Are Joel & Ethan Coen the best American filmmakers of their generation? It’s probably a silly question to pose, but we’ll be damned if we can think of better candidates. Since their startling neo-noir debut “Blood Simple” (which turns three decades old next year), they’ve been behind a brace of firmly original pictures which couldn’t have been made by anyone else (as every dire attempt by others to make a “Coens-esque” imitation has proven). And though there have been a few blips (most notably a patch in the mid 00s generally regarded as the duo being off their game, though the films have their defenders), they’ve kept up a remarkably consistent level of quality over the years, with multiple classics, of which their 16th film, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is only the latest.
Initially billed with Joel as the director and Ethan as the producer (sharing writing credits) due to guild complications, the pair have always been a tight team, and were finally able to recognize that from 2003’s “Intolerable Cruelty” onwards, sharing all their credits from then on out. And although they’ve dealt with everything from a fairly straight-ahead star-laden Western to a 1940s magic realism Preston Sturges-homage retelling of the Odyssey to a bleakly funny present-day Washington satire, you can always tell a Coens film from a hundred paces away, from their characteristic tropes (men looking for hats, elevators, howling fat men et al), to the sharp dialogue and immaculate photography.
They have their critics, most notably those who believe that they’re chilly filmmakers more interested in making fun of their characters than exploring their humanity, but while on some of their films that description might fit, the likes of “Fargo” and “A Serious Man” have a warmth and compassion to them even when they’re dealing with bleaker subject matter.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is very much in that vein, as you’ll see when it hits theaters this week. It’s one of the year’s very best films, and as such, to celebrate it, we’ve done something we’ve been dying to do for years, and taken a look back at the Coens’ complete filmography. We hope there’ll be many more great films to come, but as a primer for the first thirty years of the brothers’ career, this should do the trick. Take a look below, and let us know your Coen favorites in the comments section.
“Blood Simple” (1984)
The opening narration says it all; you can be the Pope, the President of the United States, Man of the Year — something can and will always go wrong. But the cynical philosophy of this character (played by the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh) boils down to one’s milieu: “But what I know about is Texas, and down here, you’re on your own.” Murder, betrayal, adultery, crimes and punishments. While not as morally and thematically textured as some later Coen Brothers films about the same subjects would be — one could arguably call it the Cliffsnotes version of “No Country For Old Men” — as modern nail-biting film noir, “Blood Simple” is nearly as good as it gets. Violently dark, evincing a twisted sense of humor, with this startlingly assured debut feature, the Coen siblings announced the arrival of one of the most idiosyncratic and distinctive American filmmaking pairs ever. Centering on a suspicious Texas bar owner (the impossibly hirsute Dan Hedaya) who hires a private detective (Walsh) to spy on and then kill his wife (Frances McDormand) for cheating on him (with one of his employees played by John Getz), this seemingly straightforward murder is complicated by deceits, double-crosses and those looking out for their own interest in this dog-eat-dog world. If Tommy Lee Jones waxes philosophically, lamenting the moral decay of humanity in “No Country For Old Men,” then M. Emmet Walsh’s Southern brand of ideology in “Blood Simple” is akin to the smiling scorpion amiably warning the frog that in this world, you are bound to get stung. Crimes add up in “Blood Simple,” and give way to fear, guilt and fatal misunderstandings that snowball out of control. Nothing is simple in the Coens’ debut, outside of the uncontestable fact that blood is red and getting away with murder is the hard part. [B+]
“Raising Arizona” (1987)
H.I. McDonough is dealing with a whole host of problems. His jailbird buddies, who just busted out of prison, are looking for a place to hide out. His wife Ed desperately wants a baby at almost any cost, and before his next few days are over, he’ll be tangling with police, a furniture magnate and oh yeah, The Lone Biker Of The Apocalypse. In their sophomore film “Raising Arizona,”, the Coen brothers would establish a motif they would return to time and again through their career: the regular, middle of the road everyman who endures a Job-like struggle to keep his head above water. The line from this film to later pictures like “The Big Lebowski,” “A Simple Man” and their latest “Inside Llewyn Davis” can be clearly drawn, but the sibling directors can thank one of Nicolas Cage’s finest performances as the reason it has continued to stand the test of time (and it’s shame the three never worked together again). Finding the pitch-perfect tone between being overwhelmed by everything he’s forced to deal with, and being utterly devoted to his wife’s happiness, H.I. is a creation that one can’t imagine in the hands of anyone besides Cage. But what comes through, most surprisingly, is not his trademark, manic energy — of which there is plenty in this absurd tale that blends wife swapping, tunnel digging, baby snatching and more — but real genuine heart at the center of H.I., even as he’s scrambling from the cops with a bag of diapers under his arm and a stocking on his head. While the Coens never quite got this wild again — this is probably their broadest, most cartoonish comedy (it’s here that their friendship with Sam Raimi is most evident) — “Raising Arizona” is ample evidence that it didn’t take them long to display their masterful hand at combining pitch perfect tone, heightened style and their now unique, distinct sensibility that is always changing, yet always instantly recognizable. [B+]
“Miller’s Crossing” (1990)
With “Miller’s Crossing,” the Coens set out to create a straight up crime movie, and they succeeded, brilliantly. Gabriel Byrne plays a low level operative caught in a gang war in an unidentified city (they shot in New Orleans, attracted by its historically intact architecture), as well as a love triangle between a big shot mobster (Albert Finney) and his gun moll (Marcia Gay Harden). The plot is too knotty to try to untangle in a brief synopsis, but the movie thrusts forward in a nearly galvanic way, with images, like the opening shot of a black hat gliding through a forest clearing (one used for executions, we’ll later learn) and, later, Albert Finney assaulting a house with a tommy gun, cigar dangling precariously from the corner of his mouth, searing themselves into your brain. Byrne is the perfect Coens antihero: cool, calculating, and more than a little bit of a son-of-a-bitch; he’s the kind of guy who you can imagine making all of the connections and then following through on them. “Miller’s Crossing” was shot by Barry Sonnenfeld, who would go on to have a successful career as a director himself, helming the three “Men in Black” movies (amongst other things); his love of extreme camera angles and the widest possible lens available helps give the film its teetering energy. It’s a gangster epic, alright, but one more-than-slightly unhinged, in that perfectly-agreeable Coens way. [A]
“Barton Fink” (1991)
When Bart is waiting for Homer to pick him up from soccer practice at the beginning of the “Brother From the Same Planet” episode, his friends tell him to join in as they sneak into an R-rated movie. When Milhouse tells him it’s called “Barton Fink,” the boys all cheer, as the allure of seeing an R-rated movie makes them giddy with anticipation. Oh, if we only could’ve seen their reactions when they left the theater confused, freaked out, probably bored and no-doubt disappointed. It’s more likely the boys would’ve preferred the violent gangster tale “Miller’s Crossing” from just the year before, but alas, films like ‘Fink,’ which won the Coens the Palme D’Or at Cannes, aren’t meant to be enjoyed by young boys hoping to see boobs, blood and hear curse words. The film was written as the brothers were still hammering out the plot complexities in ‘Crossing’, and though most of their films subvert or even defy typical genre elements, “Barton Fink” is probably their least classifiable. It is a fantastic rendering of the writer’s struggle, to stare at the blank page and try to muster something great, good or just tolerable to get through the often torturous process. At the center is a never-better John Turturro as the titular character who moves to Hollywood in the early 40s after some success on Broadway, and finds writing there to be… difficult, let’s put it that way. He’s supported by a perfectly-cast John Goodman (who should’ve won some awards for his performance) as his neighbor in a hotel that is more than what it seems. ‘Fink’ is yet another feather in the cap of these deeply gifted filmmakers, proof that when they want to go really weird, they can still make it accessible. Just probably not for Milhouse & co. [A]
“The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994)
After the one-two punch of “Miller’s Crossing” and “Barton Fink,” the Coens returned to a script they had written more than a half-decade before (with their frequent collaborator and BFF Sam Raimi); a hugely expensive riff on the films of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges that was produced by, of all people, action guru Joel Silver. In the film Tim Robbins plays a rube who is elevated to the executive level of giant corporation called Hudsucker Industries, in a scheme by its board (led by a mustache-twirling Paul Newman) to reduce stock prices. Of course, Robbins invents the Hula Hoop while he’s there, a far-fetched idea that the board thinks is complete nonsense but ends up a rousing success. The Coens used ingenious visual effects to create a dreamlike, fantasy version of Art Deco New York, and while the movie sometimes tips dangerously from pastiche to parody (particularly in Jennifer Jason Leigh‘s overtly stylized, oftentimes plain obnoxious performance), the film also contains some of the Coens’ most unforgettable moments, including several characters leaping (or nearly leaping) to their deaths from the skyscraper’s top floors, the nearly wordless sequence explaining the history of the hula hoop and a sequence where two random cab drivers (never identified or heard from again) narrate Robbins’ and Leigh’s characters’ first meeting. Why anyone, including Silver or Warner Bros, thought this was an outwardly “commercial” film is beyond baffling, especially considering the fact that Raimi was far from a household name too (it made less than $3 million total on a budget of $40 million); still, it remains one of the more charmingly weird entries from that period, and goes a long way toward explaining the central tug of war between art and commerciality at the heart of “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Except, you know, for kids. [B]
The words “based on a true story” have become a crutch for filmmakers, and audiences all too often kowtow at the sight of such proclamations, believing it elevates material, and even worse, excuses films of sloppy storytelling because, you know, “that actually happened.” This writer has never cared whether a story was true or not because, in the end, a film has to stand on its own as a great piece of cinema. Leave it to the Coens to use this phrase as another way to mess with the audience and gleefully subvert expectations. By now it’s mostly well-known that “Fargo,” despite the claim at the film’s opening that it is based on real events, is almost entirely fictional. It’s one of the many masterstrokes of the flawless script, which justly won the brothers their first Oscar. The airtight screenplay is elevated by Carter Burwell’s operatic and gorgeous score; Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography captures the brutal, snowy chill of the Minnesota winter (the frame is often drenched in white) while also making it look beautiful; and the performances are top notch across the board (its other Oscar deservedly went to lead Frances McDormand). The Coens have a gift for crafting cinematic worlds that land just left of center from the real thing. “Fargo” does take place in Minnesota (where this writer is originally from), and even angered and offended many from the state who thought we were being made fun of. We Minnesotans do have thick accents and prefer a nice, passive-aggressive approach to confrontation, but here it’s used to create a unique and oddball world in which to set a darkly comical crime tale. It’s hard to be offended by a film this great. [A]
“The Big Lebowski” (1998)
“The Big Lebowski” is like a fucking seminal film, man. Not just in terms of the Coen brothers’ filmography and/or the evolution of their genre-mashing oeuvre, but in the world of cult favorites and cinema in general, man. Joining the ranks of “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” and “This Is Spinal Tap” as the “thou must see” films during your formative years, the film has taken on a whole other life in the form of countless inside jokes (“Shut the fuck up, Donny!” “The Nihilists…” etc.) shouted across college campuses and public streets alike, quasi-intellectual merchandise (from T-shirts to philosophy books to a Lebowski Fest), and even a religion (Dudeism, or the Church of the Latter Day Dude—seriously, you can register online to be a Dudeist priest). When it opened in 1998 critics and audiences didn’t quite know what to make of its magical hodge podge of genres (Westerns, Busby Berkeley, classic porn and more, all centered on a meandering everyman wandering ostensibly in a Raymond Chandler-esque story), foul language (fuck is said 292 times—that’s more than “Scarface”) and Jeff Bridges as the scruffy, pot-smoking “The Dude” alongside such idiosyncratic characters as Walter Sobchak (Coen stalwart John Goodman), the foul-mouthed, Jewish-by-marriage, gun enthusiast Vietnam vet, Jesus Quintana (another Coen regular, John Turturro), the bowling pederast, and Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), the artsy daughter of the eponymous Big Lebowski with a ticking biological clock. All of that combined with the highly-stylized cinematography of regular Coen collaborator Roger Deakins and the eclectic, retro soundtrack featuring the likes of Kenny Rogers’s “Just Dropped In (To See What My Condition Was In),” Debbie Reynolds’s “Tammy,” and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s “Glück das mir verblieb”, “The Big Lebowski” is a masterpiece that no one but the Coen brothers could have pulled off. With its on-going, ever-growing legacy compensating for its underperforming initial release (new fans won over by “Fargo”‘s Oscar-winning success were clearly a bit baffled by the follow-up), the Dude abides… [A]
“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000)
Probably tied with “Raising Arizona” as the Coens’ silliest, most slapsticky entry in their filmography, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was also their most musical film prior to “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The brothers’ second collaboration with T-Bone Burnett yielded a number one record, with its renditions of “good old-timey music” from Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, The Whites and Allison Krauss. In addition to that famous soundtrack, it’s packed full of, well, everything—a yodeling John Turturro, a KKK lynch mob, a trio of sirens, a flash flood, Baby Face Nelson and mountains of Dapper Dan pomade—all amidst a Depression-era retelling of Homer’s “Odyssey.” George Clooney stars as Ulysses Everett McGill, an escaped convict accompanied in his quest by fellow prisoners Pete (Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson). Clooney wasn’t quite the A-lister he is now, but his first work with the fraternal filmmakers allowed him to be goofier than audiences had seen him be. He gamely lip syncs along with Dan Tyminsky’s vocals, obsesses over his hair and pontificates about subjects he pretends to be knowledgeable about. Clooney is a highlight, but we obsess over Roger Deakins’ dusty, gold-tinged cinematography and the weirdly wonderful script that gives supporting cast members like John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Charles Durning and Stephen Root plenty to play with. It’s an odd but strangely accessible film that can feel episodic at times, but we still laugh and marvel more than a decade later. [A-]
“The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001)
One of the more frequently overlooked Coens gems, possibly because of its glum tone and black-and-white cinematography (which reaches an almost velveteen level of richness), “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is also one of the filmmakers’ most essential works, a portrait of a man existentially adrift that also includes a number of references to UFOs, a scheme involving dry cleaning, plus a murder/blackmail plot and the electric chair. Billy Bob Thornton plays a barber in the late ’40s whose suspects his wife (Frances McDormand, of course) is cheating on him with her boss (James Gandolfini). At the same time a mystery man comes to him with a unique business proposal for a new process called “dry cleaning;” so Thornton decides to blackmail Gandolfini for the money, threatening to expose his philandering ways. Of course things go wrong, like murderously wrong. The Coens were inspired by the work of novelist James M. Cain, who wrote “Double Indemnity” and is one of the hardboiled crime that would inspire film noir. But of course, this being a Coens movie, it’s not a straight ahead film noir, but one that uses the tropes for an altogether weirder, more cosmic end. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” still feels relatively undiscovered, like a giant dinosaur skeleton sitting just below a popular fast food restaurant. But hopefully, its time will come, and soon. It’s one of the brothers’ very best films, and one of their oddest (also look for an early Scarlett Johannson performance in a role too good to give away). [A]
“Intolerable Cruelty” (2003)
After dabbling with “Sullivan’s Travels”-type comedy in “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and noir in “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” the Coen brothers were set to explore another ‘40s Hollywood staple—the war movie—in their next picture. After plans to adapt James Dickey’s “To The White Sea” (about a tail gunner wandering through northern Japan during the final months of World War II) fell through, they went from actual war to a war of words when they signed on to direct a “battle of the sexes” screwball comedy. Set in the modern day, “Intolerable Cruelty” had passed through the likes of Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme, with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in mind for the leads. While that reads like the makings of a standard, tropey romantic comedy, the Coens in their script rewrites and direction brought a sharp-witted sparring quality that set the film apart. Starring Coen regular George Clooney as a hot-shot divorce attorney famous for his signature iron-clad pre-nup (“The Massey Pre-Nup”), he meets his match in a stunning, bordering-on-sadistic divorcee played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is out to destroy him after he thwarted her plans to get rich off of her philandering, easily-manipulated, and most importantly, rich ex-husband. The plot spirals into elaborate schemes involving false marriages, signing and tearing up pre-nups, private eyes, a hitman, Coen favorites Billy Bob Thornton and Richard Jenkins alongside underappreciated supporting work by Edward “Go-To Rich Guy” Hermann and Geoffrey Rush… With the at-odds chemistry not always coming off well and the at times too-zany plot twists and turns (though in these regards, it’s still better than “The Ladykillers” by a very long shot), “Intolerable Cruelty” left critics divided over whether the Coens should have tackled the genre at all (golddigging is so passe), let alone whether they did it well, and the film can barely stand against the screwball comedies of yesteryear it was trying to emulate. That said, although it is certainly not the most illustrious or the most beloved on this list, “Intolerable Cruelty” is a more fun than its reputation suggests, even if it ultimately comes across as a big-studio Coens imitation, rather than the real deal. [B-]
“The Ladykillers” (2004)
After two decades creating some of the most original and idiosyncratic stories to unfold onscreen, in the early aughts it began to look like the Coens were starting to run low on ideas. Though it had started as a simple rewrite job, in 2003 they were talked into directing “Intolerable Cruelty” by star George Clooney, and the following year found themselves behind-the-camera once again after their old DP Barry Sonnenfeld passed on their script for an update of the 1955 Ealing Studios black comedy “The Ladykillers.” The film revolves around a group of criminals who rob a riverboat casino via an underground tunnel and then plot to murder the old lady who catches them in the act. At the time of its release, reviews were tepid but not horrible (55% on Rotten Tomatoes), but with nearly a decade of hindsight, “The Ladykillers” can now officially be recognized as the low point in the Coens career and most likely the worst film they will ever make. Admittedly, watching Tom Hanks devour the Coens dialogue is a highlight, it’s just a shame he didn’t get a better film in which to do it. Like ‘Cruelty,’ this featured none of the Coen regulars who had inhabited every single film of theirs up until that point—John Goodman, Frances McDormand, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Holly Hunter, Jon Polito, etc.—and seemed to find them without a rudder. They seem to be pitching for an imagined “wide audience” who might’ve turned up for jokes about “hippedy hop” and IBS, but these attempts to go broad fall flat. As Richard Roeper said at the time, “Most of this stuff isn’t worthy of the Farrelly brothers, let alone the Coen brothers.” Ouch. Though it did end up as their second biggest box office hit up to that point, with just $39 million it torpedoed Tom Hanks’ 10 year streak of leading $100+ million grossers. Ironically, it may have been necessary for the Coens to hit rock bottom just so that they could recalibrate and return a short 3 years later with renewed focus (and their first Best Picture Oscar) in “No Country For Old Men.” [D]
“Paris, je t’aime” – segment “Tuileries” (2006)
Each section in the fun but ultimately uneven anthology “Paris je t’aime” is named and set in a different neighborhood (or arrondissement) of Paris. The Coens, of course, chose a subway stop for their arrondissement, and of course, had it star Steve Buscemi as a perplexed tourist trying to navigate the Parisian subway system while trying to avoid getting beat up. (He fails.) The short has an almost giddy energy, and it’s amusing to see the Coens address the fact that they love torturing (and in most cases, killing) their frequent collaborator Buscemi. This is an inessential but still quite funny bit of Coens miscellanea, capturing some of the zonked out energy of their earlier work and a winning performance by Buscemi. [B]
“No Country for Old Men” (2007)
On one very basic level, “No Country For Old Men” is the Coens’ attempt at a full-throttle action chase picture. No one would have guessed that the men behind “Barton Fink” had such classical suspense chops, and the way they shoot action sequences involving dimwitted opportunist Llewyn Moss (Josh Brolin, a career-peak) suggests the sorts of genre smarts that are borderline extinct. But ultimately, the title of this Cormac McCarthy adaptation reveals that, for all the menace of Javier Bardem’s award-winning turn as philosophical creep Anton Chigurh, the main character is Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). A salt-of-the-earth sheriff, Bell is the latest in a long line of lawmen, but what he sees in the Coens’ ongoing trail of violence and spiritual desolation is a terror, one that haunts his dreams and won’t let go. This adaptation eventually becomes the corrective for these types of films, where a law enforcement officer has to “buck up” and face a new threat, instead observing how there’s a delicate humanism involved in staring the devil in the face and turning the other way. The core of “No Country For Old Men,” which finally earned the Coens a couple of statues from the clowns at the Academy, is ultimately about the strength inside one to escape the specter of violence, to avoid the escalation involved in humanity’s decision to disrupt its own very existence, and about the lack of guidance that darkens that very same path. People argue over which is the Coens’ best, but if this were to be the title offered, few would complain. [A]
“To Each His Own Cinema” – segment “World Cinema” (2007)
Created as a means to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival, “To Each His Own Cinema” was a 2007 French anthology film that collected short films by 36 acclaimed filmmakers like Lars Von Trier, Jane Campion, Gus Van Sant, David Cronenberg and many more. The Coen brothers’ contribution to the collection was “World Cinema,” a playful riff/quasi sequel to “No Country For Old Men” starring Josh Brolin (ostensibly as the same cowboy character, but he actually has different name, suggesting they are only superficially similar) and producer Grant Heslov (known for his constant collaborations with producing partner George Clooney). Brolin plays a Southern Texas cowboy who walks into a cinema arthouse and starts a conversation with the cinephile-loving concession man (Heslov). He wants to see a film and there’s two options: 1) Jean Renoir‘s 1939 comedic social masterpiece “The Rules of The Game” and “Climates,” Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s sophomore feature. As the cowboy tries to decide what to see, the cineaste describes to him what each film is about in a comedic back and forth (“Is there any livestock in any of them?” Brolin’s character asks at one point). A brief, deadpan and absurdist little piece, it’s not must-see viewing by any stretch, but definitely an interesting curio for Coen bros. completists. [C+]
“Burn After Reading” (2008)
After the exhaustive critical lauding and box office success of “No Country,” it’s fair to say the thoroughly dark lampooning that is “Burn After Reading” came as a bit of a curve ball. Leave it to the Coens to stick to their guns, shepherding a cast of big-time regulars (McDormand! Clooney! Jenkins! Music by Carter Burwell!) and equally seasoned A-listers (Malkovich, Swinton, and especially Pitt, clearly relishing the opportunity) through a tangled web of jealousy, lust and, above all, violent stupidity. “Burn After Reading” feels like an unfussy lark, a way for the Coens to revisit the mind games of “Barton Fink” and the sudden bursts of violence peppered throughout their work, all the while generously parodying the spy genre. The film is chock-full of emphatic scenes with hilariously low stakes, characters puffing out their chests and shifting their eyes. Pitt’s personal trainer is a highlight: the actor, whose early roles were tinged with a pretty-boy vacancy, presents a tightrope performance, suggesting an innate idiocy at odds with an all-consuming ego. The general cast shares the same symptoms and although you may get the feeling the brothers are engaging in cinematic sadism by placing these characters in the same vicinity, stick with it. “Burn After Reading” is an oddity that remains irreparably in the Coen’s wheelhouse. [B]
“A Serious Man” (2009)
“Accept the mystery” might as well be the mantra of all Coen brothers characters. It’s the kernel of a case that The Dude inaccurately pursues at the heart of “The Big Lebowski” and blank-faced takeaway at the conclusion of “Burn After Reading,” and Coen protagonists are usually undergoing a mission while wondering if there’s any sort of order to their chaos. It wasn’t until “A Serious Man” where the Coens soberly addressed the issue head-on, chucking away any A-plots and dealing away with the fantastical elements of some of their work to travel back to 1960’s Minnesota. It’s there where over-stressed Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is undergoing a litany of crises. If it’s not bad enough that his socially-maladjusted brother has moved in, now his wife is having an affair. If it isn’t his son’s struggles with local drug-dealer classmates, it’s his own adulterous thoughts of a sultry neighbor. By the time a student offers a generous bribe, Larry begins to feel that he’s being tested, though why, by whom, and how he can pass said tests escapes him. The Coens capture each ensuing meeting with a potential leader, whether it be a generous attorney or opaque local rabbis, as a nightmare maze where one man has twisted himself in pretzels attempting to find a system with which to adhere. The Coens reached far off the grid for Stuhlbarg, a little-known stage actor who is wonderfully funny and intense as the put-upon suburbanite. And he’s absolutely perfect, nailing the sensation that the walls are closing in on him philosophically, trapped to live an everyman’s hell, where being a community figure holds more weight than settling a marriage with an unhappy wife. [A]
“True Grit” (2010)
Every so often in their career, the Coens transform themselves into the unlikeliest of crowd-pleasers, crafting sizable, audience-friendly hits while maintaining their oddball allure and idiosyncratic directorial flourishes. “True Grit” was their last such success, bringing in more than $250 million at the box office and scoring a whopping ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for the Coens. While the brothers claimed in interviews before the film’s release that it would be a new adaptation of Charles Portis‘ novel and not a straight remake of the 1969 western, there are a bunch of things the Coens borrow from the original film, including Rooster Cogburn’s eye patch, worn lovingly this time around by Coen alum Jeff Bridges, who turns grizzled scowling into an artform. Also along for the ride were Coens discovery Hailee Steinfeld as the young girl seeking revenge for the murder of her father, first time collaborator Matt Damon (who engages with the material fully, to the point that you wonder why they haven’t hired him again, though we guess they have only made one film since) and “No Country for Old Men” MVP Josh Brolin, here playing the murderous outlaw. Formally, “True Grit” is unparalleled, with Roger Deakins‘ cinematography reaching otherworldly levels of grandeur, but the reasons audiences and critics responded so enthusiastically to the film is how heartfelt and warm it is. You actually feel for the characters, in a way that many of the Coens movies sidestep altogether. “True Grit” was a testament to the fact that the Coens are capable of anything, even a good, old-fashioned crowd pleaser. [A-]
“Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013)
If the Ernest Hemingway quote “you make your own luck” is true, then Llewyn Davis, the titular character of the Coen Brothers‘ masterful, comedic and bitter ’60s folk scene picture “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is someone who unknowingly sabotages whatever remnants of good fortune he has at every turn. Loosely based on the story of Greenwich village folkie Dave Van Ronk who saw his popularity never quite catch on once Dylan arrived on the scene, the Coens take this basic idea and leverage it as a jumping off point to explore failure (the successful rock star story having been told the world over). The Coens, having deftly realized in recent years that life is a matter of fact, cruel, tragic comedy, almost let this character lose in the milieu of this world, watching him fuck up every opportunity he’s presented. Anchored by Oscar Isaac‘s terrific, awards-worthy performance, he imbues Llewyn Davis with an artistic integrity that becomes a noose. It doesn’t help the character is a bit of a bonafide asshole. But it’s a testament to the actors and filmmakers that we still empathize with the character’s attraction to self-destruction, whether it’s fucking his best friend’s girlfriend or the colossal miscalculation of playing a depressing song about abortion at his first big break audition. Ultimately, though surely not their intention, the Coens create a funny and morose cautionary tale about artistic endeavors: it doesn’t matter how talented you are if you’re your own worst enemy. Chance, fate and good timing are nice, but what makes a memorable loser, is indeed, practice. [A]
Honorable Mentions: For the Coens completists, there’s a few other movies that they were involved with, but didn’t direct. With pal Sam Raimi, they co-wrote “Crimewave,” a wildly uneven, but enjoyable cartoonish satire that Raimi directed between “Evil Dead” movies. The pair also produced “Down With The Mountain,” a concert movie based around the “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack, and exec-ed on John Turturro‘s “Romance & Cigarettes,” an ambitious musical that’s better than its reputation, but still a long way from a success.
The brothers also got an executive producer credit on Terry Zwigoff‘s season classic “Bad Santa,” having done uncredited work on the script (fact fans note, they also did an uncredited polish on the Judd Apatow-produced Jim Carrey vehicle “Fun With Dick & Jane“). Finally, Zhang Yimou remade “Blood Simple” in 2009 as “A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop,” while the Coens picked up a rare writing-only paycheck for “Gambit,” the 2012 remake of the 1960s caper classic, starring Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz. Eventually directed by Michael Hoffman, it’s a film so bad that it makes “The Ladykillers” look like “A Serious Man,” and it’s little wonder that, a year on from its UK release, the film is still awaiting a U.S. date. Hopefully their scripting work on “Unbroken,” Angelina Jolie‘s true-life survival tale that should be an awards player this time next year, will work out better.