javier Bardem was amazing.

      • Yes they are since I was typing that and then Anne started flopping on her back like she wanted me to rub her tummy. She never wants me to rub her tummy.

        I didn’t pay attention to the accents but I thought Bardem’s quiet menace was brilliant. From what I understand, he didn’t speak any English at the time.

        • Brolin is underrated. He was excellent as Bush in “W.” And his dad played Reagan in the TV miniseries!

  2. The Coens’ movies clearly resonate differently with different viewers.

    Obviously this is true with all films. Yet if you see and enjoy a film by Tom McCarthy, I can guarantee you’ll enjoy his other films. Reverse is true if you see one and find it dull. In most cases, if you like a particular artist, you’ll like some of their work better than others, but there will be some general agreement on which works were the best. Not with the Coens. I think it’s because they shift styles so much.

    They make me think of the band Ween, which veered between songwriting styles pretty wildly. Some people can’t stand almost anything they do, which is understandable. Among fans, though, there virrtually no consensus about their albums (outside of “The Mollusk,” which even non-fans enjoy).

    It’s odd how art affects people. Most artists shift styles if they stick at it long enough. And fans of one style may dislike the other.

    • This is certainly an issue. Clearly, my article is just a rant. The truth is that you can’t rank a collection of art works if you don’t know them really well. When I ranked Welles’ films, I at least had the advantage of knowing them really well. But as I said, the whole idea of ranking is stupid. The one thing I knew when I started Psychotronic Review was that there would be no ratings — even though I know that people love them.

      But I was undoubtedly bugged by the fact that both men rated The Big Lebowski highly. I’m very fond of the film myself. But I had been a big fan of theirs for a decade when the film came out, and I remember everyone dumping on that film. And I knew why: it was right after Fargo and people wanted them to do that again. And so I never trust people who claim to love the film now, especially when they make such a big deal out of No Country for Old Men.

      Then, of course, there is the disrespect for Barton Fink. At least Loomis is willing to admit that he doesn’t really know why he doesn’t like the film. Ebiri throws up a lot of intellectual BS to justify himself. Part of the problem may be that I saw all these old films in the theater. So I saw them in context. Ebiri was 14 when Raising Arizona came out — only 11 when Blood Simple came out. Both men place O Brother way down the list. Ebiri calls it “messy.” Loomis tells us it is not truly great, but that he likes everything about it. I have little doubt that Loomis would have ranked it higher if Ebiri had. As the Coens themselves have said, they wanted to make a Ma and Pa Kettle film. And they did — brilliantly. There seems to be no understanding that a lot of the Coens’ work is meta in nature. This is why I think it is a real mistake for them to do remakes.

      But ultimately, the question is whether you are going to allow a film to be itself or complain that it isn’t something different. Does anyone question but that the Coen brothers’ films are exactly what they want them to be? Anyway…

      • I think to enjoy meta you have to have a love for the form being referenced. If you don’t enjoy Elvis kitsch or low-budget horror cliches, you won’t like “Bubba Ho-Tep.”

        “True Grit” didn’t work for me either, but I think I know exactly what they were doing. All Minnesota children in the Coens’ time grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder (whose books are less sentimental than the TV show). They probably wanted to do something similar, with a no-nonsense young girl as protagonist. Maybe they should have done one of those books instead.

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