Always meant to catch up with movies you missed from the maddeningly prolific Spike Lee? Recently discovered Bong Joon-ho, because of the Oscar love, and curious what he did before "Parasite"? Now's the perfect time to dive into our best directors and most compelling themes, so we're presenting a weekly Top 7 to steer you in the right direction - and because my Top 7 in any given category won't be your Top 7, maybe start an argument, too.
This week: the best of Joel and Ethan Coen (all are streaming).
When I interviewed Frances McDormand at the junket for "Fargo" in New York, she said it's the most verging-on-sentimental of their scripts. More than two decades later, that's still true. In the intervening years, the ironic Coens have grown more willing to care about their characters, but McDormand's Marge Gunderson remains their most heartfelt hero. She doesn't even have that much screen time but her wistful, smarter-than-she-lets-on Marge is the main reason this violent comedy took home a pair of Oscars (for McDormand and the brothers' screenplay) and is listed on the National Film Registry.
"No Country for Old Men" (2007)
Like "Fargo," the suspenseful thriller's tone is set by a character musing about where evil comes from (it's a common Coen theme). Here, it's lawman Tommy Lee Jones, breaking the fourth wall to introduce the inexplicably cruel behavior of a maniac played by Javier Bardem, who won one of the movie's four Oscars, including best picture. If you're looking for a throughline in the Coens' movies, that's it: Why are we so terrible to each other? In fact, an observation a deputy makes as he surveys a bloody "No Country" crime scene could be the title of all 18 Coen movies, as well as the "Macbeth" Joel currently is working on with McDormand and Denzel Washington: "Well, this is just a deal gone wrong."
"True Grit" (2010)
The Coens' version of Charles Portis' novel is a remake that's significantly better than the John Wayne original. Their wacky vocal cadences fit Portis like a shooting glove, and Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld nail the tricky rhythms. It has plenty of competition, but "True Grit" also may boast the brothers' finest finale, featuring Elizabeth Marvel, who would later pop up in Season 2 of TV's "Fargo."
"Blood Simple" (1984)
The back story is a beaut: The brothers hit up their folks' friends for money to make their low-budget debut. But the movie is even better. The noir mystery feels like the Coens wanted to pack in all of the ideas they dreamed up as kids, watching Saturday afternoon movies on TV: a newspaper delivery that takes your breath away, a nifty effect with lights and bullet holes, a creepy return from the dead. It's also the movie that introduced Joel to eventual wife McDormand (she stepped in to play the lead when her roommate, Holly Hunter, couldn't do it, although Hunter can be heard on a phone recording). One sign the Coens are real-life good guys? They still work with many people they hired for this initial effort, including sound man Skip Lievsay and composer Carter Burwell.
"The Man Who Wasn't There" (2001)
Speaking of Burwell, this is one of his most haunting scores (check out the track "The Trial of Ed Crane"). The Coens reference beloved films all the time - Preston Sturges comedies in "O Brother, Where Art Thou," for instance - but this is the one where they go deep on Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" in obsessing over birds (Billy Bob Thornton's Ed Crane could be the brother of "Psycho's" Marion Crane), the theme that tiny decisions can trip us up and Roger Deakins' Oscar-nominated, black-and-white cinematography, which often traps doomed Crane in bars of light.
"Raising Arizona" (1987)
Hunter didn't pass up her second chance to work with the Coens, and her supercharged wrangling of the brothers' ornate dialogue is a big part of the fun of a demented comedy about people who'll do anything to procure a baby (botched kidnappings also figure in lots of Coen movies). As her husband, Nicolas Cage aces this memorable line in the middle of a stickup, "I'll be taking these Huggies and whatever cash you got."
"The Hudsucker Proxy" (1994)
Anyone who loves the fast-talking screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s will go for an affectionate salute in which, essentially, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tim Robbins play Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, who co-starred in the matchless "The Lady Eve." The goof of a plot is about tycoons and inventors, and Paul Newman is a hoot as a bad guy you kinda have to love.
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