#8. Fargo (1996)
(down two spots from previous ranking)
The ugly true crime sensibility of Blood Simple moved from sweaty Texas to frigid Minnesota, and the Coens enjoyed their best reviews yet, eventually taking home a Best Original Screenplay award and another Best Director prize at Cannes.
Fargo might be the best encapsulation of the Coens’unique sensibility, as it alternates between chilling violence, nail-biting suspense and big laughs, defying any attempt at simple categorization.
The film follows a kidnapping plot hatched by the hapless, despicable Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy, in a breakout performance). Coen regular Steve Buscemi and a dead-eyed Peter Stormare play the criminals who snatch up Jerry’s wife with the promise of splitting the ransom paid by her father. Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson is the very pregnant small-town police chief working the case.
McDormand won her first Best Actress Oscar for her soulful performance as Marge, a hero whose pure heart wins the day over a parade of monstrous men.
The three legs of this stool are Jerry’s morally bankrupt desperation, the kidnappers’ sociopathic malevolence, and Marge’s innate goodness. That she wins makes this film the optimistic flip side of No Country For Old Men, and — for all its regrettable violence — one of the most hopeful films in the Coens’ canon.
#7. Raising Arizona (1987)
(down three spots from previous ranking)
Following their grim debut, the Coens wanted to try something completely different. Their sophomore effort, Raising Arizona, was about as far from Blood Simple as you could get — a madcap, slapstick farce about a childless couple who kidnap a baby from a local furniture magnate blessed with quintuplets.
Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter play baby-nappers H.I. and Edwina McDonough with such guileless charm that it doesn’t feel right to judge them.
Rounding out the excellent cast are John Goodman and William Forsythe as a couple of escaped convicts who tempt H.I. back into a life of crime; Frances McDormand and Sam McMurray as a dim-witted, motor-mouthed couple offering child-rearing advice; Randall “Tex” Cobb as a menacing ‘Lone Biker of the Apocalypse’ on the trail of the stolen baby; and the late Trey Wilson as the exasperated but ultimately kind-hearted furniture czar, Nathan Arizona.
This is one of the most quotable movies in the Coens’ filmography, and the first to exhibit their gift for ornate dialogue. The backcountry poetry these characters spew traces its origins to everything from Reader’s Digest to the Bible.
I remember watching this film in the theater with my mother when I was 15, and nearly dying of laughter during the centerpiece heist, during which H.I. tells a convenience store clerk “I’ll be taking these Huggies, and whatever cash you got.”
One of Raising Arizona‘s greatest assets is its music. Carter Burwell, who has scored just about every Coen Brothers film, recreated pieces by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky with banjos and yodelers, furthering the collision of the rural and classical that threads the entire film.
Enjoy the main theme below, along with some stills from this magnificent movie.