Is ‘The Big Lebowski’ The Coen Brothers’ Best Movie?

Cultural Critic
07.11.16 42 Comments

We here at Uproxx have declared the week of July 11 Lebowski Week. This is the first in a series of Big Lebowski-themed pieces we’ll publish this week. They will all be archived here for your enjoyment.

So, is The Big Lebowski the best Coen brothers movie?

At this point, Lebowski is probably the most popular Coen brothers movie. It has the highest score of any Coen brothers film on IMDb, just edging out Fargo and No Country For Old Men. It is one of two Coen brothers films (with Fargo) to be inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Lebowski has infiltrated pop culture the deepest — Lebowski posters adorn dorm walls, Lebowski paintings are given away at summer carnivals like stuffed bears, and Lebowski memes still populate email chains. Lebowski is the one Coen brothers movie that your father-in-law has most likely heard of, with the possible exception of True Grit. Then there are the super fans — for them, Lebowski has transcended cinema and become a lifestyle.

But is Lebowski the best Coen brothers movie?

My take: Almost, but not quite. I think Lebowski is the funniest Coen brothers movie. (Sorry, Raising Arizona.) I would argue that it has the best soundtrack. (Apologies, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) I believe that it contains the best John Goodman performance in the Joel and Ethan Coen universe. (Je suis désolé, Barton Fink.) But as an overall film experience measured against the rest of the Coen brothers canon, my gut tells me that Fargo is a smidge better.

Fargo to me is the closest thing there is to a perfect movie. It delivers everything you could possibly want: It is suspenseful, strange, heartwarming, horrific, sweet, silly, and haunting — occasionally in the space of the same scene. (Have one on me, Mike Yanagita.) Fargo doesn’t have as many laughs or quotable lines as Lebowski, but it’s not that far off. And I guess Fargo just feels — what’s the word? — weightier to me. But Lebowski is right behind it at No. 2.

(Hey, I need to make my usual persnickety distinction between “best” and “favorite.” When I say Fargo is the best Coen brothers movie, what I’m really saying is, “I feel like this movie best represents what the Coen brothers do.” However, if we’re talking my favorite Coens, it would be the movie that I would be most excited to re-watch right now, and that movie is Inside Llewyn Davis.)

Enough about me. Let’s talk about how Lebowski is regarded by everybody else. Earlier this year, around the time Hail, Caesar! was released, seemingly every culture site and publication on the face of the planet decided to rank Coen brothers films. This sort of thing happens every time a new Coen brothers movie comes out. You know how guests at a backyard barbecue gorge on guacamole dip the second you put it out? Film critics are like that when it comes to excuses to rank Coen brothers films. There were so many lists that Slate did a thinkpiece about the trend and Flavorwire compiled a tongue-in-cheek list that ranked all of the Coen brothers lists.

Because I’m a masochist who relishes the sweet rage that derives from the film opinions of strangers, I read every Coen brothers list I could find. And what I discovered shocked me.

Lebowski is sort of underrated.

Out of the nine lists that I saw — by Vulture, GQWashington Post, The Wrap, Indiewire, Slate, The Atlantic, Thrillist, and Screencrush — Lebowski ranked no higher than third. Generally, it was stuck back with The Man Who Wasn’t There and Blood Simple in the middle of the pack. Sometimes, Lebowski fared worse than even that. The Atlantic put it at No. 11 out of 17 films, claiming that Lebowski is “not always successful.” Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday ranked Lebowski as only the 13th best Coen Brothers movie — “I still don’t get it,” she wrote, arguing that Burn After Reading is funnier.

Speaking as someone who has defended Burn After Reading in multiple social media threads: That is insane.

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