#16. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
(no change from previous ranking)
The Coens’ fifth film is a mash-up of their influences from 1940s Hollywood, including Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra. It follows naive mailroom clerk Norville Barnes (winningly played by Tim Robbins) who is given the top job at massive Hudsucker Industries in a plot by the board of directors to tank the stock so they can buy it back cheap.
Rather than sinking the company, however, the nincompoop makes it even more successful when his idea for the hula hoop (“you know, for kids”) strikes a nerve. The hilarious sequence dramatizing the birth and popularization of the hula hoop is one of the most inspired in the Coens’ canon.
As an undercover reporter and Norville’s love interest, Jennifer Jason Leigh does her best Rosalind Russell/Katherine Hepburn impersonation, barking out her rapid-fire dialogue with street smart sass. Paul Newman snarls through a cigar as the dastardly architect of the stock scheme. All three of the leads seem to be having a ball — I wonder why none of them ever appeared in another Coen Brothers movie.
I love this movie’s goofball energy, but it ends up lower on the list because it ultimately has more style than heart.
#15. Burn After Reading (2008)
(down two spots from previous ranking)
This dark comedy is one of the brothers’ most underrated films, in part because it was sandwiched between three Best Picture nominees. I realize it might seem odd for me to call this movie underrated while placing it at #15 on my list, but that’s just a testament to the strength of the Coen Brothers’ filmography.
Consider that I had this film ranked #6 on my list of 2008 movies, and later decided it belonged in the top five. Apart from the two movies at the bottom of this list, every Coen Brothers film has landed in my top ten, and often my top five, of its year.
Burn After Reading follows the regrettable shit storm that develops when information from a disgruntled CIA analyst (John Malkovich) falls into the hands of a couple of dim-witted gym employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt). Caught in the web are the analyst’s wife (Tilda Swinton) and her lover, a bumbling U.S. Marshal (played by George Clooney in another of his “idiot” roles for the Coens).
Rounding out the cast are standouts Richard Jenkins, as the lovelorn gym manager, and MVP J.K. Simmons, as an exasperated CIA director. Simmons steals the movie in his two scenes, wiping the whole sordid mess under the rug with the great line “I guess we learned not to do it again, though I’m fucked if I know what we did.”
This movie feels even more prescient today, after the frightful lunacy of Trump’s presidential term. Imagine a real-world version featuring Rudy Giuliani, Lindsey Graham, and the owners of Four Seasons Total Landscaping.