#4. The Big Lebowski (1998)
(up one spot from previous ranking)
The Big Lebowski opened in 1998 to mixed critical reviews and mediocre box office returns. Following the Coens’ Oscar-winning Fargo, it was viewed by many as an uneven, infantile misstep.
Today, it is arguably the duo’s most beloved film, with devotees attending annual Lebowski Fests both in America and abroad.
I followed a similar path. I wasn’t sure what to make of Lebowski when I first saw it. But 22 years and many, many viewings later, I adore this movie and rank it as one of the greatest comedies of all time, and one I quote on a daily basis.
I owe a big part of my adoration of this film to the fact that my daughters are equally smitten. When they discovered Lebowski and fell hard for its charms, it became a shared treasure. Many a night we’ve fired up this movie to pass the time and lose ourselves in laughter.
The Big Lebowski is a Raymond Chandler-esque detective yarn in which Philip Marlowe is swapped out for a laid-back stoner. Caught up in a kidnapping plot through a case of mistaken identity, The Dude (Jeff Bridges) tries to solve the mystery in between White Russians and his bowling league.
The film boasts an extraordinary roster of unique characters. They include a cowboy narrator, a gang of German nihilists, an artist whose work is “strongly vaginal,” a porn magnate, a belligerent Malibu police chief, an unflappable 8th grade car thief, and a strutting pederast named Jesus. And best of all, it features John Goodman’s greatest ever role, angry Vietnam vet (and recently converted observant Jew) Walter Sobchak.
The Dude and Walter are one of the great duos in movie history, a pacifist and a soldier united by a shared love of bowling. Their friendship is both hilarious and strangely heartwarming.
This is one of those movies that, when you stumble upon it flipping channels, you have no choice but to leave it on until the end. Each priceless scene segues into another until Lebowski shrugs and declares that “The Dude abides” over the strains of Townes Van Zandt.
As Elliott’s narrator says, “The Dude abides. I don’t know about you but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there.”
#3. True Grit (2010)
(up eight spots from previous ranking)
True Grit made the biggest leap in my re-rankings, moving up a full eight spots into the top three. That’s not a reflection of something different about my most recent revisit, but rather how long it’s been since I created the original list.
In the six years since I last cobbled together a Coen Brothers ranking, True Grit has emerged as a go-to favorite. I find myself watching parts of this film periodically, basking in the warm glow of its rich cinematography, precise dialogue and lovely performances.
Like the novel from which its adapted, this is a grand adventure, romantic but clear-eyed, funny, tense and bittersweet. It displays the Coens at their most earnest and traditional — it’s hard to imagine the same men made this film and all the others on this list.
Anchoring True Grit is 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, delivering one of the greatest performances in any Coen Brothers movie, as Mattie Ross. Her command of the ornate dialogue and ability to go toe-to-toe with a host of seasoned actors is remarkable. Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon are wonderful as well, but this is Steinfeld’s triumph.
The Coen Brothers are endlessly inventive and original, making it even more impressive that their only two true adaptations (No Country for Old Men and True Grit) made my top five. How impressive that they can rework the source material of others into films that honor the text but still feel very much their own.
Of course, much of the Coens’ work can be viewed as adaptations of a sort. Whether the author is Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Clifford Odets, Frank Capra, Homer, or even Yahweh, their stories strip mine the classics for universal truths they can filter through their own sensibility.
True Grit exposes the beating heart at the core of all their movies, no matter how buried under layers of cynicism and irony. On this film, they chose to wear it on their sleeve.