The Coen Brothers’ Christmas remake of True Grit hits DVD and Blu-ray today (finally), flush off the success off 10 Oscar nominations and a domestic box office haul of over $170 million (making it, by a long shot, the Coens biggest hit to date). Its runaway success and high quality gave us pause, since we spend quite a bit of time deriding the overload of remakes in the moviemaking business today — yet another example (along with the endless stream of sequels, TV show adaptations, and even board game movies) of nervous suits who are only comfortable giving the green light to the familiar. But every once in a while, a remake comes along that not only matches its predecessor, but tops it. After the jump, check out our list of ten remakes that were better than the original.
(And before we get started: yes, semanticists, some of these were based on movies that were based on books, so they’re technically another adaptation of the book, rather than a remake of the movie. But c’mon. Last fall, nobody was saying, “The Coen Brothers did another adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel!” They were saying “The Coen Brothers did a remake of a John Wayne movie!”)
Film fans were hesitant when word got out that the Coen Brothers were working up a new take on True Grit. After all, the original was one of John Wayne’s most iconic films, the one that had finally won him an Oscar, and their only previous attempt at a remake had been their 2004 adaptation of The Ladykillers — which has its defenders (this writer among them), but was certainly no match for the original Ealing comedy. But the Coens were ultimately a good fit for the tale not only because of their eyes, but their ears; Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn may be one of the Duke’s most recognizable characters, but as imagined in their adaptation (and played, expertly, by Jeff Bridges), he’s the latest in a long line of the Coens’ wonderfully loquacious heroes. Their films have always revealed a love of language, of its poetic possibilities and expositional powers; they are partial to men, from H.I. McDonnough to Charlie Meadows to Everett McGill to Professor G.H. Dorr, who take pleasure in the mere act of conversation — who talk, as it were, to hear themselves talk. Their True Grit gives Cogburn the freedom and the space to be weird and a bit more comic than the original did, and if Bridges matches Wayne (which we think he did), the 2010 version consistently tops the original in its supporting roles; Hailee Steinfeld stomps through the proceedings with force and gall, a tougher and more engaging heroine than Kim Darby, while Matt Damon plays the background with alternating notes of irritation and amusement that are more keenly underplayed (and thus more effective) than Glen Campbell.