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Better than Fargo 

The Coens outdo themselves, while ‘Lars’ is surprisingly touching.

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Thank God for filmmakers like the Coen Brothers. While the vast majority of films coming out of Hollywood these days are DOA — formulaic, simultaneously wooden and flabby, burdened by the suggestions of every junior studio executive who ever spent 15 minutes flipping through the script (“I've got an idea: Let's make the lead character a lifeguard! People love that!”) — Ethan and Joel Coen have spent the last 20 years making films their way. While there have been some misses (their goofball remake of “The Ladykillers” comes to mind), the Coens have mostly turned out movies full of soul, grace and quirky genius.

Coming soon to a theater near you is a film that just might be their masterpiece. Better than their groundbreaking film “Fargo,” better in some ways than “Barton Fink,” the Coens' adaptation of writer Cormac McCarthy's “No Country for Old Men” is the best film I've seen all year. Beautiful, bleak and often funny, with the most frightening screen villain since Hannibal Lecter, it's a powerhouse of suspense and mood — easily one of the best on that score since the glory days of Hitchcock. Kids are going to be studying this one in film school for years to come.

Josh Brolin plays the central character, a trailer-dwelling good ol' boy named Llewelyn Moss. Living in West Texas in 1980, Moss is oblivious to the drug war just then flaring up along on the border. That ends when, while hunting in the desert, he comes across a blood trail that leads him to a terrible scene: Several four-wheel-drive pickups parked in a valley, their passengers all dead and the ground littered with spent machine gun shells — a drug deal gone wrong. Amid the carnage is a leather satchel with $2 million inside. Moss takes it and makes a dash for home.

It is the beginning of a chase that I won't reveal much of here, just because I want you to experience the joy of it yourself. Suffice it to say that soon on Moss' trail is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a ruthless, fate-obsessed hitman who kills with a silenced shotgun and — even more strange — carries an oxygen tank everywhere he goes so he can dispatch his victims with a captive bolt gun, the pneumatic doodad used in slaughterhouses to kill cattle. Slowly putting the pieces together is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an old-fashioned Texas lawman who fears he may not be hard enough to stop the coming flood of drug-fueled violence.

At Oscar time, look for nominations for the Coen Brothers for screenplay and best director, and a best picture nomination for the film as a whole. In the acting categories, Tommy Lee Jones might well end up with a companion for the statuette he got in 1994 for “The Fugitive,” and a betting man would do well to put serious money on Javier Bardem's earthshaking portrayal of the murderous Chigurh.

That said, even if you don't give a damn about who wins the pony show, be sure to see this film. It is a rare, perfect lightning strike of superb acting, writing and direction. It simply must be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated.

David Koon

‘Lars and the Real Girl'

“Lars and the Real Girl” is, if nothing else, careful. I guess you'd have to be, if you were making a movie about a man in love with an anatomically correct silicone mannequin. Its humor is neatly paced, dry as a bone, but never subtle. The prurience factor is nil — clucked to death by the Midwestern grannies in the cast. Its coming-of-age narrative is time tested, but oddball enough to warrant another trip down the road. It's no insult to say that this bears a great deal of resemblance to screenwriter Nancy Oliver's work on “Six Feet Under.” Like her work on the show, “Lars” writes large, somewhat maudlin emotions into unexpectedly funny and thought-provoking situations. In this episode, as it were, Oliver has written a surprisingly touching story about the value of shared delusions like love, community and understanding.

Saintly fool Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) has “returned” to his tiny hometown in northern Minnesota. We don't know from where, we only know that it was from somewhere with his lonely, heartbroken widower father, and we know that his perpetual loneliness is likely caused by a profound anxiety about being around other people. Especially women. When Lars' “real girl” shows up, the town doctor (played adroitly by Patricia Clarkson) advises that the community play along for a while, figuring that Lars' anxiety and inability to attach to others may have something to do with his falling in love with a doll. Smart cookie, her.

The film falls flat by the end, wounded by a rather predictable end to Lars' and Bianca's (the “real girl” in question) romance. There are some beautiful highlights along the way — Ryan Gosling should probably stop playing damaged, beatific man-children, but he outdoes himself here, playing delicately and against a script that often makes his motivations and needs a bit obvious. And Bianca plays a pretty mean straight woman. In her whirlwind romance with Lars, she volunteers at a children's hospital, works retail and gets elected to the school board, albeit with the help of a dotty community of Minnesotans.

Even if it doesn't always hit its mark, the comedy in “Lars and the Real Girl” is wacky and self-effacing, rather than mocking or cruel. It's an ode to irrational attachments, as benign as action figures or as odd as love itself. That the film is so enjoyable along the way is a bonus.

Fritz Brantley

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