"I'll show you the life of the mind!"
Joel and Ethan Coen know how to craft a moment. These are the five most vivid in our memories, although you could easily swap out the final shootout from Blood Simple, John Turturro's "Look in your heart" scene from Miller's Crossing, the introduction of Wheezy Joe in Intolerable Cruelty and/or the entirety of both No Country For Old Men and True Grit and this list would be no less legendary.
1. Raising Arizona: "Call Me Hi."
The glorious prelude to the Coens' best movie. Not only do the Coens immediately establish their remarkable versatility - the cartoonish, comedic Raising Arizona was the brothers' follow-up to the precise, brutal Blood Simple - but they spin out the magnificent backstory of Nicolas Cage's idiot hero, H.I. McDunnough, as a torrent of information and attitude, all set to Carter Burwell's infectious banjo score. It's positively giddy, but as cinematically exacting as anything else they've done; just notice the way they employ shots of Holly Hunter's weeping Edwina as a sort of editorial punctuation during the sequence.
2. Barton Fink: "I'll Show You The Life Of The Mind!"
I've never had much time for the Coens' surrealist tale of an idealistic New York playwright who moves to Hollywood to write a Wallace Beery wrestling picture and (probably) loses his mind, but the horrific finale still sticks in my head two decades later. The film's sense of suffocating dread explodes in the furious release of the too tightly wound Charlie Meadows, who rages through a seedy hotel, shooting people, as the walls blaze around him. (John Turturro's awful, underplayed distress in the next scene, where Fink tries unsuccessfully to call home, haunts me, too.)
3. Fargo: "And Here Ya Are, And It's A Beautiful Day."
In which Marge Gunderson finds the leg in the wood-chipper, brings down Gaear Grimsrud and delivers the Coens' mission statement: things can be pretty great, but people keep doing such terrible things to each other. Sums up the whole movie, really.
4. The Big Lebowski: "My Condition"
The Coens appear to subscribe to the theory that dreams are our way of working out problems we couldn't solve while we were awake. And so the Dude's blunted attempts to figure out how the labyrinthine mystery that resulted in his ruined rug lead to this giddy production number in which he shuffles with surprising grace through a tableau of references to things he's encountered but not fully understood, including the image of Julianne Moore's Maude as a Valkyrie, all set to Kenny Rogers & the First Edition's catchy Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In). Is it necessary to the progression of the plot? No, not really. But you have to admit it really pulls the movie together.
5. O Brother, Where Art Thou?: "Down To The River To Pray"
Another dream sequence, sort of, as Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney) and his chain-gang comrades Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) blunder into a riverside baptism and find themselves briefly pondering an opportunity to wash away their sins and embrace religion. (Well, at least Delmar does.) Given the number of amazing set pieces in O Brother, it's odd that this one should linger in the memory. But there's something unexpected and beautiful about the serenity of the moment and the way all three characters are struck dumb by the sense of religious transcendence. Well, until they start yelling at each other.