Is 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.