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Two nights ago, I watched Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man; last night, I watched the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There. So maybe the connection I’m making between the two is completely arbitrary, but the similarities – and differences – between them struck me. On the surface, both are weird-ass black-and-white movies that tackle old, mostly dead genres (the western and the classic film noir), but beyond that, they’re hardly mirrors of each other. Dead Man deliberately avoids western clichés to present something off-kilter, while The Man Who Wasn’t There faithfully reflects noir elements before pulling the rug out from underneath, but in their own way, they both put a unique spin on old genres.

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True Grit finds the Coen brothers in what is, in many ways, foreign territory: a straight-forward genre exercise, free of ironic sentiment, revisionism, or genre-bending, marked not by their own cynical vision and thematic conceits but rather by its strengths as a piece of storytelling. And this is compounded by the fact that, though it is ostensibly a re-adaptation of the original novel and not strictly a remake, it will inevitably be cast in the shadow of the beloved 1969 film starring John Wayne. However, given their remarkable ability to jump from one style to another – from stoner comedy to neo-noir to period parable et al – it should come as no surprise that the Coens succeed on this playing field as on all others.

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Rio Bravo was the favorite film of late film critic Robin Wood, and given Wood’s own beliefs (he was, later in his career – after his coming out as a gay man – strongly political in his criticism, and often looked at films through the prism of gay rights), it’s not hard to understand why. Subtext is an important part of film analysis, but is virtually a misnomer with regards to Rio Bravo, which takes little care to conceal the sexuality of the principals. Instead, the sexuality of each leaps off the screen, and the interplay between Chance (John Wayne), Dude (Dean Martin), Colorado (Ricky Nelson) and Feathers (Angie Dickinson) is one of the most fascinating aspects of the film.

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McCabe & Mrs. Miller is so earthy and beautiful that it defies comparison. In its subdued grace and rawness, it gives the impression of Terrence Malick as a roots filmmaker, but it doesn’t fit neatly into any prepackaged descriptions – calling it an anti-western or a revisionist western, for example, hardly touches on the film’s power. It is those things, of course, but it’s also a lovely character drama, a parable on American history, even a cat-and-mouse thriller, and more. Altman does so much so effortlessly and skillfully in a single film that it’s amazing to behold.

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